Why we are told we don’t need masks

After the Corona outbreak in January, many people’s first reaction was to order some masks.

Quickly after that, many health care experts, no doubt motivated by the sensible and urgent aim of preserving the masks for health care workers, started telling people that they didn’t need masks or that people wouldn’t know how to wear and use them.

This however is misunderstood or frankly wrong – It’s correct that masks needs to be worn correctly to provide the most usefulness – but the usage of masks is neither difficult nor complex to get right.

Should ordinary people use masks?

The message was that masks, especially medical-grade respirator masks (such as the N95 masks), needed proper fitting and that ordinary people without such fitting wouldn’t benefit. This message was also deeply counterproductive. Many people also wash their hands wrong, but we don’t respond to that by telling them not to bother. Instead, we provide instructions; we post signs in bathrooms; we help people sing songs that time their hand-washing. Telling people they can’t possibly figure out how to wear a mask properly isn’t a winning message. Besides, when you tell people that something works only if done right, they think they will be the person who does it right, even if everyone else doesn’t.

Do masks work?

Of course masks work — maybe not perfectly and not all to the same degree, but they provide some protection. Their use has always been advised as part of the standard response to being around infected people, especially for people who may be vulnerable. World Health Organization officials wear masks during their news briefings. See here for common misconceptions about Covid-19

Concerning the supply, the truth is that there is more than enough for everyone, the issue is difficulty connecting suppliers to health care workers and unfortunately a few actors with bad intentions have spread mistrust in the market.

All in all. telling people that they don’t need masks is incredibly counterproductive, and spreads mistrust to official authorities as the contradiction confuses people; why should the masks only protect health care workers and not ordinary citizens.