Lionel Shriver

The strange theatre of mask-wearing

The strange theatre of mask-wearing
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However surreal and dystopian the pandemic landscape seemed at first, no enduring vista feels ‘surreal’ and ‘dystopian’ indefinitely. Citizenries uniformly obliterating their faces with ear-to-ear muzzles has come to seem par for the course. But I’m still amazed by how eagerly a certain segment has embraced masking in public, especially in the US. More perplexingly still, many of these people regard any release from mask mandates as an attempt to take something precious away from them. They recall a certain kind of belligerent animal that gets trapped in a cage, and when you open the door it glooms in a corner and refuses to leave.

Witness the response last week when America’s Centers for Disease Control announced that there’s no need for fully vaccinated individuals to wear masks, other than in a handful of circumstances (e.g. on planes and public transport, where frankly there’s no scientific justification for the vaccinated to mask up, either). Twitter exploded in outrage. How dare you allow us to go shopping without snot continuously drooling from our noses that we can’t even wipe away! We love running and cycling in a state of oxygen deprivation! Are you seriously proposing we go back to interacting with fellow human beings as if they’re anything other than repulsive bipedal pustules that weep disease?

I realise this risks the long arm of Big Tech reaching through my study window to clutch my throat, but: the case for masks making a better than negligible difference to the spread of Covid-19 has always been crap. From extremely weak data, even Sage quotes their prevention value at a miserable 6 to 15 per cent. Mask mandates were initially justified by fairytale computer modelling. But we now have hard evidence in the real world, where there’s been no clear correlation between masking and infection rates, hospitalisations or Covid deaths. In country after country and state after American state, graphs of all these metrics vividly demonstrate that the introduction of mask mandates has had no effect. After these laws are passed, those graph lines don’t ripple, notch or slump. The only slight correlation, which I’m willing to dismiss as a fluke? Masked populations have worse Covid results. A study of demographically comparable groups in super-compliant Denmark also found no significant difference in Covid metrics between those who were told to wear masks and those who weren’t. The whole masking theatre amounts to pointless, gesturing obeisance.

The inefficacy of masks seems counter-intuitive only if you still imagine erroneously that Covid is only spread by larger droplets. We now know it primarily spreads by aerosols — the fine, invisible spray of moisture that’s released not only when we talk or cough but every time we breathe. To demonstrate the level of protection your mask provides, take a drag from a friend’s e-cigarette, put on the mask and exhale. The vapour escapes from the sides and clouds around your head. There go your aerosols. The air you inhale derives from the gaps around the mask as well. Besides, the virus is so small that it can sail through the pores of a mask like a Mini careering through the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

Yet the case for going bare-faced is overwhelming for the inoculated. According to the CDC, vaccines are holding up robustly against variants, and full vaccination reduces transmission and infection to practically zero. You’re not dangerous to others, and they’re not dangerous to you.

Good news, you’d think. Yet disgruntled CNN presenters scowled even at the Covid high priest, Anthony Fauci. The network’s other guests grumbled that lifting mandates for the vaccinated was too soon, confusing and irresponsible. The New York Times quotes multiple Americans for whom the CDC announcement has only increased anxiety: ‘It’s just so normal now that I feel weird walking places without a mask.’ ‘I wasn’t ready; I have to learn to deal with this.’ One interviewee has been double-masking and wearing goggles for 14 months — a get-up that didn’t keep him from catching Covid in November. Yet he’s vowed to carry on with the gear for at least the next five years.

What explains this perverse attachment to self-smothering? In the US, masks are a badge of tribal allegiance — Biden/Harris T-shirts that you tie around your face. They confer virtue and dedication to communitarian suffering. They create the illusion of control (‘I can’t get sick! I’m wearing a MASK!’). They provide the happy opportunity to denounce the recalcitrant and to force the begrudging to do something they dislike. Having socially withdrawn during this period of isolation, some mask-lovers don’t want a return to face-to-face encounters, which have come to seem frightening. These hermit crabs treasure not being seen. They’re used to hiding, and they want to keep hiding.

Ubiquitous masking also perpetuates the atmosphere of emergency to which some people have grown addicted. ‘Look, we live in a special, perilous time, and we obey strict protocols with heightened moral urgency.’ The prospect of relinquishing this exhilarating sense of the exceptional could seem deflating.

It’s a cliché now that masks have become a religious symbol. The very poverty of the scientific evidence for their efficacy may help explain the fervidness of their adoption. Masking is not a matter of knowledge but faith — or superstition. One masks to ward off evil. Post-pandemic, a goodly number of folks will still cling to their polypropylene nosebags like rabbits’ feet.

But masking while fully vaccinated entails a baffling contradiction, one that the British government has sometimes seemed to echo. We’re simultaneously to believe: 1) everyone must get vaccinated; 2) vaccines don’t work. Wrap your head round that. Because if your vaccination overwhelmingly prevents both transmission and disease (meaning it works), even unvaccinated people present no danger to you. So you don’t socially distance. You go to restaurants. You see your friends. And you don’t wear a mask. Yet, bizarrely, in surveys vaccinated Americans express far less willingness than the unvaccinated to resume once-normal activities like hopping on a bus, often by a factor of two. Calling that ‘cognitive dissonance’ may be too generous. Let’s go for ‘state-induced mass hysteria’ instead.