The COVID Culture War is Killing Us

The COVID Culture War is Killing Us
(Daniel Kim/The Sacramento Bee via AP)
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Judging by the proliferation of videos showing angry confrontations over the use of masks in public, it appears our ongoing culture wars are making a serious dent in sound public health policy and may delay or even derail our effort to restart the economy. The twin problems of public health and economic life require a calmer consideration of the benefits of masking as an easy yet effective contribution to reducing and containing the spread of COVID-19.

It’s important to remember it was the virus, not the government, that shut down American commerce, and it is fear of the virus that is largely keeping it closed. OpenTable, a leading restaurant reservation website, recently released data showing that the vast majority of the 73 percent decline in reservations took place several days before the stay at home orders were issued. In other words, it wasn’t stay-at-home orders but a voluntary, precipitous withdrawal from work (supply) and consumption (demand) that sent the economy into a tailspin. Government efforts at reopening have only modestly shifted public sentiment. According to the same OpenTable data, Georgia, which allowed restaurants to reopen in late April, still has 86 percent fewer restaurant reservations on May 19 compared to this time last year. Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma came in at 77, 77, and 76 percent, respectively. As of May 14, over 20 percent of restaurants in most early openers still chose to remain closed. The condition of the restaurant trade appears to track what’s happening in other sectors in early-opening states with data showing only slowly rising rates of economic activity.

The public was and remains afraid that COVID-19 might cause illness or death to them and their families. People have voted with their feet and taken their labor and taken their pocketbooks with them. If we want our producers and consumers back, we need effective disease mitigation more than economic stimulus (although we need a lot of that too). Short of a vaccine, which may be a year or even two away from widespread availability, one of our best options for reducing the spread of the virus is the use of masks.

In a recent study, Dr. Dekai Wu of UC Berkeley and other scholars presented a powerful case for the widespread use of masks to control the infection. Wu’s model showed that if 80 percent of the population adopted masks before day 50 of an outbreak, spread of the disease could be reduced by 80 percent. Lesser levels or later starts to masking significantly reduce the beneficial effect. (For a video showing how the model works, check here). The model also finds high levels of masking are more effective than lockdown measures in reducing spread. The end of lockdowns on May 31 without widespread use of masks, the study says, would lead to “unchecked spread” even with social distancing.

Masks are effective because COVID-19 spreads through aerosolized droplets that masks directly inhibit. They prevent droplets from reaching surfaces where the virus can be picked up via the hands and later transmitted by touching face or eyes. And it doesn’t really matter whether the mask is designed for a medical setting or comes from a sewing machine at home. Just about any face covering helps.

Another study by Professor Yuen Kwok-yung of the University of Hong Kong and his team further illustrates how masks work to reduce infections. The team had two groups of hamsters in cages, one healthy and one sick with coronavirus. They ran one test with no masks between the two cages, one test with a mask fastened near the healthy hamsters, and one test with a mask near the sick hamsters. In the first group, two-thirds of the healthy animals were infected after seven days. When the healthy hamsters were masked the ratio flipped and two-thirds of the healthy subjects avoided infection. When the sick hamsters were masked, 87 percent of the healthy hamsters avoided infection. This last group reinforces the most important reason for wearing masks: they don’t completely prevent healthy subjects from contracting the disease, but they do significantly prevent sick ones from spreading it. Wearing a mask isn’t a sign of personal cowardice but of respect and concern for others.

Together, these studies make one thing very clear about the economic restart: widespread masking is not just a good idea but an essential one. Slowing disease transmission is the “starter” for improving public health and reducing anxiety about a return to commercial life. And it wouldn’t be the first time Americans had taken a step like this during an epidemic. It is nothing short of amazing that such a simple and effective step has succeeded in generating widespread controversy and conflict in American society. It is arguable that the culture war, a nuisance for some and source of entertainment for others, is now literally killing us.

If the Wu model is correct, the time we have to lower our social media fists and get serious about masking is drawing quickly to a close. Whether your primary concern is the health of your community or you are focused on the need to get the U.S. economy up and running as quickly as possible, promoting the use of masks is an important step we can all take together.

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he conducts research on workforce development, criminal justice reform, and social theory.

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