Now is time to just smile at each other

Hong Kong’s nearly three-year mask mandate was dropped on March 1. The responses were generally positive, while some said that they would continue to wear masks in public. It’s worth noting though that long before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, there remained residents still wearing masks in public place from the aftermath of the SARS epidemic in 2003.

Not wearing masks in public places, like in the early days of the pandemic and before the mask mandate, remains voluntary, and it’s clear that some are more ready to drop the mask than others. Over an RTHK radio broadcast I heard while in a taxi on March 3, an official from the Education Bureau expressed concern that dropping the mask mandate so suddenly had left many schools unprepared for the sudden change in policy, though the official didn’t elaborate as to why. This is a concern one could also see in the ratio of people still wearing a mask in the first few days after the mask mandate had been dropped to those who were not.

I’m sure reasons for the willingness or unwillingness of residents to drop the masks span the spectrum from people still worried about COVID-19 transmission to people who were happy to see and show their and others’ faces again. One such reason also likely is that many had simply become accustomed to the sense of psychological safety in not having to show their faces in public. For this latter group, perhaps they felt a sudden sense of vulnerability and apprehension in showing their faces, or seeing those of others again — a condition I’m sure won’t last long as human psychology is designed for us to see each other’s faces to properly access each other’s emotions, nonverbal cues and internal emotional states. For the health of Hong Kong’s collective civic psychological makeup, and to cure the quiet divisions still lurking in the wake of the 2019 riots, it was time for the masks to come down. For those hoping to put into practice Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s sentiments of it now being a time to forgive, to heal and to move on from the unpleasant events of 2019, dropping the mask mandate should cause smiles in Hong Kong residents.

Despite the mandate serving Hong Kong well in lowering general flu rates and helping to stop the spread of COVID-19, it is documented that negative lung capacity effects start to manifest after prolonged mask use. Just like crutches for a broken leg, or a cast for a broken arm, prolonged use of those temporary health measures lead to unhealthy muscle atrophy. And while the mask mandate was preventative rather than curative, the negative psychological effects might have led to a similar condition of psychological atrophy as the inability to properly assess each other’s emotional states from having to hide our faces for so long could have manifested in less civic cohesion. For me, on March 1, the ability to simply breathe normally again was reason enough to smile at people who I also saw not wearing masks. Sometimes I got a smile back.

Hong Kong’s unique metropolitan culture has never fitted neatly into comparisons with other global metropolitan cities of comparable populations. People who have lived in Canadian metropolitan cities like Toronto or Vancouver will attest that in those cities, there exists an intangible, happy medium of civic willingness to genuinely help, encourage and smile at random people they pass on the street. This is not to say those places don’t have their own internal problems, or don’t notice the declining state of international relations. It just appears as though they don’t let that negative knowledge affect their daily interactions or hinder the progress of their functioning and thriving cities. On any given cold winter morning in Toronto, a “good morning” to a random passerby on the street will often be met with a smile and the same genuine greeting. It is also noteworthy that many of these large metropolitan cities in Canada also enjoy low crime rates when compared to other large and diverse metropolitan cities.

Metropolises like New York City, London or Washington, DC, are places where the ultracompetitive nature of business or government dictates that the same sense of happy civic interactions, or just random acts of kindness, be taken as weaknesses, and as such, exploited. A kind “good morning” offered to a passerby in those cities stands a higher chance of being met with a blank stare, disdain or fear than with the same altruistic sentiment. Also not surprising is that in those cities, we also tend to find far higher crime rates.

Hong Kong’s uniqueness is in how we manage to retain a low crime rate despite also being ultracompetitive and business-oriented like New York City, while also not being known for having a happy civic disposition like many Canadian large cities. Here, in the crushing melee of morning or evening rush hours, smiles were never a common occurrence. And yet, every once in a while, in Sai Kung villages, Mong Kok wet markets, Kwun Tong industrial delivery areas, or in the actions of waiting customers of street-side watch fixers, one could still witness generous acts of genuine altruism and kindness if one looked close enough. This too, should be a reason for Hong Kong people to smile, especially now that we can see them.

The author is a writer, columnist and historian based in Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.