In March this year, I submitted an opinion piece to this newspaper regarding face masks and their relative effectiveness in preventing the spread of coronavirus. In the piece, I took what was then the standard line from the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which recommended handwashing, physical distancing, avoiding touching your face, covering your mouth when coughing and staying home if you had flu-like symptoms.

Wearing a mask was not one of the CDC’s bullet points for avoiding the virus at the time. I then went on to argue that masks played only a minor role, and at best were only good for stopping those who were already infected from spreading the virus further.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The response from the editor was gracious but HKFP rejected my piece, essentially saying that the jury was still out on the usefulness of masks.

Thankfully.

Undaunted, in April this year I wrote an op-ed for another local newspaper about the effect that masks have on preventing the spread of Covid-19. In the piece, I alluded to a graph showing the rates of infection of countries around the world. On the graph, four places, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, had trajectories much below the other countries, and these four were circled with the word “Masks” written in large letters. The remainder of my op-ed systematically tried to debunk the message being conveyed by the graph, which I claimed was a simplification of a very complex issue.

At least, that’s what I thought at the time.

Over the past month or so, however, masks have rapidly climbed up the list of preventative measures from medical authorities to the point where they now occupy the top spot with social distancing. And now in North America, suddenly, it is very common to see people wearing masks, including public figures. In the past month, with a couple of notable exceptions, public figures such as Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau and Boris Johnson in the UK have all worn masks.

Clearly, the penny has dropped. Masks work.

Of course, here in East Asia, wearing a mask in public is no big deal. Collectively, the public here seems to have known all along that masks do provide significant protection to the wearer as well as those in the vicinity of the wearer.

Mui Wo. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Presently, in the United States where the wearing of masks is still nowhere nearly as prevalent as parts of East Asia, the number of Covid cases remains stubbornly high.

Drawing the conclusion that the wearing of masks alone as the key to defeating the virus would be going too far; however, when I claimed that masks were only a small part of the solution, I also obviously grossly understated their value. Therefore, it’s time for me to eat some crow. And herein lies a lesson.

Throughout the pandemic, leaders in some countries, Brazil and the United States come to mind, have taken positions on what they believe to be the correct course of action and stuck to them. Perhaps the most notable example is President Trump and his lapdog, VP Mike Pence, both of whom doggedly refuse to wear a mask, and who almost perceive going maskless as a badge of honor despite the dangers it imposes both to themselves as well as others. And worse, their followers have been known to shout abuse at those who do wear masks as if wearing one were some sort of betrayal to one’s independence.

Donald Trump. Photo: GovUS.

This rigid attachment to one’s beliefs in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence is a blatant mental mistake. Because the present pandemic is something none of us has experienced in our lifetimes, we require a certain open-mindedness about how best to behave and what course of action is best because the Covid target is a moving one, so there’s no sense getting territorial about one’s beliefs. Every day, it seems that we learn something new about the virus, and there remain many uncertainties, such as whether having previously been infected provides some immunity.

In my own case, I’m fully willing to eat crow. I got it wrong about masks. It’s very clear now that they provide effective protection and they are probably one of the main, if not the main, reason for East Asia’s low infection and fatality rates.

However, nowadays, it seems like doubling down on one’s beliefs is the only option available. Whether one is right or wrong comes second to belief. Somehow, to admit that you were wrong is taken as a huge, shameful weakness. This is clearly absurd. No one can be right all the time and admitting that you got something wrong or made a mistake often disarms your adversaries, at least your fair-minded ones.

After all, in the words often attributed to Mark Twain: It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

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Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.