• Jim Kelly

Protect others. Burn your mask.



My mask protects you. Your mask protects me.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, April 2, 2020

San Francisco Director of Health Dr. Grant Colfax, April 17, 2020

Alberta Health Services, April 25, 2020

Minnesota Department of Health, July 23, 2020

City of Tampa, July 23, 2020

Senator Michael Bennet, July 30, 2020

...and many more


Once upon a time there was a vision of a technocracy government--an assemblage of experts better informed than the rest of us, and of a moral character to make better decisions than the rest of us. Instead we have government by slogan, which promotes policies that are catchy, whether or not they're wise or even coherent.


Here in San Karencisco, citizens eagerly lapped this slogan up and are still going around scolding the unmasked.


But we've learned a lot in the past year. Covid turns out to be not just a virus but a whole governmental and economic regime. The devastation the covid response is still wreaking on people's lives will be felt for generations to come, long past the effects of the disease itself.


So we're long overdue to shout down the Karens and point out the reality is just the opposite: continuing to go along with mask mandates is not only hurting you, it's neglecting your responsibility to your neighbors as well. Unmasking is not just the compassionate thing to do, it's an urgent civic duty.


What "the science" says


Medical researchers are still debating to what extent and under what conditions masks actually prevent covid transmission. Some run excel spreadsheet models and conclude masks matter a lot, some identify situations where masks can worsen health, others look at the macro correlation between mask usage and covid spread and find no benefit.


Perhaps a consensus will emerge some day, but the nature of the question doesn't permit very decisive answers. Whether a airborne virus gets passed on in any particular case depends on a million factors that studies can only average away. Perhaps researchers will conclude that the average person wearing the average mask in the average situation will be 0.2% less likely to pass on covid, or 0.81%, or 0.05% more likely to have some other complication. But no situation or person is average, so what does one do with that data?


If you're setting public policy, you strip it of nuance and turn it into slogans and one-size-fits-all edicts. In fact you already did so a year ago, long before the scientific jury reaches even a statistical verdict. You obviously did it for some other reason.


Who could pass up such a slogan?


As slogans go, your-mask-my-mask is a handsome one. It's easy to picture virus-laden droplets trapped in a mask. It evokes fear for your own health coupled with the chance to protect the vulnerable around you. It casts you as not just prudent with your own health, but in a small way a hero saving others. Not just a first responder, a proactive guardian who can prevent the 911 line from ringing in the first place. This slogan is MAGA for the left. No wonder it's been repeated so widely and has Karen swooning.


It just doesn't quite make sense, because we can't protect each other at the same time. If I don't have the virus, my mask doesn't protect you. If you don't have it either, my mask doesn't protect me. If we both have it, there's nothing to protect.


On the other hand if only one of us has the virus, and a mask will block it, it doesn't matter which of us wears it. If you've decided not to wear one, should I nevertheless wear one to save you from yourself? If I'm worried about catching the virus and two barriers stop it better than one, shouldn't I wear both? Or a single better mask? The slogan presupposes I'm wiser and more responsible for your health than you are. It prioritizes a vague civic responsibility over self responsibility, which is perhaps part of the appeal to progressive San Franciscans.


"Slow the spread"


Another excellent slogan. No three words could better capture the incompetence and decadence of the government's covid response. Let's presume that wearing a mask, staying home, wearing double masks, or staying in double homes, all reduce your chance of catching covid.


A wise covid strategy for an individual is nevertheless unwise for a population. Like standing up in a movie theater, hiding from the virus helps one person, but if everyone does it everyone ends up worse off.


Viruses don't disappear, but epidemics do when the population collectively builds up enough antibodies. As the population resistance rises, the odds of a virus finding a viable next host drops, its transmission rate falls below 1.0, and it goes the way of tuberculosis--a serious, once common but now rare disease. This is the "herd immunity" dynamic that the left somehow convinced themselves was a right wing conspiracy theory. But no one has proposed any other mechanism by which an epidemic might be overcome. So directors of health in blue counties spout slogans like "slow the spread" rather than advising the best path to build up the population's antibodies.


The good news is we're all antibody factories. We catch bugs and defeat them routinely. Usually within a week or so our immune systems have found a defense, are beating back the bug, and leave enough fortifications to prevent its return. Or the bug wins and kills us, which covid tends to do when its victim is old and has complicating illnesses.


A vaccine works by triggering the same immune response more safely, without the toxic effects of the bug. It's an alternate tactic to reach the same herd immunity.


Most of the population could have developed resistance to covid a year ago without a vaccine and with little risk. We even knew who those people were a year ago.


The bad new is the young and healthy were prevented from doing that work, just as surely as airline pilots and chefs and personal trainers were prevented from theirs, because the government "slowed the spread" indescriminately. If your immune system never meets the bug, it can't develop antibodies, you can't add to the population's resistance. It made sense for Grandma to isolate, but if you're not in a risk group, every day you've spent inside has delayed when it's safe for her to go outside.


"Slow the spread" therefore never made sense as a public health strategy. Slow it...until what? Last spring the excuse was to prevent ICU overwhelm, but if that had been sincere authorities would have opened back up as cases ebbed during the summer, to make full use of available beds. Instead they stopped talking about ICUs and kept everyone locked up until Christmas, when ICUs traditionally see a surge, and then discovered another crisis. Patients, we were warned, would be left to expire in the streets unless we all spent the holidays cowering at home. How was ICU capacity managed during the summer? What steps did authorities take to increase capacity in preparation for the winter? No answers were given, because public didn't demand any.


We now have a vaccine, yet mask mandates haven't budged. If you still imagine masks were imposed based on some medical calculus, surely that calculus has now shifted, right? Why haven't the mandates?


"Kick me"


How would the mask vigilantes today answer any of the questions above? I doubt they could. Instead they'd argue better safe than sorry. If masks reduce covid transmission percentages even a little, then maybe someone who would otherwise have caught it doesn't, and maybe covid eventually goes away through some independent process, and we save a life.


Let's grant all that vague hopefulness. Here's why we need to push back anyway: masks have horrible side effects. Not medical ones--though for some people they might. The side effect is political.


In the past year we've lived through a political power grab the western world hasn't seen since the 1930s. Politicians who took oaths to uphold our constitutional rights simply trashed them. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy claimed Americans' rights were "above my pay grade." Millions of citizens were put under house arrest, despite having committed no crime. Businesses were closed and livelihoods destroyed.


When lawsuits were brought, judges hid under their benches, just as they did with Japanese internment cases in 1942. Income inequality spiked. Washington, supposedly to "help," has discovered a new socialist frenzy, announcing a new trillion dollar spending package every month. Each trillion represents 20M people's annual earnings siphoned from somewhere in the economy, probably hitting the middle class, and probably somewhat sneakily. People who moaned about "austerity" in the wake of the GFC have no idea what was hatched in 2020; Millennials and Gen Z will be piecing together their household financial wreckage for 30 years. And the damage is still being done, because covid restrictions are still going strong.


Why? It depends when you ask. Originally the stated goal was to manage hospital capacity, then to "flatten the curve," then to "slow the spread," and now...why even inquire? I would expect any answer from Mayor Breed or Governor Newsom to be a smiling platitude, a flat-out lie, a goalpost to be quietly moved as the political wind blows upon their finger.


Why do politicians continue policies that prevent citizens from resuming their jobs, seeing their families, going to school, and making a living? Because too many people are putting up with it, or even thanking them for it. And they're saying so by obediently going around with diapers on their faces. Lockdowns win them political favor, so they keep on coming. With the courts still not standing in their way, if they're going to change course at all, citizens have to send them a strongly different message.


Karen, God bless her, wants you to wear a mask because of negative externalities. You might have covid, you see, so you put other people at risk.


Karen's heart is in the right place, she just needs to clean her spectacles. Covid risks are among the least of the hazards her neighbors are facing. By keeping that mask on her face, she's telling politicians she's happy to keep doing whatever they say, for as long as they say it. She supports keeping her neighbors out of work, preventing people seeing friends and family, keeping kids out of school, shouting through plexiglass at the people at the deli counter. She thinks it's the right thing to do. And she wants no less for you.


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