To mask or not to mask? Cloth masks, I mean. The nature of the debate suggests a larger problem.
Some people’s views of cloth masks are reasoned and nuanced, but extreme responses on both sides are frequent. Even dwelling on the question may seem extreme, when … but you don’t need me to list the world’s or a nation’s troubles. Do we really have time and mental energy to spare for a sustained quarrel over cloth masks?
Beyond health considerations, the cloth mask has come to symbolize for me the death of nuance in our thought and discourse. We’ve lost our taste for complexity, for seeing more than one side of a question, for reserving judgment and forming a balanced view. From our family dinner tables to our national politics, we reject depth and perspective, and weaponize the shallowest version of everything against our political enemies … er, opponents.
We’ve downed those trendy cocktails of fear and anger until we may be too drunk to self-govern. Perhaps we’re drunk on trivia too, in Mark Steyn’s phrase. The almost-ubiquitous cloth mask is a tangible talisman of our inflamed, intemperate time.
I’ll try to explain. And before this two-parter is done, I’ll discuss some remedies — or at least muse on some things we could do that might help. (I don’t want to oversell.)
Some say “real Americans” shouldn’t wear cloth masks at all, because the government said we should and because they (the masks or the government) don’t work. Or because the government said we shouldn’t before it said we should. Or because my church said we should or shouldn’t. Or because President Trump (praise or a pox be upon him) didn’t wear one, then did.
Others say not wearing a mask is reckless. If you don’t mask up, some even suggest you’re a sociopath and don’t care who dies. If you haven’t strangled Grandma with your bare hands, you still might, as we instantly know when we see you without a mask.
News stories report unmasked (or improperly masked) customers in stores being beaten by other customers. Likewise passengers on airplanes. Employees are beaten or killed for insisting customers wear masks, even where it’s the law.
You can buy masks which proclaim in bold type that you wear them by force, not in fear. You can buy masks which say, “We’re all in this together,” which is a nice thought, if you can still think it.
We’ve lost our patience, our will and capacity to process complexity, and our sensible awareness that most of reality is more nuanced than a binary choice between the purest good and the purest evil.
Maybe cloth masks are a small thing. But when our default response even to the small stuff becomes polarized and extreme, we may infer there are deadlier toxins in the land than COVID-19.
Not Quite the Right Words
We’ll see here that nuance is not the right word, though I’m using it. It tends in the right direction, but it’s too small for a time when we’ve lost interest in probing complexity or subjecting the latest inflammatory headline to patience and reason.
Nuance is tricky in another way. I’m writing of it as a good thing, but it has negative connotations too. It’s a favorite excuse of the effete and bureaucratic, in their condescending non-explanations of bad policy’s failure to achieve good ends, and their resistance to explanations they don’t like. You know the chorus: Whatever you think is happening, it’s more nuanced than that — as in, you don’t understand, but we do, because we’re a lot smarter than you. Think of John Kerry over the years — or the Big Media Acronyms just last week, on whether the explosion of violence in American cities has anything to do with Democratic state and city leaders not wanting to stop it, reducing and handcuffing their police forces, and excusing or even encouraging the mayhem.
I’m not saying we should all be like them. I’m saying that even we deplorables, we lesser mortals in flyover country, have to do nuance. And we can. But our motives are understanding and sensible behavior and governance, not evasion or excuse.
When I say “we” have lost our interest in nuance, complexity, civility, etc., we is probably the wrong word too. It probably doesn’t include you, or you wouldn’t have read this far. I don’t think it includes me, though the fear and anger tug at me too. (Not so much the hatred.)
But we does seem to include many participants in our public political discourse — and what isn’t political, these days?
I think — I hope — a lot of other people discuss things too, quietly and cautiously, to avoid fanning the flames at home and in the public square, and are willing to act appropriately. Maybe we doesn’t include most of them either.
Do Cloth Masks Work or Not?
Depending on which study you read, and depending on the fabric, cloth masks are — to use very round numbers — between 20 and 85 percent effective at keeping the wearer from spreading COVID-19. They are less — but somewhat — effective at keeping the wearer from getting COVID-19. (Here are a report of recent research in India and a British study. There are others.)
For a land beyond nuance, good-but-imperfect isn’t good enough. It’s not good at all. In our deranged 24/7 news cycle the headline is: “Cloth Masks Ineffective Against COVID-19.” When you’ve sold your soul for web clicks, nuance is neither welcome nor permitted; masks are either perfect or they’re bad.
The unwelcome subtleties here also include the following.
COVID-19 is not smallpox or Ebola. It’s less communicable and far less deadly than smallpox, and more communicable and less deadly than Ebola.
If you’re at risk because of advanced age or major health problems, COVID-19 is a mortal threat. If you’re not, getting it may not be fun, but the odds are overwhelming that you won’t even need a hospital; in fact it’s likely your symptoms will be mild or absent.
Therefore, except for protecting high-risk demographics, the realistic goal is not to stop the spread of COVID-19 altogether, but to slow it. Thus we avoid overwhelming our hospitals and their ICUs, which increases the mortality rate by an order of magnitude or more. And we buy time to discover useful treatments and preventive measures and perhaps to find a vaccine, if our hard-working and immensely capable scientists get lucky sooner than later.
Exponents: Small Changes Have Large Effects
The spread of a contagion is, mathematically, an exponential thing. If I have COVID-19 and spread it to two people, and they each spread it to two more, who spread it to two more (R0 = 2.0, as they say), by the tenth generation of this spread my infection has led to the infection of 1,023 people, or 2^10 – 1, including me.
If I spread it to 10 people, and they each spread it to ten people, and so on, (R0 = 10 — unrealistically high but easy to calculate), by the tenth generation the total is well over one billion infected. It’s not five times greater than my previous example because 2 x 5 = 10; it’s about a million times greater, because we’re dealing with exponents, and the tenth generation itself is 10^9, or 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 — one followed by nine zeros.
Obviously, other factors will modify these numbers in real life; for example, when a billion people have had it, there are far fewer unexposed people left to infect. But the point is that communicable disease spreads exponentially.
If a cloth mask is minimally effective — say it means that I spread COVID-19 to three people instead of four — by the tenth generation, maybe 10-20 weeks, my downline and I are responsible for nearly 30,000 infections (with masks) instead of nearly 350,000 (without masks).
These numbers are round and hypothetical, for simplicity, but even a small reduction in the base of the exponent — say, from 1.5 to 1.3 — dramatically reduces infections and, by extension, hospital and ICU patient loads. In other words, small improvements noticeably and helpfully flatten the curve.
See what I mean, when I say nuance is too small a word? This is too big to be nuance — but it somehow doesn’t get much attention in our public discussions.
Size Matters, but Which Size?
COVID-19 is a virus, not a bacteria, so it’s a lot smaller than a single cell — and far smaller than the tiny holes that let us breathe through a woven fabric. So you’ve probably seen memes on social media suggesting that trying to stop a virus with a cloth mask is like putting up a chain link fence to keep mosquitos out of your yard.
It’s a terrible simile, utterly without nuance, because we don’t need to stop those tiny RNA strands themselves. We need to minimize the spray they ride through the air. For this, cloth masks help.
If mosquitos rode baseballs through the air, a good chain link fence would be quite effective.
If fleas primarily ride through the neighborhood on dogs, you can keep most of them away by keeping the dogs out of your yard. A chain link fence works for that too.
Granted, we’re aware that COVID-19 can spread by other means than large droplets — the small (aerosol) droplets, surface contact, and more. But scientists have been telling us that it mostly spreads by the large particles. Some of them bravely said this back when it was unpopular — when people were pilloried in the public square for hinting at anything that might suggest hope.
Scientists also tell us that viral load matters, meaning we need to be exposed to a lot of those virus particles to get sick. So using a mask to reduce the number flying through air, combined with minimizing the length of time during which we’re subject to exposure (say, in a line at a store), and insuring good ventilation are an effective combination in slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Again, this seems too big for the word nuance, but it’s clearly too small, or too much work or not emotional enough, to dominate the chatter.
It Cuts Both Ways
By some folks’ shallow logic my arguments here in favor of cloth masks make me un-American, a dupe of tyrants if not their ally. To quote Tevye, “Sounds crazy, no?”
But it cuts both ways. If I were to list here all the downsides, medical and otherwise, of wearing masks, other folks’ shallow reasoning would tell them — and they might tell us, perhaps loudly — that I don’t care about anyone’s life but my own. I’m selfish if not sociopathic.
Life is too short to list the downsides of masks here, when you can find them easily elsewhere, and when I can make my point without them, but here’s one.
Imagine the difficulties the deaf and hearing-impaired have suffered in recent months. Many of them rely much more heavily than most of us on reading lips, especially if there’s any background noise — say, on a factory floor. It makes sense to take off our masks for them.
In a sane, nuanced world, we each would weigh the pros and cons of masking in a given setting, make our best decision, and allow others some leeway if their calculus is different, because of conditions we may not know or simply because they weigh the factors differently.
In the United States in AD 2020, that’s too subtle for us, too nuanced. My decision to mask or not reveals whether I prefer to kill your vulnerable loved ones or to abolish your freedom.
Beyond Masks (and Nuance)
In my head — perhaps yours too — is a substantial list of topics and issues from which we’ve banished nuance — where we show the same distaste for complexity and resist the idea that there are multiple sides to an issue. Much of my list reaches beyond COVID-19, touching policing, racism, voting by mail, cancel culture, presidential politics, and more.
Here are the top items related to COVID-19:
- Hydroxychloraquine in the treatment and prevention of COVID-19.
- A possible COVID-19 vaccine, which we’re told may be approved if it’s only 50% effective.
- COVID-19-induced deaths vs. lockdown-induced deaths (and widespread intolerance of the discussion).
- The 6 percent of deaths (according to the CDC) where COVID-19 was the only cause, versus the 94 percent of deaths where at least one additional cause was listed.
- Whether, when, and how to reopen schools.
Here’s one illustration related to schools.
Someone in the medical profession may say — did say — in the most unnuanced terms, “It’s an absolute disconnect between our perceived reality and our actual reality. To look at the COVID case count and the surge in cases and … to think we can have some national strategy for reopening schools when we don’t even have one for reopening the country, it’s just crazy.”
There are other problems with this statement, but note this attitude: My view is reality. If you disagree, your view is “an absolute disconnect” from reality.
It’s only one small step from this view to thinking you should be silenced if you disagree, and another small step to thinking you should be destroyed, at least professionally.
But what if I’m not Dr. Craig Spencer, “who directs global health in emergency medicine at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center” (whatever that means)?
What if I’m a child psychologist focused on the educational, social, and psychological implications of locking young children out of school for long periods and trying to teach them remotely?
What if I’m a teacher trying to teach my students online, using software and hardware that doesn’t work together smoothly yet, and trying to reach not only the students who will show up for an online class, but also the ones who can’t connect or don’t want to, or whose parents don’t care if they do? The teachers I know go the extra mile in normal times; we’re pushing some of them far beyond reasonable limits now.
What if I worry about the alienation humans experience when interacting with other humans whose faces are covered — and the long-term effects of such alienation on the human heart, mind, and spirit, to say nothing of society, culture, and politics?
What if I’m a single parent who needs to return to work, to avoid long-term dependency on the government (i.e. taxpayers) for my family’s basic needs?
When I lose my sense of nuance, I lose the ability and desire to see that my view is only one facet of reality, if it’s even accurately that. I don’t see or accept that your reality is another facet; I may call it an “absolute disconnect” from reality.
I hope that sounds like a problem to you.
Should We Wear Cloth Masks? Should the Law Require It?
A final thought for this part: I said nuance is often mustered dishonorably, to evade clarity, commitment, or responsibility. In the opposite spirit — and mostly in summary …
Where COVID-19 is present in a community — which right now is almost everywhere — I think almost everyone should wear a cloth mask in most circumstances around people who are not in one’s own household.
I think national, state, and local governments should encourage masks and explain — tirelessly, clearly, repetitively, and with nuance — the reasons why.
I think government mandates should be a last resort — especially in the United States of America, where, at least in theory, we expect people to think and learn, and to govern themselves accordingly.
I’m fine with businesses requiring masks — or not requiring them, if the particular conditions there pose minimal risk.
I’m fine with small children going unmasked, and anyone in the company of someone who reads lips (for example). We’re trying to slow the spread of COVID-19, not reduce it to zero at any cost.
But I generally wear a mask at work, unless I’m alone in my office. I wear a mask at church. I wear a mask at stores and restaurants. I don’t enjoy it, and I see the arguments for resisting — but wearing a mask makes sense to me, all things considered.
Thanks for reading!
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