As represented by our cinema and other media, Western society expects too much of masks. In the public’s mind, the still-legitimate use of masks for source control has gone off-label; masks are thought to prevent infection. From here, another problem arises: because surgical masks are thought to protect against infection in the community setting, people wearing masks for legitimate purposes (those who have a cough in a hospital, say) form part of the larger misperception and act to reinforce it. Even this proper use of surgical masks is incorporated into a larger improper use in the era of pandemic fear, especially in Asia, where such fear is high.1 The widespread misconception about the use of surgical masks — that wearing a mask protects against the transmission of virus — is a problem of the kind theorized by German sociologist Ulrich Beck.
The surgical mask communicates risk. For most, risk is perceived as the potential loss of something of value, but there is another side to risk, memorably formulated by Beck in his Risk Society.2 Beck states that risk society is “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself.”2 For Beck, risk occurs not only in the form of threat and possible loss, but also in society’s organized management and response to these risks, which create a forwarding of present risk into the future. Furthermore, Beck writes of the “symptoms and symbols of risks” that combine in populations to create a “cosmetics of risk.” He suggests that people living in the present moment conceive of risk in terms of the physical tools used to mitigate risk while still “maintaining the source of the filth.”