Surprise: Covid numbers falling again, despite lack of masks

At this stage, one might nearly be forgiven that covid waves come and go without paying much heed at all to the restrictions put in place – or in this case not put in place – to stop them:

There were 793 people in hospital with Covid-19 as of 8pm on Monday, and 38 of those were in intensive care. The numbers of people in hospital with the virus has steadily dropped since rising above 1,000 patients at the start of last week.

The recent summer wave of the virus, which saw a surge in cases and hospitalisations, had been predicted to peak around mid-July.

Prof Jack Lambert, an infectious diseases consultant in the Mater hospital, Dublin said Ireland was probably now past the peak of the current surge in cases.

At this stage, the arguments about restrictions and their efficacy are so well worn that anybody who has been paying the slightest bit of attention could probably recite them in their sleep. But well worn though they are, they are no longer really arguments in the sense that the conclusion to them is debatable: It is now obvious, and observable, that covid waves come and go irrespective of the presence of restrictions.

So why, then, is there still such support for mandatory masking?

Last week’s poll in the Journal was, of course, presented in a gravely dishonest way, with that outlet claiming that there was 79% support for bringing back mandatory masking in public places. That was not true. But what was true is that there is considerable – and shocking – support expressed to pollsters for mandatory masks in certain sectors. A quarter claim to want them in schools. 40% in shops. A clear majority in healthcare settings.

Sceptics tend to look at those polls and conclude that the pollster may be doing something wrong, or even dishonest, on the basis that the support for mandatory masks does not tally with the observable number of people voluntarily wearing masks. “Go on the Luas”, they say, “and count the number wearing masks”.

It’s a fair point, but it’s not an explanation. People give answers to opinion pollsters all the time that they don’t really mean to apply to themselves: Ask them should the rich pay more taxes, for example, and most polls will find a big majority in favour. Ask them what counts as “rich” though, and the answer will generally be “a person who earns much more than me”. They’re all in favour, in other words, so long as it doesn’t apply to them. The same principle can be observed in housing: We’re all for more houses. Few of us are for more houses next door.

By and large, I think, polling on covid restrictions should be read as a proxy question: “Should masks be mandatory?” is really a question heard as “is the Government doing enough on covid?”. Since masks would be a sign of action, and doing more, people tend to answer “yes”.

“Yes” is also the responsible, grown up option. Nobody wants the nice lady from Red C or whoever it is to think them an anti-mask, anti-vaccine troglodyte. Answering “yes” makes you sound like a responsible, caring citizen. You get the same phenomenon when you ask people if the Government should adopt more rigorous climate targets.

And then, of course, there’s the post-covid trauma. Covid had a number of impacts on people’s health, but almost as many on our democracy: It appears to have entrenched the silly notion that Government exists to protect us, and that whether to go to parties or wear masks or take a vaccine is dependent on Government instruction, not personal choice. Then there’s the sense inculcated in people that their fellow citizens are dangerous and dirty: You might not need a mask, personally, but that’s because you are a responsible grown person. Those dirty so-and-sos coming back from the electric picnic, though? They should be masked for everybody’s safety.

This will take a long time to unwind. And, by the by, the Government should be receiving far more credit than it is from Covid sceptics for not bowing to the most alarmist voices. It would have been very easy, when there were 1000 people in hospital last week, to bring back masks. Some radio stations would have cheered. There’d have been no shortage of experts available to praise the Government for “taking responsible measures”.

But they didn’t do it. The Irish Government came very late to a sensible approach to covid. But they should be praised for getting there in the end. And these figures vindicate that approach.

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