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    The Bizarre Adventures of the Face Mask

    (originally published on 12 March 2020 - i guess the bizarre adventures of the face mask ended because now, in July 2020, it is mandatory just about everywhere in the world)

    I am puzzled by a somewhat amusing phenomenon. There are thousands of people on social media screaming "Stop buying masks! They are useless". That's intriguing. If they are useless, why do you care? If someone wants to buy that "useless" mask in the store, why do you care? People buy a lot of useless things. Do you scream "Stop buying tshirts?" Are you also concerned about junk food? Junk food is not only useless, it is harmful: do you scream "Stop buying junk food!" or is it only surgical masks that you are concerned about? I think that most of mainstream pop music is useless, but i don't scream "Stop buying Beyonce! Stop buying Justin Bieber!" If you want to waste your money that way, it's your problem. It would even be difficult to define when a thing is "useful": are my thousands of LPs and CDs and books and DVDs really useful? And, let's face it, am i really useful? Are you?

    It is even stranger that some people reply: "hospitals need the masks". So... hospitals think that masks are useful? Then they are not useless. In fact, they seem to be indispensable. Then the correct statement would be: "Stop buying masks! They are extremely useful!" In that case i would be terrified to learn that a country has become so capitalistic that it cannot force mask manufacturers to provide (very useful, indispensable) masks to hospitals before supermarkets. I guess China was lucky to be a communist country that could put the safety of its citizens before the profits of its corporations.

    According to another theory, masks are indeed useful but you need to know how to fit them on your face. If you don't know how to do it, you'd better not do it. That's also what some top officials said in the USA: you don't know how to use it, so don't bother using it. But that's even more intriguing because most people (notably children) don't wash their hands properly, but we don't conclude that they shouldn't wash their hands: we conclude that they need to learn how to wash their hands properly. Instead countless people on social media simply tell their friends "don't wear a mask because you don't know how to use it". According to this logic, we should never learn how to use things that we don't know how to use.

    It all started with Trump's surgeon general Jerome Adams, who on February 29 tweeted: "Seriously people - STOP BUYING MASKS!" He was almost comic when he said that you should wait until you are sick before you buy a mask: how can we know that a mask will be available if and when we get sick? And did you notice that perfectly healthy World Health Organization officials wear masks during their news briefings to reporters? It's because they now believe that you can transmit the virus even if you don't have the symptoms, so potentially anyone around you (healthy or sick) may be contagious. The Italian virologist Andrea Crisanti has even recommended that people wear a face mask at home. Did you notice that when China's president visited Wuhan he was wearing a mask? That was not done to protect the population of Wuhan, it was to protect him.

    For those who keep repeating something that they heard on Fox News, that the masks are useless because the virus is too tiny, read this paper published in a scientific journal before you believe TV commentators who have been repeatedly wrong about everything (and who were probably stocking masks while they were telling you not to buy them). Obviously, the face masks are very effective, especially the N95 kind, and a Japanese study (here) shows that they do help filter viruses of covid-19 size. That masks are effective at reducing the chances of getting infected by coronaviruses has been shown by several studies: this paper or this paper or this paper or this paper or this paper, and even a home-made mask might be effective according to this paper Jeremy Howard, a scientist at University of San Francisco, who started a campaign on social media under the hashtag #Masks4All, wrote in the Washington Post about "the senseless and unscientific push for the general public to avoid wearing masks". Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, advises everyone to wear a mask: any kind of mask is better than nothing. Are you sure that your favorite Fox News show and your friends on Facebook (and the Trump administration) know better than the scientists?

    Face masks were mandatory in many places in China, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan: China is now back to normal, Hong Kong and Taiwan had only a handful of cases (despite massive interaction with mainland China) and South Korea has the lowest death rate of any country. Maybe the success of these countries is a coincidence, maybe not. Interviewed by Science magazine on March 27, the director-general of China's CDC (George Gao) said: "The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren't wearing masks." In this May 4 TV interview, Zhong Nanshan, top Chinese expert of infectious diseases, says that wearing a face mask is the only proven method to prevent the spread of covid-19.

    I am not competent enough to judge how effective a face covering can be in the case of this covid-19. I am just intrigued that so many people have joined the anti-mask crusade despite these obvious logical contradictions.


    Update of April 3: the CDC is now recommending the use of face masks. So maybe they were not so useless. Where are all the people who were shouting "Stop buying masks! They are useless!" Update of April 8: Los Angeles has made face masks mandatory in public. Those crazy California hippies... Update of April 15: New York orders masks mandatory in public. Those crazy New Yorkers...

    Update of April 30: A study published by scientists from multiple countries (Oxford, Stanford, UCLA, MIT, Hong Kong, Peking University etc) concludes that: "The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces the transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected droplets in both laboratory and clinical contexts. Public mask wearing is most effective at stopping spread of the virus when compliance is high. The decreased transmissibility could substantially reduce the death toll and economic impact while the cost of the intervention is low." ( paper). If these scientists are correct, the West could have avoided the biggest massacre since World War II and the biggest economic recession in a century by simply wearing face masks.

    Update of May 14: 100 academics from all over the world write an open letter to all the state governors of the USA pleading for making face masks mandatory in public. A study by the University of Hong Kong shows that facemasks block seasonal human coronaviruses (paper).

    Update of June 5: based on new studies, the World Health Organization recommends wearing face masks even in public

    Update of June 18: California makes face coverings mandatory in all public spaces

    Update of July 2: Texas makes face coverings mandatory. A few days later Walmart begins requiring all customers to wear face masks.

    Update of July 18: More than half of the United States now has some form of mask requirement in place. Apparently, the face mask was not so useless, after all.

    July 21: Lo and behold, Trump asks people to wear face masks (Quote: "We're asking everybody that when you are not able to socially distance, wear a mask, get a mask")


    Shocking. I remember very well when, in February and March, people were insulting me for suggesting that everybody should wear a face mask. I wish i had taken screenshots of all the Facebook and Twitter posts that shouted "Masks are useless!"

    TM, ®, Copyright © 2020 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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