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Op-ed: Masks won’t save lives

It’s official, Bernie Sanders says that masks are a cheap, effective way of making sure that the U.S. defeats the COVID-19 virus, saving 41,000 lives and $1 trillion.

“Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Germany, Vietnam and dozens of other countries have demonstrated that as mask wearing became commonplace in public, Covid-19 cases were contained,” said Sanders in a CNN editorial. “And only when the virus is contained can the economy finally go back to normal.”

The Center for Disease Control, as has been widely reported, echoed Sanders, saying that mask covering is our most important tool in fighting the virus.

What hasn’t been reported is that the finding is based in part on a study of the Boston Hospital system, which didn’t use cloth masks.

The stats also don’t show that while widespread adoption of masks happened in some countries cited by Sanders, other countries, like Israel, which already mandates masks, hasn’t had much success with the measure in containing the virus.

And in the cases of Taiwan and Vietnam, both considered the gold standard in COVID-19 control, the key to their success was largely keeping the virus out of the country to begin with—not a dubious mask policy.

In those Asian countries, masks are worn regularly by citizens who wish to escape the heavy smog that lays like a blanket in their cities and have nothing to do with the virus.

Vietnam has been widely credited with taking swift action in containing the virus because of intelligence it gathered as a result of hacking China’s health information system to gain access to what Chinese authorities knew early on about the virus.

“Vietnam was quick to react to first reports of the new coronavirus, sealing off its border with neighbouring China and implementing an aggressive programme of contact tracing and quarantine measures that have kept cases of infection in the country below 300,” says Reuters.

The hacking by Vietnam came a week before the first international case of COVID-19 was reported. Vietnam sealed its borders with China on February 1.

Similarly, Taiwan relied intelligence, in the form of humans, not electronic, to shut its borders earlier than other countries.

When China announced the virus on December 31, Taiwan immediately began screening anyone who arrived from Wuhan and later extended the screening to anyone arriving from China. By mid-January, Taiwan dispatched health officials to Wuhan, who confirmed that the virus was transmitted human-to-human.  

At that point, Taiwan closed its borders with China.

The common denominator for both countries was a strong suspicion that China would lie about any viral outbreak, because China had lied to both countries about previous viral outbreaks, and each country suffered the consequences of those lies.

While it would be convenient to believe that we only all to wear masks and the virus would go away, it’s just not true.

Once the virus got to America, it was here to stay.

The most sensible thing we could have done, and can still do, is heap resources on our most vulnerable populations that are more likely to be killed by the virus. If we had done that, we might have saved some proportion of the 141,000 people who have died.

Masks might help people feel better about not wanting to lockdown the country again, but they won’t help save lives.

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