OPINION: A Plea for Decency When Writing About Covid-19

OPINION: A Plea for Decency When Writing About Covid-19
Photo Credit: 中央社

What you need to know

A recent editorial in the Taipei Times argues against face masks. With all due respect, we beg to differ.

There has been no shortage of solidarity and public-spiritedness in sight during the coronavirus crisis. From spontaneous mutual aid groups to medical workers confronting extraordinary risk, to patients sacrificing scarce ventilators, those in need of reassurance of human goodness can find ample sources of comfort. 

But the greater prominence of heroic actions has been tempered by a rise in impulses we should be less proud of, too. There’s price-gouging, insider-trading, disinformation-trafficking — and the eruption of anti-Asian racism. 

The recent Taipei Times editorial by James Baron, “Mask claims fly in face of science,” defies easy classification. In seeking to attribute praise to Taiwan’s government for its coronavirus response, not Taiwanese people, Baron cites several medical studies on face masks and argues for an opposition between Taiwanese culture and following scientific advice.  

The first part of Baron’s editorial seeks to prove the uselessness of surgical masks in reducing transmission of respiratory viruses. Baron writes “there remains little in the way of solid evidence that surgical masks are of any value when used in general population.” This is reiterated in stronger terms a few paragraphs later: “There is also almost zero support within medical and scientific circles for the use of masks in general population as a means of reducing transmission.”  

In support of these assertions, Baron cites various studies including a historian’s judgment on mask use during the 1918 flu pandemic, research published “on the back of” the 1968 flu pandemic, and recent studies including opportunistic data from Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak. He qualified his claims by stating twice that mask design has improved, and mentions that the SARS studies show mixed results.

It is true that the World Health Organization and other public health bodies do not advise the general public to wear surgical masks. As the WHO’s refusal to cooperate with Taiwan has shown, however, these institutions are political as much as they are scientific. The recommendations are made with an eye toward preserving mask supplies for care workers. A more judicious, responsible editorial would mention that there are multiple meta-analyses, comprehensive “studies of studies” in reputable medical journals, which suggest that surgical masks, perhaps as effectively as N95 masks, reduce the transmission of respiratory viruses. These are more representative of scientific and medical opinion than Baron’s selection of three individual studies, not counting the unspecific “recent studies” which even Baron admits point to mixed results — not “almost zero support.” 

Baron’s claims about this evidence are deployed to lead into a reflection on the “‘Western’ aversion to and the Asian predilection for mask-wearing.” “Western” is given scare quotes to signal knowingness that the word is essentially meaningless, as an appeal to the audience’s reasonableness in the sense of “We all know who we’re talking about.” Asian, curiously, is not given scare quotes, as if there is a common culture that binds everyone from Pakistanis to indigenous Taiwanese. 

Even more curious is the use of “predilection.” A predilection connotes behavior informed by motivations and emotions that occur “before” conscious, willed action. He uses another “pre” suffix in the article, referring to a Taiwanese “cultural predisposition” for mask-wearing. Predisposition, often used alongside “genetic,” likewise describes that which is “before” our disposition, a force not fully governed by a reasoning, conscious self. To speak assuredly about one’s predilections and predispositions is bold. To expound on the predilections and predispositions shared by an entire culture is fantastical. Instead of predispositions and predilections, a word anthropologists prefer to use is “values.” Speaking of values allows us to speak about cultures as coherent systems, without resorting to determinism.

The real kicker comes in the sentence surrounding the cultural predispositions line, making clear the contradiction he sees between Taiwanese culture and the ability to reason. Ho Mei-shang, an epidemiologist with Academia Sinica, said she felt “puzzled” about the panic buying of face masks when Taiwan was relatively safe from a widespread outbreak. Baron then questions her confusion and writes, “she must know that fact-based arguments will do little to change the minds of most Taiwanese who, culturally predisposed to mask usage as they are, have been lining up in droves from the minute the virus reared its floral protuberances.” 

Taiwanese people, by Baron’s observations, ignore professional advice and are resistant to “fact-based arguments” when their cultural predispositions stand in the way. They line up in droves, unwilling or unable to see the light of Logic and Facts. In the background is Baron’s linguistic distancing of describing Taiwanese people as Ho’s compatriots. Not, for instance, as fellow inhabitants of the country he lives in. 

After pausing to acknowledge that “racially motivated attacks in the West against Asians have been alarmingly frequent since the onset of the outbreak,” the author negates sympathy for these victims by pointing out that the racist attacks are being “reciprocated in some quarters” by social media posts about foreigners “reaping what they have sown, and paying the price for foolishness and arrogance.”

Baron concludes his article by praising the Taiwanese government for its response to the coronavirus pandemic but addresses its people as “Joe Public” touting unscientific claims. 

All this when people are reacting to a crisis. This is the most troubling aspect of it all. People are simply acting to protect themselves and others from infection.  

We might ask, to sum up, why this matters. Why risk calling undue attention to this editorial? 

This editorial is not as outrageous as Donald Trump calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” which smears not only Chinese people but anyone who racists could conceive of as Chinese, alongside the nonchalance in procuring ventilators and protective gear for medical workers when there was time. 

But the Taipei Times is a leading English print newspaper in Taiwan with an international audience. It contributes to the English-language discourse in Taiwan, about Taiwan, in a way few other publications do. This isn’t meant as a hit piece. I only wish to make a plea for the values of responsible journalism and common decency that I believe both the Taipei Times and Baron share. 

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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