Mask-up: #100YearChallenge

Figure 1: San Francisco 1918 (top); Hanoi 2020 (bottom)
By: Chitrali, Jubakshi, M. Amaan, Prachi

The photo makes us revisit the past and trace the norm of wearing a mask through the century. Today’s universal pervasiveness of this norm is a significant indicator of international norm establishment at an accelerated pace.


The year 2020 has been remarkable in terms of the change in lifestyle that all of us have witnessed. From adopting the word “quarantine” as part of our daily lingo to suffering the repercussions of what seemed to be a never-ending lockdown, the COVID-19 pandemic has touched all our lives rather greatly. Most of us would remember our parents asking us to wash our hands with soap after we are back from school and before we eat, and even those of us who were reluctant to do that in our school days have now internalised the habit of regularly washing our hands to avoid infection. In addition to maintaining social distancing, a significantly new behavioural change that we have witnessed is the wearing of masks whenever we go outdoors. To bring about a change of such magnitude that it is internalized by a significant population across the world, a new behavior must first ascend to the status of a social norm. Many international norms begin as domestic norms and become international through the efforts of norm entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs often have strong notions about appropriate and desirable behaviour, which they believe should be followed by everyone in the community, and hence, they work towards establishing such behaviours as norms. This essay shall analyze how states have acted as norm entrepreneurs to establish the norm of wearing masks amongst their citizens in times of disease outbreaks, by looking at the role of the state in advancing the norm through the years, right from 1918 where law enforcement acted upon violators of this norm to the present where penalties are imposed on those who do not conform to the re-emerged norm. 

Since the Spanish Flu of 1918 and up until the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020, states have actively taken up the role of enforcers and regulators of the norm of wearing masks by coming up with creative ways to encourage their citizens to wear masks – a practice that they are reluctant towards adopting since it is not a part of their everyday lives. One of the most effective tools employed by states to bring out a normative shift and make their citizens internalize the particular normative behaviour is by appealing to the nationalistic sentiments of the people and invoking a sense of ‘duty’ towards the country. Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink cite James Fearon, who argues that social norms take the generic form “Good people do (or do not do) X in situation A, B, C . . .” because “we typically do not consider a rule of conduct to be a social norm unless a shared moral assessment is attached to its observance or non-observance.” This moral assessment in our case refers to the ‘duty’ to wear masks. 

Case in point, the Spanish Flu of 1918, which began in Kansas in the US but soon spread to almost the whole of Europe. During the Spanish Flu, states decided to appeal to the nationalist duty of people to encourage them to wear masks. Since the world at the time was witnessing the end of World War I, the patriotic fervour amongst the people was palpable and states capitalised on that. Personal hygiene was rebranded as “red blooded patriotism” and masks came to symbolize patriotic duty. The patriotic duty required individuals to take the responsibility of protecting fellow citizens and hence, the nation. This explains why often people tend to follow rules more religiously when they are about protecting others as that also brings the question of morality into the picture — it is considered immoral to do (or not do) something that might potentially harm others. This especially appealed to the menfolk and their need to feel that they are ‘protecting’ someone. Both men and women responded by internalizing the practice of wearing masks, and women found themselves busy in the new market that was created for producing masks in large numbers to meet their increasing demand. 

A century down the line, we look at the case of Vietnam where the state has used militaristic propaganda and imagery to reinvigorate a nationalist identity in its citizens, styling the whole campaign against Covid-19 in a fashion that reminds its citizens of the Vietnam War. They have portrayed the Coronavirus as an invader, used loudspeakers and morphed COVID related health advisories to fit into the tunes of nationalist songs of the war era. Posters across the country have catered to the patriotic duty of the citizens by asking them to follow norms in the name of love for the country. Owing to this, many citizens have volunteered in the pandemic in order to “win” it, and they consider masks as their weapon to fight the invader that is the coronavirus.

The case study of San Francisco 1918 and Hanoi 2020 gives us insights into the nature of a norm cycle. During the 1918 pandemic, citizens conformed to the norm considering it part of their civic duty. However, with better immunity and a reduced risk to life, the norm died in most countries. The normative cycle, however, was renewed when another threat to life due to disease confronted the world in 2020, and once again the state continues to play a key role in establishment of the norm of mask-wearing.  

In some countries, however, societies developed in ways that the norm of wearing masks never died, even when there were no epidemics. This can be best illustrated by looking at the case of Japan, where, over the years, wearing masks became a ‘polite’ thing to do. While the practice of wearing masks had the same origins in Japan as it did in most other countries, which was the Spanish Flu, the country continued to experience numerous other flus throughout the twentieth century, which kept people on their toes. Mitsutoshi Horii argues that wearing masks has continued in Japan even in the twenty-first century as “mask-wearing adds a moral meaning to the practice. It became a civic duty of those who sneeze and cough to not be a source of infection, while for the healthy general public, mask-wearing embodies neoliberal ethics of being self-caring and self-responsible to one’s health.” Thus, wearing masks in some senses became the dutiful thing to do, and citizens of Japan internalized the norm as a part of their daily lives. 

Masks have evolved through time in the various social, cultural and political aspects that impact something as universal as health. The larger question of norm re-emergence as an extension of the norm cycle as well as the association of health and life with a norm, leading to norm acceleration is worth a further exploration. Today, more people are viewing the convention of wearing masks as the ‘new normal’. The uncertainty of the future amidst the current global health crisis makes us wonder whether we’ll have to internalize the norm of wearing masks as an essential part of our survival. This would in a sense make the norm immortal. However, one might wonder whether similar thoughts prevailed in the minds of the people a hundred years ago too. The uncertainty of the norm remains! 


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