In the early hours of Sunday, a convenience store clerk in Taoyuan was killed after reportedly asking a man to wear a mask.
Although the suspect, a 41-year-old paper sculptor surnamed Chiang (蔣), initially complied, he was clearly incensed at the request as he took the mask off after paying and threw it at the 7-Eleven clerk, surnamed Tsai (蔡), police said.
What might have ended there escalated to deadly proportions when Chiang returned to the store with a concealed knife, media reports said. He called on Tsai, 30, to step out and meet him, before allegedly proceeding to stab him repeatedly, including four fatal wounds to the chest.
In the words of Tsai’s aggrieved father, it is unconscionable that someone could have lost their life while at work. Even more galling is that it is only the latest in a string of replicated headlines over a short few months, each one reading: “Someone attacks convenience store clerk over mask.”
The most recent previous violent incident was a month ago, when a drunk customer pummeled a clerk with a glass bottle in Taichung, resulting in a dozen fractures, concussion and internal bleeding. Just days before that, a man punched a Hi-Life customer and clerk in Taoyuan after they tried to persuade him to wear a mask.
These all happened following a highly publicized incident in late September involving a brutal assault on a clerk in Pingtung County, who might still lose some of her vision and is just starting on the long road to emotional recovery.
This emergent pattern has not gone unnoticed. In the wake of Sunday’s incident, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) advised clerks to prioritize their own safety while thanking them for serving on the front lines of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. It followed up its statement yesterday with renewed guidelines to avoid verbal reminders in lieu of signs and broadcasts. Offenders could be reported after the fact for authorities to identify via video footage, it added.
What has been proven to be an immediate and present danger requires both immediate and long-term responses. The CECC guideline will hopefully remove the spark from these conflagrations, but it could go further. The incidents hint at a growing frustration with mask mandates that many view as no longer necessary, even if the vast majority will not resort to violence over it. The CECC could consider adjusting its rules further to ease mask fatigue, while emphasizing compliance where it is needed most.
As convenience stores continue to be a locus for violence, police should also consider setting up panic buttons for clerks to discreetly request their presence without enraging dangerous customers. Thankfully, the National Police Agency seems to already be considering its options after vowing yesterday to improve communication with convenience stores, including through a “hotline,” along with increased patrols.
Yet the final and most difficult problem returns to mental health. A national discussion was renewed after the suspect in the Pingtung incident was found to have a long history of schizophrenia-related violence, including another attack only a month before. Chiang also reported having a history of psychiatric illness, and reportedly experienced dissociation during Sunday’s incident.
Solving this issue would be long and complex, but as each violent reminder splashes across the news, it should lend a renewed sense of urgency. Calls from lawmakers yesterday to improve shortages of psychiatric counselors and amend the Mental Health Act (精神衛生法) to tighten community networks for treatment — both routine and emergency — should be heeded and addressed soon, before the memory begins to fade and allows for the next incident to take another life.
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