The case against compulsory mask-wearing.
I tend to nod along in agreement to so much of what David Flint writes on The Reprobate that by the end of his pieces my head is in danger of becoming dislodged from my shoulders. So I was surprised and disappointed to read his recent pro-masks tirade on this platform, and the vehemence with which he put forward his argument. David has kindly allowed me a response, so here we go, let’s see if my alternative viewpoint finds any favour.
Firstly, most crucially I feel, do masks work? The evidence is, at best, patchy. There is evidence that a certain sort of surgically fitted, one-time use mask can be useful, but not the type of face coverings most people wear, and certainly not the way they use them or look after them. As Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, said a couple of months back, they probably do more harm than good. Around the same time, Chris Whitty said he did not recommend mask use. The World Health Organization said in March that it did not endorse mask use, although they have since flipped, as they have on many things (human to human transmission, which countries took the best approach etc), chiefly because of political pressure.
Recent real-world evidence does not point towards their usefulness. In South Africa, face coverings became mandatory on May 1. At that point, there were 5,951 infections in that country. As of now, there have been 408,502. In the UK, despite hardly anyone wearing a mask, we’ve seen the death rate plunge from (apparently) many thousands of deaths a week in March to single figures now. In France face coverings are required in shops, in next-door Switzerland they are not – Switzerland has had fewer deaths per million. Spain’s endorsement of masks has not stopped them having one of the highest death rates in Europe.
I think we can say that masks are not especially effective in stopping the virus. In fact, they may increase it, as people wearing them get too close to one another and also go out more even when they are unwell. I am very aware of the ‘better safe than sorry’ argument, but as the very wise lockdown sceptic Dr John Lee said on a recent podcast with Brendan O’Neill, we really have to define what ‘better’, ‘safe’ and ‘sorry’ precisely mean in every instance. The alternative which we perhaps hadn’t even thought of might be worse.
So once we’ve acknowledged that masks have patchy effectiveness we move on to whether we should still wear them as a sort of placebo. I’m not too keen on placebos – like homoeopathy and religion, they offer false consolation and can also do more harm than good. But I would question whether they even do offer any sort of consolation: I think scenes of masses of masked people suggests that all is very far from safe, all very far from being normal, not to mention the discomfort to the user from actually wearing the thing. At a time when we should be encouraging people back to the shops, this will likely do the opposite: who would want to spend three or four hours in a shopping centre, going from shop to shop, maybe getting a coffee or a bite to eat in between, if you can’t properly breathe?
Mask wearing on public transport has not encouraged people to use it more, why should it with shops?
There are also so many inconsistencies in this ruling: you wear one in a grocery shop, but not in an optician; you wear one in a clothes shop, but not in a cinema. Do you wear one in the barbers? I’m not even sure – how many people know for sure whether you can or can’t? Try and guess whether the six staff in the pharmacy I visited yesterday had masks on. (Answer: they didn’t.)
The cumulative effect of this is to confuse and crowd and worry the mind. A relaxed and happy life it does not make for. Speaking personally, I struggle to wear one for sustained periods because it gives me anxiety and makes me feel unwell. I had a serious issue with my lungs in 2001 and they have still not fully recovered, never will. Now I will not go into a shop with a mask and I will not go into a shop without a mask, even though I have a lanyard from Disability Horizons stating that I have a hidden condition. Either way is too stressful, either because of discomfort with the former and the feeling of being ‘shamed’ if the latter (I will probably have to make rare exceptions to pop to the corner shop, no doubt). All of this makes me feel ostracised from society, of feeling like an outsider, The Prisoner in The Village – and there will be many like me. Everyday life is already psychologically punishing enough now, with people leaping away as we walk past them on pavements, lists of twenty rules to abide by when we enter the pub, and people telling us where to go on a floor plan in a restaurant, without the further imposition of being made to cover our features when we are out. It feels like to me, and many others I’m sure, like the walls are closing in, and it’s horrible.
And have a thought for the shop workers who have to wear masks all day long. Not only does it create anxiety and breathing difficulties in some, they have the additional psychological hell of suspecting that their job may soon be terminated, which is quite likely considering the number of chains who are now slashing retail jobs. We are replacing viral illness with mental illness (and mental illness that will afflict vastly more people than Covid-19 has).
Besides all of the above, why now? The virus, which was never as bad as thought to be by some in the first place, is barely evident in large parts of the country. If masks were so important, why wait till four months after the pandemic began?
And also, how long will this go on? Will it ever end? Will masks be extended to even more places? Will we have to wear them in the street? Will children in schools, absurdly, soon be required to wear one? We are on a slippery slope; I wouldn’t put anything past this highly authoritarian government. In the public sphere, the meddlesome ratbags of the world have been given licence to tut us all into a hole of shame – this is a recipe for rancour, discord and disharmony.
Do we just mindlessly go along with whatever our masters tell us, the way 14th-century peasants went along with whatever nonsense the Church told them? For ‘behave yourselves or go to Hell’ you could almost substitute ‘wear masks or very bad stuff will happen to you’. It’s moral blackmail. Masks are very like the lockdown and the tardy travel quarantine – of no real use, but they show that the government is ‘doing something’; there are certainly people in power who have got addicted to ordering us around over the last four months.
So, wear a mask if you wish to, that is absolutely fine. But oh mighty leaders, please end the compulsion for all of us to do so as soon as possible.