2020-05-22 – I am stoically wearing a mask. But I’m doing it for me, not for you.
Mask advocates have been circulating the idea that you should wear a mask to protect others. I cringe when I see these. If wearing a mask had no benefit for me—at all—I wouldn’t wear it. This I’m-wearing-it-for-you nonsense is based on a misunderstanding of contagion. It’s a kind of I’m-holier-than-thou statement—aimed at shaming people who aren’t wearing masks.
I understand why this is going on, though. It is a response to the scientific fact that most of the masks we wear have low effectiveness in protecting the wearer from incoming viruses. The masks we wear are more effective in filtering out outgoing viruses—that is: they are more effective in protecting others than they are in protecting the wearer.
I don’t quibble with that, though I think that wearing a mask does more than just filter out viruses in the air. When I wear my mask, I’m less likely to touch my face and I’m less likely to touch surfaces that might expose me to the virus. It’s a kind of reminder.
None of this is 100% protection.
But it is some protection. The small amount of incoming protection adds to the modest amount of outgoing protection, which adds to the higher amount of social distancing protection, etc. It all adds up.
And the result is slowing the spread of the virus. That benefits me! I can be perfectly selfish (though I’m not) and still wear the mask for selfish reasons.
Because here’s the thing. A virus advances or recedes depending on how fast people catch it. If it spreads fast, you have a deadly pandemic. If it spreads slowly, you don’t. The scientists measure the rate of spread by something called an R number. An R number over 1 is deadly. An R number under 1 is hopeful.
So I don’t need a 100% protection to get value from wearing a mask. A lot of low-effectiveness measures can add up in a way that drives the R number down. The more of us that do these things, the lower the R number will go.
That’s why I wear the mask. It’s not because my heroic participation is going to save me all by itself, of course. But, by wearing the mask, I’m contributing my little bit toward protecting us all—me included.
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