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September 29, 2020

Spreading Fear and False Expectations, One Mask At A Time

(Part 4 of Face Masks: A Placebo With Harmful Side Effects)

(This is the fourth article in a series exploring the science, psychology, and unintended consequences of COVID-19 face masks.) 

Part 4 - Spreading Fear and False Expectations, One Mask At A Time

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In part 1 of this series, I showed how our health authorities are ignoring decades of robust scientific evidence demonstrating that face masks don't reduce the spread of respiratory viruses in favor of opinions that they do. In part 2, I explored the basic physics of the droplets and aerosols produced by coughing, sneezing, and breathing, which explained why face masks cannot reduce the spread of a respiratory virus despite our gut instinct that they should. And in part 3, I showed how our misplaced confidence in face masks and air filtration caused us to recklessly expose many of our most vulnerable citizens to contaminated air spaces, leading to thousands of entirely preventable deaths.

In this article I will discuss how face masks are contributing to a self-reinforcing cycle of irrational fear. A placebo is not harmless if the psychological effect of wearing this placebo contributes to an unjustified level of panic not proportional to the threat. And, even more importantly, a placebo is not harmless if the illusion of safety offered by this placebo gives people unrealistic expectations of being able to avoid the risk altogether. Then, when this misplaced faith in masks fails to stop new infections and deaths, the public (and policymakers) erroneously blame "irresponsible" citizens, which leads to an escalation of authoritarian enforcement of ineffective health measures that dismantle our civil liberties and ruin our lives.

Back on January 29th, 2020, as health authorities first began to take notice of the virus spreading around the world, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, warned that "the epidemic of fear could be more difficult to control than the epidemic itself" and that "any measures that a country is to take must not be out of proportion to the risk." And yet that is precisely what happened in the weeks and months that followed. 

Historians will likely spend decades trying to unravel why our institutions and governments were so quick to abandon evidence-based decision making, why they turned their backs on the principles of scientific debate, why they were so willing to trample civil liberties, why they rejected long-established pandemic guidelines for respiratory viruses, and why they utterly ignored all the warnings from those who did not lose their heads. 

Whatever the reason, with these pillars of Western society unable to hold back our headless rush into panic mode, our reaction has been not unlike when someone yells "wolf" in the middle of the night. We didn't stop to look if it still had all its teeth. We just followed our gut instincts to gather up our children, bolt the doors, and load our muskets. But even despite all these initial failings, the enduring mystery is why our panicky overreaction has not been temporary. Rationality normally returns once the nature of the threat becomes clear. And everything we have learned about this virus since the pandemic began shows that our panic should have faded away a long ago. So why hasn't the panic subsided? 

To answer that question, it helps to first put this virus into perspective to demonstrate just how out of proportion our fear has become. As early as May, the CDC publicly acknowledged a lethality of 0.26%, accounting for asymptomatic cases. By now, in early September, a wide range of studies from around the world are converging on a lethality (infection fatality rate) of approximately 0.3% (and even this number may be much too high because immunological studies (i.e. antibody tests) may only be detecting between 20% and 80% of cases)

A lethality of 0.3% (or less) is within the range of a bad winter flu. In other words, this is a normal level of risk that we accept every year for winter flu and that we live with without mass panic and without draconian health measures that turn lives upside down. Most years we're so apathetic about this level of risk that overwhelmed hospital wards during flu season don't even make front page news and no-one wears masks or locks down the economy. Few people even bother staying home from work unless they're really sick. We don't threaten people with $5000 fines if they don't self-quarantine themselves for 14 days when they get a runny nose. And we certainly don't give each winter flu its own name and track every case and every death on the front page of every news media so we can scare ourselves silly, day after day.

A lethality of 0.3% (or less) means that 99.7% (or more) of everyone who gets infected with COVID-19 will survive, just like winter flu. A small number will not, just like winter flu. Most deaths will occur among the elderly with pre-existing health conditions, just like winter flu. Although some children will die from COVID, it will be less than the number of children that die from winter flu because children are less vulnerable to serious outcomes from COVID-19 than from the winter flu. And a small percentage of patients who develop severe symptoms will have long-lasting health consequences, just like winter flu. But the vast majority of those infected will experience mild or no symptoms, just like winter flu. The latest CDC report even quantifies the risk by age category:

It is also clear that official death counts used to produce all these statistics are overstated because health authorities are not differentiating between deaths from COVID versus deaths with COVID. Anytime a coronavirus test is positive that death is attributed to COVID-19, even if that individual died of a heart attack, cancer or car accident, even if the patient is admitted to hospital for other unrelated reasons and then tests positive for COVID-19 while in hospital. Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Director of the Department of Public Health in Cook County, Illinois, explained on April 19th that: "I just want to be clear in terms of the definition of "people dying of COVID". The case definition is very simplistic. It means, at the time of death, it was a COVID positive diagnosis. So, that means if you were in hospice and had already [been] given a few weeks to live and then you also were found to have COVID, that would be counted as a COVID death. It means, technically even if you died of a clear alternate cause, but you had COVID at the same time, it's still listed as a COVID death. So, everyone who's listed as a COVID death, doesn't mean that was the cause of the death, but they had COVID at the time of death."

We do not count deaths in this manner for other illnesses. Normally the cause of death is determined by autopsy if there is any uncertainty or if the deceased had multiple coexisting illnesses. The US CDC has even confirmed that in only 6% COVID-19 deaths, COVID-19 was the only cause. Even in Italy at the height of the pandemic, only 1% of COVID-19 deaths had no other pre-existing health conditions). Imagine the panic we would create, every year, if we applied this COVID standard to influenza deaths. Imagine the statistics we could create if every hospice patient was given an influenza test at the time of death.

The best way to gauge how many extra deaths are caused by a pandemic is to compare the total mortality of previous years to the present year. Sweden serves as a perfect case study because they did not impose a lockdown, they did not make face masks mandatory, and they kept their schools and their economy open. In other words, unlike the rest of us, they followed the WHO's 2019 pandemic guidelines. So, if any place should show a large excess mortality, it should be Sweden, right? Yet it doesn't. Mortality year-over-year is slightly elevated, but in the range of other recent strong winter flu seasons. 

It's also worth pointing out that Sweden's deaths are not artificially inflated by the unintended consequences of imposing lockdowns - deaths caused by the lockdowns but not by COVID directly. These unintended non-COVID deaths can easily skew the total death count, making it harder to gauge the actual impact of COVID in year-to-year mortality comparisons. For example, in the early months of the pandemic up to 50% of excess mortality in the UK may have been caused by the consequences of the health measures, not by COVID itself, and now deaths from other diseases are soaring because millions of people did not seek treatment for dangerous diseases. Swedish data does not have this problem because Sweden's health measures allowed life to carry on more or less uninterrupted.

So, to begin with, here is the chart of COVID-19 deaths in Sweden throughout this pandemic. This is the chart you are most likely familiar with from media reports:

It looks dramatic. But is it?

Below is the chart of deaths in Sweden (per 100,000) for ALL causes, including COVID-19, from January through August. As you can see, 2020 is slightly higher than 2019, but roughly in the same range as 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. The 2015 flu season was a more deadly year than 2020.

In other words, despite the wave of COVID deaths during March, April, and May, it seems that COVID has not actually caused a large increase in total deaths in Sweden. The pandemic does not stand out from previous bad winter flu seasons.

There are only two explanations for why the surge in COVID deaths in Sweden has not translated into a higher mortality rate in year-to-year comparisons. Perhaps a lot of deaths that normally would have been reported as cancer, heart attack, stroke, etc (as you would expect from elderly people with pre-existing conditions) were erroneously reported as COVID deaths due to positive COVID tests (the "with" vs "from" issue discussed earlier). Alternately, perhaps a lot of people died a few weeks earlier than expected because of the added burden of a COVID-19 infection, but even without COVID they would have died days or weeks later because of their other pre-existing health issues. Either way, it's not possible to say that COVID-19 caused a surge in deaths beyond what would be expected during a bad flu season (the 2014-2015 winter and the 2017-2018 winter were considered particularly bad influenza seasons with higher than normal deaths). 

In fact, in Figure 1 of their latest report, reproduced below, the British Office of National Statistics has helpfully included a side-by-side comparison of COVID-19 deaths and other non-COVID pneumonia and influenza deaths in England and Wales. While the surge in COVID deaths shows up in April and May, by mid-June influenza and pneumonia deaths were outnumbering deaths from COVID. That's right, COVID is currently killing less people in England and Wales than pneumonia and influenza. But you're still wearing a mask, social distancing, and limiting your trips to the pub because of COVID.

The official statistics put out by the US CDC (Sept 12th update) tell a similar story:

You'll notice that in every single age category, without exception, the combined deaths from non-COVID pneumonia and influenza outnumber COVID deaths. Throughout this pandemic, COVID has killed less Americans than influenza and non-COVID pneumonia! Yet those influenza and pneumonia deaths never made the news. They are familiar. We accept their risk as part of the background level of risk we face every day. But we'd never heard of COVID before. So that's the one we focus on. That's the risk that takes up the front page of every newspaper, has turned our society upside down, and makes so many people afraid to mingle with others. 

You'll also notice that less than 10% of all deaths that occurred during this 7-month period (182,095 of 1,957,766) were caused by COVID. Even without sorting out the "with" vs "from" issue, if these numbers truly still meet the criteria of a pandemic, it's an awfully small pandemic.

I'd also like to draw your attention to the 0-17 age category in the CDC's official statistics, shown above. Only 92 children have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Compare that to 313 children in the same age category who died of non-COVID pneumonia and another 123 who died of influenza. In the same time period that 92 children died of COVID, another 19,203 children in the US died of other causes. This is not a typo. In a country of over 331 million people, this number is the tragic but normal background mortality for this age group. Context is everything. Keep that in mind the next time you strap a mask on your child's face to send them to school. Do you still think that the knee-jerk school closures and the hysteria surrounding their reopening, including subjecting children to face masks, social distancing, and other paranoid measures to reassure fearful parents and teachers, is a rational response that is proportional to the risk? 

Then there's the lethality of the virus itself, which appears to be falling. This is well illustrated by the latest data from France comparing confirmed case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths:

The sharp rise in cases that began in July in France hasn't been followed by a sharp rise in hospitalizations. They have risen only slightly by comparison. And deaths remain almost flat. This is not unique to France; data from jurisdictions around the world show similar trends. You can confirm this yourself on any COVID data tracking website, such as Our World in Data or Worldometers, or by digging into official government epidemiological data. The "second wave" is causing far less severe outcomes than the first. 

While it's true that increased testing is picking up more asymptomatic or mild cases (which contributes to a "surge" in cases) and while we've gotten better at treating patients with COVID (which reduces lethality because of better medical intervention), the very mild increase in hospitalizations shows that this is more than just a statistical illusion created by increased testing and better medical intervention. This means that COVID-19 is getting less dangerous over time (less deaths and less severe cases), which is the common way respiratory viruses evolve over time. By now you should be breathing a sigh of relief and wondering why enforcement of masks and social distancing is getting more, not less strict - I'll come back to this issue shortly.

But there's still more good news that should have long since put our fears at ease. The vast majority of us will never get infected because up to 60% of the population already has some level of T-cell immunity and up to 60% of children and about 6% of adults may already have some immunity thanks to cross-reactive antibodies as a result of previous exposure to other closely-related coronavirus strains. Remember I told you in part 3 that this isn't a new virus, just a new strain? Turns out our immune system thinks so too! Isn't it surprising that the media isn't celebrating this good news on the front page of every newspaper? 

Hospital capacity was the initial reason why we were told that we had to ignore long-established pandemic guidelines designed to achieve herd immunity as quickly as possible with the least amount of damage and instead embarked on an experiment designed to flatten the curve with lockdowns and masks. With the exception of a few key hotspots, which mismanaged their long-term care homes, hospitals have not been overrun and even those few hotspots have long since returned to normal levels. As the French example above shows, COVID-related hospitalizations are no longer surging along with rising cases. Recent reports of full hospitals in some jurisdictions are largely because hospitals are now playing catch up to make up for surgeries and other medical treatments that were cancelled or delayed during the early months of the COVID pandemic. If fact, we are seeing dozens of hospitals file for bankruptcy because of dwindling patient volumes

None of the data I just shared is controversial. This is not the stuff of tin-foil hat conspiracy theories. Quite the opposite, these are statistics, epidemiological data, and medical studies put out by our own governments or published in the leading medical journals around the world. Yet this context is simply missing from what is being reported by the media and publicly discussed by our health authorities and politicians. And those that dare quote this data or openly question the bizarre public policies that contradict everything we've learned about the virus are accused of not caring if they kill grandma, get labelled as a conspiracy theorists, and get ridiculed as a "Covidiots" by belligerent politicians and cynical journalists. Scientific debate has been sidelined in favor of mobbing.

So, back to the original question posed at the start of this article. Why hasn't the panic subsided? 

Why has all this evidence failed to reassure us? Why isn't it even part of the public debate? Why have we adopted a zero-risk approach to managing this virus? Why are we utterly blind to the enormous psychological, health, and economic costs imposed by face masks and lockdowns, as though the only risk we face in our lives is COVID-19? Why can we not see that we are gripped by a blind panic that is totally out of proportion to the risk we face?

The initial media stories coming out of Wuhan, China, looked scary. But the panic truly began when our health authorities (i.e. the WHO) gave COVID its own name and began publicly tracking every case and every death in real time with big read dots on a map. The media kept the death counter running as front-page news; it was very good for clicks. It created the illusion of an unprecedented danger rolling towards us and at the same time raised the expectation among a frightened public that the government should do something to protect them. Instead of working to calm people down, focusing on protecting the vulnerable, and communicating the rational behind long-established pandemic guidelines (like what Sweden did), health officials and vote-hungry politicians opted to be seen doing something to "help". They began publicly prescribing measures like face masks and social distancing, which are largely ineffective (with the exception of hand washing) and lockdowns (which can only "flatten the curve" and therefore can only delay but not prevent infection). 

This was the moment when health authorities and politicians painted themselves into a corner. They opened Pandora's box by promising a political solution to a virus that would allow us to escape all risk. Once that promise was let out of the box, instead of accepting our risks and balancing those risks against other risks and other priorities, it created the illusion that if the right combination of measures was followed by an obedient population, we could avoid infection altogether. 

Face masks are the perfect fuel for fear. They are a visual reminder that the virus is everywhere, a visual reminder of how dangerous everyone else is, a visual reminder of how vulnerable we all feel, and a visual reminder that our trusted leaders promised us that if we just follow their prescribed measures, everything will turn out alright. 

When walking into a room full of people wearing face masks, your mind doesn't say, "Oh, good, everyone's wearing a face mask. I can relax." On the contrary, our reaction is more akin to, "Oh shit, face masks, someone must have cracked open the carcass of an anthrax cow in the next room." 

We know what face masks are for. Intuitively, they put us on high alert because they mean there's danger lurking, otherwise we wouldn't have to protect ourselves. But our brains are not so good at differentiating between a 0.3% and a 50% risk of dying. We're afraid, so we wear face masks. Because we wear face masks, we are afraid. That is the first component of why face masks fuel irrational panic, make us blind to evidence, and make us unwilling to balance the risk of this one virus against all the other risks and other priorities that we face in our lives. Face masks cause us to focus on our fears and lose sight of everything else.

But the most dangerous risk of face masks comes from the false expectation that they work. Instead of recognizing and accepting how a virus normally spreads through a population, each new case, each new hospitalization, and each new death is interpreted as a failure by our fellow citizens to follow mask rules and social distancing guidelines. After all, our leaders and our health authorities promised that if everyone dutifully wears their face masks, the pandemic will go away. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that the urge to control our fellow man has been unleashed with such vicious fury and that so many people are supportive of authoritarian health measures that promise ever stricter punishments for those who disobey (or even criticize) these ineffective health measures. 

On September 23rd, 2020, Canada's Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland, provided a text-book example of this rationale when she said that: "Please, everyone, let's flatten the curve together, limit our social interactions, please let us all wear a mask. If we can do it right, we can avoid having to do much more terrible things.This is the benevolent threat made by every prohibitionist, every religious zealot, every mafia extortionist, and every moralist who gains control over the levers of power before they trample individual rights and blame their victims for the authoritarian hell that they unleash next. "Do what we want you to, so we don't have to force you. It's for the public's safety."

As long as this false expectation of mask effectiveness persists, we will remain trapped in this self-reinforcing cycle of fear, finger pointing, and ever stricter enforcement of authoritarian health measures. And despite all of the commotion created by these ineffective policies, cases and deaths will simply keep adding up anyway until the virus burns itself out. 

We cannot reduce the total number of cases required to reach herd immunity. But we can shift the caseload towards the lowest risk members of society (by going about our lives as usual while protecting our most vulnerable, as described in all pre-2020 pandemic guidelines). Or we can shift the caseload towards the highest risk members of society (by using lockdowns which slow the spread among the lowest risk members of society, thus increasing the likelihood that vulnerable citizens are infected). By choosing the second option, we are dragging out this pandemic for as long as possible, thus inflicting the maximum amount of pain through collateral non-COVID deaths, economic destruction, and untold human suffering and misery.

The cost of our irrational fear is starting to add up: delayed surgeries, suicide, bankruptcies, unemployment, poverty, loneliness, anxiety disorders, mental health crises, delayed or damaged educational opportunities, drug addiction, and growing reports of child abuse. Up to 40% of all additional deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic have been caused, not by COVID-19 itself, but because of hospitals delaying or cancelling medical treatments (surgeries, chemotherapy, etc.), because of people cancelling their own medical treatments or avoiding going to hospital for dangerous medical conditions, like heart attacks and strokes, out of fear of getting exposed to COVID-19 (all of which are much more dangerous than COVID), because of suicides caused by the unintended consequences of lockdown, and because of neglect, isolation, and fear at nursing homes. This is not rational. This is unrestrained irrational panic.

So, it's high time that we admit that masks are not harmless. 

As I've documented here, the harm caused by face masks extend far beyond the often-cited risks of skin rashes caused by prolonged mask wearing, breathing difficulties, and the risk breathing bacteria and mold growing inside warm moist face masks that are worn for long time periods. Our politicians, health authorities, and media are simply wrong about face masks. Not only do they not work, but there are no upsides and plenty of extremely harmful downsides to face masks.

COVID-19 health measures are not a choice between saving lives versus and protecting our economy. This is not a choice between saving lives versus the inconvenience of wearing masks. Not only are we not even saving lives with these destructive health measures, they are so counterproductive that we are actually causing additional unnecessary deaths beyond the death toll imposed by COVID-19. Even the lives of the vulnerable that we claim to be protecting with these misguided health measures are actually being put at greater risk because we are dragging out the time it takes to reach herd immunity. We aren't protecting grandma. We're preventing her loved ones from getting exposed to and acquiring herd immunity so that her risk remains elevated for far longer than necessary. And by cutting grandma off from seeing her family for so long, she may well die of loneliness and isolation long before the pandemic ends, even if she never catches COVID.

So take off the damn mask before you lose your mind and so you can help others climb down from their panic. A lot of lives depend on us coming to our senses soon before this living hell grows even larger and consumes us all.

And then there are the frightening legal consequences of making masks mandatory, which I will cover in part 5, the final article in this series... 

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Part 4 - Spreading Fear and False Expectations, One Mask At A Time


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  1. Wow what a voice of reason in this messed up world

  2. Thanks for your site and articles here. Another over-used term 'preaching to the choir' - I popped over via link from Toby Young,

    Two minor thoughts I had from a couple of your points.

    1) "Historians will likely spend decades trying to unravel why our institutions and governments were so quick to abandon evidence-based decision making"

    I fear that, given the speed and trajectory of self-censorship and MSM/SM direct censorship, we will have no way to look back on this even in 10 years. That is, even a greater number of population will ONLY be able to get info from google/FB etc., aside from the few 'weirdos' who print everything. A bit of a mix of censorship plus the fact that people won't even want to seek out the truth - which is more the Brave New World-ish concept of never really needing to burn/ban books - people won't want to know.

    And (2), minor point on seasonal influenza. Early on I used the 0.1% IFR as 'typical bad flu year' mortality rate. However I found more data that supported IFR levels of 0.02% to 0.05% (typical), and 0.1% for a bad year. Regardless, anything close to 0.2 - 0.4% is still on par with 1958/1968 and, although 'ten times worse than flu', it is nowhere near the 'pandemic planning' almost all countries had in place till 2019, which didn't have lockdowns or personal restrictions for a 3% IFR event.

    It's frustrating to ask people over 60 what they did in 1958/1968 when similar mortality was happening. Zero out of about 15 to 20 I asked even knew the 58/68 pandemics happened.

  3. Hey,
    I just discovered you today thru Organic Consumers newsletter and your "..snake oil salesman..", which was a great read and one of the most informative discussions about immunology I've ever read. Some of it I knew, much of it was similar to my own personal theories of how I thought it worked, and some was just brand new.

    I really like the analogy of the layering with the different levels of defense for different levels of danger and the deeper levels responsible for deeper or longer memory. I know I should have put this comment there, but just finished reading this series as well and am impressed again.

    I was thinking the same as the unknown commenter above tho' about anyone looking back. If we don't turn some shit around we're going to be so dumbed down and there won't be any alternative thoughts allowed to be displayed. If we're even alive we'll probably be sick from all our booster shots.

    Or maybe we'll break thru the ...I want to say stupidity, but it's not really that. I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it really does seem like a kind of mind control. They way people just want to believe what they're told without thinking about it..just going along. I mean propaganda is low level mind control, but add it to the emf's of cell phones and it's just a matter of putting you in a suggestive state if you believe in hypnosis type stuff.

    Something has changed. People are really different. This shit wouldn't have slid this far even just a couple years ago. I'm just thinking out loud. I provoked myself with that mind control thing.

    People do seem somewhat different. I mean the head of the ACLU came out the other week in support of mandatory vaccination, saying something like " would actually give us more freedom.." I used to be a supporter of the ACLU but that's straight out of "1984" like "ignorance is strength", "forced vaccination is freedom". That anyone from the ACLU would be OK with forced or mandatory vaccinations is mind boggling.

    Anyway, didn't mean to go into all that. I was just going to tell you I'd try to throw you a tip as soon as I can get my card activated, unless you take crypto then I can hook you up with btc, bch or eth. Thanks for your extremely well thought out comments.

    ps Sorry I was too lazy to edit. It is what it is.

  4. I'm Karl Livergood of Albuquerque NM USA, by the way. Only posted as anonymous because I didn't want to sign in to Google either. But being anonymous goes against everything in the article I'm praising so thought I should clear that up.

    I apologize if this is redundant. I just wrote a whole other piece but I think it got lost when it tried to make me sign into google again. I hope not, it was pretty good. (if I have to say so myself)
    peace, (or revolution)


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