Many ancient and primitive cultures observe rainmaking rituals. These arise because rain is important to agriculture and the occurrence of any single rain shower is subject to a high degree of randomness. In extended droughts, man will implore the gods for relief, and to underline the urgency of his request, he might do any number of things, such as dancing or sacrificing specific animals or deploying certain sacred stones. Whenever rain randomly occurred in proximity to such an action, a rainmaking ritual was born.
Non-pharmaceutical interventions against Covid were subject to a very similar dynamic. In his recent piece on ‘How Zeynep Tufekci and Jeremy Howard Masked America‘ (which you should read), friend-of-the-blog Michael P. Senger reminds us that key early mask advocates in America were downstream of the crazy ‘Masks 4 All’ movement, which originated with a Czech man named Petr Ludwig and a viral YouTube video he posted on March 14th 2020, demanding that everyone start wearing homemade masks in public. Alongside various terrible arguments, Ludwig insisted that community masking could work, because at that point, Mongolia had been masking since January, and it had only one Covid case.
This advocacy, inspired by mask-happy low-Covid Asia, eventually led Czechia and Slovakia to impose the first mask mandates in Europe at the end of March. As cases remained moderate across the entire eastern half of the Continent, the mask brigade seized the opportunity to argue that the early Czech mandates had been successful. By April the maskers had succeeded in forcing face diapers on Westerners almost everywhere, including the United States. Having borrowed a meaningless ritual from regions where infections were lower for other reasons, these newly masked jurisdictions watched cases decline in the spring weather and concluded that masks were in fact an incredibly successful non-pharmaceutical intervention. The Thuringian city of Jena, for example, imposed the first mask mandate in Germany on April 6th, after Covid had already entered seasonal decline. Experts declared that their early action had prevented untold numbers of infections.
The whole pandemic was exactly this genre of stupid. Even quite obnoxious policies need only have some superficial intuitive appeal and media support to achieve wide public acceptance; and, once adopted, these ritualistic solutions prove very difficult to get rid of, however consistently they fail to do anything. Like that hairdresser mask study which advocates will never stop citing, they just feel right, and that matters more than all the evidence and rational argumentation in the world.