For something costing as little as 20 cents a pop, masks have proved massively controversial. The World Health Organization took until June 5 to acknowledge they help prevent the spread of Covid-19, two months after the also-tardy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Texas, where self-styled “freedom fighters” bleat about infringement of liberties, governor Greg Abbott has been forced into a U-turn to mandate masks after the state reported about 8,000 new cases on both Wednesday and Thursday.
Goldman Sachs had weighed into the masks debate with economic calculations earlier this week, concluding that wearing masks could save 5 per cent of output that would otherwise be bled away by lockdowns.
Based on average nationwide numbers, Goldman’s researchers assume that making masks obligatory would increase usage by about 25 percentage points in mandate-free states — home to roughly half America’s population. Focus on the issue would also spur more people to obey in the states already demanding it. That, in turn, they calculate, would more than halve weekly increases in cumulative cases of Covid-19 to 7.3 per cent. The headline GDP saving comes from translating these numbers into terms of economic output using an index combining official restrictions and actual social distancing data.
Some of this requires a leap of faith. People responding to surveys about how frequently they wear a mask may be tempted to embellish. While Goldman’s researchers have controlled for some factors, such as population density and obesity, there are inevitably others that muddy the picture.
In the large swaths of Asia where masks are already a cultural norm — for common flu or hay fever — there are other elements of hygiene at play. Some of these, such as sanitising lifts and phones, are a legacy of the Sars virus of 2003.
It is hard to see this playing out in Texas where mores are different and the stick wielded by enforcers is a light one. First-time offenders get a telling off; the next time, the biggest fine they face is $250. That easily buys a year’s supply of masks with plenty of change, over but is hardly a compelling incentive.
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