Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

New York Times Readers React to the Latest Mask Study

State of the Union: If opposition to mask mandates was inspired by “right-wing ideology,” then a lot of right-wing ideologues were vindicated by the Cochrane report.


A massive study from Cochrane on the efficacy of masks and other interventions in preventing the spread of respiratory diseases found "wearing a mask may make little to no difference in how many people caught a flu‐like illness/COVID‐like illness...and probably makes little or no difference in how many people have flu/COVID confirmed by a laboratory test." In his Wednesday column, the New York Times's Bret Stephens argued the study results should cause those who pushed mask mandates to "acknowledge their error, along with its considerable physical, psychological, pedagogical and political costs."

The Times's readership wasn't interested. One response stands out, from a reader named David Yanes:


Bret Stephens vilified and applauded the wrong people. Mr. Stephens’s conclusion, based on the Cochrane study, that “mask mandates were a bust” may be true. I don’t know. But I do know that the C.D.C. and other medical professionals recommending mask wearing were not acting out of incompetence, negligence or for any sinister reason. Based on the best available science these men and women were doing their best to protect the health and safety of the American people.

On the other hand, most of those opposing the mandates were not doing so based on an evaluation of the science, but rather on a misguided interpretation of American individualism rooted in right-wing ideology that was reinforced by Donald Trump and amplified on the internet.

Intent and motive matter. So, even if it turns out that masks are ineffective against the spread of Covid, before calling for an apology from the people who were on the front lines fighting the pandemic, as Mr. Stephens does, let’s remember who was working for the welfare of the country and who was objecting to the precautions for political, not health, reasons.

Let's stipulate that some mask mandate opponents did so because of a "misguided interpretation of American individualism." That's not saying much. Plenty of mask mandate supporters did so out of a "misguided" desire for solidarity theater.

There was never evidence that the masks worked in the way proponents promised. Yanes's argument that "the best available science" demanded the sorts of mask policies we enacted was not true at any point in the pandemic.

The idea that proponents of mask mandates were "working for the welfare of the country" while opponents were objecting for "political, not health, reasons" is the sort of thing you could only believe if you didn't see or care about the costs associated with forcing people to cover their faces in public. Thousands of children with speech impediments had their development retarded. Disabled adults lost social skills won slowly over the course of decades and were denied access to public places if they wouldn't keep a mask on their faces. Elderly men and women died surrounded by the half-covered faces of their children and grandchildren. If concern about these human costs were inspired by "right-wing ideology," then a lot of right-wing ideologues were vindicated by the Cochrane report.