HONG KONG — After almost three years of having to read facial cues from just one-third of the face, students in Hong Kong finally returned to mask-free classes on 1 March 2023.
With the greater immunity achieved in the population and a wider perception of COVID-19 as similar to the common cold, the meaning of mask-wearing is changing in the post-COVID world.
While masks still retain their protective medical function, their socio-political implications have changed drastically over the past nearly 1,000 days.
‘My jaw is not for you to see.’
The anxiety began when rumors of the mask mandate being lifted spread in the school.
“I’m not prepared yet. I have pimples on my face and braces on,” said Sian O’Hanlon, a Year 12 student from King George V School.
Although many teachers are glad to see our smiles, not all students share the same thought.
Already insecure about their appearance, many young people are unprepared to reveal their bare faces to their friends.
“I feel like I am being assaulted walking down the street — my jaw is not for you to see,” added Shannon Kavanagh, an English teacher.
Three years of mandatory mask-wearing has worsened students’ insecurity by providing it a hiding place.
While a study by researchers at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania have found that wearing a mask leads to an increased rating of conventional attractiveness by up to 70% for the average person, simply hiding the insecurity under a mask has not solved the issue.
“ ‘Before and after’ videos on social media have let us believe that wearing a mask will make us prettier,” said Hazel Yu, a 17-year-old student in Hong Kong.
While such insecurity is deep-seated in young people, Yu said online videos mocking young women to be ‘baiting’ their beauty by wearing a mask are indirectly encouraging teenagers to cover up their faces.
Mask-wearing has not only changed our self-perception, but our perception of others.
Charlotte Wong, a Secondary 6 student from St Paul’s Convent School, came to realize how much society cares about appearance.
“When people pull down their masks, there is often a fall in expectations,” Wong said.
The Canadian Broadcasting Company reported in 2021 that humans have a difficult time recognizing faces when the person is wearing a mask.
But this is beyond the awkward ‘hello’ to strangers on the bus. Because of this incapacitated ability, we may also begin to subconsciously assign people faces we imagine, leading to a drop in expectation upon seeing their actual faces.
From rebellion to servitude?
Despite the scrapping of the covid mask mandate, the anti-mask law imposed during the extradition law bill protests is still in place.
The law states that anyone who disobeys a police order to remove a mask could be sentenced to one year in jail and a HK$25,000 fine.
During the protests in 2019-2020, it was common for pro-democracy protesters (colloquially known as ‘Yellow Ribbons’) to wear face coverings to protect themselves from tear gas. The masks also serve to hide their identities, as police often tracked closed circuit television and live videos posted online or by news outlets to arrest the protestors.
The contradictory laws have caused panic among Hongkongers, especially with the government’s history of manipulating covid restrictions to repress protesters. Some citizens express concerns about continuing to wear masks after the mandate was axed, fearing that they will violate the anti-mask law.
Some pro-democracy Hongkongers are worried about the police charging political opponents without legal basis, using the anti-mask law as an excuse.
Despite the absurdity, this was not uncommon during the protests and the following two years, where the government arrested protestors for ‘violating social distancing rules.’ The government has also refused to permit mass political gathering on the basis of public health concerns, such as the June Fourth Tiananmen vigil in the past three years.
This ‘draconian law’, as criticized by NGO alliance The Civil Human Rights Front, also furthered the factional disagreement among pro-democracy protesters.
Some believe wearing a mask is simply a personal choice.
Unlike the early stage of covid where a majority of the population had not achieved a degree of immunity against the virus, mask-wearing is not as necessary anymore.
The lifting of the mandate implies that not wearing a mask no longer poses a threat to public health.
While opinions on voluntary mask-wearing are mixed, one thing that can be said for certain is how accustomed to wearing masks Hongkongers have grown. It is now the norm.
Most people appear to be wearing masks in the streets, at school and on public transport to prevent catching the virus – or stares of their shy jaws.
Joanne Yau is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.
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