by Dr Gary Sidley
Never mind that masks don’t work, masking the healthy harms us all socially and psychologically: all mandates must end on June 21st
The Government requirement for healthy people to wear a face covering in a range of indoor community settings, purportedly to reduce the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, has arguably been the most insidious of all the coronavirus restrictions.
Anyone reluctant to wear a face covering risks being challenged by others: “It’s only a mask”; “It’s no big deal”; “If it prevents just one infection, it’s worth it”. These comments are based on the premise that healthy people have nothing to lose from donning a mask when moving around their communities, but they fail to recognise an important truth:
Masking the healthy is not, and has never been, a benign intervention.
Anyone remotely sceptical may already know that, prior to June 2020, public health organisations and their experts did not endorse masking healthy people in the community as a means of reducing viral transmission and that, in the real world, mask mandates or the lack thereof appear to have made no discernible difference to the spread of coronavirus.
Famously, the decision of Texas to ditch their mask mandates was called “Neanderthal thinking” by President Biden – only for the Lone Star State to witness declining cases ever since.
For the purposes of this article, let’s leave to one side the accumulating evidence that face coverings are associated with:
And that we have no idea of the impact of long-term wear on children.
Let’s also forget, for now, the environmental damage of 53 million masks being sent to landfill waste sites every single day in the U.K. alone, with many more reaching our rivers and oceans, and the recent study detecting a range of potential toxins – including plastic fibres, silicon, poly-ethylene glycol, cadmium, copper and antimony – when masks inevitably find their way into our waterways.
Let’s just think about the social & psychological harms.
The social and psychological consequences of hiding our faces from other people are profound and ubiquitous. Humans are social animals. We need to interact with others and communicate to sustain our wellbeing. The reactions of the people we meet provide continuous feedback about ourselves and the impact we are having on our fellow citizens. Masks are a major impediment to all these human requirements and, as such, they are dehumanising.
More specifically, the social and psychological harms of face coverings include:
Inhibits emotional expression & social interaction – Face coverings discourage all forms of communication, both verbal and non-verbal. The difficulty in determining the emotional status of someone we meet will inhibit any form of shared pleasantry or human connection. Individuality minimised, identity hidden, the masked population appear broadly the same, as they trudge along in their social vacuums.
Impedes children’s social development – Face-to-face interactions, and positive attachments to adult caregivers, are essential for a child’s social development. Masks deny children access to facial expressions, a rich source of information crucial for their psychological maturation and the growth of emotional intelligence.
Maintains elevated levels of fear – Acting as a crude, highly visible reminder that danger is all around, face coverings are fuelling widespread anxiety. Fear is underpinned by a perception of threat and being masked is a blatant indicator that we are all biohazards. At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, fear was strategically increased on the recommendation of the Government’s behavioural scientists as a means of promoting compliance with the restrictions. Unfortunately, the resultant inflated fear levels have discouraged people from seeking help with non-Covid illnesses and are likely to have significantly contributed to the tens of thousands of non-Covid excess deaths that have occurred in private homes. It is plausible to suggest that masking is maintaining this elevated level of fear and thereby contributing to this tragic loss of life.
Excludes the hard of hearing – Masks will impede verbal communication, with the hard of hearing – who largely depend on lip reading – being effectively excluded from the conversation.
Promotes mindless compliance – The scientific evidence that masking the healthy reduces viral transmission is, at best, weak and contradictory. The decision by public health experts to mandate them is likely to have been influenced by the Government’s behavioural scientists in their attempts to enhance the public’s compliance with the range of coronavirus restrictions. We are strongly influenced by what others do, and masks enable easy identification of the rule followers and the rule breakers, thus bringing ‘normative pressure’ to bear on the miscreants to unthinkingly conform. (A recent book, A State of Fear by Laura Dodsworth, lends support to this idea that masks are a tool to promote compliance, a Government advisor informing her that psychologists on the behavioural science subgroup of SAGE liked them because “they conveyed a message of solidarity”).
Reduces concentration & impairs learning – Keeping children on task in the classroom is more difficult when they are masked.
Aggravates existing anxiety problems/ re-traumatises – Wearing a mask will heighten the distress of many people with existing mental health problems and may trigger ‘flashbacks’ for those historically traumatised by physical and/or sexual abuse. Many people already tormented by recurrent panic attacks, involving catastrophic thoughts of imminent death and feelings of breathlessness, will find masks very difficult to tolerate. Regrettably, exercising their legal right to go out without a face covering can attract harassment and victimisation.
Barriers to talking therapies – Facial expressions and other forms of non-verbal communication are vital for the development of a therapeutic relationship, one based on trust, empathy and compassion; in the absence of such a relationship, psychological therapy is rendered ineffective. Although the impact of ‘Covid-safe’ environments on the effectiveness of professional help for people with mental health problems is unknown, masks might be especially problematic.
Enables criminals to evade identification – Unsurprisingly, there have been reports that widespread mask wearing is making it more difficult for police forces to identify crime suspects.
Won’t masks help reassure people as we return to normal activities?
It has often been suggested that face coverings can reassure people that they are safe to return to shops, restaurants and other community venues, thereby aiding the economic recovery. The Government endorsed this view in their response to an anti-mask petition when they argued that masks could ‘give people more confidence’ when shopping and therefore encourage them to return to the high street. But as any psychological therapist knows, the assertion that face coverings will reduce people’s anxieties about contracting a virus is absurd.
As already mentioned, masks act as a crude reminder that danger is all around. Furthermore, they constitute what psychologists refer to as a ‘safety behaviour’ that acts to prevent disconfirmation of anxious beliefs; continuing to wear masks will maintain fear as the wearer may attribute their survival to the mask rather than conclude that it is now safe to return to normal activities. To recommend masks as a source of reassurance is akin to insisting people wear a garlic clove around their necks to reduce their fear of vampires.
To summarise, the evidence that masks reduce viral transmission is weak and contradictory, while there is better-quality research to support the conclusion that they do not significantly reduce the risk of respiratory infections in real-world settings. Although generally under-investigated, there is accumulating evidence that masking healthy people, particularly for long periods of time, can cause a range of physical harms. More importantly, face coverings are associated with profound social and psychological consequences, with fear maintenance and the stymying of children’s social and emotional development being the most concerning.
Readers will make up their own minds. The Smile Free campaign – of which I’m a part – launches this week to campaign for the removal of mask mandates in the U.K., and believes that, in a democratic society, the evidential bar to justify mandating a behaviour should be set very high; the research in support of masks offering protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection falls a long way short of this threshold.
If people choose to wear face coverings, so be it, but this should be a personal decision for each individual, not one imposed by Government diktat. All mask mandates must be lifted on June 21st and this most insidious of all the coronavirus restrictions must never return.
Dr Gary Sidley is a retired Consultant Clinical Psychologist.