Bret Stephens, a New York Times conservative (but a Never-Trumper) has triumphantly heralded a new scientific meta-analysis that he claims reviewed “the efficacy of masks for reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses — including Covid-19” and quoted the author (misleadingly, as we will see) as concluding that “ ‘There is just no evidence that they’ — masks — ‘make any difference.’ ”
But, but, but. That authorial insertion (“masks”) is notable!
This is what the study actually says about mask-wearing itself: “We are uncertain whether wearing masks or N95/P2 respirators helps to slow the spread of respiratory viruses based on the studies we assessed.”
Why? Because that’s not really what the analysis reviewed.
Of the 78 studies summarized in the new analysis, only two addressed Covid, and, as Vox reports, “neither of those studies looked directly at whether people wear masks, but instead at whether people were encouraged or told to wear masks by researchers.”
And what does that prove? Either that masks don’t work … or something else.
“If telling people to wear masks doesn’t lead to reduced infections,” Vox reports, “it may be because masks just don’t work, or it could be because people don’t wear masks when they’re told, or aren’t wearing them correctly.”
Even Stephens notes this, in passing.
“[T]he analysis does not prove,” he acknowledges, “that proper masks, properly worn, had no benefit at an individual level. People may have good personal reasons to wear masks, and they may have the discipline to wear them consistently. Their choices are their own.”
In other words, as Stephens admits under his breath, the study does not prove that masks are ineffective against Covid. They may be effective “on an individual level.” In other words, wearing a mask may prevent “an individual” from catching or spreading Covid.
Rather, the study showed (based on a tiny sample) that mask mandates might not be effective against Covid. And if that were true, the reason for that may be simple. Perhaps mask mandates were ineffective because conservatives rebelled against them.
Individuals inclined to protect themselves and the community would do so with or without a mandate; individuals disinclined to do so would not do so, even if mandated. That’s not evidence supporting the anti-mask position.
Indeed, as Vox notes, wearing masks prevents covid, which the science confirms. “One of the largest studies of mask-wearing during the Covid pandemic,” the website writes, “was conducted in Bangladesh,” with nearly 400,000 participants. “In the end, around 40 percent of the experimental group wore masks, compared to around 10 percent in the control group. The result, the study found, was a substantial reduction in the share of people with Covid-19-like symptoms, and in antibodies that would suggest a Covid-19 infection: ‘In surgical mask villages, we observe a 35.3% reduction in symptomatic seroprevalence among individuals ≥60 years old … We see larger reductions in symptoms and symptomatic seropositivity in villages that experienced larger increases in mask use.’ ”
Nevertheless, Stephens attacks the [CDC]’s “mindless adherence to its masking guidance,” and demands resignations at the Center, linking to a CDC webpage that offers sensible guidance on the use of masks entirely unrelated to the question of mandates.
Is this new analysis, in fact, an argument against mask mandates, or an argument in favor of more stringent mask mandates?
As the pandemic began, it seemed inconceivable that anti-masking sentiment would become a political rallying cry for the right, but maybe it was predictable.
If something is stupid and harmful, the Republicans will do it, which public policy, from now until an indefinite future, will also have to address.
Image by Cottonbro Studio/Pexels.