Facemasks and Covid19 mortality in 2022, in Asia and Europe
Analysis and opinion by Keith Rankin.
Professor Michael Baker: “Societies who are using masks are doing very well, like South Korea, Japan. … And when we look at the countries which are succeeding, they are mask-using societies.” From COVID-19: Epidemiologist Michael Baker calls for Government to ‘step in now’ as cases rise, Newshub Nation, 9 July 2022.
New Zealanders, and many others, are at present immunity-compromised. Influenzas and ‘common colds’ are being experienced more severely than usual; and we are seriously short of data about cases of these illnesses, and deaths of people with these illnesses.
Omicron covid – the Delta-slayer – remains very prevalent as we move into the second half of this year. While Omicron may be called an ‘uncommon cold’, it is likely to eventually join up with the other human ‘cold’ coronaviruses, including the ‘Russian flu’ pandemic coronavirus (early 1890s) which continued to circulate as a cold virus at least until 2020.
With most of the New Zealand population not yet legally eligible for a winter booster covid vaccine, including most of New Zealand’s older population, our main defence this season is to wear facemasks in indoor environments.
There is little doubt that facemask wearing is helpful during epidemic phases of respiratory infections. But wearing masks is not costless. As occurs with other barrier methods which separate people from exposure to viruses, the lack of day-to-day exposure to other people’s exhaled air compromises our immunity to these viruses. Human coronaviruses have been long-known to be associated with rapidly waning immunity. That’s why it has been usual for many people to get colds several times a year, especially in winter.
Professor Michael Baker has long been an uncritical advocate for the use of facemasks as a defence from epidemic respiratory infection. So much so that, as a public expert, in my opinion, he has become economical with the truth.
The charts above plot Covid19 mortality following the brutal wave in the northern winter of 2020/21. (This brutality – particularly marked in Eastern Europe – would appear to be linked to compromised immunity.)
The first chart above contrasts excess (mainly covid) mortality between South Korea (cited as a compliant facemask-wearing country) and Sweden, which represents the opposite extreme re the use of facemasks. The second chart shows Austria and Norway, closer than Sweden to the European norm, but which largely dropped the use of facemasks after March 2022.
The South Korea data shows a bigger gap – than Sweden – between recorded covid deaths and ‘excess deaths’, the latter being the correct best measure of covid epidemic mortality. Second, the Korean mortality rate was significantly higher than the Swedish rate for the majority of 2021. Third, South Korea has not ‘done very well this year’! But Sweden has done very well this year.
Looking at the Norway/Austria chart, we see that Sweden performed significantly better than both Austria and Norway, in 2021 and 2022. (The exceptional month was January 2022, where Sweden’s later ‘delta-wave’ coincided with its incipient ‘omicron-wave’. We note that, in the March 2022 Omicron-peak, Sweden’s epidemic death was virtually non-existent, unlike the other three countries shown.
The suggestion is that only Sweden’s population was not immunity-compromised. And that the most mask-wearing of these countries – South Korea – was the most immunity compromised. With vaccines having been available since early 2021, the extent of vaccine-enhanced immunity was substantially a political decision. None of these four countries are known as being vaccine-averse.
Singapore and Taiwan
Above I compare Korea/Sweden with Singapore and Taiwan.
We see that these two ‘model’ Asian countries have bigger gaps (than Sweden) between actual mortality and reported covid mortality. (At least, unlike most Asian countries, these countries do count total mortality.)
Singapore, one of Michael Baker’s “mask-using societies”, clearly had a bad experience late in 2021; significantly worse then than South Korea.
Taiwan is particularly interesting; this was just about everyone’s pandemic-exemplar country in 2020. But we don’t hear it cited much any more. Of all countries in the world with a population above half-a-million (and maybe of all countries which count their deaths), Taiwan has had the highest reported Covid19 mortality in the world in the May/June 2022 period. (Taking the second quarter as a whole, Taiwan roughly ties with New Zealand for that dubious honour.) It continues to be the only country with more than half-a-million people which has more deaths than New Zealand, using a seven-day daily rolling average. The key difference this week is that New Zealand’s toll is waxing, whereas Taiwan’s is now waning.
Japan? Japan, by the way, has had very low levels of Covid19 mortality overall. But its biggest mortality peak by far was in February/March this year. We should be careful in making assumptions about the extent to which Japanese people have worn facemasks throughout the pandemic. (I know that facemasks were widely worn, especially by young people, when I was there in April 2014. I sensed that they were much less common in 2019, when the Rugby World Cup was held.) Japan never had a facemask mandate in 2021, though masks were strongly encouraged during the Olympic Games. My sense is that older Japanese people carry high levels of general immunity; indeed higher than South Korea.
Who knows what has happened in China this year?
An Experiment needs a Control
I will finish with these quotes from The Herd (2022), by Johan Anderberg:
“For every decade that passed after the Industrial Revolution, we made it easier for new infections to spread. … We kept moving into increasingly crowded cities, travelled between them, and forced our way further and further into what had once been wilderness.” [p.41]
“The countries of the world had initiated a large-scale experiment by closing down their societies. The Swedes became the control group.” [p.239] Good experimental scientists refer to the control group, rather than ignoring it when the control group performs better than the ‘treated’ group.
In the grand 2020 narrative, we did upset the “delicate balance” [p95] of modern metropolitan life by imposing protracted barrier mandates, with facemasks taking full prominence in 2021. People in New Zealand’s South Island were forced to wear facemasks in 2021 when, for most of the year, there were zero active cases of Covid19 there.
The evidence is coming in that we have been through an unfortunate and ill-monitored experiment.
The political response to the 2020 pandemic is not the only example of our cavalier lack of unawareness. We have also experimented in shovelling massive amounts of waste-carbon into our life-giving atmosphere. This has been a long-running experiment without as much as a control.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.