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Masking fears: SARS and the politics of public health in China

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This paper examines shifts in attitudes to mask-wearing during and in the aftermath of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2002–2003. In the PRC, as throughout East Asia, face masks were widely adopted as a practical preventative measure. However, the ubiquitous image of the masked Chinese citizen in both the Chinese and international media also acquired a political resonance. Masks were equated with the Party’s attempts to censure dissent and ‘cover up’ the epidemic. A perceived lack of government transparency, at least in the initial phase of SARS, recalled earlier public health incidents and episodes of public dissension, notably the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Drawing on samples of qualitative data from a broad range of Chinese and English language sources, the paper shows how debates about mask-wearing in China during SARS became intertwined with political concerns, reflecting a tension between the Party’s liberalizing policy – epitomized by the country’s admission to membership of the World Trade Organization in December 2001 – and real anxieties about the consequential ‘fall-out’ of this new openness. The paper concludes by arguing for an approach to public health which incorporates a critical capacity, particularly in relation to the ways in which political contexts may determine responses to epidemic episodes.
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Keywords: China; Hong Kong; Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS); face masks; interdisciplinary; politics

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Centre for the Humanities and Medicine, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China

Publication date: January 1, 2016

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