BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – Back in the U.S., we are woozy… out of phase. Like a wilting orchid in the Arctic.
We landed in Miami. It felt like a foreign country.
We rented a car. The idea was to drive up the coast, pausing to visit friends and family.
First, we were surprised at how many people were in the airport and how many cars there were on I-95. We didn’t think the Plague had let so many get away.
We stopped for the night in Savannah. The old part of the city is gracious and beautiful. It was designed in 1733. Even back then, people knew how to lay out an attractive town. It is surprising that they’ve built so many ugly ones since then.
There, too, there were people out and about… all wearing masks, of course. It was as if everyone decided to rob a bank at the same time.
Puzzling and Strange
Yesterday, back on the family farm in Maryland, for a moment, we were puzzled to see the sun to the south of us. For the last nine months, it has reliably arced across the northern sky.
And it was low. Even at noon, it barely rose above the treetops. A week ago, it was almost directly overhead.
And then, in the hardware store, we were caught off guard again:
“Sir, you have to wear a face mask to come in here.”
Everywhere you go, people are wearing the holy rag. Even old friends are hard to recognize.
Catching up with them is odd, too.
One said she “didn’t feel comfortable” coming for a visit with the coronavirus on the loose. Another said his family had not celebrated Thanksgiving. The risk was low, he admitted, but “why take chances?”
Of course, taking chances is what we do. We cross the street. We eat mushrooms. We fall in love.
Heck, we even invade foreign countries.
We run risks all our lives. From our first whimper – as soon as we leave our mothers’ wombs – to the final sound of mud falling on our coffins… life is risks – and rewards.
But do face masks reduce the risk?
Last week, many dear readers wrote to say that we were wrong about face masks. They are scientifically proven to work, they say. They especially insisted that masks “protect other people” from your germs.
The very next day, a news item in The Daily Beast suggested that they were right:
New CDC Study Shows Mask Orders Work – No Matter What Governors Think
A new study released by the Centers for Disease Control on Friday adds to the evidence that mask mandates do, in fact, slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The researchers looked at Kansas while it was in the throes of a surge this summer. Gov. Laura Kelly implemented a statewide mask requirement, but counties were allowed to opt out of it.
Some did and some did not, giving epidemiologists a chance to do side-by-side comparisons. And what they found was clear-cut: counties that abided by Kelly’s mandate saw their cases drop 6 percent, while those that shunned a mandate saw increases of 100 percent.
But “slowing the spread” is not the same as keeping you from dying. Is it a good idea to “slow the spread”? Or would it be better to isolate those at risk… and let the virus spread quickly, so that life could get back to normal?
Of course, we don’t know. And neither does anyone else. This is social science… not real science. It involves not just the actions of a virus… but the actions of humans, too.
And in human activity… there’s always more to the story. There’s risk… and reward. A 90-year-old may be safer if he locks himself in his house and refuses to see his granddaughter. But where’s the reward?
In the Financial Times is a report that in China, one of the main places the virus spreads is in ballroom dancing classes. But who would want to give that up?
It may be safer to drive under 30 mph… but it will take a long time to go from Miami to Annapolis.
Besides, humans are not like iron filings or even tree squirrels. They react as well as act – often in subtle, science-confounding ways.
In the above-cited study, for example, the counties and states that pushed face masks on their citizens were those that had been worst-hit. Maybe they had less of the virus going forward simply because they had already had more of it and there were fewer people left to be infected.
Or maybe… with so much coronavirus on the loose in the worst-hit counties… people there took extra precautions.
Meanwhile, in the counties with little coronavirus, people may have seen little need for the masks… But they were virgin territory for the virus; naturally, when it arrived there, it found more targets.
What does this prove? Nothing. We don’t know why some counties had fewer cases than others. And we don’t know what the final score will be.
But the Mask Hypothesis is weak. Argentina has had one of the strictest mask-up rules in the world. Gauchos, riding alone, way out on the prairies, were required to wear face masks (obviously, it is difficult to enforce).
With roadblocks every 20 miles or so, police checked to see if people were masked up. Every weekend, we drove up to our ranch in Gualfin. And every time, we had to put on the face covering before we got to the police stop – even though we were in our own car.
How did it work out for the Argentines? After nine months of roadblocks… compulsive, Lady Macbeth-style handwashing… enforced social distancing… and mandatory masks, they have suffered 848 deaths per million.
In other words, not only did the masks not protect the wearers… they didn’t protect other people, either.
The U.S. has had hit-or-miss masking. Still, only 823 people per million have died from the coronavirus here.
And Sweden, which is said to have the most relaxed mask policy in the world, had fewer still – 660 per million.
What do we make of these numbers? They prove nothing. But they hint that as a matter of public policy, mask-wearing requirements don’t really do much good. The disease goeth where it willst.
But what about private policy? What can you do to protect yourself?
We’re over 70 with a history of lung problems. If we get it, well, there’s no way to know how it will go. So we’re going to try to avoid it.
All we know for sure is that the ultimate death toll will be 100%. The best we can do is try to live as long as we can – without becoming an embarrassment to the family.
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