The debate over the general public wearing masks to combat the coronavirus has taken a decidedly political turn. Especially in public places like grocery stores, you could bet with good odds on which television news networks the various customers watch the most. Vice President Pence goes without a mask in public appearances, even visiting at-risk nursing homes, not because he is ignorant about the extreme virulence of this threat, but rather because President Trump sees masks as a sign of weakness and insufficient fealty. Likely as a result of this (literal) care-less-ness, even the Vice President’s own press secretary has tested positive for COVID-19.
For those of you living in the world outside of politics, let me suggest that wearing a mask in public places, where you will be interacting with others, has at the same time both a mathematical purpose and an ethical purpose.
The math behind the mask
We saw a lot of initial debate in this new world of coronavirus about exactly how much masks prevent one from catching the coronavirus. Tests were done of various barriers measuring the protection from the virus going both in and out. Clearly the “N95” masks are mathematically superior but remain in short supply. Despite the looming shortage in January, offers to the federal government by a major US-based apparel company to ramp up production of N95 masks were apparently rejected.
Homemade and makeshift masks are still the norm in public as N95 masks remain hard to get for most of us. These masks and were initially suspect of having value in protection, but recent guidelines now recommend the makeshift masks. What has changed?
Those early efficacy debates missed a key point about virus transmission in the “real world” outside the testing laboratory, and so the scientific consensus has shifted to the larger goal. None of the mitigation measures in place alone, such as social distancing and one-way aisles in that local supermarket, will prevent 100% of coronavirus transmission. However, almost all of these measures change the risk curve, and many, including those homemade masks, can do so substantially.
The math can get complicated, but let’s keep it simple. If my mask blocks just 50% of virus transmission and your mask hits this rate as well, we have effectively dropped the chances of virus transmission by 75%, which is a lot (50% get blocked going out, say, and 50% of that blocked going in through other mask). Add other mitigation measures such as social distancing and the better cleaning of common surfaces, and you really do put a major crimp in the ability of the virus to replicate. The R0 factor of this virus (or R-naught) can thus be pushed below 1.0, which means that the pandemic can thus be squashed. Drop the masks, and that number gets harder to achieve. (Note that, in testing, cloth masks are more effective stopping infection from going out than coming in, but the math still works.)
I have pointed out in the past that Darwinian evolution is really a probability thing. Very tiny improvements in the odds of adaptation to an ecological challenge will change any species given enough time. Similarly, even small barriers to that reproduction can substantially reduce or even eliminate a population of living things. In other words, if your parents didn’t live long enough to procreate, then you probably won’t either. The rest of us, however, got here by each ancestor overcoming the constant barriers nature puts up to procreation.
Unfortunately, there may not be enough time for many of us to enjoy “the thinning of the heard” of the apparent non-believers in Darwin like some White House staffers who have contracted the virus. I don’t speak German, therefore I don’t know what Schadenfreude means and thus, I can deny experiencing it.
Countries like South Korea and New Zealand have taught us that if you aggressively try to break the transmission chain of the virus, confirmed cases and deaths will drop dramatically. You do this by incrementally stymieing the virus wherever you can. But we, for some sad reason, appear to be heading the other way.
The social signal of the mask
In my past writing about morality and ethics, I have noted that signaling has been a method used by humans since the dawn of our time on earth to improve the odds of survival when ethical challenges have met us in the face. Humans find ways using symbols (flags, crosses, etc.) and words (“Jehovah” or “Allah”) to distinguish friend from foe. This has recently taken on the unfortunate appendage of “virtue signaling,” but the role of ethical signaling using masks has a much more practical objective.
The social signal of the mask at this moment gives “information value” about the person behind the mask that goes far beyond the mathematical particle transmission rate. I might say about me, and hopefully you, that when I wear that mask I am signaling to others that, “I am concerned about your health, and I want to do my part to minimize any fear you have about being out in public.”
After many days of self-isolation, however, I am more likely to be signaling, “Just stay the hell away from me!” Either can be an effective “social contract” message. Probabilistically, it means that we are just doing what we can to keep the virus at bay, one potential transmission vector at a time.
I am a child of 1950s television. We had to suspend belief to accept that nobody recognized the Lone Ranger behind his mask or Superman behind Clark Kent’s glasses. But one thing we were sure of: there was a “good person” behind that mask. I will assume that about you as well.
There remains, however, one strong and very “realist” moral argument against the wearing of masks, and that discussion will need to wait for a subsequent post. I call it the ethical theory of “Sucks to be you!”
A true but trivial story: So, there was this lady in my local supermarket yesterday. I enter that store as rarely as possible. I am armed with a specific list and, like the large majority of people in this “quality” market in an community with a lot of older people, I wear a mask. As I head down one aisle following the new directional arrows, I see this oncoming lady barging through going the wrong way like a freight train out of control. She wears no mask and she is one of these “loud talkers” on her cell phone. My mind “sees” huge particles of something bad spewing from her very wide-open mouth. She has a big tattoo on her forehead that says, “I am just an asshole!”
Okay, I lied about the tattoo part.
The ethical theory of “Sucks to be you!” has now been posted.
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