It’s 2017 and you’re getting ready for work. You notice that you’re not feeling crash hot. Bit of a scratchy throat. Maybe a bit congested. You wouldn’t say no to a few more hours of sleep. You have a bit of evidence in front of you to suggest that you’ve got the ‘flu–more precisely, you don’t know that you’ve got the ‘flu but there is a significant risk that you have it.
So what do you do? You have a lot of work deadlines coming up. You can’t really afford a day off. Maybe you’re casually employed or otherwise precarious. You weigh it up based on a range of options.
In 2017, there were 1,181 laboratory-confirmed deaths as a result of the ‘flu. Despite this, we still treat it as a matter of personal or individual responsibility to assess the risk. What’s the alternative?
The debate emerged this week in the context of both the Prime Minister and the NSW Premier both saying that they don’t want ‘mask mandates’ (by which we seem to mean a direction under the health powers that wearing a mask in various locations is mandatory), and instead wanted it to be a matter of personal responsibility. This upset a lot of people on Twitter.
Let me reveal my cards up front. Despite them not being compulsory for a few weeks now, I have been very regularly wearing a shield over my nose and mouth in public, especially indoors. Why? Because if you have enough people regularly wearing them, you can slightly slow down the severity of an outbreak prior to it being detected at very low cost. It is clear that if you tell people ‘Look, could you strongly consider wearing one? Think of your mates’, that you get a very solid rate of compliance. And I do this despite some personal issues that makes wearing one fairly unpleasant. But I’m also rational: my discomfort with them doesn’t outweigh the overall utility, so I harden up and get it done.
And despite that, I am strongly against ‘mask mandates’. First, let’s be serious, it’s a euphemism for increased police powers, which is objectively bad. Advocates rarely seem to come from backgrounds that are over-policed or to be in contexts where access to a mask is difficult for financial or practical reasons. I was passing through Canberra Airport during the lockdown and there were police in the first foyer issuing fines to people for not wearing a face shield. Once you passed through security, there was an enormous container of free face shields for people to take. This stuck in my mind as symbolic of Australia’s ‘police-first’ approach to pandemic responses: we want to fine people first and then work out ways of making them safer.
Second, we end up with home-brew lawyers who think first in terms of the regulations and then in terms of commonsense. If you are in a cinema theatre watching a film, you are liable to be fined if you are not wearing a mask unless you have taken it off for the purpose of eating or drinking. This, of course, made people wonder why the government thought the disease didn’t spread while people were eating or drinking… but that’s the wrong intuition. What they wanted was for people to wear it when possible, but didn’t want people to be subject to an unreasonable fine when you’ve taken it off when it clashed with other reasonable behaviour.
So what’s the problem there? Encouraging people to think in terms of when they can take the shield off means people aren’t thinking in terms of when to put the shield on. Mandating shifts commonsense out of the picture because we now have to think in terms of when we might be subject to an unreasonable fine.
Third, the debate fundamentally misunderstands the science and how it interacts with basic legal norms. You know that mandating face shields is not going to offer absolute protection to the community. Face shields just simply are not that effective. What they do is lower risk at a collective level. So what proportion of the community do you need to be wearing a face shield in order to get a measurable reduction in the risk? And then for each additional increment in compliance, what risk reduction is obtained?
Why is this important? Because it seems likely–and is in fact the default legal position–that if you simply asked people to use their commonsense during a higher risk period, that you’d get a fairly solid level of compliance. Call that level X% (even though it’s not going to be stable across all populations and contexts: higher in cities, lower in regional towns; higher among educated wealthy people, lower among lower socioeconomic groups; &c.). At X% you know that you’ve reduced the risk of spread by a measurable but small amount (which is why wearing them is good). With a mandate, you’ll get X+m% of the population (probably around 80-95% of the population because you’ll never get everybody and entitled Boomers exist)… but what reduction in spread has the increase of m% achieved? It’s not going to be that much because cloth masks already have a low (but measurable) effect. You’re not getting bang for buck… especially when the bucks come from fining marginalised and vulnerable people.
This is why human rights lawyers have a point when they talk about ‘less restrictive alternatives’. You ask yourself: Before giving police the power to fine people for not doing [X], what alternatives have you got? And here there’s a fairly obvious alternative: ask people. You end up with an equivalent (though not identical outcome) without subjecting people to fines.
Ultimately, you have to ask why personal responsibility has been the norm for all the other diseases we’ve had up until 2020 and, suddenly, people are now demanding police-first approaches to public health. People wrongly assume that ‘going hard’ is equivalent to ‘following the science’: it’s not. People wrongly assume that not having a police-first approach is mere ideology; again, it’s not. But we really need to get through to people a clearer message: if you want to use State-violence to force a health outcome, you need to have a serious evidence base as part of the discussion. We don’t have that. Instead, we have theatre criticism about how much we think wearing a face shield is like wearing sunscreen. It absolutely sucks.