My friends and family, and most people in the UK, are not that concerned about having been made to wear a face mask/covering by the government as a “mandatory” measure to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. The argument centring on not spreading the virus to others via droplet elimination, while also creating a sense of solidarity and civic responsibility.
I having been searching within myself but I can’t find peace with this measure being made mandatory and find the logic deeply troubling. I do not wear a facemask and instead wear a lanyard citing my exemption due to “severe distress”— in short the reasons for this are that I think the negative impacts of making mask wearing mandatory in shops and other public places (currently) outweigh the positives and sets very dangerous precedent for how our government might make future policy decisions.
I should caveat the below with the fact I am naturally contrarian and have a history of wanting to go against the grain. Offsetting that point though I work in an industry beset by behavioural bias and echo chambers so am keen to form views around the evidence available. I welcome debate on my points and am open to changing my view. For instance if there is a peak in symptomatic infections and danger of this causing new deaths and overburdening the healthcare system (I find this logic bizarre though because the education we have all had would suggest that in this instance people would try and work from home) then I would probably be happy wearing a mask in very constrained places, like on the tube…but I have the luxury of not needing to get on the tube and can work from home.
Anyway given most people seem to disagree with my stance on kicking up a fuss over mandatory mask wearing let’s start with a few things that are easier to agree with.
- Covid-19 can be a very nasty disease for the elderly (median age of death is 85) and a very small proportion of the population. The median IFR is thought to be 0.26% as estimated most recently by the CDC.
- For children and healthy adults under 60 the risks of Covid-19 are broadly irrelevant in the context of normal daily risks — note chart above is logarithmic.
- The BBC and general media have been dreadful at communicating balanced, proportionate and factual news around Coronavirus which has led to a warped understanding of real risk.
- Sensible guidance on staying at home if ill, washing hands, avoiding crowded enclosed spaces (tubes) and social distancing helped decrease the R-rate to where we currently stand and remains good practice.
- For most humans we would prefer the oceans full of fish and not plastic
- For most people around the world, seeing each others’ faces is not only important to communication, but important to our mental health, our social well-being. This is not an attempt to introduce a wolf-whistle political argument, but I think we rely on facial expression to interact, to feel comfortable with each other.
It is important to state that wearing face coverings is not about protecting yourself from inhaling virus particles which most health bodies unequivocally agree on (especially important given the government guidance is on face coverings which are especially useless).
Let’s critique the rationale for stopping the spread. First of all there are practical points; incidence of the virus right now is very low in the UK, and the studies that have been done on asymptomatic transmission, while very limited in statistical validity, show some early evidence that this is less of a threat than many might fear. Recent studies in UK care homes for instance show that 80% of positive tests are asymptomatic. Secondly, there is the actual act of wearing a mask and touching one’s face that is almost certainly a huge contributory factor for spreading disease within hospitals. For even less educated and practised mask-wearers, like the general public, this could cause more problems than it solves especially at times of low incidence. The bigger problem for me is the fact there is a perceived need to spread a message of solidarity. Rather than seeing masks as a comfort I think it continues to propagate the fear and misunderstanding of a virus which for most of us is thankfully not something to be concerned about. This is perhaps why so many are happy to oblige with wearing because their starting point is a misperception of fear but how do you roll back from that position if we are happy mandating mask wearing when there is currently very little risk? Just like we don’t put up with racist views, essentially caused by a lack of education, why should we have to pander to those excessively fearful due to their misunderstanding? This doesn’t mean we shouldn't care about the genuinely vulnerable but I will address that point later on.
Here are the main downsides to mask wearing that I see:
- Environmental — many masks are disposable and will end up further clogging up the seas and oceans.
- Effectiveness — as cited earlier they do very little to stop contraction of the disease and many wear masks incorrectly meaning they actively increase the chance of infection due to constant face touching, not washing masks properly etc.
- Over-confidence — will potentially encourage some, especially those more at risk, to relax social distancing guidelines. It might also lead those who develop symptoms of illness to believe they can venture into public spaces safe in the knowledge that the mask will “protect” others.
- Economic — perhaps I will be proved incorrect on this but I would expect this might lead to many shopping less due to the hassle of requiring a mask or put some off entirely. Furthermore it might lead to more spend online which will have more damaging long term implications given the retail infrastructure is currently more geared to offline shopping. More generally though I think it slows the ability for society to return to normal with a prevalence of mask wearing.
- Unpleasant — both for those trying to regain a semblance of normality but also for the wearer, especially those wearing for long periods of time.
- Mental health— this is a serious point but the inability to see smiling faces while out and about only contributes (in my eyes) to ongoing mental health anxieties of the population.
I could of course be incorrect about the economic impact, in which case I will stand corrected, however regardless of this element you might have the view that for the tiny chance of saving a life, wearing a mask is worth it vs the other negatives I list above — fine. By similar standards you perhaps would also ban all playgrounds in schools; statistically there is 1 death per annum.
Thinking through this point the maximum chance of saving a life via preventing droplet spreading of the disease is when you are feeling ill and symptomatic — surely in this instance the question is not whether you are wearing a mask, but why on earth aren’t you at home?
All the above however is perhaps irrelevant as the issue is not whether one should or shouldn’t wear a mask — right now I see no need and choose not to. Rather the issue I have is the Government passing an emergency law to make this MANDATORY. As I explained earlier I think this sets dangerous precedent.
Already throughout this pandemic the government has flipped-flopped on whether on not to lockdown (the jury is still very much out on the positive and negative impacts of this approach — that is a different debate and we wont really know the answer for many years to come) but then from overwhelming pressure from the press chose to go ahead with full lockdown in late March. Even now there are totally mixed messages from the Government which plays to the theme of being “guided by science” — on one hand you have the one part of their website asking you to stay at home “as much as possible” and then on the other side the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme.
In reality this emergency law has been passed as a political hindsight to argue that “we did everything we could” pandering to the press and partly because surveys indicated it was an easy thing to do as this YouGov poll demonstrates.
However this is not the same as Brexit, which some seemed to have tried to make out, where debate has been had (ad infinitum) culminating in a referendum of the population to solve the conflict. Indeed the general view was that the Brexit debate was too complicated a question to ask the general population, who couldn’t possible assess all the long term impacts and consequences. To this I would agree — indeed a similar point can be made right now. Looking at the answers above it shows the ridiculous nature of the whole thing — 51% of those who apparently wear a mask “not at all” still think it has an helpful impact on public health (this survey was pre-mandatory mask law). If anything this shows that education and leadership is even more important. Perhaps the clearest display that this is purely a political measure is that shop owners and staff don’t have to wear masks — so arguably the main people who are coming into contact with the highest proportion of the population and most likely to expel potential droplets don’t have to wear masks…makes sense doesn’t it?
The problem I envisage is that the shrug, in some cases gleeful, with which most have accepted mandatory mask wearing, without due debate and parliamentary action, could lead to other more draconian and less pleasant measures taken which equally lack scientific backing or more thoughtful (and constitutional) debate as to long term consequences.
For instance there are rumours that children over 11 are potentially going to be forced into mandatory mask wearing when schools go back — despite the fact that there is plenty of evidence children are not spreaders. What if mask wearing becomes mandatory whenever outside your home (the current case in Victoria, Australia)? One very real example of this is the extra cleaning imposed everywhere. Recent research now indicates that the danger of contracting Covid from surfaces (fomites) is very low and the virus likely stays active for only a few hours — not the 72 hours that early studies showed which used unrealistically high levels of viral load. Think about all the harm from extra plastic cleaning products and the chemicals inside them?
As positive case numbers start to rise, mostly asymptomatic and generally based on wider testing, what is to stop further unnecessary and harmful action? We can already see the press grab hold of these headlines (fear, fear fear) further propelling an uneducated populous to ask for things it knows nothing about. See the picture below from the BBC, as I write this, and note the language “case jump” “worst death toll”. The reality is 13 deaths. Naturally terrible in their own right but statistically not that excessive. Furthermore there are no more cases generally in Australia than Germany or the UK right now…the fact is Australia are testing much more. Yes there are more cases and it should be watched but the rate of those testing positive in Victoria is at 0.6% and this isn’t the same threat we faced in early March when tests were only conducted on very ill patients (refer to asymptomatic point).
Shouldn’t the government be guided by symptoms, hospital admissions, deaths etc…after all that is what the media were so focused on at the beginning but now these have fallen the focus is on rising positive cases even if this wont necessarily translate into risks to the healthcare system.
Perhaps one point I haven’t addressed is what about the vulnerable? What if mask wearing allows them to gain the confidence to emerge from their homes and have a more normal life? Well firstly there is an issue with who is truly vulnerable — it certainly isn't the millions earmarked by the NHS. Not to say these people aren’t higher risk but rather that the understanding of relative risk is terrible. For instance as an under 40 asthma sufferer you have probably seen that your risk of death is 10x a normal person. This sounds terrible of course but because of the tiny numbers it really is still irrelevant. You probably are more at risk from a 4 hour car journey statistically, than dying of Covid this year. For those genuinely “at risk” they are probably used to managing their lives appropriately. Not to belittle this point but in reality there is always a balance between pragmatism and making the world a better place for all.
Finally, as it is chiefly the very elderly at risk, I do wonder about the rationale for doing everything in our power to extend the lives of say, an 88 year old for another few months. I don’t mean this in an unsympathetic and callous though and would like to hear more from the older community, but rather from a sympathetic standpoint — ie in the final months/years of one’s life do you really want not to be able to see, let alone hug, your grandchildren and be constantly treated by everyone PP&E’d up to the nines just to prevent what is inevitable? It is well known that loneliness and unhappiness at that age has a crippling and devastating effect. Of course everyone would want to extend their lives as long as possible if happy and healthy but this current status quo is anything like happy…A friend has told me the following anecdote:
“A good friend’s father, living alone, was so fearful of the impact of COVID that he has spent the last three months on his own, communicating with his friends and family by Zoom. Fishing is his life, and this would have been a great summer. He died last week, just a few days after the symptoms of bowl cancer had forced him out of his home to seek medical attention. He spent his last months alone, and afraid… and not fishing. Fish don’t carry COVID.”
If this has proven persuasive and perhaps like me you can see the distress in mandatory mask wearing then feel free to download an exempt card from the government website. I can attest that you will feel like an outcast, which is another and very sad byproduct of this law, just as we were starting to feel like things were returning to normal division is once again created. There is an easier way and less standout way to contribute, which is to sign this government petition calling for a repeal of the law…