Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 11

When the pandemic first struck, the world was overcome by a mantra of "stay home." At first, this was a sort of communal and positive message, but soon it morphed into a terrible kind of moralizing. Old ladies would call the police on kids playing ball in the schoolyard. People turned on each other.

Eventually, the case rates started to decline, and the country started to "open up" again. That was short-lived. Now we're confronting another round of closures. The difference this time is that there is no longer a "stay home" mantra. Now the mantra is "wear a mask."

Intelligent people should be able to understand that the pandemic wasn't just going to go away because people "stayed home," but if it wasn't clear at the outset of all of this, it should at least be clear in hindsight. Now, however, we're in round two. We already know to be an empirical fact that we can't fight a pandemic with platitudes like "stay home." Fighting it with "wear a mask" will be no different.

Unfortunately, as the pandemic wears on, people become progressively more moralistic. "Wear a mask" started out as ugly as "stay home" ended; what it grew into was a tortuous act of moral grandstanding. It got so bad that I had to take a break from social media and just play with my kids for a month. Now I'm back, and I can confirm that it's even worse.

To be clear, both "stay home" and "wear a mask" are useful pieces of advice to the extent that they work to reduce viral load. What we must keep in mind at all times is that the goal here is to reduce viral load. Wearing a mask isn't a failsafe, nor is it the single act of all acting that will result in a better outcome. Wearing a mask is just one personal hygiene practice among a whole set of skills that we all ought to practice in order to reduce viral load.

When you see someone wearing a mask, you still have no idea whether that person washes his hands after using the restroom or blowing his nose; you still have no idea whether that person practices social distancing; you don't know if he just spent last night in a crowded bar or at a big political rally. You basically know nothing about that person's life, experiences, or hygiene practices. If you were to suddenly conclude that this person is on "your side," the side of "SCIENCE," the side of good and right-thinking liberal people who want the pandemic to end as soon as the research will allow, you'd be making a big mistake.

Likewise, if you see someone without a mask, you know equally little about the other 23 hours and 59 minutes of his day. Don't jump to conclusions.

This kind of knee-jerking is, sadly, what I've come to expect from my American community, as is the moral grandstanding. I've simply grown tired of it, exhausted by the perpetual moral outrage expressed twenty-four hours per day. (Or Tweeted, ugh.)

What I've also, sadly, come to expect from my fellow Americans is a lack of true efficacy. That is, those who wear masks likely don't change them and wash them often enough. They probably don't wash their hands often enough, or thoroughly enough. (At the beginning of the pandemic, there were memes about washing your hands for a full twenty seconds. I wonder who still does that anymore? It's only been a few months.) They don't engage in time-tested hygiene habits like using a bidet, sterilizing their kitchen countertops and bathroom surfaces. They don't wipe down the interior surfaces of their cars.

All that is to say, people talk quite a big game about wearing masks, but when push comes to shove, no one is willing to do what truly needs to be done to reduce viral load. People are still as filthy as they ever were. I had gotten used to how dirty people are; now I have to get used to their being both dirty and sanctimonious about masks.

I sure hope someone develops an effective vaccine for this.


  1. The primary enabler of the sanctimony is the shortage of effective masks. If N95 masks were available, people could wear them or not in their own self-interest. Instead, the incentives to wear ad hoc masks and maintain social distance are based on altruism, edicts and shaming.

    Most of the questionably effective measures we are taking would be obviated if effective masks were available. Also the economy could return to normal. So I'm puzzled about why I don't see huge prizes for manufacturing N95 masks. Where are the colorful graphs showing how close we are to the goal of ubiquitous N95s?

    1. That's a really interesting point, Mitch, and one that I hadn't considered. I'm not certain that masks would stop COVID-19 on an epidemiological level, but I think you're right to say that greater prevalence of N95s would reduce sanctimony.

    2. I understand your skepticism about the effectiveness of any kind of masks, but you have to ask the question "compared to what?". Clearly we want to maximize compliance to address the epidemiology. I am certain that it would be a much easier case to make to people that they should wear masks to protect themselves than to protect others. As a consequence, more people would wear masks.

      There are other reasons to focus on mask supply. Unlike a vaccine which may be available sometime between a year and never, masks for all is an attainable goal which we know how to do. Charting the progress toward this milestone would give people hope.

      Once masks are available so much of the effort, coercion and sanctimony just goes away. They could be replaced by public service announcements advising people to wear masks to protect themselves.

      With N95 masks available, most of everyday life could return almost to normal. I can't understand why this isn't in the news every day.

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