To mask or not to mask?

The surgical mask became one of the visible signals outside of China announcing the emergence of the virus we now know as Covid-19. As more countries recommend the wearing of these basic masks in public, they have failed to provide scientific evidence in support or to mention that this still leaves eyes and hands exposed to aerosol droplets, particularly on trains, planes and in workplaces. I suggest this PPE item has become a visual metaphor for massive public health contradictions.

Considered practically, the surgical mask is more effective at hiding the wearers identity than it is of completely filtering out a spray of particles bearing 1 to 4 micron sized Covid19 virus. These particular masks were only designed to shield the patients body by restricting bacteria-containing moisture droplets from a surgeons mouth during operations. Any particle smaller than its 100 micron sized mesh is factually able to pass through them.

Consequently, there is varying opinion over the purpose and effectiveness of wearing the basic nose and mouth covering. My preferred version is that wearing a mask at least acts as a symbolic reminder that the pandemic is not over and everyone should remain careful and alert. The other version is that wearing masks will give wearers a false sense of security who may then relax other measures such as isolation, social distancing and washing hands.

Yet the opinions of the political and governing elites around the world seem to be coming down on the side of advising or compelling citizens to wear masks. Good news for the manufacturers of masks and disposable gloves who will make huge profits out of the threat facing everyone on the planet. Good also for the incompetent elites because advice (or compulsion) will give them the appearance of doing something positive – even when they aren’t.

Yet, PPE itself can become the source of viral transmission. Even single-use N95 mask, (95% effective) need to be properly fitted and removed, to limit the spread of the virus. A mask which is contaminated – when removed – can pass a potential viral load to the hands (or gloves) and to any surface they are placed upon.

Since Covid-19, can remain potentially active for up to three days on some surfaces, wearing PPE does not solve the contamination problem as front-line, full-kitted visor-wearing medical staff have tragically found out. At best ‘protection’ has merely placed an extra stage in the viruses path to reproduction. After leaving intensive care, even fully kitted medical staff are not safe until a rigorous removal and disposal procedure has been undertaken. It is similar for the wearer of any form of mask, visor, plastic apron or gloves.

Indeed, the more successful personal protection equipment is at trapping Covid-19, the more lethal it’s viral load can be. So a general use of masks etc., is not as simple or as effective as made out by some knee-jerk, pro-mask commentators. Unless the ‘routine’ includes a flawless cleaning (or disposal) of PPE, the virus passenger remains ready to be picked up. This need for protection and a rigorous cleaning/disposal routine is the weak link in any policy of prematurely returning to workplace, leisure, or educational groupings.

It only needs one or two per group of early returners to the currently pro-capitalist prescribed suited-up ‘dystopian normality’ to become too tired, careless or unconcerned, for contagion to begin again among the vulnerable majority. That is why fresh outbreaks have occurred in China, Italy, South Korea and North America after easing restrictions, despite mask wearing and having testing, tracing and tracking in place.

Within a commuting radius of ill-prepared factories, businesses and schools Covid-19 contagion is begining again.

The ‘masking’ of incompetence.

It has become apparent in a number of countries around the globe that many governing elites have also simultaneously tried to ‘mask’ their own half-baked suggestions, incompetent preparation and management. In the UK, as elsewhere, they have done so by claiming that ‘making things up as they go along’, has been doing the ‘right thing at the right time’. Their decision to privatise the warehousing of medical equipment, for another example, resulted in more confusion, chaos and lateness in issuing PPE to UK hospital staff.

In the rest of Europe and North America, there has been nothing less than a three month masquerade of pretence by many governing elites that they have everything under control. This suggests that the cheap disposable mask also stands as a metaphor for the cover-up of general incompetence by ‘officialdom’. Yet the masquerade of concern for people’s health and well-being during these months of pandemic has now worn thin.

The overiding concerns of the economic and political elites is now clearly revealed. They are the survival of the neo-liberal capitalist mode of production, from yet another near death experience. The primary concern of pro-capitalist elites in 2020 is on giving the capitalist mode of production a ‘kiss of life’ delivered by the agency of working people now desperate enough to risk their lives (and others) in exchange for wages and salaries.

Despite over 300,000 global deaths, and more to follow, not one of the governing elites in any country is prepared to consider an alternative mode of production to the one that benefits them. Yet this is not really surprising for they and their ‘business’ partners in the finance-capital sector are poised to make billions out of this current tragedy. The resulting Covid triggered bankruptcies in the production and distribution categories of capitalism will provide opportunities for those who buy-out struggling businesses cheaply.

Masquerading as ‘saviours’ the financial vultures and masked pirates located in investment banking will slim-down business purchases by staff reductions and sell what is left at a profit. Alternatively, after boarding stricken enterprises they will asset-strip them (pick the bones clean) and sell-off what can be sold. Unless they are stopped from doing so, tax relief and astronomical consultancy/management fees, along with tax-haven secrecy will effectively ‘mask’ their continuing plunder of surplus wealth produced by working people.

Roy Ratcliffe (May 2020)

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