X Close

The collective benefit of mask-wearing

Seattle policemen wearing protective gauze face masks during influenza epidemic of 1918. Credit: Getty

July 17, 2020 - 7:00am

Why make everyone wear masks — even people who are the least likely to spread the disease? (Read Paul Embery’s case against compulsion, here).

Well, when it comes to R, every little bit helps — but, more importantly, the general rule creates a social norm. This makes it much harder for those who are most likely to infect others — “super-spreaders” — not to wear a mask. In other words, collective action has an impact over-and-above the sum of the individual actions.

Mask wearing is far from the only example. I’m old enough to remember when, in 1983, seatbelt wearing became compulsory for drivers in the UK. There were those who bitterly resented the new law — and, later, the requirement for passengers to buckle-up too. But there’s no doubt that compulsion worked — and not just because people feared being caught. It was the creation of a social norm and reinforcement of habit that did the trick.

Ditto the rules against smoking in various indoor environments. In theory, non-smokers had the option to answer “yes” to the most insincere question in the English language — i.e. “do you mind if I smoke?” But, even when asked, they rarely did, because that would have been awkward.

Luckily the law came to the rescue. The ‘right’ of smokers to fill other people’s lungs with carcinogenic gases was curbed. It didn’t require police officers in every train carriage and pub to enforce the law — the shift in cultural dynamics did most of the job.

There was a time when territory was still contested. On public transport, I remember the diehard smokers who insisted on lighting-up — leading to confrontations with other passengers. The former were usually men, the latter usually women. These heroines would be dismissed as “Karens” today, but thank God for them — they won us the battle for clean air.

They did so because they were empowered by the rules. A simple, straightforward ordinance that left no room for doubt was just what was needed. The self-serving excuses — “I’ve almost finished it”, “I’ve got a window open”, “the smoking carriage was full” — were rendered null-and-void.

Our is an individualistic society. In many cases, leaving people free to exercise their personal judgement — and take responsibility for their actions — is a good thing. But, in others, it manifestly isn’t. For instance, some people are better drivers than others — but they still need to observe the same speed limits. A system of self-assessment would allow the worst people to make the stupidest decisions — to the detriment of all.

Sometimes, we just need to put our individuality aside. Indeed, those most capable of exercising their personal judgement have a special duty to set an example and stick to a shared standard. That too is taking responsibility.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

peterfranklin_

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

39 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ben Scott
Ben Scott
4 years ago

This argument would only have a chance of standing up if we only looked at one metric: COVID-19 cases. Unfortunately this is exactly what has been happening over the last 4 months and has led us to the pickle we’re in. The WHO and administrations across the world have focussed solely on COVID-19 and neglected just about every other facet of society, including all other ailments and illnesses.

A message of reassurance is what’s needed – and has been needed all along. Further normalisation of panic and fear will not help the economy, will not help society recover from this lockdown and will almost certainly create more problems in the longer term.

roger white
roger white
4 years ago

There can be no doubt in some situations collectively wearing PPE to prevent the spread of a communicable disease would be wise.
It depends on the risk.
Currently here in Devon there are zero cases of the virus each week. Zero deaths in the whole South West of England for a month.
Therefore the risk does not merit this action.

Andrew M
Andrew M
4 years ago
Reply to  roger white

Hmm. Devon eh? Holiday season just getting underway. Risk? Hmmm.

David Slade
David Slade
4 years ago

Interesting ideas, but there are a couple of points that elevate the refusal to wear masks above being simply an expression of libertarian ideals.

The first is the poor evidence base for this measure having any benefits for yourself (for whom it may well be detrimental to your health), or other people. As I understand it, masks are worn by doctors in medical settings where they are of a medical grade quality and disposed of after every use.

This has a negligible effect on the transmission of any particulate matter from the Doctor to the patient that may contain a pathogen of any kind. As doctors are around people in intimate (i.e. clinical) settings where those people are vulnerable due to illness, treatment, immune suppressant drugs etc, these negligible benefits scale up to significance – in a clinical setting.

This is very different from a person wearing a re-used or continually washed (and therefore structurally compromised) cloth around their face in a communal setting. There is virtually no variable from laboratory tests/hospital environments that holds for viral suppression in the community.

The second point (and, I actually think the most compelling) is that the mask wearing is psychologically damaging – it normalises a sense of ones environment and fellow man as toxic to them and it ‘others’ those who do not comply. If anyone accuses me of being selfish for not wearing a mask, I will tell them I am in fact being altruistic – I am contributing to a critical mass of people who will not comply and thus save humanity from itself. You’re welcome!

Jasper Fuller
Jasper Fuller
4 years ago
Reply to  David Slade

Actually there is plenty of good evidence that wearing a mask is beneficial e.g. https://www.washingtonexami

Jasper Fuller
Jasper Fuller
4 years ago
Reply to  David Slade

Here’s anther scientific study
https://aip.scitation.org/d
from the AIP Physics of fluids essentially they found
Stitched double-layered cotton mask: The emulated respiratory jet travelled 2.5 inches on average.
Store-bought cone-style mask: 8 inches
Folded cotton handkerchief (aka a no-sew mask): 1 foot, 3 inches
Bandana: 3 feet, 7 inches
No covering: 8 feet
I am afraid to claim mask wearing is psychologically damaging and as such is more important than potentially spreading disease is just nuts. Even Trump is now wearing a mask.

Simon
Simon
3 years ago
Reply to  Jasper Fuller

Interesting that the article you refer to makes it very clear that the majority of masks have serious leakage concerns and are therefore not so effective at reducing particle spread.
Even if all face coverings were 100% effective in preventing the spread of the virus, why is it that we do respond in this draconian way to equally deadly seasonal flu outbreaks?

Jasper Fuller
Jasper Fuller
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon

Probably because its more infectious. On average, one person with the coronavirus transmits it to 2 to 2.5 others, compared with 0.9 to 2.1 other people for the flu.
People with the coronavirus can also pass it onto others for up to 3 days after they show symptoms

Further there are other side affects that you wouldn’t get with the seasonal flu even when it doesn’t kil you e.g.

Blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart, legs or brain

Post-Infection Thyroid Disease.

Jasper Fuller
Jasper Fuller
4 years ago
Reply to  David Slade

Actually there is a lot of good evidence e.g. see

https://www.washingtonexami….

Jasper Fuller
Jasper Fuller
4 years ago
Reply to  David Slade

See AIP Physics of fluids
https://aip.scitation.org/d
which basically finds:
Stitched double-layered cotton mask: The emulated respiratory jet travelled 2.5 inches on average.
Store-bought cone-style mask: 8 inches
Folded cotton handkerchief (aka a no-sew mask): 1 foot, 3 inches
Bandana: 3 feet, 7 inches
No covering: 8 feet
Not wearing a mask because it is psychologically damaging and that makes it more important than not spreading disease is just silly.

John David
John David
4 years ago
Reply to  David Slade

There is plenty of evidence that mask wearing overall is a positive.

beancounting42
beancounting42
4 years ago

All sound but what is to stop the Government moving us seamlessly from a temporary measure, justified by the COVID pandemic, to a permanent obligation justified in the interests of public health?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  beancounting42

Absolutely nothing.

jmitchell75
jmitchell75
4 years ago
Reply to  beancounting42

Well, as the overall excess death rate is actually below the 5 year average at the moment, and we get a seasonal bout of flu each winter, plus any new coronavirus pathogens, it will be justifiable, on this precedent, to be permanently muzzled.

I will refuse to wear a mask, and that is nothing to do with being macho, but all to do with being informed. This stereotyping of people who question this is irritating and tantamount to an article you may see in the Guardian. I wonder therefore, whether it’s been written for clickbait (if it is, I’ve bitten!)

Deborah Short
Deborah Short
4 years ago
Reply to  jmitchell75

Thanks for sharing this voice of sanity Jamie!

mathew jackson
mathew jackson
4 years ago
Reply to  jmitchell75

Could not agree more. I wear masks every day and these are FFP2 and FFP3, and why? I am a dentist. Furthermore, my clinical staff and I have had to have the brands qualitatively fit tested, by an accredited contractor (excuse the pun), as this is the only means to obtain optimal filtration and elimination of risk. This is to be fully compliant with HSE requirements, and the numerous statutes on employee protection. We also use state of the art air filtration and uv technology which eliminates all air born pathogens. This is what it takes and to dupe the public at large that wearing fabric muzzles oozing secretions or even clinical masks of dubious quality will protect you or your adjacent human beings is a terrible lie.So FFP3s for all? However even so, every one of the population would have to be fit tested, to make this have some logical basis of truth. Sneeze into that trending muzzle you’ve worn all morning and if only you could see what would fly out would stop people being further duped with fear. And so right that other contributors here are raising the spectre of us all being criminalised by the state for showing a smile or grimace as the mood fits, and there-in is the reason, a docile herd of humanity with no expressions acceptable unless you are on Zoom or sum such medium likely to be controlled by whatever state presence. Great times await, resist? Dammed right we must.
Letters are flying to my invisible MP, join in the melee please, and also support Mr Dolan in his quest for a JR.

olivps
olivps
4 years ago

Anything to be enforced need to have evidence base that justifies it. Most commonly is the metrics that make something valuable. No better example than cancer screening: we only do it if indeed it is worth. Extending the use of masks as an obligation to be outside is the same as forbidden anyone to swim on the sea because they can drown!

Deborah Short
Deborah Short
4 years ago

I
believe there’s a massive case of false flag going on….war on
terror, war on extremists, war on the virus… It’s war on the fascist
ascendant steadily dismantling democracy that we need a war on

chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
4 years ago

Sometimes, we just need to put our individuality aside

What an utterly chilling statement. We know where this principle leads us.

Mike Young
Mike Young
4 years ago
Reply to  chrisjwmartin

Well said sir. Nothing more needs to be said on this article

John Alyson
John Alyson
4 years ago

I think we do have to be careful comparing mask wearing to smoking or wearing seat belts – both of these things relate to things that are not basic to our existence whereas being outside and breathing are. And coupled to that is the question of how much of an improvement to the health of society mask wearing brings. It is quite debatable and so long as that remains the case, it is dubious as to whether we should be forcing such a cultural change through law.

James
James
4 years ago
Reply to  John Alyson

It could be argued that the smoking ban was related to things that are basic to our existence, like breathing.

John Alyson
John Alyson
4 years ago
Reply to  James

I was thinking more from the perspective of who the ban was being applied to. From the point of view of who the ban was intended to protect; yes, I would agree with you.

PJ Quick
PJ Quick
4 years ago

If masks work, then wear one and you’re protected. If vaccines work, have one and again, you’re protected. Government could enforce a production change on manufacturers to ensure the micron gauge of the holes are reduced to 0.125 microns, thus affording protection against airborne virus. (But no, that’ll impact profit margins, and anything that affects business is a no-no.) You can only control yourself. Neither the fearful nor the government have any legal right to control others. Control could come by improving the tallying of test results, or counting of deaths exclusively attributable to the “virus” ” that’s a much better place to focus attention for this outbreak of the exosomes than having shop workers policing the wearing of masks…

Andrew M
Andrew M
4 years ago
Reply to  PJ Quick

The cheaper masks (tending to be the only ones available, since FPP3 masks are kept aside for healthworkers) do not protect you very much. They protect other people against you. Nonetheless, I’m getting the FPP3 ones as soon as I can, because too many people either don’t understand this or don’t care.

Jasper Fuller
Jasper Fuller
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew M

Hope wearing an FP3 for any length of time works for you. Really only required for health workers who are in continuous contact with patients with COVID-19.

Andrew M
Andrew M
3 years ago
Reply to  Jasper Fuller

A number of people have made similar comments. They are fine to wear. Maybe the people making these comments are confusing them with closed system respirators. And what does “really only required” mean? If I require to protect myself against maskless idiots, they come in pretty handy.

John David
John David
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew M

..

John David
John David
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew M

Good luck wearing FPP3s.

Andrew M
Andrew M
3 years ago
Reply to  John David

I’ve got some now – they are really no problem.

D Williams
D Williams
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew M

Don’t you mean N95 masks? Anyway, good luck wearing that mask for any length of time.

Andrew M
Andrew M
3 years ago
Reply to  D Williams

FPP3 and N95 are effectively the same thing – they are parallel standards. It only has to be worn when in an enclosed space with idiots. It is possible to keep the length and frequency of such encounters quite low.

mikael.wiberg
mikael.wiberg
4 years ago

In Sweden no face masks anywhere , people in ICUs because of Covid 19 now down 90% ….

Silke David
Silke David
4 years ago

I had to wear one of those paper masks for work for the first time. I was sweating, gasping for breath and after my 6 hour shift felt like every one of my limbs was screaming for oxygen. In my area there is hardly any virus. I will not wear one privately.
I know enough about various behaviour that I recommend that as many as possible get “ill” NOW so that we train our immune system.
One look at the weekly PHE report still shows most infections occur in the over 80y old and in care homes. Making the younger people, who produce our GDP, restrict their lives by wearing face coverings, does not make sense.
My friend, who just turned 77, would now complain that we think the elderly are dispensable as they have very little to contribute to society. Well, to be honest, in his case it is true. He mostly sits at home and the only major spending he does is for food.

nick harman
nick harman
4 years ago

I recall the pre set belt days, but actually here in London I see, when stopped at lights, many of my fellow drivers not wearing seat belts. It seems cultural, they believe the airbags will save them and that seat belts mess up your garms.

Andrew M
Andrew M
4 years ago

This is one of those cases where all too many people are willing to sacrifice the lives of other people for their own freedom. There’s nothing admirable about this – it’s just selfishness.

The case for masks appears weaker as we do not have a firm evidence base – but what do people expect? There is no firm evidence either way. The furthest science has got is to demonstrate that Covid-19 can pass between 2 ferrets 10 cm apart. Until science produces more evidence, we have to trust our collective judgement. If I was standing on a trainline and saw a train coming in the distance, I would move off it. Further research might tell me the train wasn’t heading down the line I was standing on or that it was going to stop before it reached me. But until that research has been done, common sense says to get out of the way.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
4 years ago

I’m old enough to remember the seatbelt law, having driven since 1974. The first seat belts were not inertia reel. they required tightening manually. Once on, they prevented the wearer from moving. When taken off, they often got trapped in the door and therefore dirty. They were uncomfortable or even impossible to wear for fat people and anyone wearing their best light coloured clothes was reluctant to risk a grey smudge. Most people did wear seat belts from the late 70s onwards, but it was the widespread fitting of the inertia reel type which made their use just about universal – not the seatbelt law, which could easily be flouted. And public pressure, apart from maybe a nagging partner, had nothing to do with it.

G Harris
G Harris
4 years ago

The primary principle behind wearing a face mask apparently is that it protects those around you rather than yourself, as this is a disease most easily spread via water droplets and we, as naturally sociable human beings, are rather effective, unwitting generators and spreaders of these offending germ bombs to our fellows.

Rather fascinatingly, the current official estimate is that 0.03% of the English population has the virus, and one would have to meet around 4000 people in a shop to stand a reasonable chance of coming into contact with it, and that’s even before you catch it.

Faced with a tanking economy, a likely lockdown induced mass mental health and domestic abuse crisis, millions of potential job losses and kids seeing their futures potentially ruined or hobbled, tens of thousands of as yet undiagnosed cancer patients and a death rate that, granted thus far, is around that of an average ‘flu’ year and a virus that has barely touched the under 65s, the only conceivable reason I can see for compulsory mask wearing is that they might just possibly instil much needed confidence in those currently gripped by this hugely damaging collective hysteria.

pauline.k
pauline.k
4 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

Couldn’t agree more. The mandatory wearing of masks is psychological only, to make the wearer somehow feel safe, and those around him. Its benefit is cosmetic only. It gives a false and unnecessary sense of assurance to a scared populace, thanks to a panicking establishment.