By John Duffy

Doing Something

When I was a child, my mom once took me and my sister to the airport to ship us off to Florida to stay with our grandparents who lived in St. Petersburg. I was probably about eight and my sister was probably about ten. In those good ole days, my mom was able to accompany us right up to the terminal and kiss us goodbye before an airline agent walked us down the jetway and showed us to our seats. When the plane landed in Florida, my grandmother and grandfather were waiting in the terminal for us to deplane, so as soon as we entered the airport, they were right there to spot us, hug us, and then begin bickering with each other as they guided us to their car.

Airline security rules changed after 9-11. How could they not? There was a globally televised spectacle of mass destruction and death that utilized passenger planes as weapons. Nasty terrorists had worn slacks and button down shirts, posing as normal, hardworking, pro-western business-bros when they boarded their respective jetliners that morning. Sure, the group of them was comprised of individuals well known to not only American but various western Intelligence agencies, several of them had been monitored at a terrorist “planning summit” in Malaysia in 2000, they were linked to the al-Qaeda phone hub in Yemen that was bugged by the CIA and NSA, and FBI counterterror agents were desperately trying to get CIA and FBI higher ups to spill what they knew about these men due to their involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole in the Port of Aden, but still! Since anyone anywhere could be a potential terrorist, and since every good politician knows that when people die in a novel way and it’s all over TV that they must be seen doing something, they did something.

To be sure, they did a lot of somethings. But one of the more permanent changes made that most Americans will have to deal with from time to time, was the creation of the Transportation Security Agency, or TSA. No longer would rinky-dink airports in US backwaters get to hire their own security staff. No longer could un-ticketed passengers step into airport terminals. Hell, no longer could you bring a beverage to the airport and then onto your flight. We couldn’t risk it! Now, across the land, blue shirted agents of the TSA staff every airport, diligently making sure names on plane tickets match names on I.D.’s. They are tirelessly swabbing random bags for explosive residues, and for a period of a few years there, they were eyeballing the outlines of our penises as we walked through backscatter imaging machines (which have now been replaced with “general outline” millimeter wave machines.)

But as was to be expected, over the years, random tests of TSA effectiveness have shown miserable results. Consider the article titled “The TSA Continues To Miss 95% Of Weapons — HOW IS THIS OKAY?!?” from July of 2017, which states:

Fox 9 Minneapolis-St. Paul reports on how this past week the TSA at MSP Airport missed 95% of weapons, etc., that were brought through security as part of an internal test…This isn’t the first time the TSA has performed so poorly. In 2015 the TSA failed 67 out of 70 tests that were conducted around the nation, also giving them a 95% failure rate. The only area where the TSA is excelling is with consistency, it seems. And by consistency I mean the ~95% fail rate they’re achieving.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic, again, politicians needed to be seen doing something. There had to be measures and policies and mandates because the whole job of being an elected official seems to be about pretending to be able to control the unpredictable, or at least, pretending to be able to do so in order to reduce public fear so that commerce and capitalism can continue unabated. Early in the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci famously said that there was no reason for the public to wear face masks when he was interviewed on 60 Minutes, and then later, he just as famously said that his original statement was a lie he told in order to prevent a run on face masks and to preserve PPE for healthcare workers.

Over the course of the entire pandemic, masks have become a major issue of contention that was politicized and turned into a declaration of values by celebrities, politicians, Twitter goofs, and outraged Wal-Mart shoppers from sea to shining sea. Hilariously, as is often the case, each team claimed to be armed with the truth, or in common parlance, to have THE SCIENCE! ontheir side. Well, last week the CDC released a report in order to settle the issue once and for all. The report opens:

“CDC recommends a combination of evidence-based strategies to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Because the virus is transmitted predominantly by inhaling respiratory droplets from infected persons, universal mask use can help reduce transmission.”

With a thesis statement like that, the data contained within must be juicy, no? They wouldn’t use phrases like “evidence based” if they weren’t about to go ham on all the red state dullards who have been mouth breathing death all over the potato chip aisle for the last twelve months. So let’s have it!

“During March 1–December 31, 2020, state-issued mask mandates applied in 2,313 (73.6%) of the 3,142 U.S. counties. Mask mandates were associated with a 0.5 percentage point decrease (p = 0.02) in daily COVID-19 case growth rates 1–20 days after implementation and decreases of 1.1, 1.5, 1.7, and 1.8 percentage points 21–40, 41–60, 61–80, and 81–100 days, respectively, after implementation (p<0.01 for all). Mask mandates were associated with a 0.7 percentage point decrease (p = 0.03) in daily COVID-19 death growth rates 1–20 days after implementation and decreases of 1.0, 1.4, 1.6, and 1.9 percentage points 21–40, 41–60, 61–80, and 81–100 days, respectively, after implementation (p<0.01 for all). Daily case and death growth rates before implementation of mask mandates were not statistically different from the reference period.

What the fuck? I thought we were dropping the evidence-based hammer here? An 1.3% average of drop in case growth rates basically means that the county with no mask mandate would have 100 new cases per day, and the county with the mask mandate would have 99 new cases per day. To in the end barely clear one percentage point of decrease in growth rates is sad. For months on months the COVID righteous have been blaming the mask-averse knuckle draggers for prolonging our communal purgatory, but it turns out, the best a mask mandate can do is give us a statistically insignificant rounding error of slowed growth. It’s almost as if Dr. Fauci’s original statement on 60 Minutes that “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask. While masks may block some droplets, they do not provide the level of protection people think they do,” was his actual medical opinion based upon years of research and he only did an about face later because politicians decided – as they typically do – that doing something is always preferred to doing nothing.

Let’s drill down for a moment here, on how technologies work versus how they work when applied to real world situations. A TSA x-ray machine can show an image of a weapon stashed inside a bag. But in the real world, when a human being is looking at a monochrome screen for eight hours a day as bag after bag after bag passes before their tired eyes in all of it’s jumbled glory, it is very possible that said human being can miss a gun, a knife, or a bomb, stashed amongst the otherwise ordinary earbuds, sweatshirts, and trail mix. So in the real world, despite what the technology can do, we end up with a TSA that fails to find most banned items when they are put to the test.

Similarly, in a lab, surgical mask material used as a filter in an air vent for a limited window of time can prevent the passage of viral SARS-CoV-2 particles into a hamster cage, but a real human being with a three dimensional face, going about their day wearing a surgical mask that is quickly coated in moisture and near constantly touched and adjusted over the course of eight hours will not provide the same results. The tightly controlled laboratory study of the technology does not necessarily give us a good understanding of how the technology will perform in the very dynamic real world when utilized by very living and fallible human beings existing in a complex and nuanced world.

Am I suggesting pulling all airport security? I cannot say I have thought about the issue much, but I don’t think that I am. If anything, I think if pressed I would say we need to change our fundamental strategy. I would suggest that the idea that any human anywhere can be a terrorist is a stupid way to address the problem of terrorism because it is entirely unfocused, and that wide nets are bound to be full of holes. The truth is that most people are not terrorists, and subjecting them to constant breeches of privacy and search and seizure is ineffective and a violation of the basic values of a free society. Similarly, most people are not sick with COVID-19 most of the time, and limiting their movement, their right to gather, and their bodily autonomy is a wide net full of holes. Just as counter-terror measure are probably more effective when focused on actual terrorists and their actual targets, public health measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are likely more effective when focused on those who are actually ill and those who are the most vulnerable. We see this illustrated in a recent study published in Nature that concludes:

[U]sing this methodology and current data, in ~ 98% of the comparisons using 87 different regions of the world we found no evidence that the number of deaths/million is reduced by staying at home. Regional differences in treatment methods and the natural course of the virus may also be major factors in this pandemic, and further studies are necessary to better understand it.”

Stay at home orders are a statistically insignificant way to prevent deaths from COVID-19, and masks are a statistically insignificant way to slow case growth. Will politicians eat crow on this one? Will they unmake their year of draconian power grabs and set their populations free? Probably not as long as they continue to feel that their number one priority is visibility, the need to be seen as doing something rather than actually doing what works, despite the howls of the fearful.