Understanding why some countries are literally getting killed by COVID-19 and others aren’t is of critical importance. The countries that have been most impacted are advanced. Yes, they have, until now, experienced cold weather. But temperature appears to play a very small role. Age plays a far bigger role. But temperature and age don’t tell us why, for example, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Beijing and Hong Kong have weathered the coronavirus far better than other countries. On a per capita basis, these countries and cities had more than 100 times as many Wuhan visitors as New York City or Milan. But they’ve each done an outstanding job of controlling the virus.
Yes, these places have been much more assiduous with contact tracing. But you can’t trace the untraceable. COVID-19 is most contagious in the four or five days before one experiences symptoms. And many people never exhibit symptoms.
So, what has really worked in these five places as well as in China, which has put a tight lid on COVID-19? The answer could not come at a more critical time as our country reopens.
The answer is in plain sight from pictures of daily life in the five success stories: People wear masks. And they do so with complete discipline. They don’t wear them around their chins or below their noses. They wear them when it’s hot and when it’s cold. They wear them if they are janitors and they wear them if they are presidents. They wear them because they’ve had years of experience wearing masks to escape air pollution. They also learned, back in 2003, during the SARS outbreak, that wearing masks could save your life.
When COVID-19 hit, close to 100 percent of people in these five places immediately began to wear facemasks. One of us travelled through Singapore airport on February 15, 2020, still quite early in the pandemic’s global spread. Virtually all of the locals, but virtually none of the foreigners, were wearing masks.
Short of doing super-efficient household-based group testing of the entire population every week, which is discussed here, the best way we can hope to keep infected asymptomatic people from spreading the disease is through universal, real time and full-time masking. The Czech Republic introduced 100 percent mandatory face-masking in public a month ago. And its new case load per day has dropped from 400 to 18 per day.
People have said that independent-minded Americans will never go for such an infringement on their individual rights and freedoms. They said the same thing about seatbelts, but most Americans now wear them. If Americans can tolerate being locked in their homes for weeks and weeks, they can wear facemasks. You can see this in Boston. Two weeks back, casual observation showed fewer than one in three people wearing masks. Today it’s close to 90 percent. It needs to be 100 percent.
Without 100 percent mandatory facemasks while in public, we are likely to see a reignition of this terrible virus across America. This is why the president’s refusal to mask up is so irresponsible. He’s apparently resisting wearing a mask out of vanity and machismo. Yet he’s not tough enough to risk having others go maskless in his presence. Masking has become mandatory in the White House for everyone but his highness.
A recent study out of China makes clear what masking is all about. It’s about protecting others, not just yourself. The story concerns an infected passenger sitting in the back of a bus without a mask. The passenger infected people throughout the bus, including people 25 feet away sitting in the front. Importantly, none of those wearing masks became infected regardless of their location. The study also indicates that COVID-19 can remain in the air for 30 minutes. This makes the case for masking even stronger.
The president has a huge number of avid supporters, many of whom will refuse to wear a mask until he wears a mask. Take Texas, where new cases are rapidly increasing. Gov. Abbott and his advisers hold routine press conferences. Neither he nor his advisers wear a mask. And the governor’s masking advice is vague. On the one hand, he’s telling Texans to mask up. On the other, he’s telling them they don’t have to wear masks. He’s also prohibited local officials from enforcing masking.
Thanks to the president and red-state governors like Abbott, we may quickly see a surge in new cases and deaths. Indeed, COVID-19 may someday be called The Red Death if blue states toughen up on masking while red states pretend it’s unnecessary.
Well, it is necessary. Indeed, for our country – which has no intelligent national testing protocol, which has no effective national contact tracing system, which has no national quarantine system, which has no nationally enforced guidelines on social distancing and which is seeing most re-opening states do so in clear violation of the Coronavirus Taskforce’s guidelines – masking is the only hope of limiting the virus’s terrible toll.
Laurence Kotlikoff is professor of economics at Boston University and president of Economic Security, Inc. John Talbott is a best-selling author whose books predicted the housing crash of 2006, the global financial crisis of 2008 and, before that, the high-tech collapse of 2000.