Why Wearing Surgical Masks Abroad Might Be a Bad Idea
In Japan, wearing surgical masks to avoid (or spread) illness is a common occurrence. This practice addresses the moral and social obligation to be considerate towards others. If you are sick, you should not spread your illness; likewise, it is also acceptable to wear a surgical mask in order to prevent contracting an illness. Some may say that this practice is also spreading to other parts of Asia, such as South Korea and Taiwan. Indeed, this seems to be an efficient way of maintaining one’s health.
In the West, however, this practice is not common. In general, the donning of surgical masks is generally limited to people in the following professions: food processing, waste disposal, dentistry and surgery. Therefore, if you wear a surgical mask (in countries where wearing surgical masks out on the street is not the norm), you may be mistaken for a medical professional who forgot to take off their mask after work.
Imagine you are on vacation somewhere in Europe. You are sightseeing (wearing a surgical mask), and a pedestrian collapses from a heart attack. Now, let’s view this scenario from the perspective of a local doctor who happens to see this scene unfold. The doctor sees a man who has collapsed—but lo and behold, a qualified medical professional is already on the scene! A surgeon, no less!
“I am only a pediatrician,” the doctor says to herself. “Thank god a surgeon happened to be walking down the street.” The doctor leaves the scene, convinced that the pedestrian is in good hands and that her own involvement would only complicate matters. Unfortunately, a few precious minutes go by before an ambulance finally arrives, and the pedestrian does not make it.
Medical professionals are bound by the Hippocratic Oath (ヒポクラテスの誓い); the most modern iteration of this oath basically states that medical professionals are obligated to help people who are in need of emergency care (even when they are not on duty). Although the example I gave above may seem extreme and unlikely, I imagine that it isn’t altogether outside of the realm of possibility.