Here in Ireland and across much of the Western world, the issue of mandatory masks has become a controversial and contentious issue, with many people being divided into “pro-mask” and “anti-mask” camps.
The former argue that masks are akin to seatbelt laws – a necessary inconvenience for the common good to prevent the virus from spreading. The latter argue that they are both ineffective and an encroachment on civil rights, with governments forcing more and more onerous restrictions on the public.
Because of this, it can be difficult to find current data on their effectiveness that isn’t totally politicised (and thus unreliable). And so, in situations like this, it’s wise to look at what health authorities were saying about masks in the months and years before covid-19, when nobody had any particular axe to grind one way or the other politically.
First, let’s look at influenza. Influenza is a good comparison, because it spreads in almost the exact same way as covid-19 – namely through coughing, sneezing, and touching contaminated surfaces. As the Influenza Specialist Group says:
“Influenza viruses are mainly spread when infected people cough or sneeze, releasing small virus-containing droplets into the air which can be breathed in and infect the respiratory tract of the people around them. Contaminated respiratory secretions on hands and other surfaces can also transmit the infection by hand to mouth or eye infection.”
This is noteworthy because, before the novel coronavirus came on the scene, this is what the American Centre for Disease Control had to say about the wearing of masks to prevent spreading or contracting the flu:
“No recommendation can be made at this time for mask use in the community by asymptomatic persons, including those at high risk for complications, to prevent exposure to influenza viruses.”
Similarly, the EU’s “European Centre for Disease Control” said on the subject:
“There is little evidence that wearing face masks (e.g. surgical-type) outside of healthcare settings during the influenza season or a pandemic offers effective protection or reduces transmission, and ECDC does not recommend their use.”
Whatever your views are, it’s not unreasonable to ask: why the change of heart from all these health authorities? If masks weren’t recommended for influenza, why are they recommended for covid-19 when both have almost identical methods of transmission?
Similarly, in 2010, the WHO published an article on the H1N1 virus (a.k.a. Swine Flu), claiming that:
“The main route of transmission of the pandemic influenza virus seems to be similar to seasonal influenza, via droplets that are expelled by speaking, sneezing or coughing.”
In the FAQ below, when asked about mask use to prevent this, the WHO said:
“Q. What about using a mask? What does WHO recommend?
A. If you are not sick you do not have to wear a mask.
If you are caring for a sick person, you can wear a mask when you are in close contact with the ill person and dispose of it immediately after contact, and cleanse your hands thoroughly afterwards…Using a mask correctly in all situations is essential. Incorrect use actually increases the chance of spreading infection.”
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) June 13, 2013
While swine flu is less contagious than the novel coronavirus, it’s not much less contagious. There were 60 million cases of it in the USA alone, so we’re not talking about a virus that couldn’t spread. And yet the mask advice was different.
Also, note the WHO’s advice that improper mask use could actually SPREAD the disease. By improper use they mean not changing or disposing of the mask regularly (most people today in Ireland are not using disposable masks according to this journal.ie poll), washing your hands, touching your face in public, etc.
Additionally, the official HSE advice mentions nothing about disposing of your mask regularly, which renders them vastly less effective. To quote Dr. Manal Mohammed, Lecturer of Medical Microbiology at the University of Westminster:
“You can also get the flu from touching your eye with your contaminated hand. And even to stop the hand to mouth/nose transmission, you’d have to wear a mask 24/7, regularly disposing of the old ones while trying to avoid touching your face.”
So at this point you might be inclined to say “Well maybe that’s because covid-19 is very lethal and the flu is not and didn’t warrant it.”
But as it stands, according to the WHO, about 650k die from the flu every year, while covid has killed 775k globally so far. Now, 775k is obviously more than 650k, and the covid figure will probably increase as the year goes on. We’re only in August after all.
But we already know for a fact that the Irish government counts all deaths WITH covid as deaths FROM covid, and also suspected deaths are jotted down as covid-19 automatically. As Leo himself said:
“In Ireland we counted all deaths, in all settings, suspected cases even when no lab test was done, and included people with underlying terminal illnesses who died with Covid but not of it.”
Interesting but not a surprise. In Ireland we counted all deaths, in all settings, suspected cases even when no lab test was done, and included people with underlying terminal illnesses who died with Covid but not of it.
— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) July 3, 2020
Belgium, too, counted suspected deaths in their numbers, which led to hugely inflated figures in the small benelux country. No doubt at least some other countries use similarly flawed measurements, so it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the 775k figure is inflated to a greater or lesser degree.
In other words, in the case of influenza and covid-19:
– Both are spread in the exact same way
– Both have similar severity and lethality
– But for some reason masks are mandatory for one, and not the other.
For years, there was broad consensus among health authorities that masks were not needed for respiratory flu-like illnesses outside of medical settings – even widespread, highly contagious ones like swine flu. Only since this issue has become politicised has it become vitally important that we all wear face coverings. But why?
Additionally, when taking into account proper surgical masks and even the N95 respirators – as in, the coveted PPE used by doctors – according to a 2009 study involving 446 nurses, almost 1 in 4 contracted influenza anyway while using surgical masks, and almost the same amount contracted it while using the N95 respirator.
So basically, even if you’re using the top-of-the-line equipment in the proper way, changing it regularly and washing your hands, avoiding touching your face and so on, there’s still a 1 in 4 chance of you getting the disease. A huge amount of the masks sold at shops today even say words like “cosmetic” or “fashion” on the front, because they are not rated to stop any kind of virus. Take the disclaimer on this Dunnes Stores mask as an example:
“This face covering is not PPE or a medical device…Manufacturer makes no claims about the medical benefits of using this product.”
No doubt if you check the packaging for your mask, many of them will say something similar. In fact, the government even recommends that you can make a face covering at home out of things lying around the house.
Even the HSE was advocating against masks in the early months of the pandemic, and are now making them compulsory.
Ultimately, you can hardly blame people for having a healthy dose of scepticism when health authorities have sent out this many mixed messages on this issue.