To Wear a Mask or Not to Wear a Mask?

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Here we are I don’t know how many months later and we are still trapped in a worldwide pandemic (actually, ‘pandemic’ means it’s worldwide).  I wasn’t here for the last sizable pandemic, which happened in 1918, but several things are impressing me in the course of this one. It has really changed the way people think, act, and go about their business. We are more careful, overall, with the way we socialize and work. Many of us have to wear masks and disinfect our hands constantly, for instance, to be able to do what once was a free and safe job. Children are kept at home and things as simple as eating out are now an adventure in themselves.

Another thing that impresses me, though, is the amount of disinformation and myths that have proliferated all over the world. I wrote in my last post about the difficulty of keeping track of the numbers and how statistics do not show us as much as we think. Still, numbers are important and there are things we can learn. I wrote sometime back, here, about the value of scientific data and knowledge. Science is not set in stone and scientific knowledge is not ‘the truth’, but it follows an ethical standard, it is basically the best and most scrutinized data and information that we have available and it most likely is the closest to the truth we can manage at any single time. It released us from a time when warts could lead a woman to be burned to death or you’d judge somebody’s guilt or innocence by their ability to float in water. So, it baffles me when I look around and find how much disinformation and crazy talk and fantasy dreaming has been going on, including by many elected officials. It’s simply absurd what many, sometimes well educated, people have been systematically saying. In particular, there’s a lot of controversy about one simple thing that should be very clear: should we or should we not wear a mask? Let me write a little bit about that.

First of all, let me dismiss negativists. There are many who are saying that perhaps Covid-19 is not such a dangerous disease nor that contagious. As far as we know, Covid-19 is more contagious than Ebola and less contagious than AIDS. Still, Ebola is more dangerous because it leads to a higher rate of death very quickly and AIDS less dangerous because of a reduced rate of death and killing only after a long time. There’s another danger to Covid-19: you could be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms and still infect other people. But there are more impressive signs it is a dangerous disease: more than 700,000 deaths worldwide so far. I had never seen mass graves in Europe or the USA ever outside of war zones, had you? I had never seen doctors and nurses systematically describing chaos and apocalyptic environments in hospitals outside of war zones, had you? And the devastation is not just measured in deaths. Of the hundreds of thousands who were hospitalized, many will have heart and lung problems for the rest of their lives. Many others suffered weeks and months of depletion, weakness, and sick leave. Covid-19 is dangerous. There is no doubt about it and it baffles me that people doubt it.

More than this, the World Health Organisation had to put out a ‘Mythbusters’ web page assuring the public of the most amazing things. For instance: pepper in your food does not prevent you from getting the virus; you should not ingest or inject bleach, ethanol, alcohol and taking a bath does not prevent you from getting the virus; cleaning your shoes is unlikely to help either, and Hydroxychloroquine is definitely not a legitimate treatment.

The disease spread so rapidly and had such an impact that most or all Governments made mistakes in addressing the pandemic. Some were better: like South Korea and Singapore. Some were disastrous: as the US or Brazil. But almost all came to a very simple conclusion: wearing a mask helps fight the spread. Not all the masks are the same. As far as I know, surgical masks are the best, but not necessarly widely available and should be given to health professionals like doctors and nurses. Then there are N95’s.

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As far as I know, they will protect you from 95% of particles, but they need some knowledge on how to use them and, if they have respirators to help you breathe better, they will protect you but not others from you. It seems the single best use of masks is by the widespread use of those made of cloth. These will not really protect you, but they will trap your droplets from when you speak, cough, sneeze, or shout, protecting others from you. As most people who are infected actually do not realize they are infected, wearing a mask will protect the people around them. So, wearing a mask is actually a sign of respect and care for the ones around you. It’s a way of saying: ‘You are safe from me.’

Are the masks uncomfortable? Yes, they are. But here is what they are not: They are not harmful to you. You should be careful when you are exercising or making huge efforts because it can make your breathing more difficult, but it will not harm you even when used for a long time, as doctors and nurses can tell you. Also, they are not unconstitutional or an unacceptable infringement of your freedom – even when mandated by the authorities. In reality, there are a lot of limits to our freedom as a price to live in a civilized society. Like these: murder is not allowed; some roads have speed limits; you cannot close someone in a room against their will; you cannot urinate in the middle of the street. These limits are imposed to help us live better with each other and overall, in a safer way. There are perhaps no limits to freedom in the middle of the jungle, but you wouldn’t want to live there, would you?

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Some countries, like Portugal, Germany, Israel, Luxembourg, France, Spain, South Korea, and others, have in place a State-mandated obligation to wear masks in public. It’s a simple enough measure – no mass inoculation, no drawing blood, no mass confinement. And it works. Some people even say it works almost as well as compulsory confinement. I have to wear a mask for work, for meetings with colleagues and clients. I don’t particularly like it, especially when there’s hot weather. But it’s my duty as a citizen and as a Human Being. So, I do it. And so should you. Keep up the fight, fellow warriors.

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