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Masks As Social Engineering

On Friday the mainstream news media has been reporting that, today, the decision will be taken to make mask-wearing compulsory on Auckland's buses, trains and ferries; and on all domestic flights in New Zealand. None of the news reports indicate that there will be any criteria for the removal of such an authority mandate. Thus, from what I can tell, this could be an indefinite - potentially permanent – requirement, beginning in summer (when Covid19 is least prevalent), and despite a problem-free Labour weekend.

We have a present system that's easy to follow. If we get a Covid19 community outbreak we go to Level 2 (or higher) until Covid19 is once again eliminated. We are willing to submit to emergency restrictions while we are at Level 2 or higher, on the basis that we are released from these domestic restrictions when we are no longer at one of the emergency levels. The government is at pains to emphasise that the small number of cases this month barely reaches the definition of a cluster, and falls well short of an outbreak. Hence, they have shut down all premature talk of moving to Emergency Level 2.

New Zealanders are not complacent about Covid19. We have taken to the 'Levels' system, and have complied with it on the understanding that this is an effective form of emergency management, and that by going early and going hard we return to 'domestic normal' (ie Level 1) in the shortest possible time. Further, to date, the official (and correct) line has been that the health of the economy is a function of the physical and mental health (and the liberty) of the people.

This view appears to be changing, at the behest of a small group of public health academics. The government appears to be wanting to save the economy from further emergency level disruption by imposing indefinite measures which, if taken to anything like their logical conclusion, form the basis for a dystopic authoritarian state. This shift represents a misguided view of what constitutes economic health. We in Auckland – one of the healthiest million-plus-people cities in the world – should not be having to live our lives as if we are situated on the outskirts of Chernobyl.

If the government is concerned about the underuse of masks, it should be looking to put its money where its mouth is, and mandating the use of N95 masks (instead of the cheaper masks) for nurses working in border isolation and quarantine. The Ministry of Health controls a huge stockpile of these masks which nurses are able to access.

Two of the government's alleged policies ('KPIs' in management speak) are improved mental health and expanded urban infrastructure such as public transport. However, policies that make travelling to the city centre into and experience similar to walking through an infectious diseases hospital ward can be potentially very harmful to mental health, especially to the health of already anxious young people; and such policies constitute a major disincentive to the growth of public transport in the super-city, accentuating the ghettoisation of the central city.

It's very easy for public health academics to say that we in New Zealand should follow the full Taiwanese model in addressing infectious diseases such as Covid19. You cannot cite a mask-wearing society without Covid19 to conclude that masks are effective in inhibiting the spread of Covid19; Taiwan has no Covid19 to spread, regardless of masks.

Last May I visited Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. It's a beautiful prairie city about half the size of Auckland (800, 000 people in a province of 1.4 million). It largely escaped the ravages of Covid19 during the March to May 2020 outbreak. It has not been so lucky in recent months, however. Face masks were made mandatory in Winnipeg on 25 September. As of 15 November 2020, Manitoba has 6,715 active cases of Covid19, with 41 people in intensive care. There were 494 new cases reported yesterday, a rise on previous days. Covid19 tests presently show a 13 percent positive rate in Winnipeg, compared to a rate of about 0.05 percent in Auckland. And there are many cities in the developed world with worse outbreaks than that of Winnipeg.

New Zealand needs to retain its early and hard 'Levels' approach, in order that we can be sure of a rapid return to a domestic normal in which we can live (and be seen to live) normal healthy lives. What we do not need is governments and public health officials trying to impose changes to New Zealand's already thriving public culture – social engineering – by imposing indefinite public health orders on ordinary kiwi families and individuals already struggling to access the simple pleasures of life in a healthy but unequal country.

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Media stories:

Michael Baker: 'We need rules around the use of masks', RNZ 15 Nov 2020 (subtitle 'Wearing masks one way to "avoid a lockdown"')

Support for moves to make Covid Tracer app scanning mandatory, RNZ 14 Nov 2020

Government's move on masks does not go far enough - epidemiologist, RNZ 13 Nov 2020

Epidemiologist calls for mandatory mask use on all public transport, RNZ 14 Nov 2020

Covid-19: Isolation hotel nurses threaten to stop work if N95 masks not supplied, TVNZ 13 Nov 2020

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