The Cargo Cult of Masks

by George Right

No, I am not a conspiracy theorist who says that coronavirus is "fake" or "just a seasonal flu". Far from that. COVID-19 is a real danger, and prevention measures are needed. But the requirement for everyone to wear masks has no practical sense and is just a form of paranoia and hysteria (typical for large crises) or, more precisely, of a cargo cult (i.e., copying the external feature without understanding the real mechanics of the phenomenon). "Doctors wear masks, so we all should do the same!"

So, what are these mechanics and why masks are not really needed (except for some specific conditions)? Again - no conspiracy theories, just well-known, scientifically ground facts.

First of all, how the coronavirus spreads? Mostly it spreads in two ways. It does NOT spread in and with dry air (and if it did, masks would have been absolutely useless, as the size of gas molecules - and the coronavirus itself - is by orders of magnitude less than the distance between the fibers of a mask). So, the way 1 is with respiratory droplets which are produced when an infected person (a carrier) is coughing or sneezing (sneezing is NOT a symptom of COVID-19, but sometimes people sneeze without a medical reason). Normal breathing does not produce the droplets. Talking (especially screaming) may produce a few - but indeed few, so this way of infecting is unlikely. So, to be infected by the way 1, two conditions must be met: a carrier must cough or sneeze AND it must be done within 6 feet from you. If at least one condition is not met, you are safe (again, from the way 1).

It is very important to know that regular masks DO NOT save YOU from being infected this way. The droplets will remain on your mask (which will be probably wet, especially in hot summer days), and you will inhale the viruses not immediately, but seconds or minutes later. The mask can only protect others FROM you, in case you are a carrier. This is also important, of course. But to be dangerous to them, you, again, must cough or sneeze at them from close distance without covering your mouth and nose. Do you know many people who are that ill-mannered? I don't. Almost everyone covers his or her mouth and nose in such cases, and it should be done at the moment of coughing or sneezing ONLY (the best way to do it, as probably everyone knows now, is covering not with your hand - to avoid leaving viruses on it, see the way 2 below - but with the inner side of your elbow). Permanently worn masks ARE NOT NEEDED.

The way 2 of getting the disease is to touch things which a carrier has touched (the fomites) AND to touch your face after that, but BEFORE you wash you hands with soap or antiseptic. This way may be more dangerous since the viruses can survive for hours or even days on fomites. But, of course, masks have absolutely nothing to do with the way 2 (but gloves, or just plastic bags put on you hands before touching something in public places, may help).

So, to stay safe yourself, practice social distancing, wash your hands often and don't touch your face until you do it. Masks will not help you at all. To protect others, do not cough or sneeze near them, and if you cannot avoid it - cover your mouth and nose only at that moment. Masks are not needed!

When masks ARE needed? Only in hospitals where there are many infected people, and in dense crowds where keeping the social distance (and sometimes even unobstructed moving of your arms) is impossible. (It's also a good idea to put masks on little children.) In all other cases, like visiting a store, the requirement of masks is a pure paranoia.

But, you may say, there are still ill-mannered people who can cough into others' faces, and masks can protect from that. Yes, they can. Just like handcuffs can protect from committing crimes. Imagine that, to enter a bank, all visitors need to be handcuffed because some of them theoretically can be robbers! Will you go to such a bank again?




Appendix: This is how the infection spreads with respiratory droplets by activity and by distance (the more dots, the worse). Source - Dr. Richard Davis (Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, Washington), who tried to prove that masks ARE needed. Yes, a masked carrier does not spread the infection with droplets at all, just like a handcuffed person never robbed a bank - but see above.

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