‘An addiction’: Masks slowly wear off in Hong Kong as habit outlasts Covid

With the end of Hong Kong’s mask mandate this week, teachers at the Chinese YMCA Primary School knew their students would be anxious to go to class without covering their faces. The children posed for pictures together in a lesson called “how to appreciate smiling faces”.

“Some students still feel embarrassed,” said Ching Chi-cheung, principal of the school. “It’s been a long time since they showed their faces to their peers.”

The Asian financial center lifted its mask mandate this week after 945 days, making it one of the last places in the world to do so. But on Wednesday, the first time in nearly three years that masks were not mandatory in classrooms or outdoors, only about 80 of the school’s 700 students were not wearing masks.

Their reluctance was not unusual – the vast majority of Hong Kong residents continue to wear a mask outdoors. “After almost three years of wearing a mask, it’s just like a part of Hongkongers’ lives,” said Bryant Hui, assistant professor of psychology at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

At the height of the Covid-19 outbreak last year, Hong Kong’s excess death rate was the worst in the world. But for most of the pandemic, Hong Kong followed a zero-Covid policy, but a softer version than that implemented in mainland China, meaning the former British colony was effectively free of the virus for months at a time.

More than 93 percent of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million residents have now received two doses of a Covid vaccine, and health experts said immunity had been built up. But mask use could stem from high levels of anxiety about catching Covid or feelings of “perceived personal control”, Hui said.

“If wearing masks is still perceived as a social norm, for example when we see other passengers on the train still wearing them, we are more likely to do the same. If we believe that it is safer . . . it is more likely that we continue to use them, he said.

Mi Lee, who works in catering

Mi Lee, works in catering: “I’m going to wear a mask in the short term — I have to finish using the masks I have at home . . . Wearing a mask is part of fashion’ © Chan Ho-him/FT

Jeff Lo, a student

Jeff Lo, student: “I have had four doses of the vaccine. I should be pretty safe. But I still prefer to wear a mask in crowded places. I also wear a mask because I don’t like the smell of second-hand smoke and because I have a nasal allergy’ © Chan Ho-him/FT

Elsewhere in East Asia, people have also continued to wear masks.

Japan, which never introduced an official mask mandate, eased mask guidelines from March 13, including for schools and public transport except during rush hour, when face coverings were still recommended but not enforced.

A poll conducted by Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun last month found that 60 percent of respondents said they “want to use it as much as possible,” while only 34 percent said they “don’t want it as much as possible.” Masks remain visible on the streets and elsewhere.

South Korea scrapped a mask mandate for most indoor public places except on public transport and in medical facilities in January, after lifting the outdoor mask mandate in September.

But many residents continue to wear masks, and most students cover their faces in class. “It’s become a habit as I’ve had it for the past three years,” said Kwon Sung-chan, a 10-year-old student in Seoul. “It’s not so uncomfortable anymore.”

Singapore has largely dropped its mask rules, which were previously some of the strictest in Asia, with residents facing fines and jail time if caught without a face covering.

The city-state lifted its mandate for outdoor masks last March, followed by indoor ones a few months later. Face coverings are no longer required on public transport from last month. Along with warm temperatures all year round, mask use is now minimal.

Samson Law, a student

Samson Law, student: ‘I would probably keep wearing a mask for at least another week or two. My family also continues to wear masks. . . We can also just stop using them when we run out’ © Chan Ho-him/FT

Ah Miu, a retail sales worker

Ah Miu, retail sales worker: “It’s a habit. I can’t really adjust to suddenly not using one. It’s like trying to quit smoking. It’s an addiction you don’t just walk away from. . . I’m not worried about Covid though. I already got the virus last year’ © Chan Ho-him/FT

Mask use was widespread in the region long before the Covid pandemic. During spring in South Korea, the government encourages mask use to prevent respiratory problems from thick yellow dust that seasonally blows in from the Chinese desert.

Hongkongers in particular learned that masks could be effective in slowing the spread of respiratory diseases during the deadly Sars epidemic in 2003, which killed nearly 300 people, with a fatality rate of about 17 percent. Before Covid, people suffering from colds and flu often wore face coverings on public transport and in the workplace.

During the pandemic, a mask industry emerged to accommodate a surge in demand. Shares in Daiwabo, a major Japanese mask maker, are up more than 20 percent from a year ago, outperforming the broader market, while shares in Shikibo, another company in the market, are up 17 percent.

Some mask retailers in Hong Kong announced sales this week and flagged plans to reduce the number of stores.

Jeffrey Lam, an adviser to Hong Kong’s leader who started a local mask factory during the pandemic, said he expected enough demand to keep the machines running, albeit at a slower pace.

“We have completed our historic task, but we are in no rush to close it,” Lam said. “There were quite a few people who recently got the flu, and some people feel it’s healthier [to wear a mask].”

Ah Miu, a stable operator in his 50s, said he was not afraid of catching Covid again, but added that he felt “unsafe” when he was not wearing a mask.

“It’s like trying to quit smoking,” he said. “It’s an addiction you don’t just walk away from. It takes time, doesn’t it?”

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