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Total Masking: Victoria’s Coronavirus Response

Melbourne.

The Victorian Premier turned up for his weekend delivery of coronavirus infections, gruffly delivering the news. It has become grim if compelling viewing: the announcement about the next spike in coronavirus infections, the next gruesome statistical spread on transmission. On Sunday, Daniel Andrews had a pose that has become legend, a cross between plasticine figure and instructive despair. Stern, humourless, with little to be humour filled about, his role of late is telling people what to do. With stern command he had a message: All those in the state of Victoria, had to wear face masks. “Most of us wouldn’t leave home without our keys, we wouldn’t leave your home without our mobile phone – you won’t be able to leave home without your mask.”

The evidentiary account did not quite square with the urgency of the message. The largest transmissions were taking place in workplaces, not outdoor places of recreation. But it did not matter. This was the sledgehammer of public health, being taken to the public for a quarantine system that failed with abysmal effect. Anyone leaving their home in the Metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire from Thursday without a mask risk fines of $200. Not complying with such measures will also encourage the government to take further intrusive measures: limitations on shopping; confinement of exercising to a person’s local postcode.

The measure is indiscriminate, but all absolutism comes with its carved exceptions. According to the Victorian health minister Jenny Mikakos, surgical masks, reusable cloth masks purchased or made, can be used. “Or if you don’t have one, you can use a scarf or bandana to cover your nose and mouth. Wash your hands before putting it on and after taking it off.” Those with disabilities who struggle with putting on such face wear and those with breathing difficulties will also be spared the fining wrath of the state.

The catch all measure casts aside criticism and critics about masking protocol. Putting on such wear comes with its canonical tips and tried methods. Avoiding them, and you risk doing greater harm to yourself than otherwise. Brett Mitchell, professor of nursing at the University of Newcastle, is distinctly apocalyptic in describing the consequences for the sloppy mask wearer, and others. “The front of the mask will ‘catch’ pathogens. Every time you adjust or touch your masks, your hands could become contaminated. Everything you then touch could become contaminated.”

The focus on the face mask remains problematic. It arises from a discipline that was never quite sure about its effective use in coping with pandemic transmissions. Positions have been upended, adjusted, revised. On June 9, the Australian deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth explained that vulnerable people who had to use public transport might well use masks, but did not “think that general, healthy members of the community need to be considering wearing masks in that context.” On June 22, Coatsworth reiterated the point in a press conference, despite “an increase in the absolute number of cases in Victoria.” In instances of “very low levels of community transmission the value of face masks in the community is limited, and that recommendation has not changed.”

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton has now come around to the idea of total masking, suggesting that recent evidence showed that wearing a mask “makes a practical difference.” Those “who wear masks and the settings in which masks are worn has shown that there’s a really significant – two thirds or more – reduction in transmission.”

Sutton would be placing much stock in such studies as those made in the journal Infectious Disease Modelling. The authors, using model simulations based on data from the US states of New York and Washington, found that “broad adoption of even relatively ineffective face masks may meaningfully reduce community transmission of COVID-19 and decrease peak hospitalizations and deaths.” Masks were also “found to be useful with respect to both preventing illness in healthy persons and preventing asymptomatic transmission.”

The shifting sands in the advice on face masks can also be found in the assessments of such epidemiologists as UC San Francisco’s George Rutherford and infectious disease specialist Peter Chin-Hong. For Chin-Hong, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention reversed its initial advice in insisting people mask up because of accumulating evidence. Initially, the CDC was “preaching that the juice isn’t really worth the squeeze to have the whole population wear masks in the beginning – but that was really a reflection of not having enough testing anyway.” This led to a “false sense of security.” Rutherford takes a harder line.  “We should have told people to wear cloth masks right off the bat.”

In June, the World Health Organization also reversed its position on face coverings, premised on the basis that encouraging such wear would deprive health workers of essential safety equipment while encouraging a false sense of security. As the body’s director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus observed, “in light of evolving evidence, the WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments.”

The trend towards recommending and even mandating masks despite an initial opposition to that policy was already taking place in April. France’s Académie Nationale de Médecine (Academy of Medicine) took the position that donning such facial wear should be compulsory for outings during and after the lockdown. Physician turned television personality Marina Carrère d’Encausse did her little bit to sabotage trust in public health expertise by suggesting that the official line against masks was a “lie” initially told “for a good cause”: ensuring that health care workers had adequate supply.

In all of this, it is hard to avoid the feeling that millions of people have become part of an enormous, live experiment in public health, a trial-by-error approach that has already proven to be very costly. Science is marked by the operation of the falsifiable hypothesis; but each falsification, notably in the field of epidemiology and disease, can come staggering loss. The “we are all in this together” message is starting to look a bit tatty.

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7 comments

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  1. pierre wilkinson

    Brett Mitchell, professor of nursing at the University of Newcastle, is distinctly apocalyptic in describing the consequences for the sloppy mask wearer, and others. “The front of the mask will ‘catch’ pathogens. Every time you adjust or touch your masks, your hands could become contaminated. Everything you then touch could become contaminated.”
    so, rather than wearing a defective mask and stopping yourself from possibly being a source of contagion, or limiting the corona virus you inhale, does he suggest not wearing a mask at all?
    wouldn’t it be wise to wear a scarf and wash your hands and sanitise every time you touch it, rather than not wear one? and doesn’t the same criteria apply to even a surgical mask?

  2. Greeny

    Binoy “millions of people have become part of an enormous, live experiment in public health” = TRUE.
    But wait, there’s more.
    Long term plan is to break the spirit of independence and co-operation that created our current civilization.
    Replace it a form of unthinking and obedient servitude to unelected technocrats and all will be good.
    The World Economic Forum calls this program the Great Reset – great for a select few people, just not you.
    Less than 12 months ago activist Greta Thunberg railed against non-renewable energy waste & increasing CO2 levels.
    Now people are going to be fined $200 if they don’t wear a mask and rebreath their own CO2 rather than fresh air.
    It takes over 21 years for the immune system of the human body to fully develop.
    So how is ruling that 12 year olds must restrict access to O2 a healthy idea?
    If this rule-changing game goes for another 2 or 3 years then the public will happily give up more rights to end the game.
    Mankinds experiment with democracy is being replaced by a technocratic driven trans-humanist experiment.
    Can you see through the deception?
    As a footnote, the WHO is the medical guide for this whole show.
    Premiers here don’t have a clue, they are under advice by technocrats, foreign and local.

  3. wam

    The premier is impressive.
    The instruction on the wall in melb Alfred suggest the healthy people should NOT be masked . Presumably so many not well individuals didn’t wear them that it is better for all to cover their nose and mouth.

  4. New England Cocky

    I think Premier Dan Andrews is doing a wonderful job under extremely difficult circumstances. He is providing the ignorant public with reliable medical advice every day just as Bill Shorten reported on the Beaconsfield Mining Disaster. He cannot be held responsible for:

    1) the failures of a private security company to properly train their staff in the necessary measures to control a pandemic:

    2) individual citizens failing to recognise the symptoms or lack of symptoms of COVID-19 before mixing in public and expanding the pandemic;

    3) selfish unthinking idiot citizens who believe that “”their mate COVID-19” will not infect them.

    FINALLY, Andrews has stepped up and recognised that NOT requiring face masks was the incorrect strategy and has made the necessary corrections by now requiring face masks in public.

    Premier Andrews must be doing something correct because the Murdoch media has him nation wide across the front page as the Devil Incarnate.

  5. leefe

    Greeny:

    Unless you have serious respiratory problems, wearing a mask has zero effect on blood oxygenation.

  6. Kerri

    Why is it with COVID19 so many people are so unwilling to recognise that science is an active and evolving practice?
    Years ago “science” specifically held to the Tory of “spontaneous generation of life”.
    I guess if you believe there is a place beyond life and an invisible man in the sky who controls life in both places, Science is a difficult concept. Like object permanence.

  7. A Commentator

    “He cannot be held responsible for:

    1) the failures of a private security company to properly train their staff in the necessary measures to control a pandemic:”

    I think the government can be held specifically responsible for this.

    The first responsibility of a government authority subcontracting out a service is to ensure that there are safety risk analysis and systems in place-
    □ to protect the employees from identifiable risks to their health and safety
    □ to ensure the general public isn’t put at risk
    □ then to rigourously audit compliance with the safety system

    The clearly identifiable risk in this instance was transmission of the virus. There is no other serious safety risk involved in guarding civilians in a hotel.

    The government can be held responsible for-
    □ declining to use the ADF as guards
    □ neglicting to rigourously audit compliance with safety systems to ensure containment of the virus
    □ ignoring the clear warning that were given to it before the virus had widely spread

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