Masks: What's the Harm?
Masks have been pitched as a no-cost intervention that ought to be continued even if evidence for their effectiveness is lacking or contrary. If they were uniformly optional, that would be true. That they are not has rendered them deeply harmful.
Inquiry into any potential harms has been wholly shutdown by the medical and scientific communities who have planted their flag on mask mountain. As a result, simple studies like evaluating bacterial contamination of masks after 8 hours of use have not been done (well they have, but they can't get published). There has been neither concern, nor curiosity as to whether they negatively impact social and emotional development of children, despite studies of masked preschoolers during the 2003 SARS outbreak showing a marked decrease in socialization. There is no curiosity as to whether "mask discipline" is selectively enforced. "Masks work." End of discussion.
Except they don't. They have no impact on cases or deaths, in either the short or long-term.
There is literally zero correlation between mask usage and COVID-19 death rates. There is, however, a strong negative correlation between masking and access to in-person education, and a positive correlation with high unemployment.
Figure 1: % Masking vs. COVID-19 Deaths, Education Access & Employment
The graphs above look at the average masking by state between November '20 and May '21 (data were unavailable to me prior to that). The data were gathered via a daily survey of ~225,000 people. There were two questions related to masking, one asked people if they always wore a mask outside their homes, the other asked them what portion of others in their areas were wearing masks. Both measures have flaws. The percent of "others masking" was used, in the belief that it was less likely to be overstated. Interestingly, the other measure (personal reporting) showed even lower correlation with deaths, and even higher correlation of low-access to in-person school, and low unemployment.
The middle graph shows that ultra high-levels of masking were tied to near zero (in several places, actually zero) access to full-time in-person education by any of the states' children for the entire school year. Access to in-person schooling was calculated based on weekly analysis of all 3000+ U.S. counties, and the percent of children in each of those counties offered 100% in-person school/week. The score is the cumulative percent (in a normal year, all states would be at 100%, where 100% of students are offered 100% in-person learning 100% of the time).
High levels of masking are also linked to high unemployment. Once again, the graph above looks at the total impact over the course of the pandemic, from March 2020 to March 2021. Rather than use the raw unemployment rate, the difference in unemployment relative to the February 2020 unemployment was used, in order to show the excess unemployment caused by these policies, above pre-pandemic baselines. The cumulative number of work-months lost (based on the size of each state's workforce), per million people was used to make the numbers more salient (though it has no impact on the statistical analysis).
The argument will be advanced that correlation is not causation, and that is certainly true. But ask yourself what would happen if these graphs were flipped? What if there were a high correlation between masking and decreased COVID-19 mortality, and no impact on access to education or unemployment? These graphs would be all over the news with no questions asked, trumpeting "masks work" and cause no harm. Further, while correlation is not causation, if masking caused a decrease in transmission of COVID-19, it would be correlated to a decrease in overall deaths. It is not. This is underscored by places like Massachusetts which have had near 100% compliance with masking since May of 2020, but which have had significantly worse outcomes overall, as well as worse outcomes during the winter wave than places with far lower masking and other restrictions (like Florida).
The harms of masking do not end there. Masking is also linked to fear of getting COVID, and feelings of isolation. It is an indication of real compliance, that masking is also tightly linked to avoiding spending time indoors with others.
Figure 3: Masking vs: Fear of getting COVID, Time Spent w/Others & Isolation
Interestingly, these are exactly the behaviors that public health officials want masks to instill. They want them to serve as a constant reminder of the threat of COVID. They want them to cause us to avoid spending time with others indoors. They don't want us to feel isolated per se, that would simply be classified under "unfortunate collateral damage." They want these things, because they believe that they will help to slow the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, while there is no doubt that masks are doing their job at making people afraid of COVID-19, and causing them to spend less time with others, neither of these things is resulting in fewer cases or deaths.
Figure 4: Short-term impact of Masking and Spending Time w/Others Indoors on Cases and Deaths
In fact, in the graphs above, while there is no statistically significant correlation, higher rates of masking trend slightly towards higher levels of cases and deaths 17 and 18 days later, respectively (I used these timeframes, because the data source I used noted these specific timeframes as showing correlation). Where people spending time with others trends towards fewer deaths 18 days later. While some might say this is an indication that masks make things worse, I am skeptical of that interpretation. My guess is that actually in all states, as cases and deaths start to rise, people start wearing masks at slightly higher levels in all places, whether to protect themselves, or out of courtesy for the fears' of others. I did perform an analysis of case rates two weeks before, and there was a slight but insignificant correlation in this direction (i.e., more cases 2 weeks earlier, triggers more masking 2 weeks later).
One thing that stands out over, and over again in the graphs above is what looks to be a strong correlation between masking and how a state leans politically. Sadly, this is unquestionably the case. As if to underscore this, the thing that shows the highest correlation to masking is a state's support for BLM.
Figure 5: Masking vs. BLM support, Education Access and Unemployment
The graphs above are important. They demonstrate the level to which masks have been politicized, and the negative consequences of that politicization in the places where their use has been embraced most fulsomely.
The graphs above also hint at the dissonance between people's stated principles, and the policies they support in the name of those principles. But you have to dig a little deeper to see just how jarring the dissonance really is.
Masking is most tightly linked with support for BLM, and low levels of access to 5-day in-person education. If this lack of access were evenly distributed across races, it might be possible to claim that these policies were not specifically "racist." However, that is not the case, as is shown below.
In theory, support for BLM is all about stopping systemic racism, and somehow masks have also gotten tied up with that. Yet the fact that mask usage is strongly correlated to lack of access to 5-day in-person education, would argue the opposite, that in fact high levels of masking are helping to widen racial divides. When we break down learning in the 2020-21 school year by state political affiliation, the story gets downright embarrassing. Not only have supposedly racist "Trump states" provided access to real learning (traditional, 5-day in-person) at 2-3 times the rate of "Biden states," they have provided it uniformly by race. In fact, Hispanic children have had higher access than white and Black children--though this reflects the more the differential educational policies of mega states, Texas and California with large hispanic populations. On the other hand, states whose populations are in theory the most concerned with racial equality have had both less access to education, and what looks like a systemic problem, where whites have the highest access to in-person learning, and have also been subjected to the lowest levels of virtual learning.
In Figure 7, we see that the picture over time looks no better, with access to 100% in-person learning in "Trump states" being equal for white and Black students throughout the year, with Hispanic students having higher access through the year, again, due to the out-size weight of FL and TX. Since Christmas, all three races have converged, as "racist" red states returned nearly all of their children to full-time in-person instruction.
Comparing that to more "social justice-minded Biden states," we see white students having greater access to in-person learning throughout, and pulling away from Black and Hispanic students after the inauguration.
Recall as well that not only are high levels of masking correlated to ultra-low-levels of in-person education, they are also linked to significantly higher levels of unemployment.
Once again, if that particular problem were evenly distributed across all races, this would not be "racist." However, the fact is, unemployment--like all social ills--falls disproportionately upon minorities and the poor, meaning that any policy which exacerbates that ill must necessarily be understood as racist. In Figure 8 we see that Black unemployment remains at 9.7%, where white unemployment is 5.3%. And yet, once again, we see that in "Biden states" not only did their excess unemployment (and in general) peak at higher levels, even now, excess unemployment over February 2020 levels remains nearly twice as high per capita in "Biden states," as in "Trump states."
No doubt there will be some now who will argue that while these policies may harm employment or educational prospects, they are necessary to "protect" minorities. Leaving aside the obvious fact that minorities who are more likely to be essential workers have been exposed throughout, the data tell a very different story.
The graph in Figure 9 below shows deaths by race, proportional to population. It is quite clear that at both the national and the state level, when lockdowns and harsh infection control measures were in place, minorities died at far higher rates than whites. When they were relaxed the difference between races was erased--in those states that relaxed their measures.
In states that did not lift restrictions, or meaningfully ease them (like California), the difference in per capita excess deaths continues to favor whites, with hispanics, and especially Blacks dying at far higher rates. In Florida, after lifting restrictions, deaths by race normalize, with all races dying at roughly the same rate. In fact, it actually flips, with whites in Florida dying at a slightly lower rate than Blacks or Hispanics--but all at a rates significantly lower than California.
There are two additional things I would like to point out about the chart above. First, the chart above shows ALL excess deaths, not just those from COVID. I continue to believe this is the best measure for the overall impact of our mitigation policies. Additionally, some will ask why choose California and Florida? There are two reasons why these are particularly apt choices for comparison. First, they have similar climates, meaning their COVID waves follow a similar periodicity. Second, they have diametrically opposed policies, which makes the contrast especially stark.
While some might argue that these correlations are just happenstance, and not evidence that masks are in fact causal, or being used politically, other factors provide additional grounds for believing that they are. There is of course the CDC's notorious adoption of language given to it directly by the American Federation of Teachers, and which notably directly contradicted Director Walenksy's own writings early in the year. More recently, U.S. Secretary of education Miguel Cardona parroted nearly verbatim, statements from American Federation of Teachers President, Randi Weingarten, that masks and distancing will be necessary in the fall. In theory this is to keep children safe, however a closer reading shows that this is being used to drive funding towards teachers, and especially towards those teachers in the districts that have most grossly failed their students--those exhibiting the greatest learning loss and social scarring due to more than a years' worth of virtual learning. Senior leaders in the American education establishment have been, and continue to deliberately cause harm to American schoolchildren, in order to use that harm to profit personally, and increase their political might. The districts that have most warmly embraced these policies are now being rewarded most richly for the last year's gross dereliction of duty.
Regarding unemployment and masks, there too, there is evidence to suggest that mask restrictions were left in place explicitly to CAUSE unemployment, to create the pretext for stimulus spending, and drive that spending towards blue states. Earlier in the year, after President Biden was inaugurated, the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, which initially had apportioned aid according to a state's population, was changed to allocate that money according to the state's portion of unemployed workers. Thus, states whose policies had most thoroughly knee-capped their recovery from the pandemic would benefit the most. Once again, it appears that policies were adopted expressly for the harm that they would cause the population, in order to secure greater funds down the line.
Most recently, we have seen a tacit acknowledgment of this in the CDC's completely out-of-the-blue change in indoor mask guidance the day after an atrocious jobs numbers. That guidance lead to the immediate removal of indoor mask mandates and capacity restrictions across the country--and especially in blue America. The temporal proximity of these two events hardly seems accidental, rather it seems that the amount of pain being meted out to blue state populaces had finally reached a breaking point, one that might have started to cause problems for the Biden administration. Las Vegas, the hamstrung engine of Nevada's economy, was the site of one of the more dramatic reversals, immediately removing all indoor mask mandates, and allowing casinos to resume normal operations.
So we see that masks and other mitigation tactics result in minorities dying at higher levels, being educated at lower levels, and increasing unemployment--all disproportionately for minorities. I am sure that the argument against these policies being "racist" will be that they are not meant to target minorities especially, that that is just an "unfortunate" side effect of them. I would argue that that is exactly the nature of "systemic racism," that the people who are practicing it are not doing it on purpose--but they are doing it nonetheless.
And yet, despite data strongly suggesting that masks are creating inequality, and may be more of an embodiment of systemic racism, than in any way associated with its alleviation, they have been so clearly politicized as to be pitched as the opposite. In a post from June 5, 2020, Dr. Swannie Jett, the Commissioner of Public Health for Brookline, MA, made a direct equivalence, exhorting people to "...wear a mask together to overcome this infectious disease of systemic racism" (This is in Figure 13, at the end of this post, as it is too long to include right here).
In theory we have proof of Dr. Jett's conviction as to the importance of masks, when he made national news by extending Brookline's outdoor mask mandate, after Massachusetts' Governor Charlie Baker removed it. Though for Dr. Jett, it appears that the problem of masking to stop systemic racism was localized to the people of Brookline, not to him, or those in his milieu, as in fact, Dr. Jett lives in Orlando, Florida (has, in fact, never lived in Massachusetts at all). After he re-instated Brookline's outdoor mask mandate, and while it remained in place, he was photographed maskless, hugging a friend at a large golf event on May 15th, 2021 in Florida. The event also had a large indoor, maskless luncheon with mixed tables of 10, without social distancing.
No doubt Dr. Jett is nothing more than another of the small-time public health hypocrites with which we've become so familiar over the past year (his own wife, it turns out is also unable to comply with the kind of guidance he has imposed on the town of Brookline--which requires all children over 2 to be masked at all times). This hypocrisy would not be more than run-of-the-mill, if it didn't appear that it was being abused by powerful interest groups to cause real and persistent harm to our fellow citizens, as well as being used by other powerful entities--including, but not limited to--the CDC--to paper over classist--if not out-right racist--policies that have protected the rich at the expense of the poor. The graph below is from an analysis of cases in Boston, by zip code. There is a clear trend showing that the more educated the population of a given a neighborhood, the fewer the cases per capita, and vice versa. This demonstrates that lockdowns and other measures did not slow the spread, so much as redirect it to those members of our communities who were least able to bear it, and most likely to suffer adverse consequences.
Masks have provided the wealthy a way to ignore this reality. Masks allow the served-classes--the zoomocracy--to believe that they are not actually shifting their immunological burden. So long as everyone "does their part," wears their masks and socially distances, everyone is safe. It allows the zoomocracy to believe create the conscience-saving fiction that the reason minorities and the poor are being infected at higher rates is because they are disregarding public health directives. In fact, the opposite is true, with minorities actually MORE likely to wear masks. But, if we have learned anything over the last year, it is that there is no reason for data to get in the way of a narrative that makes you feel better about yourself, or to blame your problems on someone else. Thus, despite minorities wearing masks at higher rates, over and over again, one hears of outbreaks being blamed on workers, or housekeepers--the poors who must not be following the rules when they go home to their unwashed families.
This kind of analysis in Figure 12 has been performed over, and over, and over again, in cities across the globe. Each one shows that these kind of mitigations do nothing, save to shift the immunological burden from the healthy and wealthy, to the poor and the sick. What is somewhat stunning and disheartening, is that this is well known in the epidemiological and public health communities. Harvard's Marc Lipsitch, authored an article in 2008 pointing out exactly this, that harsh measures can increase deaths, when the disease has a highly stratified risk profile (as COVID-19 does).
Indeed, this, and the social harms that I have catalogued at length above, are why Dr. Michael Osterholm warned in March of 2020, that lockdowns were a bell we did not know how to un-ring, and that the social costs of their implementation were unknown but would be wide-ranging and long-lasting.
Despite these positions, both Drs. Lipsitch and Osterholm have been singing a different tune for more than a year. This is not because they realized their earlier research and writings were wrong. I am not sure what the catalyst for the change was, though I suspect it was falling in-line with the institutional party line, the promise of worldwide recognition and influence. At this point the empirical evidence makes it clear that neither lockdowns nor masks have had any ability to stop the spread (in non-island nations), and have caused unimaginable worldwide harms. Scores of peer-reviewed articles make this clear, and even a cursory look at U.S. state-by-state data.
But, rather than acknowledging the errors of our policy response, and trying to learn from them, we find ourselves in an Orwellian world, where everything is called its opposite. Thus, a recent MIT publication attempting to discredit the community that has been assiduously trying to shed light on the disastrous nature of these policies has the audacity to link those efforts to white supremacy, and systemic racism.
And so we see the CDC, and its advance guard in academia waging an Orewellian war on reality. After executing a policy that created a literal--if accidental--genocide in March of 2020, they have the audacity to blame it on systemic racism, rather than their own policy failures. These policy failures would perhaps be more acceptable (and less necessary to hide), if the policies were not in direct contravention of the CDC's extant pandemic plans. Masks have proven to an invaluable tool in this deception. They were questioned by the "right" people, i.e. the people upon whom the CDC wished to blame their failures. Masks provided a bullet-proof and logic-proof fig leaf, demonstrating conclusively, that while you cannot stop a respiratory virus with a cloth mask, you can use it to cover up a public health policy that has been world historical in the magnitude and scope of its failure.
Things do not simply become politicized. They are politicized for a reason--and those reasons are always political.
In the next post, I will be breaking down "how" the science generated from March 2020 onward was used to create this deception, without their explicitly lying. You can also go back, and read this post that explains the mechanism for why masks have not been--and were never expected to be--able to stop COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses. If you'd like to immerse yourself more fully in our new Orwellian world, read this condensed version of the MIT article referenced above.