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Why Forcing People to Wear Face Masks is an Incredibly Stupid Idea

July 16, 2020 44 comments

As readers know, I often take positions that are contrarian and unpopular but eventually turn out to be right. Consider this article to be another one in that line. You might have heard or read that many politicians in this country and a few others are trying to force people to wear face masks in public for the alleged purpose of reducing or eliminating COVID-19 transmission. My thoughts on this turn of events is best summarized in the title of post, and ya.. I think it is an incredibly stupid idea. The longer version is however more nuanced than the title might suggest, and people who want to comment should first read the entire post completely. You will see there are a number of converging reasons, many of them not obvious, for my contrarian position.

So let us begin by talking about the three categories of face masks and what they are, and aren’t, capable of. The type of ersatz facemasks you see on people all over the country are.. well.. not good at preventing infection by respiratory pathogens. There.. I said it! Masks made of normal fabric (natural or synthetic) are too porous to stop anything smaller than clumps of bacteria or viruses in droplets of saliva or mucus. The only thing they are somewhat good at is reducing the amount of aerosols generated by a person suffering from a viral or bacterial infection. In other words, they have some efficacy at preventing an already infected people from spreading it, but are close to useless for preventing it in an uninfected person.

The second category include the so-called medical/surgical masks worn by medical professionals under certain situations. While somewhat better than ersatz masks, they are also most efficacious at stopping the wearer from infecting others which is very important when performing a surgical procedure or interacting with very sick or immuno-compromised patients. Do they have some efficacy in preventing the wearer from catching a respiratory infection? Perhaps.. if they are interacting with many people within a short time. However their effects on prevention infection of wearer appear to be mostly related to reducing the inoculum of the infectious agent- which is a fancy way of saying that getting infected with a smaller dose of the bug in question will cause a much milder disease than with a large dose. Moving on the the third category..

Masks that are rated N95 or N100, in contrast to the previous two categories are capable of preventing infection of wearer by a number of respiratory pathogens. This is possible because the masks form a tight seal around the nose and mouth while running all exhalations and inhalations through filters capable of retaining particles down to 0.2 micrometer or 1/5,000th of 1 mm. To make a long story short, only masks in the third category are actually capable of preventing the wearer from getting infected. The other two reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of already infected people from transmitting their infection. As you will soon see, this distinction matters far more than most people realize and is very relevant to this discussion.

Now let us talk about who benefits, and who doesn’t, from using all three mask categories. But before we go there, let us quickly revisit something I had mentioned in previous posts- namely, that mortality in people under 50 is less than 1 in 1,000 and hospitalization (not ICU) rates are less than 1%. It also happens to be the case that most people who get infected by COVID-19 are from this age-group. To put it bluntly, only people with chronic disease conditions and serious obesity in the under-50 age group benefit from using masks, specifically N95s as N100s are too bulky. Masks from other two categories give very little protection against infection, with surgical grade ones being marginally better than the ersatz ones.

One could certainly make the argument that providing surgical grade masks to people in certain occupations such as store clerks and cashiers, USPS and other delivery-people, airline stewards, people working in crowded environments and those working with older people would be helpful in reducing spread of infection to vulnerable populations. Other than that, the benefit of otherwise health people under 50 using ersatz or surgical-grade face masks is minuscule. But what about people between 50 and 70. Well.. once again, the risk of death for those between 50-60 is less than 1 in 500 and about 1 in 300 for those between 60-70. For such people, wearing surgical-grade masks could potentially reduce the size of inoculum would potentially reduce mortality. However their maximal effectiveness would still be restricted to crowded environments, rather than.. say.. walking your dog or getting a coffee from Starbucks..

The high risk groups aka people with multiple chronic diseases or in their 80s and beyond, are the only category who would benefit from using N95 type masks in most social situations. Note that these people will benefit very little from wearing ersatz or surgical-type masks. I say.. we should just give them a free supply of such masks and hand sanitizer until the COVID-19 epidemic is over. It would also be a good idea to provide such masks to people who take care of them, in institutions or otherwise. And this brings me to why so many politicians are pushing these stupid mask laws. It is.. you see.. about giving the appearance of action aka public theater. Demanding people wear masks outdoors is the 2020 version of TSA employees searching and scanning grandmothers and children for bombs and weapons after 9/11.

Which brings us to the next set of issues concerning mask laws. Who pays for masks, especially since a lot of people in this country are struggling to feed their families after losing their income due to the COVID-19 shutdown. More importantly, how do you enforce such laws? Haven’t we seen enough of how laws are disproportionately enforced against minorities and poor people? Do we want to see more video clips of black people being shot and strangled by cops for not wearing masks? Given the abysmally low trust of people in institutions and credentialed “experts”, why do you think people will obey such laws- especially since these same “experts” were claiming marks to be useless as late as early May of this year.

But wait.. it gets worse. Did you notice how voters behaved in 2016 when they were lectured by the so-called “elites” that Trump was not fit to be president. That is right.. they voted him in office. The same occurred with Brexit and the rise of many right-wing parties in western Europe due to public backlash against the refugee flood of 2014-2015. Most people hate busybodies, especially of the self-righteous variety, doubly so if there are members of the so-called “elite”. That dynamic combined with degree of political polarization in this country is going to cause some pretty ugly reactions and.. well.. situations. This is especially relevant since the same busybodies pushing for forced masks are the same ones who want to keep schools and universities closed indefinitely + cause millions of small businesses to go bankrupt.

And there is the other big question.. what happens if COVID-19 does not disappear in spite of forced mask laws and shutdowns? The so-called “elites” have tried to sell these measures as a guaranteed pathway to eliminate the disease, but have they even considered how most people will react if the promised end to new infections does not occur, in spite of these measures. Who are they going to blame? More importantly, will the already desperate and impoverished public care about their latest round of excuses? Sustained real unemployment rates about 20% seldom lead to a nice and orderly outcome, to put it mildly.

Finally, there is the issue of symbolism. Will retail and service sector business (employing numerical majority of population) go back to normal if everyone is wearing face masks a few months from now? Aren’t they a very visible reminder that things are not normal? Do you think that shops and malls are going to previous levels of commercial activity? What about restaurants and bars? Let me remind you that hotels, restaurants and bars + allied business in NYC or SF employ more people than the largest financial institutions in NYC or the biggest silly-valley corporation in the Bay area.

What about other small businesses or even larger business that depend on smaller ones? Do you have any idea about the magnitude of social disruption such a situation will cause? Do you have any clue about the amount of permanent job losses this will cause? Have you done some basic math about how this will crater tax revenue in cities and states all over this country? Well.. you should, because a situation where 1/3rd of people cannot make their rent or mortgage payment for month of July is far more scary than the consequences of people not wearing some stupid ersatz face mask of dubious efficacy.

What do you think? Comments?