Those of you of a certain age will doubtless remember a time when it was universally acknowledged that wearing masks would not protect you or anyone else from the coronavirus pandemic. By “certain age” here I mean all living Americans born on or before April 1, 2020, which according to my notes is when it became possible to express a contrary position in polite society.
This was always nonsense. The White House is now suggesting that all of us should wear masks whenever we leave our houses. We are even stealing vast stockpiles of them from the Germans, who have been wearing them in public for around a month on the rather more numerous occasions when their leaders exempt them from house arrest. People who can’t get proper masks (apparently the kind people wear when they spray for bugs) are being encouraged to make their own. If nothing else, this has given tedious DIY addicts something else to be self satisfied about. No one cares how quaint and interesting you think the piece of cloth meant to protect you from a disease is, okay?
Whether the journalists and other apparent experts who enthusiastically spread this apparent lie about masks knew it was false is very much an open question. Some of us found it odd that the same people were also saying that masks should be reserved for use by medical professionals. If masks don’t do anything, why do doctors and nurses need them? Are they an ornamental part of a dress uniform? The mind reels.
Regardless of the personal honesty of those involved in it, this propaganda campaign should never have been conducted in the first place. It is one thing to debate what should be empirical questions, such as the efficacy of wearing protective equipment in an attempt to forestall the spread of viral infections; it is another for people to bang on about whatever the latest current corona wisdom is with the same tedious certainty that not long ago made us a nation of Logan Act scholars and experts on the non-existent criminal law implications of the emoluments clause. These manias do roughly as much for public health as those kids — there was at least one in every first-grade class — who relentlessly ssshh everyone else in line do to improve schoolyard behavior.
The 180-degree shift in acceptable public opinion about masks is in line with how the rest of this crisis has unfolded. Masks won’t help. Everyone needs a mask. It’s not worth shutting down travel to and from China over the virus, and Trump is just being a xenophobe here. Trump should have done more to prevent the virus from coming to these shores. It’s less dangerous than the flu; calling it less dangerous than the flu is a right-wing meme, perhaps even (one shudders) “misinformation.” Human beings can’t even transmit the virus directly to one another; it originated with animals in Chinese open-air “wet” food markets. Talking about the wet markets is racist, except when Dr. Fauci does it.
Can we please stop talking this way? As I write this our paper of record is all but publicly rooting for the failure of anti-malarial drugs that appear to have been successful in treating some coronavirus patients. It is not against “science,” whatever that may be, for the president or anyone else to observe that certain medicines or treatments have worked. It is not for science, either. It’s just a fact that may or may not have limited application depending upon what happens over the next few months. A bit more epistemic humility would be welcome all around.
As would more of I will bluntly call adult behavior. We must put an end to the idea that the best way to get through this crisis is to say things we know are not true in the hope of getting people to behave a certain way. This means not saying masks are useless when what you really mean is, “Masks are in short supply, please consider before you start hoarding them whether you really need them at present and if so how many.” Ditto the painfully relentless attempts to give young people the impression that they are horribly likely to die from the new virus. Even in Italy, the country with the worst measured fatality rate so far, around 86 percent of all the deceased have been aged 70 or older, and 50 percent were at least 80. We do not need to zero in on statistical anomalies or otherwise engage in scaremongering. It should be enough to say, “Even though you are very unlikely to die from coronavirus, remember that you could contract the disease and spread it to more vulnerable people without even experiencing symptoms, so please don’t revel with 5000 strangers at the beach and then run home to give Grandma a hug.”
This is how grown-ups talk to one another.
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