Monday, September 28, 2020

Mailbag: Masks, "Karen" and Pandemics

      First off, I'm going to recommend John Barnes' Daybreak trilogy to my readers (again!).   Starting with Directive 51, the three novels offer an engrossing exploration of destructive memes,* civil disunity and the weak points of technological civilization.  I read it going into the current pandemic and it was a kind of inoculation against some of the worst of the candy-coated bad ideas presently floating around.  And they happen to be good books, too.
*  *  *
     Okay, now to dig in: I have received several comments about my piece on masks that I'm not going to publish.  They mostly repeat some very dangerous and untrue memes,*  and I am not going to give those ideas any more traction than they have already got.

     I do have to mention them in order to dismiss them:
     Several comments took as given the incorrect idea that cloth masks are intended to protect the person wearing them.  Nope.  They do offer some limited protection, but the main purpose behind them is to protect the people around the wearer.†  This is the exact same reason for surgical masks in operating rooms and the exact same reason people in Japan, Korea and some other Far-East countries wear masks when they have a cold or the flu.  When you wear a mask, you are protecting society -- and not in some abstract sense of the term, either: we're talking about your friends, your neighbors and the other people you encounter where you live, work and shop.

     In the context of masks, a couple of commenters accused "Karens" of giving them the stink-eye or making comments for not wearing masks.  One commenter even threatened violence against any store clerk or manager who might ask them to mask up or leave!  But in fact, what a "Karen" tries to do is impose her (or his) desires on unwilling others.  Since the mask you (should) wear protects other people from you, if you refuse to wear a mask in stores, at work, etc., you are the Karen here, imposing your desire to not be inconvenienced over their desire to not catch whatever it is you might have.

     Other commenters tried to use numbers and amateur statistical analysis to support their point.  Yeah, no: look at the planet as a whole.  The places that cracked down fastest and hardest slowed viral spread down to a crawl, and people in those countries were able to get back to work and open up stores earliest -- while continuing to wear masks, wash their hands frequently and maintain physical distance to keep the virus from spreading unchecked.  It works.  People in the U.S.  were never going to stand for the kinds of extreme measures Red China employed, but we have (mostly) done what we could, with a lot of pushback, and it shows in our mixed results.  We have not done as bad as the worst; we have not done as well as the best.  The good old U.S.A. is a "C" student here and it bugs just about everyone who grew up knowing what a great country this is. 

     I have never disputed the economic harm that came from widespread shut-downs but they are largely over.  The economic harm from a raging, unchecked pandemic would have been greater: we would have been hit harder than Italy at its worst.  The hospitality industry has suffered tremendously and will not recover for a long time; dining out is going to continue to be different and we're going to see fewer options, an easy phrase that translates into lost jobs for people in an income bracket that can least cope with it.  Tip well if you can afford it, and if you really like a establishment, be sure to get at least one meal a week there and tell all your friends.

     In the economic short-term, mass numbers of "sick" are as bad as smaller numbers of "dead" as far as a consumer economy is concerned, so (somewhat specious) back-of-envelope figures about "risk of death" don't impress me -- and they impress me even less when they don't take the capacity limits of hospitals into account.  This coronavirus makes far more people very ill for relatively long periods of time than it kills, and we have already seen examples overseas and (to an extent) in NYC of the kind of economic damage that can do as it sweeps though a neighborhood or a business. 

     Another commenter went off about masks and effectiveness, once again misunderstanding the vector of protection† and suggesting that his own experience with a gas mask in military training proved that an N95 mask without an exhale valve was impossible to use for any length of time.  Since I have been trained to use an APR (Air-Purifying Respirator, the civilian version of a full-face gas mask) and have used both valved and valveless N95s, I can speak to this: the canister filters in an APR or gas mask by design are easier to pull air through than blow it back out: the filter material is arranged in a gradient from coarse to fine for incoming air, and one's moist exhalation has to try to push the other way.  Those type masks are strapped on your head with thick, adjustable bands and one way to check the seals is to block the exhale valve and blow: they stay stuck on as air trickles very slowly backwards through the filters.  Conversely, while N95's have light elastic straps and must be properly fitted to avoid air ingress and egress around the edges, the filter material is homogeneous or symmetrically graded, and it takes no more effort to exhale through a valveless N95 than to inhale through it. And remember, while they do offer the wearer better protection against the virus, information from medical settings with exposure to infected patients shows that most of that protection is lost if the mask is taken off and put back on often.  Two-layer cloth masks are still the simplest, most easily used form of protection we have -- but they only work if we're all wearing them along with keeping our distance and washing our hands.

     We will get through this, and we will have sticks-in-the-mud, proudly maintaining their independence by refusing to wear masks, just as we have always had people who are proudly independent of dental hygiene or regular bathing, and such individuals often express puzzlement or anger at the way so many people will not come too near to them.  Funny how that works.

     I choose to wear a mask in indoor spaces other than my home.  Not because there's some damn rule or even law requiring it, but because I do not care to help this virus spread quickly enough to do any more harm than our health and support resources can cope with.  If you would rather make a fuss, well, I'm not the boss of you, but I can and will walk very wide of you.
* I am using "meme" in the original sense, a kind of "viral idea" that gets transmitted via in-person and Internet connection in a peer-to-peer way.  The cute pictures with pointed and/or funny captions came later.

† Confusion about this is one of the most dangerous memes floating around and if you sincerely believe that masks are supposed to protect the person wearing them rather than those around them, I am unlikely to change your mind.  You are broken and I feel very sorry for you.


JPD said...

Very clear explanation. Without all the hype (in either direction) My experience in the workplace validates your conclusions. 35 construction jobsites in Metro area. Personnel in contact with large number of other workers. To date, we have had two personnel sick. Both from family members, not work. We explained what you said, about who is being protected. It works.

Unidentified Victim said...

RE: the future of restaurants. I've been wondering if their future success, for some values of "success,")more akin to "survival of some") might be in a rough approximation of the food court model.

Space between seated patrons will, probably for some time, prevent the density necessary for economic success, so a (hopefully temporary) large seating area bracketed by multiple flex-design but independently operated (and owned) kitchens offering different cuisine and supported by a common wait staff (and the combining of the usual individual overhead functions - accounting, ordering, stocking, payroll, payment processing, etc.) might form an economic bridge of sorts. It will carry a price in job loss, but that seems inevitable in any case.

Given the smaller available "patron pool" in not just food service but various business endeavors, the pure competition model may not be sustainable for some time.

Paul said...

Good write up. I got a care pack from work that had three cloth masks in it with the directive that if we go back to the office we need to wear the mask anytime we leave our desk.

I have a friend whose hubby brought it home. They are mid to late 30's so it did not seem to put them down much. He is a band teacher so expect it got if from that.

Might have to start wearing one more often.