Vienna -- Austria is preparing to join neighbouring states in turning to mask wearing as a further weapon to fight the coronavirus, presenting citizens under lockdown with another challenge to cultural norms due to the pandemic.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had said he wanted larger supermarkets to start providing shoppers with masks on Wednesday, but a tour of several Vienna supermarkets showed that not all of them had masks ready to hand out.
One chain said it was "taken unawares" by the government's announcement while others have raised concerns over the cost of the new measure and possible supply problems.
The measure will only come into full force on Monday.
Nonetheless, some Austrians have taken to the new rule with gusto.
"We have to do all we can to slow down infections and lots of people say that wearing a mask helps, so I think it's right," 42-year-old Vienna resident Stephan Hofmann told AFP -- through a mask.
But he admits that "you have to learn to use it, how to put it on and take it off".
While Kurz has as yet not publically donned a mask himself, leaders in neighbouring countries have been trying to set a good example.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has begun sporting one in public but is still struggling to adapt, having to wear his only over his mouth and not his nose.
"My head is too big for this mask! It is too small for my muzzle," he exclaimed during one appearance on Monday.
|A family ensure they have their masks on as they put shopping in the car in Brunn am Gebirge near Vienna. Photo: AFP|
Meanwhile, the recent swearing-in of the new Slovakian government took place with all participants wearing face masks and gloves.
Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic have all made masks obligatory in public spaces and the Czech zeal for the new practice is such that when a group of nudists gathered at a lake during last weekend's unusually warm weather, police ordered them to cover up -- their mouths.
"Citizens can be without clothes in places where this is allowed, but they must have their mouths covered," police spokeswoman Marketa Janovska told the Police Weekly newspaper.
'Alien to our culture '
Adherence to mask wearing is also being rigorously enforced elsewhere in the region.
In Slovenia an AFP journalist witnessed a customer unaware of the new measures being yelled at and ordered to leave a supermarket for entering with his face uncovered.
Announcing the measure in Austria on Monday, Kurz was nonetheless at pains to emphasise that face masks would be difficult for some Austrians to get used to.
"I know that masks are alien to our culture and that this will be a big adjustment," he said.
An opinion piece in the Der Standard daily was blunter: "Let's admit it: until now we would find it funny when other people would wear masks in public, thinking it was out of hypochondria and panic."
|Supermarket employees hand out masks to customers as they enter, as Austria implements new rules compelling people to cover their faces in public places to slow the spread of coronavirus. Photo: AFP|
There was the additional consideration of how this would impact on Austrians' normal variety of "insults, nagging and grouching," the piece added.
Medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris from Scotland's St Andrew's University says that the "traumatic" nature of the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003 helped normalise mask wearing in parts of East Asia.
"The case fatality rate was much higher than for COVID-19, so it was a very scary epidemic," Lynteris told AFP.
In Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region, face masks became "everyday objects... playful, personalised -- it's like any other accessory," according to Lynteris.
And while epidemics do not always lead to cultural changes, it should be remembered that current European norms around covering -- or revealing -- one's face are not set in stone.
"Calling the bare face a cultural constant in the West is nonsense," Lynteris says, pointing out that attire covering at least some portion of the face or head was customary well into the 20th century, particularly for women.
As one Slovenian shopper put it to AFP: "The situation requires measures which were once unimaginable."
"Life will be different from now on but we will get used to it," mother-of-two Maja Zivec said.