With the end of Hong Kong’s mask mandate this week, teachers at the Chinese YMCA Primary School knew their pupils would be anxious about attending class without a face covering. 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 has been a long while since they showed their faces to their peers.”
The Asian financial centre 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 almost three years that masks were not mandatory in classrooms or outdoors, only about 80 of the school’s 700 students did not wear a mask.
Their reluctance was not unusual — the vast majority of Hong Kong residents continue to wear a mask outdoors. “After almost three years of life with a mask on, it is just like a part of Hongkongers’ life,” said Bryant Hui, an assistant professor of psychology at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
At the height of its 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 pursued a zero-Covid policy, though 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 per cent of Hong Kong’s 7.3mn population has now received two doses of a Covid vaccine, and health experts said immunity had been built up. But mask-wearing may stem from high levels of anxiety about catching Covid or feelings of “perceived personal control”, Hui said.
“If wearing masks is still perceived to be a social norm, for example, when we see other passengers on the train still wearing it, chances are we are more likely to do the same. If we believe that it is safer . . . we will be more likely to keep wearing them,” he said.
Elsewhere in east Asia, people have also continued to wear masks.
Japan, which never imposed an official mask mandate, eased guidelines on masks 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 60 per cent of respondents said they “want to wear it as much as possible”, while only 34 per cent said they “don’t want to wear 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 citizens continue to wear masks, and most students cover their faces in class. “It has become a habit as I’ve put it on for the past three years,” said Kwon Sung-chan, a 10-year-old student in Seoul. “It is no longer so uncomfortable.”
Singapore has mostly dropped its mask rules, which were previously some of the strictest in Asia, with residents risking fines and jail time if caught without a face covering.
The city-state lifted its outdoor mask mandate in March last year, followed by indoors a few months later. Face coverings are no longer required on public transport as of last month. Coupled with year-round hot temperatures, mask-wearing is now minimal.
Mask use was prevalent in the region long before the Covid pandemic. During the spring in South Korea, the government encourages mask wearing to prevent respiratory problems from thick yellow dust that seasonally blows in from the Chinese desert.
Hongkongers in particular learnt that masks could be effective at slowing the spread of respiratory disease during the deadly 2003 Sars epidemic, which killed almost 300 people, with a fatality rate of about 17 per cent. Prior to Covid, people suffering from colds and influenza often wore face coverings on public transport and in workplaces.
During the pandemic, a mask industry sprang up to cater to a surge in demand. Shares in Daiwabo, a big Japanese mask manufacturer, have risen more than 20 per cent from a year ago, outperforming the broader market, while shares in Shikibo, another company in the market, are up 17 per cent.
Some mask retailers in Hong Kong advertised sales this week and flagged plans to reduce their 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 his machines running, albeit at a slower pace.
“We have completed our historical task, but we are not in any urgency to shut it down,” Lam said. “There were quite a few people who caught a flu recently and some people feel it’s healthier [to wear a mask].”
Ah Miu, a stall operator in his 50s, said he was not afraid of catching Covid again but added that he felt “insecure” not wearing a mask.
“It’s like trying to quit smoking,” he said. “It’s an addiction that you don’t just walk away from. It takes time, right?”