Common sense dictates that masks contribute to reducing airborne viral infections. Despite this, many conservatives have resisted mask mandates, claiming they don’t work. Democrats have not been slow to label Trump-supporters anti-science. Who is right?
Hard to Prove
Although it is intuitively evident that masks reduce viral spread, proving and quantifying this is hard. One reason is that lab tests do not reflect real-world conditions. Also, masks may be useful in some circumstances but less effective in others. For instance, they’re expected to be far more effective in brief encounters between people who face each other at close range and talk. By contrast, if people stay in the same stuffy room together for hours, their efficacy would likely be minimal. Furthermore, if people believe they are safe with masks, they may get complacent – and careless – with social distancing and hand hygiene, thereby wiping out any benefit.
These and other factors make a scientific study of the efficacy of masks notoriously difficult, and the published papers reflect that. There has been a slew of scientific articles that show both that masks work and that they don’t. For instance, a recent Danish study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that the mask recommendation did not significantly reduce SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Such conflicting studies imply that if masks work, the effect is not massive.
By focusing on the practical issues of effectiveness, the moral dimension is set aside. When many conservatives say that masks don’t work, what they really mean is that they don’t work well enough to justify the incursion of liberty that comes with forcing people to wear them. However, so many rankled by the idea of mask mandates seem to lack the moral courage to state this explicitly because they are afraid of being attacked for “killing someone’s grandma” for the selfish reason of not wanting to “endure a slight inconvenience.”
Some things can indeed be achieved more easily with authoritarian methods, but at what cost? Wearing a mask doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but in many Muslim countries, women are fighting for the right not to be forced to cover their faces. Being free to show your face is important.
In a sense, people have been wearing a mask on the internet for many years. We know its consequences: A toxic environment where people spew hate that generally doesn’t happen face–to–face. In a masked society, the inconvenience may be the least of our problems.
There are appropriate times for wearing a mask, but in general, the incursion of liberty cannot be defended. Conservatives and libertarians should be more transparent on why they do not support mandated mask-wearing. They do work a little bit, but COVID-19 is not a sufficient danger to justify authoritarian measures.
Read more from Onar Åm.