WASHINGTON - While U.S. health authorities are debating whether or not wearing masks will help slow the spread of COVID-19, Vietnamese authorities are handing out steep fines to those who disregard the mandate to wear them at all times, just about everywhere.
Vietnam has one of the lowest coronavirus infection rates in the world, with 212 cases as of Wednesday, and according to the Ministry of Health in Hanoi, no deaths related to this disease.
Vietnam, with a population of more than 96 million, according to the website Worldometer has been praised by the World Health Organization and the U.S. for its quick response and efforts in containing the virus.
As of Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 186,101 cases and 3,606 deaths. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's population clock, the estimated 2019 United States population, as of August 2019, was 329.45 million.
As the number of infections has skyrocketed in the United States, the CDC is considering recommending the general public to cover their faces when going out.
Hanoi required all Vietnamese and foreigners to wear masks in crowded places as of March 16. At airports and train stations, free masks were handed out to those without them.
Those who fail to comply with the government's directive will incur a fine of up to $13.00. In Vietnam, the per capita income is $2,715 as of December 2019, according to CEIC Data.
Hoan Kiem District officials fined one woman $8.50 for failing to wear a mask. In Hanoi, a bus driver refused to let a maskless man board.
The brokerage house Military Bank Securities (MBS) encouraged employees to wear masks by stripping the bonuses from those who did not, according to Nguyen Thanh Huong, an employee.
Throughout Hanoi, banks, pharmacies and shops denied entry to people without masks.
State leaders and media repeatedly stress the importance of wearing masks during the coronavirus crisis. Images of government officials wearing masks at meetings crowd the media landscape.
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, people in Vietnam, and many other Asian countries, often wore masks to protect themselves and those nearby if they were ill.
But for those Vietnamese and other Asians who have moved to the U.S., maintaining the custom has come with a cost.
"I have absolutely no doubt that some Asians have experienced hostility for wearing a mask," said Kim Fellner, a 71-year-old labor activist and freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C. "President Trump has heightened hostility [to Asians] by calling the virus the 'Chinese' virus, and a minority of Americans are ignorant, bigoted, nationalistic and behave disgracefully."
During the week of March 16, Trump called the coronavirus the "Chinese virus" during a news conference. Since then, Asian Americans have reported an increase in hate crimes such as being victims of racial slurs and physical abuse over the perception that China caused COVID-19.
Fellner said Trump's behavior "has given [some Americans] license to let their worst instincts go unchecked."
According to Xi Chen, assistant professor of health policy and economics at the Yale School of Public Health, there are multiple reasons why people are not at ease wearing masks in public. "But I think the most important one is cultural," Chen told the Nikkei Asian Review last month.
"Traditionally, Western societies believe only those infected should wear face masks because they could spread the virus, but healthy people do not need to do so."
Fellner said that the official policy about wearing masks has been "inconsistent" and she would not wear mask to take a walk if she feels fine.
Ron Carver, a 73-year-old associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies who lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, has spent time in Vietnam, and is the author of "Waging Peace in Vietnam: U.S. Soldiers and Veterans who Opposed the War." He said that while he does not wear a mask while out for a walk, he doesn't think wearing a mask is strange.
Both Fellner and Carver said they will wear masks when they go shopping or in other places where they would be in close contact with people. That is, if they can find masks, which are in short supply throughout the U.S.