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Real talk: Have facemasks failed?

There’s probably been no more contentious subject in Ireland over the past six months or so than the question of mandatory facemasks. There are bigger questions, sure, on which the population is more evenly divided – lockdown or no lockdown; schools open, or schools closed; the infernal debate about “wet pubs”, and so on.

But no subject provokes more passionate disagreement from a minority of Irish people than the question of wearing a facemask. For most of us, it’s a common sense healthcare measure – we feel safer, we feel like we’re doing our bit, and we feel like it’s not a huge imposition.

For a minority, though, this has been the number one cause of resentment and disagreement. To them, facemasks have always been medically useless, as well as an unconscionable imposition on a person’s bodily autonomy. They’re nothing less, in this telling, than a symbol of tyranny.

Most people have little sympathy with the latter part of that argument. But what about the first part of it?

Where is the evidence that near-universal mask wearing has worked to suppress Covid 19?

Ireland has now had more than one thousand daily cases for five consecutive days. Two of those days have set new records for the number of cases recorded here in a single day.

Across Europe, the picture is the same: Near universal mask wearing, and near universal record-setting in terms of the number of new cases.

As a simple matter of observation, if mask wearing was supposed to reduce the number of Coronavirus cases, it has not worked.

So what argument for masks remains?

The instinctive response will be to say that without facemasks, the current crisis would be ten times worse. But is that really accurate? Here are the case numbers for Europe as a whole over the past few weeks. What does ten times worse even look like?

Forget all the stuff about the “casedemic”, or the number of people in ICU or hospital. That’s irrelevant when considering facemasks. The point of masks is not to reduce the severity of the virus, but to limit its transmission in the first place.

And yet we now have far more cases than we had in the spring, when the official consensus from Governments was that facemasks are bad.

How can this be so? Are there other explanations?

First, remember what the argument against masks was, back in the Spring:

Here in Ireland, HSE lead for infectious diseases Prof Martin Cormican recently reviewed guidelines on mask-wearing for hospital staff and came to the conclusion that there was no evidence to support the wearing of surgical masks by healthcare workers for close patient encounters and staff meetings.

Citing WHO advice, Prof Cormican suggested mask-wearing by people with no symptoms could create unnecessary cost and create “a false sense of security”.

That’s the HSE lead for infectious diseases, warning that masks might actually be counter-productive, saying that wearing them could lead to people dropping their guard.

Is that what’s happened? Is there a sense, perhaps, that wearing the mask is a good enough protection and that other attempts at self-preservation have fallen by the wayside? How many people, for example, still keep hand sanitiser in their cars, and use it immediately after getting in? How many people have stopped doing that, and now take their mask off using hands they’ve touched fourteen or fifteen surfaces with?

Repeatedly, in the spring, we were warned that facemasks would pose hygiene risks – that people would touch them, not clean them properly, and mis-use them in such a way as to actually heighten the risk of virus transmission. Do those warnings look more, or less, prescient, today?

Of course, there’s no going back. Because for most people, masks do provide a sense of security. But could it be that the sense of security is, in fact, what’s proving fatal?

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