There are times, in my blogging, that I am surprised by the degree of response to a particular topic. One such surprise was, and continues to be, the polarization around the wearing of masks in public places to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, the advocacy for which was offered, on this blog, here and here. Many readers loved the articles, but some rejected the message.

The psychology of those rejections, along with a concurrent behavior, is what interests me today. While a couple readers scolded us for using impolite language, and for scolding those who have chosen not to wear masks (more on that later) rather than “honey not vinegar” cajoling, some couched their rejection with “I choose not to live in fear” declarations.

This struck me as funny, in a tragic way. I can understand boldness in the face of intimidation or demands for deference. In fact, this blog has advocated just that sort of response to things like social-justice aggression, cancel culture, historical revisionism, and the like. But, we’re not dealing with interpersonal interactions on the political battlefield. COVID-19 is a virus. It does not care about bravado, or boldness, or brass balls. It cannot be impressed by machismo or fearlessness. Its behavior is wholly independent of the attitude of its potential victim.

There is a particular element in Americans’ psyches at play here. Americans are the most generous people in the world, and step up for their fellows, with money or goods or their time and effort, whenever need arises. They do this willingly and voluntarily, with no need for diktat from above. And, Americans are very prone to “pulling together,” to acting in a communitarian way, of their own volition. However, when someone comes along and tells them they should do X, many bristle and reject the demand, even when they would have done so had there been no diktat. This distrust and rejection of authority has served the nation for decades, even though sometimes it’s counterproductive.

Thing is, we’re dealing with a virus, not authority figures. It’s not the authority figures who are punished by rejection of their requests or orders, it’s fellow citizens. Indeed, the government is the entity that’s least impacted by mask-refusal. Acceding to the suggestions that one wears a mask in public indoor spaces isn’t, ultimately, about giving in to government’s lust for power and authority. They’re about keeping alive the 80 year old parent or grandparent of that person who walked by you in the supermarket. They’re about mitigating the virus’s spread, so that fewer will get sick and fewer will die in the months (hopefully) before a vaccine is implemented. They’re about helping the economy open back up, helping that small business survive, pay its employees, and serve the public. They’re about being a good communitarian and a good citizen, and you can still flip the middle finger to the government even as you do right by your friends and neighbors.

“Manning up” in the face of the virus isn’t going to improve your survival chances, should you contract it. There are many things you can do in that regard (exercise, weight loss, vitamin D and other immune boosters, etc), but COVID cojones, Coro-nads, pandemic pomposity, virus virility, and coronaroid-rage (a tip of the hat to “The Mayor” for some of these) don’t make the list. “Fearlessness” or whatever you want to call it is totally misdirected in the face of this pandemic. COVID isn’t Ebola, but it’s not the common cold either. It’s (best information as of the writing of this essay) about 6x more lethal than the flu generally, a whole lot more than that re the elderly and “at risk” patients, and (again best info) more infectious than the flu, both in transmissibility and in the pre-symptom or asymptomatic contagiousness.

Yes, there are differences of opinion among experts as to all of this. This is a new virus. We knew zero about it a year ago, we knew very little about it six months ago, we know more about it today than we did two months ago, and we will know even more three months from now. The science is rapidly evolving. As I blogged in April, higher uncertainty supports greater caution, and we were blitzed at the time with declarations that N95 masks were what we needed (in parallel with a government deceit about masks in general, intended to preserve scarce masks for medical professionals).

Today, we understand there is a gradation in mitigators. N100 respirators are more effective than N95 masks, N95s are more effective than surgical masks, surgical masks are more effective than cloth masks, cloth masks are more effective than scarves. The science is increasingly supporting efficacy (citations here, here, here, and here).

Will that change tomorrow? Perhaps, but as knowledge matures, the uncertainty band decreases. And, since masks are really such a trivial “ask,” the cost-benefit calculus of wearing them skews heavily in favor.

The same goes for other low-‘cost’ behaviors. Social distancing and frequent hand washing are really minor behaviors, with a good amount of support for their contributing to an overall mitigation effort, so, why not do them? The key word is “mitigation.” While no single action is a 100% bulwark against giving or receiving infection, each of these reduces the probability a nontrivial amount.

Finally, as promised, a word about words. Our previous posts voiced an exasperated tone, one we felt quite justified in putting forth in the face of what we saw as resistance despite evidence. But, I’m more than willing to consider that some might resist our request (and I’ve stressed time and again – request. Neither I nor E.D. Nicholas, the other mask urger, ever advocated coercion, nor do we support mandates) based on that exasperated and ‘blue language’ tone. So, for you, with a nod to Winston Wolfe, I offer a sincere:

Please, wear a mask when in indoor public spaces. Even if you don’t feel you need to worry about contracting the Coronavirus yourself, you benefit the people with whom you cross paths, and the people they live with (especially the old and at-risk). It’s the neighborly thing to do.

Peace.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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