The last couple of years have been a revelation when it comes to public health measures for battling COVID-19 and whatever bugs come next. We've seen that masks offer little protection unless they're the uncomfortable medical variety, states that locked down hardest took nasty economic hits in return for little if any health benefit, and kids isolated by decree from their peers suffer mental health issues.
But don't tell the politicians—they want more!
Across the country, government officials seem eager to revive mask mandates and, perhaps, other artifacts of pandemic policy, if only as reminders of the high-tide mark of their emergency authority.
"If we do start seeing an uptick, particularly of hospitalizations, we may need to revert back to being more careful and having more utilizations of masks indoors," Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the White House, taunted a COVID-weary nation on ABC News earlier this week.
Sure enough, within days the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extended the mask mandate for federally regulated travel; Philadelphia's city government did the same for indoor spaces. (Many colleges and universities followed suit.) Philadelphia officials offer no specifics about acceptable masks, but do say that restaurant patrons only have to wear them "while not seated and eating or drinking." For its part, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which enforces the CDC mandate, allows that "masks can be either manufactured or homemade and should be a solid piece of material without slits, exhalation valves, or punctures." It's hard to see what good masks are supposed to do if they're crumpled up in pockets while people talk and laugh or, for that matter, if they're worn but made of common fabric.
"Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations," CNN medical analyst Leana Wen told viewers in December 2021. The CDC also largely conceded the point, admitting in January that "loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection." Fitted surgical masks and K95 masks are better and "well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection." But CDC Director Rochelle Walensky advises against N95s because "they're very hard to breathe in when you wear them properly."
That leaves much of the general public performatively donning t-shirt fabric over their noses and mouths in their airplane seats and for short strolls between restaurant entrances and tables. That'll show that nasty virus!
Not that face masks make up the entirety of pandemic theater. Political figures ordered businesses and schools closed (while exempting themselves from inconvenient rules), restricted travel, and savaged anybody who objected. But the evidence suggests these authoritarian measures impose high costs in return for little benefit. A new working paper covering state-level pandemic policy published by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that closing businesses and schools increased unemployment and reduced GDP without reducing deaths from COVID-19.
"The correlation between health and economy scores is essentially zero, which suggests that states that withdrew the most from economic activity did not significantly improve health by doing so," wrote authors Casey Mulligan, a University of Chicago economist, and Stephen Moore and Phil Kerpen of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity. (Hawaii is an exception, suggesting to the authors "that island locations can, by sustaining significant economic losses, reduce mortality for a year or more.")
The study largely replicated findings in an earlier paper by Jonas Herby, Lars Jonung, and Steve H. Hanke that lockdowns in Europe and the United States were ineffective.
What Mulligan, Moore, and Kerpen did find is that "school closures may ultimately prove to be the most costly policy decision of the pandemic era in both economic and mortality terms." The authors correlated interrupted education with reduced lifetime earnings and shortened lifespan. But they might also have added that disrupting learning and social interaction for kids drove many of them nuts.
"Depression and suicide concerns have increased during the pandemic, especially among female adolescents," according to a September 2021 paper by Stephanie L. Mayne and associated authors published in Pediatrics.
"Disruptions and consequences related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including school closures, social isolation, family economic hardship, family loss or illness, and reduced access to health care, raise concerns about their effects on the mental health and well-being of youths," agreed a CDC survey of teens conducted in spring 2021. "Approximately one in three high school students experienced poor mental health (most of the time or always) during the COVID-19 pandemic (37.1%) and during the past 30 days (31.1%)"
Interestingly enough (and bringing us full circle), one of the better ways to mess kids up is by requiring them to wear face masks. Psychologists find that they obscure human expressions and our ability to read other people's mood and intent.
"A mask obstructing a face limits the ability of people of all ages to infer emotions expressed by facial features, but the difficulties associated with the mask's use are significantly pronounced in children aged between 3 and 5 years old," reported Monica Gori, Lucia Schiatti, and Maria Bianca Amadeo last May in Frontiers in Psychology. "These findings are of essential importance, as they suggest that we live in a time that may potentially affect the development of social and emotion reasoning, and young children's future social abilities should be monitored to assess the true impact of the use of masks."
"Wearing face masks decreases facial expression recognition, confidence in expression identification, as well as the perception of intensity for all expressions," concurred Farid Pazhoohi, Leilani Forby, and Alan Kingstone last September in PLOS One. Especially affected are people who score high for autism.
And government officials want us wearing masks again? As infuriating as that is, it's also a warning that the political class has learned nothing. If the powers-that-be are willing to revive useless and psychologically damaging mask requirements, they may well be poised to again close schools, shutter businesses, disrupt travel, and otherwise meddle in our lives with measures that do little if any good, but inflict measurable harm.
If politicians insist on retaining tokens of their elevated status during the pandemic, maybe we could instead buy them some "I Got Vaccinated" stickers that they can keep in trophy cases to admire while the rest of us get on with our lives.