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Protective masks: A new culture in Germany

Sabine Oelze db
May 1, 2020

In Asia, face masks have long been part of everyday life. In Germany, on the other hand, it is a completely new experience to see people wearing them in public spaces.

Deutschland Bayern | Frau mit Mundschutz
Image: picture-alliance/Sven Simon/F. Hoermann

In Christoph Peters' 2014 novel Mr. Yamashiro Prefers Potatoes, the protagonist, a Japanese pottery kiln builder, was admitted to a hospital in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. To the utter consternation of everyone around him, he slipped on a surgical mask. While Mr. Yamashiro wanted to protect the other patients because he felt a cold coming on, they were taken aback by his move.

These days, no one would have batted an eyelid.

Weeks into the COVID-19 outbreak, people in Germany are also now seen with protective face masks either dangling around their necks, ready to be pulled on, or already half covering their faces.

The masks are mandatory if you want to enter a store, and when using public transportation. Like toilet paper sculptures or spit protection walls, will face masks now become an icon of the coronavirus crisis in Germany?

Germans wary about covering faces

Germans may be wearing them, but many people are still skeptical about mandatory face masks just four weeks after the health minister, Jens Spahn, said there was no need for a national mask requirement.

Apart from health concerns, religious reasons might also play a role in the skepticism, with reservations among some people in society about veils and veiling in general.

Going back thousands of years, the biblical Adam and Eve bashfully began to wear loincloths when they were banished from Paradise, hiding their nudity from strangers' prying eyes. Is wearing a simple face mask a metaphor for lost innocence? Demonizing masks and diseases has a long tradition that takes us back to the Middle Ages when entire cities were burned to the ground to fight epidemics.

Italien Venedig Mann im Pestarzt-Kostüm
This mask at the Venice carnival recalls models worn by doctors during pest outbreaksImage: picture-alliance/imageBROKER/K. Petersen

Doctors who treated victims of the plague wore scary beaked masks that became synonymous with death and the hopelessness of the bubonic plague. Doctors in operating rooms only began to wear surgical masks much later. Illustrations in medical history museums show that as late as the 19th century, doctors operated without mouth and nose protection.

In Germany, the specialized field of hospital hygiene was not established until the 1970s. In 1976, authorities published the country's first ever "Federal Health Office Guideline for the Detection, Prevention and Control of Hospital Infections."

In recent years in Germany and Central Europe, emotional debates have flared over Muslim women's various headscarves, veils and garments covering the entire body.

Strawberry-scented face masks

Now, everyone in Germany must wear a face mask, at least in shops and on public transportation. Admittedly, the masks on sale here are not as sophisticated as in other countries. Across Asia, a variety of masks are on offer; they come with pollen filters, humidifiers against dry air and even scented with various fragrances.

In Japan, people wear them as a matter of course out of consideration for others. They have donned face masks to help combat life-threatening germs since the emergence of other pandemics, like the Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920, when their government posted warnings of germs on large posters. Face masks were first made of wire cages covered with fabric, originally used by workers in heavy industry.

Picture from 1948 showing children wearing masks to protect themselves from irradiation in the devastated city of Hiroshima
Picture from 1948 showing children wearing masks to protect themselves from irradiation in the devastated city of HiroshimaImage: Getty Images

In Germany, the population did not use face masks at that time — nor did they cover mouths and noses in 1958, when another severe pandemic raged. Largely hushed up by the media, the Asian flu claimed about 30,000 lives. Germany's Südwestrundfunk (SWR) broadcaster, for instance, has but one report in its archives that addresses that epidemic. The report quotes questionable health tips: It recommends gargling with hydrogen peroxide as a preventive measure and taking pills containing formalin. There is no mention of thoroughly washing your hands or wearing face masks.

Stricter hygiene regulations emerged in Germany as late as 2003, during the SARS pandemic. Authorities officially advised people to wash their hands thoroughly; public bathrooms were equipped with disinfectant dispensers. No one, however, wore face masks.

Yet in Asia, with its experience of SARS and MERS, the number of people wearing face masks rose significantly. After the outbreak of bird flu in Asia in 2006, the Hong Kong city council provided 20,000 households with packages of masks. Three years later, the World Health Organization recommended that masks be worn as a prophylactic measure against H1N1 infection in busy public spaces.