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Why masks? I think the answer to that is fairly simple, and fairly obvious as well.
I have just finished — much to my dismay — reading the 20th and final (not including the unfinished 21st) book in Patrick O’Brian’s amazing Aubrey/Maturin “Master and Commander” series. In a recent book, Steven Maturin discusses an old sailor who he is treating. He knows exactly what the problem is, and he treats it as best he can. But he notes that the sailor is absolutely convinced that the problem stems from the consumption of meat and alcohol. Therefore, the sailor self-prescribes total abstinence from these two things. Maturin comments that sailors are stubborn, especially with respect to their own health, and that the abstinence does no great harm, so he goes on treating the sailor as he would, and he doesn’t argue with him about the diagnosis. Later in the book, the sailor dies, as Steven knew he would.
This is partly why everyone is wearing masks. People are stubborn when it comes to things that are unknown and over which we have no power. Irreligious people are especially stubborn in this respect, and we live in a particularly irreligious time and place.
At the beginning of this pandemic, our politicians acted. Of course, they acted. They couldn’t just stand there. They acted on the best information they had, which was terrible, and they acted in the only way they could, which was clumsy, overbroad, and devastating. The more we know, the more we are learning that it is quite possible that these actions, for all their costs, were certainly ill-advised (on balance), and even without their costs, may have been almost entirely ineffective for their stated purpose.
But a terrified public went along. They were told that death waits around every corner and that the only way to beat it is to hide in their homes. They hid in their homes, obsessively refreshing their Twitter and Facebook feeds, eyes glued to the television. And deaths piled up in spite of the fact that they were all obediently cowering in their homes.
There is no way out of that.
The truth would be to say that, well, we were wrong. That is a phrase that appears in no government handbook ever printed, and in no media guide ever consulted. We were wrong. As far as we can tell, the outcomes resulting from this virus were inevitable and unavoidable — we may have mitigated them somewhat (especially by keeping people out of hospitals), and, then again, we may also have simply traded one harm for another. We’ll never know the outcome of that impossible balance between “lives saved” as a result of our actions, and “lives lost” as a result of our actions.
But there is still no way out. My local hospital lied to the public when it said that we would be overrun with COVID-19 deaths by April 8, and would be turning people away to die in their homes or in the streets. This was a noble lie because a terrified citizenry is most likely to be complacent. It wasn’t just my hospital, it was nationwide. Instant death lurks around every corner. Anyone could have it and is likely contagious. Even you. You probably have it and you don’t even know that you have it. Not only is instant death lurking around every corner, but instant death emanates from your very being.
Turns out we were wrong. This is a virus, and it is worse than some other viruses that we are used to, and it is not as bad as some other pandemics that we have experienced. It is dangerous for some, and we really do now have a pretty decent grasp on who those people are. It is either widespread and not very deadly, or it is not very widespread and pretty deadly … or, it is becoming more and more widespread, and less and less deadly. But it cannot be all of these things. Death is not lurking around every corner, and it is extremely unlikely that you have it, and even less likely that you will give it to someone else. It is even less likely that you will get it when you pass by your neighbor on the street or in a store, or when you eat at a restaurant or play in a park or go to the beach or earn money at your job or barbeque with your friends or watch your kids play baseball. It is less dangerous for children than most dangers they face on a daily basis (even at home!) and there is virtually no evidence that it spreads from children to adults, or even from children to one another.
There is still much that we don’t know. But what we do know is that we were wrong. Our CDC guidelines were wrong and continue to be wrong. Our models were unbelievably wrong, and they are only getting worse. Our politicians were wrong. Our Twitter and Facebook feeds were wrong.
And that’s why we need masks. We are not willing to admit that we were wrong. We are not prepared to accept that we were powerless and that we continue to be powerless. We are not about to crawl out from under the house simply because somebody tells us that we were mistaken to crawl down there to begin with. We cannot just stand there, knowing how little we know – we must do something! We must exercise control, and if we don’t have control, we must exercise what little control we can muster, even if it is only control over our own behavior.
The rationale for that behavior is itself filled with contradictions. If the virus is so contagious that masks will help prevent its spread, then we are too late to start wearing masks, and if it truly is that contagious, then “running its course” is the best and only thing we should be doing. If it is not so contagious that masks will help prevent its spread, then we are wearing the masks just for fun. Same thing is true if asymptomatic aerosolized spread is not a meaningfully important mode of transmission, even if such a thing is scientifically possible in some circumstances.
Even the best case for masks seems to be a pretty silly one. There is a small percentage of people infected; there is a smaller percentage asymptomatic; there is a smaller percentage asymptomatic and contagious; and there is a possibility that the subgroup within that subgroup may possibly sneeze, which is about the only thing cloth masks are designed to mitigate, and even then, they mitigate only slightly, so that at the end of the day, what masks accomplish is the slight reduction of contagion that could possibly come from the small percentage of asymptomatic contagious within the small percentage of asymptomatic within the small percentage of infected. But to be absolutely safe, we need to make laws that cover everyone. No, it’s not just like using a chain-link fence to catch mosquitoes, it’s like using TNT to catch a minnow when the minnow really wasn’t your problem to begin with. But, we’re not really concerned with the minnow. We are concerned with human nature.
Masks are the placebo that allows us to feel like we are still in control of a situation where all of the evidence tells us that we have never been in control. If you are the CDC or a politician and saying “sorry, I was wrong” is simply out of the question, it is essential that you have a plan (for, as we know, all smart people have plans, so if you want to be smart, you must first have a plan). If there is one thing a patient most dreads — and which most patients simply will not accept — it is to walk away from the doctor empty-handed, without a plan. Virtually all doctors know and understand this. Doctors in the 18th century understood this very well, especially where sailors were concerned.
I have heard and read interviews with doctors … fear is debilitating. It is not all of these doctors who have stoked and built and endlessly perpetuated that fear. But they do understand that fear is debilitating, and they have not lost the wisdom of Steven Maturin.
Should I wear a mask?
Sure, why not. If it will make you feel better.Published in