C: Gript

The latest facemask advice is not about health

In the dog owner world, there is a serious but ongoing controversy about the use of electric shock collars. If you do not know what they are, then a brief precis: The collar is fixed to the dog and connected either by a remote control to a button operated by the dog’s owner, or connected to an electronic barrier around the dog’s enclosure. If the dog gets too close to somewhere the dog is not supposed to go, then a mild electric shock is triggered by the electronic barrier, or by the owner, pushing the button. The idea is simple enough: You train the dog that if it goes to a certain place – say, the road – it gets a nasty electric shock.

One dog I know – not ours, for in my house, we object to the practice – is so terrified of the long since disappeared fence that, to this day, if his ball is accidentally kicked into the hedge, he will stand and howl rather than retrieve it. Call it aversion therapy: This is a dog that will never get knocked down on the road, because it will never dare go to the road. But at the same time, it is quite sad, and pitiful, to watch.

The scene came to mind, yesterday, reading this from Fergal Bowers:

A few weeks ago, my colleague Ben asked the Minister for Health for the evidence that the Department of Health possesses which prove that mandatory face masking (let alone optional face masking) makes a significant impact on the transmission levels of Covid 19. The Minister promised, readers may recall, to provide us with “oodles of data”. At a later date, after some prodding, oodles of material were certainly produced, though nothing that was produced to us demonstrated any evidential link between masks and disease reduction.

I was pondering, yesterday, why Fergal Bowers, a senior journalist, had never followed up on that story, or pushed the department for proof that their preferred policy for most of the pandemic had ever worked at all. The answer, I think, relates to electric shock collars.

The dog I mentioned above will refuse to retrieve a ball from the hedge even though he has not been fitted with his collar in several years, and the fence has long since been removed. That the collar itself is not present is no barrier, in his little mind, to associating the hedge with danger, and with pain. The very memory of his shock collar is a tool for psychological control.

So it is, I think, with the Government, the population, and facemasks. Think of the facemasks not as a tool to prevent disease, but the human version of the dog’s electric shock collar, and they suddenly make vastly more sense.

Telling people to wear a mask is not, really, about giving them useful advice to prevent illness in and of itself. It is about telling them to be afraid and hoping (in the most benevolent interpretation) that this fear might spark them into more generally cautious behaviour around Christmas which might, at some level, reduce the chances of major hospital over-crowding come January. The Government cannot come right out and say “be afraid of Aunty Joan, if she sneezes” but it can spark your brain into thinking that way – or it hopes it can.

It will take years to unwind all of the consequences of the pandemic, and of lockdowns, but I think the abiding thing – that which will endure – is the psychological trauma of a population that was taught, almost screamed at daily, to treat other people as dangerous and threatening. We all had a set of cues drummed into us. A generation of children was taught that it is safe to stand two meters away from their friends, and dangerous to get any closer. A generation of older people were taught that the whole outside world might kill them, and, to this day, many refuse to go back to mass, or bingo, or to the shops outside of the long-forgotten-by-everyone-else prescribed shopping hours for older folks. And we were all taught to see facemasks as a visible manifestation of danger on the one hand, and goodness on the other. Both a warning to others that anyone might be a carrier and, at the same time, a signal that I care.

And the Government, recognising these enduring traumas, is less interested in treating them than it is in exploiting them.

So it is that we have this announcement. It should be abundantly obvious that urging facemask use on public transport is a nonsense idea: Only about 20% of the population even uses public transport, and even if facemasks were 100% effective, the net impact of this policy would therefore be minimal. This is not about health. It’s not even really about control. It is about using a pandemic era policy to provoke the same reaction in you, the public, that my friend the dog has when he sees his ball in the hedge. Fear and worry.

Some people, of course, will think of this as just good governance. Keeping the population in line, and well behaved, with a bit of fear. I, for one, am not so sure. I object to being treated like a dog, and I object to the government promoting medical interventions that have no medical evidence for them.

And finally, I am sick of a media that lets them away with it. Full disclosure: I like Fergal Bowers, and I think he gets too much stick from people online for his pandemic coverage. But on this issue, he and the national broadcaster are not engaged in journalism. They are engaged in PR for the Department of Health – another bad habit, picked up in the pandemic.

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