The Great Debate of 2020

A commentary on mandatory masking

I (#blogger #blog #YA #authors) have been away camping for the past two weeks, and so I wasn’t able to check the news. I have to say, it was nice to be away from the sensationalized news stories, especially about covid, and the stories of civil unrest on our planet. Upon my return to civilization, I’ve learned that a debate is raging over mandatory mask wearing.  I was struck by the CBC News headline, OPP shoot man dead hours after mask dispute leads to alleged assault. The story says a man refused to wear a mask,  allegedly assaulted a grocery store employee, and then drove away. A police officer saw the car, followed it to the man’s home, and outside the home the two police officers fired their guns after some sort of “interaction.”  Another news article reports that an Ohio county launched a hotline to report people spotted without masks (see hotline). There were numerous stories about wearing masks. These are really stories about bullying (#bullying #antibullying) in my opinion; stories about masks verses no masks.

All across Canada there have been protests against mandatory mask wearing (see CTV News). Protests are occurring in the US as well. “Experts,” whoever they are, are telling us masks  protect us and those around us. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that healthy people wear masks over their mouths and noses when leaving their homes and entering places where physical distancing is difficult. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a list of recommendations, in early June, suggesting the most appropriate types of masks to wear in a variety of settings, including the use of non-medical masks in crowded places and on public transport. Now I’m hearing of city councils debating whether mask wearing should be mandatory in enclosed spaces.

I’ve seen social media posts arguing that making the public wear masks is no different than making wearing seat belts mandatory. I disagree, as this debate is not that simple. Statistics clearly show that seat belts save lives (see Seat Belt Statistics). Regarding mask protection, the experts don’t all agree. In other words, the research on mask usage doesn’t provide definitive proof that they work.

The news media sites many studies claiming to show that masks are effective. One such study in The Lancet, a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal, says in its findings that “transmission of viruses was lower with physical distancing of 1 metre or more, compared with a distance of less than 1 metre.” Now I can accept that as the data shows definitive evidence. Then it says “face mask use could result in a large reduction in risk of infection, with stronger associations with N95 or similar respirators compared with disposable surgical masks or similar.” The problem I have with this statement is its use of the word could. The word ‘could’ means ‘possibly’. That is not definitive proof.

In Science Focus’ article, Coronavirus: Will face masks reduce transmission? it says in a “study which looked at coronavirus deaths across 198 countries found that nations which had policies favouring mask-wearing had lower death rates.”  Now that sounds convincing, but when I did research for my post titled, An Opportunity, Or Back to the Same?  I learned that what counts as a covid death varies, depending on the country. In my opinion, that makes this study misleading and unreliable. 

In Wired’s article, The Face Mask Debate Reveals a Scientific Double Standard, it says, “There are no large-scale clinical trials proving that personal use of masks can prevent pandemic spread.”  It sites a study on influenza where it states in its findings,

These findings suggest that face masks and hand hygiene may reduce respiratory illnesses in shared living settings and mitigate the impact of the influenza A(H1N1) pandemic.

There is another one of those words: ‘may’. The word ‘may’ means ‘possibly’. Again, this is not definitive proof.  In another study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it says:

We concluded that household use of masks is associated with low adherence and is ineffective in controlling seasonal ILI (influenza-like illness).

The data fails to show that masks are effective. Furthermore, one needs to look at how the study was done. How big was the test group? Was there a control group? Did the study follow strict scientific protocols? Who funded the study? As a retired science teacher, I taught the importance of doing science properly.

I’ve seen posts on my social media claiming masks may dangerously reduce oxygen levels. In USA Today Fact check, it quotes the Center for Disease Control (CDC) saying:

The CO2 will slowly build up in the mask over time. However, the level of CO2 likely to build up in the mask is mostly tolerable to people exposed to it … It is unlikely that wearing a mask will cause hypercapnia (Carbon dioxide toxicity).

There is one of those words again: ‘unlikely.” That means possibility. This doesn’t convince me.

The CDC told the international news organization, Reuters:

“The CO2 will slowly build up in the mask over time. However, the level of CO2 likely to build up in the mask is mostly tolerable to people exposed to it. You might get a headache but you most likely [would] not suffer the symptoms observed at much higher levels of CO2. The mask can become uncomfortable for a variety of reasons including a sensitivity to CO2 and the person will be motivated to remove the mask. It is unlikely that wearing a mask will cause hypercapnia.”​

There is that word again: ‘unlikely.” That means possibility. This doesn’t convince me either.

There are many arguments against mandating masks, such as, face masks can be uncomfortable. I haven’t worn them a lot, but when I have, I have found them to be uncomfortable. In fact, I tended to touch my face more with a mask on, which apparently is a “no no.” Another is face masks restrict airflow, or make breathing more difficult. That is true for me. Masks cause glasses to fog up, and I have personally experienced that. Masks force people to unintentionally draw closer to others during conversations. I would have to agree with this one as well, as I have a difficult time hearing what people wearing masks are saying as their words are muffled. Masks could foster a false sense of security. I have to agree, as I have yet to see a study saying masks are 100% effective against viruses and bacteria, but mask wearers may think they are 100% protected. Plus, people may think they are safe and take risks. Another argument is cloth masks could spread disease if unwashed. Let’s face it, walking around with a dirty face mask isn’t doing anyone any favours. Masks can cause skin irritation. I recall seeing lots of news articles showing health care workers with skin irritations back in March when covid numbers were raising, so that is true.

In light of what I have learned, do I think masks should be mandatory? No. I’ve not been convinced with what I’ve learned. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying masks fail to protect us. Of course, they would provide some protection since they are barrier to droplets released from someone. Will they slow the spread of a virus? Possibly. Many anti-maskers oppose it since it infringes on their freedoms, and it does. In fact, The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is closely watching the development of orders and regulations in some jurisdictions which mandate the use of masks in all indoor public places, saying “mandatory masking requirements represent an interference with personal autonomy” and may even violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms depending on the situation.

The truth is, making masking mandatory is not the same as making seat belts mandatory. Wearing seat belts have been proven to save lives. Wearing masks may or could save lives. That is not definitive proof! When mandating something without definitive proof causes bullying and divisiveness, it should not be done. Any policy that pits people against one another, especially when it is without definitive proof, and promotes bullying, is unethical and therefore shouldn’t be directed.