Hong Kong has banned face masks after months of violent protests.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the ban on Friday with the ban coming into effect on Saturday.
The ban comes in the wake of the latest riots, with the protest movement originally beginning in opposition to an extradition bill now withdrawn from the legislature.
Many of the protestors throughout the campaign have been wearing face masks.
Explaining how the ban will work, Secretary for Security John Lee said it would apply for approved rallies and marches, as well as in unlawful assemblies and riots.
However, the authorities will allow for exemptions for people wearing masks for health reasons, or if required by their profession.
The ban covers all kinds of facial covering, including face paint.
While for the protestors the masks may provide a way of hiding identity from family, employers and the authorities, there are other reasons the masks have become so popular.
Though it isn’t known exactly when face masks started becoming normal practice in Hong Kong and other East Asian regions, it is believed popularity originally started spiking around 2003, during the SARS outbreak. People started donning their masks to help prevent infection from respiratory droplets.
That was quickly followed by the bird flu epidemic in 2006.
“Face masks can help protect against viral and airborne diseases,” explains Dr Diana Gall at www.doctor-4-u.co.uk
”In Hong Kong they have experienced outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which displays similar symptoms to the cold and flu and in some cases, there are a number of fatalities in an outbreak, as Hong Kong experienced.
“This disease spreads in a similar way to the common cold and is very much an airborne virus,” she continues. “Protecting the mouth and nose from breathing in these fatal viruses and pollution is one important reason why mask-wearing is so prevalent in Hong Kong.”
After a while, it seems people got used to wearing the masks, and it became the norm with some schools even making mask-wearing compulsory if a child was showing symptoms of illness.
There’s another health explanation associated with the wearing of the masks too. One of the fundamental concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine, sees breath and breathing as a central element in good health. “‘Qi’ is a central concept in Chinese cosmology—and thereby physiology—generally having to do with energy and vapour,” Michelle M. Ching, a board certified practitioner of acupuncture and herbal medicine told QZ.com.
“Qi has numerous meanings in Chinese including ‘air’ [kong qi], ‘atmosphere’ [qi fen], ‘odour’ [qi wei], which is perhaps another reason masks are so necessary, ‘strength’ [li qi] and ‘pathogen’ [xie qi]. When bodily qi is depleted, or its movement deranged, pain and disease develop. So breathing is critical in order to maintain good qi in the body.”
Earlier this year, Naomi Campbell posted her pre-flight routine on YouTube, confessing her fear of people coughing and sneezing on aeroplanes.
As well as disinfecting her seat with protective wipes, the supermodel also puts on a medical mask to cover her nose and mouth to protect her from breathing in germs.
With cities around the world seeing a spike in air pollution, face masks were seen to be of an increasing necessity when stepping outside, particularly in a smoggy city.
“The main reason for wearing a mask in populated busy cities such as Hong Kong is to protect against pollution,” explains Dr Gall.
“Pollution can cause long term damage to the respiratory system, leading to cardiovascular disease and respiratory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, COPD, and cancer.
“Living in a busy city and being exposed to high levels of pollution every day increases the risk of developing these diseases. Not only this, the short term effects of pollution exposure can cause annoying symptoms which can disrupt your daily life. Irritated eyes, headache, nausea are among the symptoms associated with pollution exposure. Wearing a mask can help reduce this exposure and the risk of associated respiratory problems.”
Wendover Brown, Partner and Founder at mask-making company, Vogmask believes air pollution has had a huge influence on the popularity of mask-wearing.
“In almost eight years, the benefit of mask use is becoming widely known for protecting respiratory health from an array of contaminants”, she told Scmp.com.
“For our business, growth in the use of our product has also resulted from social influencers in communities of chronic illness, migraine, pulmonary wellness, allergy, asthma and other sensitive lungs groups, as well as the recommendation of leading health providers.”
READ MORE: What Exactly Is Pollution Doing To Our Skin?
While initial reasons for mask-wearing may have been more health-lead, face masks have been increasingly been making an impact in the fashion industry. Back in 2014, QIAODAN Yin Peng Sports Wear Collection debuted its respiratory masks at China Fashion Week to global headlines.
Later, Chinese designer Masha Ma made the masks a real fashion statement by embedding them with Swarovski crystals at Paris Fashion Week.
Singer Ariana Grande also made a sartorial impact after donning a teardrop logo-embellished face mask in New York earlier this year and sharing a snap to Instagram. She later started selling, Thank U, Next face masks.
In fact it is social media that has possibly had the biggest influence on the transition of face mask from health prop to fashion statement. The hashtag #pollutionmask is often used by fashion influencers promoting face masks for various mask-producing manufacturers.
“Celebrities, performers, opera singers and frequent travellers have been seen in masks to protect wellness [and voice], and this certainly makes masking normalised,” Brown told Scmp.com.
According to QZ.com studies have found that in Japan many healthy teens now wear masks to signal a lack of desire to communicate. Experts believe this could be particularly relevant for young women seeking to avoid harassment, and who also enjoy a certain level of anonymity the mask provides.