The Covid mask wars have left us unprepared for the next pandemic

“Jason Abaluck is a Yale behavioral economist and the co-author of a study of masking interventions in Bangladesh that provided the single largest randomized controlled trial we have that looks at the effects of encouraging people to wear masks during the Covid pandemic. His research found a significant reduction in Covid cases in the villages that encouraged masking.

When I talked with him this week, he emphasized that his finding — even if it’s eventually supported by further research — is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to figuring out masks.

“There’s a couple distinct questions that are getting conflated here,” he told me. Here are some of them:

“If you wear a mask while there’s a pandemic, are you less likely to get sick?”

“If you wear a mask while you have a respiratory illness, are you less likely to infect other people?”

“If you make people less likely to get sick during a pandemic, does that have lasting benefits to them, or does it just delay an infection without significantly changing their long-term health outcomes? Does it reduce transmission enough to change the overall dynamics of the pandemic?”

“If you tell people to wear masks, will they actually wear masks correctly and reliably?”

“If youmandate that people wear masks, will they actually wear masks correctly and reliably?”

“What are the costs, to the median person and to a person who is unusually affected by wearing masks, of wearing masks?””

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