Don’t forget that you do have a Weekly Discussion Post on Canvas due by Friday, Dec. 4th at 11:00pm.
Read the following short articles and watch the short video below:
- Video: Baller, April. “When and how to wear medical masks to protect against the new coronavirus?” World Health Organization (WHO), 6 March 2020 (YouTube video 2 min 17 secs).
- Casiano, Louis. “WHO guidance: Healthy people should wear masks only when…” Fox News, 28 May 2020.
- Yan, Holly. “Fauci says the WHO’s comment on asymptomatic spread is wrong.” CNN.com, 10 June 2020.
- Morens, David M. and Fauci, Anthony S. “Emerging Pandemic Diseases: How We Got to COVID-19” Cell, 15 Aug. 2020.
The above materials are not the last word on COVID-19. As you remember from your reading of Collins & Pinch, this course teaches about science. Specifically, we want to consider the ways in which the public, lay audiences, hears about science. You’ve no doubt heard that political preferences seem to dictate one’s assumptions regarding mask wearing and the validity of scientists regarding the pandemic. The pandemic is real. Also, early in 2020, scientists weren’t certain about what precautions would be most effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. As college-educated citizens, you should understand why there were different guidelines early on; you shouldn’t throw your hands up and claim, “it’s just too confusing, so no one’s right.” Emerging science isn’t the same as black boxed science–science that the scientific community has established–so initial reporting might be wrong. However, as scientists continue to work on the emerging science, they begin to be able to answer more and more questions.
Collins & Pinch tell us that science can be messy. Their discussion of cold fusion underscores “science as normal,” and “it is our image of science which needs changing, not the way science is conducted” (p. 77). The public needs to have more realistic assumptions about science and not expect perfection. This isn’t a debunking of science. It is having a critical view of science, understanding the process of establishing facts and demonstrating evidence. Collins & Pinch definitely discussed science in relation to what I’ll call little-p “politics” (p. 54), but they didn’t address science and big-P “Politics,” which relates to our two-party system of Democrats vs Republicans. Little-p “politics” exists everywhere–jobs, schools, dating, marriage, discourse communities, academic disciplines, etc.–and establishes how members interact, get rewarded, get censured, and maintain a variety of hierarchies. We sometimes refer to these as the “unwritten rules” of an organization or discipline. No one sits you down and says, “these are our office politics.” As you get acclimated to your field and interact with you colleagues, you absorb the invisible political worldview of your profession.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture where a large portion of us are anti-intellectual and dismiss science. Researchers found that one’s Political orientation (Democratic or Republican) influences their acceptance of mask mandates and social distancing guidelines. It is shameful and a despicable comment on society that conviction and taste, as opposed to well-reasoned and supported opinions, guide people during a deadly pandemic. Aim to think critically about information you consume; aim to understand why an expert advises us one way or another. Don’t let what you believe blind you from facts.
The WHO’s Early Mask Guidelines for COVID-19
Full disclosure: In early March 2020 (prior to the 13th), I thought the pandemic was a little over blown. I didn’t think it was a hoax, but I thought it might just “just another flu…” Well, once we returned to classes after Spring Break, I told my class, “it’s not if we’re going 100% online; it’s when are we going 100% online.” I thought by April, and we went online by the end of that second week of March. I’m not blaming scientists for giving me false information; instead, I’m blaming myself for allowing assumptions, such as “we’ll be fine” and “it can’t be that bad,” blind me from the reality in which we now live. Friends and colleagues also were unsure this was a pandemic or not. Well, we no longer have any doubt!
Watch the WHO video with Dr. April Baller. Remember, this was published to YouTube on March 9, 2020. Dr. Baller tells the audience that they don’t need masks unless they are interacting with patients. She also claims that if you aren’t experiencing “respiratory symptoms” you don’t need a medical mask, and she holds up a mask (more on that specific mask below). Another claim is that “masks alone can give you a false feeling of protection” (0:0.23). She also makes the argument that sick people should wear masks to keep from infecting others. Although we now know we should always wear effective facial coverings when around others to slow the spread of this coronavirus, the WHO was very worried about a shortage of surgical masks that health care workers needed to treat COVID-19 patients. This was a legitimate fear and shortages did happen in January and February:
- Durbin, D’Innocenzio, and Pisani
- McKenna, Maryn
- Kelly Ng
- The Lancet (The British version of the New England Journal of Medicine)
The last source above is a well-respected peer-reviewed medical journal, and the three prior sources are reporting on this emerging science by interviewing medical professionals. The advice was to save Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for front-line workers. Notice that medical experts wanting everyday people, who should practice social distancing and be in lockdown, not to make a run on masks (remember the toilet paper shortages…) isn’t bad advice. They–the experts–advise policy makers on the BEST strategies (even if they cramp your style) to keep the public safe. That includes advising the public not to stockpile PPE if the equipment in short supply is needed for the medical professionals treating patients. Also, the WHO is a world organization and needed to have a consistent policy that applied worldwide for rich countries, poor countries, and all in between.
The Critique: First, this isn’t a debunking of Dr. Baller’s advice (in March 2020) or a condemnation of the WHO. However, the WHO’s one-size-fits-all advice didn’t take into account a countries resources. When you’re immersed in a rich society (even if you’re dirt poor, living in the United States makes you aware of what a rich society is), you don’t often deal with shortages or rationing. I was an infant during the 1970s gas shortage when people waited in line for hours at gas stations to fill up, and the gasoline shortage circa 2008 barely had an effect on me. Americans don’t have the same experience of shortages of goods as other countries have. This doesn’t mean everyone has everything they need in the United Stated, but we’re relatively more secure on average than other countries. I think the WHO should have explained that in their March 6th video. A more appropriate discussion would have explained the difference between those coveted N-95 surgical masks, which should be reserved for medical professionals, and the cloth coverings that we use. Dr. Baller should have said that in order to avoid a shortage, the public should make or buy non-surgical masks that offer an appropriate level of safety for consumer needs: grocery shopping, doctor appointments, vet visits, commuting, etc.
Although this is hindsight, the FDA has a good discussion of the differences between the various types of PPE. Again, I’m not debunking the WHO or claiming they gave bad advice. Looking back, I believe they should have had a fuller discussion on why saving masks for health care workers was the appropriate policy because it was.
The Uncritical View of Early Mask Guidelines for COVID-19
In contrast to those March WHO guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised us to wear cloth facial coverings (here are their current guidelines). What this did was give fuel to the anti-maskers to claim that “no one knows if masks help” and “the scientists disagree, so I’m out.” Instead of discussing this, the Fox News article I asked you to read has this title: “WHO guidance: Healthy people should wear masks only when ‘taking care of’ coronavirus patients.” Now, this is true, but it’s misleading, and I’ll explain why. Rhetorically, titles grab readers’ attention and get them to read the full article. Of course, sometimes people don’t read the full article and re-post a headline on social media, claiming the story is over. I came across the above Fox News article on Facebook. In late May/early June, a relative of mine encouraged people to wear face masks to protect themselves and others through a post. Another relative called masks into doubt in the reply section and linked to the above article. The article does mention that the CDC “urges individuals to wear a mask or face-covering in public settings, regardless of infection or not, to limit the spread of the virus”. How could my relative, who applauded Trump’s decision to defund the WHO, not be swayed by the CDC’s recommendation? Politics. This article allows folks to believe what they want to believe. If they want to deny masks are helpful, it’s in there; if they want support that the experts can’t agree and are therefore wrong, it’s in there. I read the and, while it does provide some accurate facts, it’s misleading for these reasons:
- The first sentence begins “The World Health Organization is recommending…,” which implies the recommendation is coming now.
- The article is from May 28, 2020–nearly 3 months after the WHO’s video from Dr. Baller.
- To the article’s credit, it mentions the video is from March.
- However, why use three-month-old advice about an emerging virus when information changes so quickly?
- Again, you need to read the article and not the headline to know that the original advice came in March.
- The article came at a time when people were over the lockdown and wanted to return to normal.
- As mentioned, one’s Politics had much to do with whether one believed the experts or not, and Fox News has an audience less-inclined to believe medical professionals about COVID-19 guidelines.
- The article makes a spurious claim in the final sentence:
The news comes after the CDC recommended last month that people wear nonsurgical face coverings when out in public after previously advising only health care workers and people exhibiting symptoms to do so.
- This observation has no discussion and can only sow more doubt in people’s minds because it points out the CDC once had different advice.
- The article makes no attempt to discuss why there might be competing advice from these two groups.
- Although no article can provide all the details regarding a subject, this 290-word article offers little substantive information on a deadly disease, and the doubt it allows readers to imply is dangerous.
By the way, that relative eventually unfriended me. People don’t like to hear what they don’t like to hear. I’ve never lost any sleep over that.
I’ll have notes on the Fauci articles up on December 3rd’s page shortly. Don’t forget you have your 500-word essay due next week–Dec. 8th. Please go to that page for guidelines.