Why do people not prefer free masks in Hong Kong?

With the COVID-19 pandemic spreading all over the world in late December 2019 according to some sources, we humans began to fight it out with disposable face masks – some even wearing homemade and other kinds of masks. People have started to wear face masks every day when they are out and the mask market, of course, has surged and is now playing the role of a necessity. Gathered by Wikipedia, about 95% of the world’s population lived in countries that recommend or mandate the use of masks in public during the pandemic, which means the biggest ever market for face masks and face mask shortages also occurred at the same time, especially in poor countries, where resources are limited.

However, in Hong Kong, this rich region, also underwent a serious shortage of face masks at the beginning of 2020, which led critics to blame the government’s inaction on its inability to meet its own people’s needs. Later, in May 2020, the government announced that it would be sending over to citizens free reusable face masks led by the Bureau of Innovation and Technology, and the first round of epidemic prevention and anti-epidemic funding has amounted to approximately US$800 million. The mask is made of copper, known as the “copper core anti-epidemic mask”, the English name is CuMask, and every resident with a Hong Kong ID card is eligible for this mask. What else? The mask has two layers of copper cores to protect against bacteria and meet the ASTM F2100 level of protection. After cleaning, the mask can be used continuously for 60 times.

創科局聯同香港紡織及成衣研發中心介紹向市民派發「CU Mask」可重用口罩。 李睿哲攝(Pix By : Eugene Lee) 2020/05/05 港聞

Apparently, this mask combines with high-tech and also fills the gap in mask shortages, especially for those underprivileged households since it’s free. In the first round, the government has prepared 30 million masks for all Hong Kong citizens, and indeed finally the online registration system of “Copper Core Anti-epidemic Mask+™” received more than 830,000 registrations, covering a total of nearly 2.29 million people according to Mingpao news. For the second round in mid-September 2020, these masks covered the recipients from the first round and also those who weren’t registered in the first round, and the relevant department clarified specifically that there was no release of copper-containing substances in this round. However, none of the sources mentioned how many masks had been issued for the second round till now.

It seems that the Hong Kong people are supportive of these masks, even though the ratio is rather small overall. However, we can see only a few people wearing it on the street, approximately 1 out of 1000 people wearing it, and normally elderly and domestic helpers wearing it. So what happened? This phenomenon leads to my research question: why were so many people registered for it but not wearing it at all, and what are the reasons behind this?

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Based on multiple sources of data and combined with qualitative interviews online, we gathered opinions from 30 different people in the Facebook group and also messages from the people who shared their opinions. We have summarized the possible reasons below for your reference:

1. The hidden reason could be politics and distrust with the government, since HK has witnessed the biggest social movement in 2019 and has aroused people’s hatred when it comes to the government, so people rarely trust the government since then. There are several points that the public has listed on this issue: (1) The timing of this mask was wrong, they argued that the government should have acted upon it sooner and quicker and they blamed this on the government’s inaction. (2) The entire process for CuMask production was not open and clear, and the expenditure was not trustworthy. The public blamed it on a waste of money from taxpayers. (3) People have doubts about the copper material, since it’s not a mature technology and it may cause some health problems, and also the efficiency in preventing the virus. (4) The logistics of this delivery may increase the burden for the deliveryman of the post office, and there are better and alternative ways to arrange the logistics. (5) Privacy concerns are always the biggest concern for HK people, since they have to put their phone numbers and addresses in registrations that they don’t know how the government will use their information for. Interestingly, based on my research, I also found that people symbolize these masks as a sign of support for the government, so people don’t wear them as a sign of dissatisfaction with the government. Then this mask has become a battle symbol that lies with the government and its own people.

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2. The size of the mask is either too big or too small, especially for women. The government prepared three different sizes for this mask, but it’s based on age, not personal preference, so most people have no choice but to get the default one. This is for usability reasons (whether they’re suitable or usable for them), and people will not choose clothes that are too big or small either, let alone to wear them, so it applies to masks as well.

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3. Breathing problem: This mask is made of six layers of functional materials, two of which are specially made with small quantities of copper, together with the multi-layer structure. With as many as six layers, it actually causes breathing problems, especially in the summer. The outside temperature was 35 °C (95 °F) in May 2020 in HK, so people would rather choose to wear the disposable surgical masks to keep their faces cool. And since the size is a problem, breathing can be even harder when it is too big or too small.

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4. Last but not least, people dislike the design of this mask, and surprisingly, this is the one that people have mentioned the most. Most people think this design is too ugly that they refuse to wear it outside; how so? The appearance of this mask looks like either underwear or a bra, and I doubt that the relevant departments have ever taken this into consideration. There are sacrifices when it comes to the free stuff, but considering this wide operation that could cover several million people, the look and design should be a major concern. Comparatively, there are several local mask companies who put design and beauty into their masks and produce nice-looking and fashionable masks, so people don’t want to wear the ugly ones when there are other options. You may refer it below.

CuMask image Credit to online
Credit to masklab website

Those are the major reasons why people do not prefer wearing the free masks in HK, and there’s one person who has also mentioned that some places won’t let people in if they are wearing the gov’t mask or any other masks aside from surgical, which we cannot find any evidence or reports on this, so please notify me if you have any. We can see that the reasons vary from ideology to usability issues, and that this is not just a one-factor result, but all other factors intertwined. I have to say that this reusable idea is good, and it’s adored by a few people as well, but the government could do much more to better meet the needs of the people who are using it.

Overall, aside from the government side, we can resolve these issues with a design thinking approach, where we make the most use of the materials and produce the most desirable masks for the public. The whole process can be slow and fast, and it all depends on the actor’s attitude and willingness to take on the role. If there’s a third or fourth batch after that the government has distributed the second batch of the same masks, which remains the same problem, then we hope the government can take those above factors into consideration, listen to the people, design for them and serve them well.

Moreover, the limitation of this research is that the sample size is small and the source of the sample size is single (not diverse), so a further study could improve on this point from a more academic perspective. Lastly, we thank those who generously and openly shared their opinions on this research question and contributed their thoughts to this discussion.

This article was edited by the original author without their consent, and should not be reproduced.

By Social Innovation Insight

We are the bridge of change!

2 replies on “Why do people not prefer free masks in Hong Kong?”

According to the  World Health Organization, wearing medical masks when not appropriate not only causes unnecessary costs but can cause users to feel a false sense of security. Habits such as diligent hand-washing and not touching your face likely provide better protection against the coronavirus. However, Hong Kong has one of the world’s  highest population densities  per square kilometer. It is almost impossible to avoid crowded places, to stand at least 2 to 3 meters from anyone, let alone manage to avoid a close-contact cough or a sneeze. The best option is to stay home. Not much fun, is it?


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