‘The Real Reason to Wear a Mask’

Zeynep Tufekci, Jeremy Howard, and Trisha Greenhalgh, writing for The Atlantic:

If you feel confused about whether people should wear masks and why and what kind, you’re not alone. COVID-19 is a novel disease and we’re learning new things about it every day. However, much of the confusion around masks stems from the conflation of two very different functions of masks.

Masks can be worn to protect the wearer from getting infected or masks can be worn to protect others from being infected by the wearer. Protecting the wearer is difficult: It requires medical-grade respirator masks, a proper fit, and careful putting on and taking off. But masks can also be worn to prevent transmission to others, and this is their most important use for society. If we lower the likelihood of one person’s infecting another, the impact is exponential, so even a small reduction in those odds results in a huge decrease in deaths. Luckily, blocking transmission outward at the source is much easier. It can be accomplished with something as simple as a cloth mask.

There’s a very high chance that you, dear reader, are now wearing a face mask whenever you leave home. I’ve linked to a few good pieces on the subject in recent weeks. If you need help convincing anyone else, however, this piece at The Atlantic is a good one. It reviews the previous confusion regarding the reasons for mask-wearing, clears it up, and does so cogently.

It’s also worth noting that Zeynep Tufekci, co-author of this piece, deserves tremendous credit for her March 17 column in The New York Times, “Why Telling People They Don’t Need Masks Backfired”. It seems crazy that she wrote that column only a little over one month ago, but at the time she wrote it, Tufekci was calling out the CDC and WHO for giving bad advice — her take was very controversial — and she was right. Her courage and clarity moved the needle and helped change public policy and our social norms. It sounds hyperbolic but I think it’s clearly true: Tufekci wrote an op-ed column so compelling it will wind up saving untold lives. We in the U.S. would have gotten to universal mask-wearing during this pandemic sooner or later, but thanks to Tufekci we got there sooner.

Thursday, 23 April 2020