Fusion-medical animation (Upsplash)
March 14, 2021
What the Pandemic Revealed
A conversation with veteran journalist and radio documentarian, David Cayley about the past year and why we should be reflecting on it
By Linda Pannozzo
About a month after the World Health Organization made the assessment that COVID-19 could be “characterized as a pandemic,” writer and former CBC broadcaster David Cayley wrote an essay called Questions About the Pandemic from the Point view of Ivan Illich. Illich was a profound thinker and intellectual, most famous for his critique of modern institutions, in which he argued against monopolies and said there were thresholds at which point institutions become counter-productive and cause more harm than good.
For Cayley, channeling Illich during the pandemic came naturally. He describes Illich as his teacher and friend. “I don’t know if everybody is guided in this way, but for me, he was the man who most shaped my way of life and my thought.”
Cayley is known for documenting the philosophies of prominent thinkers and intellectuals including Illich, George Grant and Northrup Frye. In his provocative and prescient 1997 book, Expanding Prison: The Crisis in Crime and Punishment, Cayley argued that burgeoning prisons reflected an increasingly polarized society and that alternative forms of justice should be explored. His 24-part radio series, “How to Think About Science” for the CBC Ideas program in 2007-2008, explored how the institution of science “knows what it knows.” When Cayley left the CBC in 2012, he devoted himself to writing about Illich’s life—an effort that culminated in the 2021 publication of Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey.
Cayley tells me he began writing about the pandemic to “clarify my own mind and to share my thoughts with a few like-minded friends.” But his writing “went viral” and has since been translated into every major Western European language. “I’ve been getting mail from all around the world. That’s when I realized that it was time to enter into this discussion and to keep it going, to keep trying to say more about it.”
Cayley published two pieces: “Pandemic Revelations” which appeared in The Journal of Ivan Illich Studies and “The Prognosis: Looking consequences in the eye”, published in the Literary Review of Canada. The pieces are long and thought-provoking and Cayley does not hesitate to raise difficult questions about the pandemic in his attempt to understand and try to find meaning in how the world responded.
In his essays he explores how the policy of total quarantine and lockdown gained wide acceptance, despite their harmful effects on livelihoods as well as social morale and public health. He argues that “societies like Canada had, for a long time, been ‘practicing’ – we’d already turned the concepts on which our pandemic policies have been founded into common sense.” Cayley points to a set of what he called “pre-conditions” – ways of thinking about risk, safety, pro-active management, science, and ultimately life – that set the stage for the global mobilization against the virus.
“Gradual naturalization of these concepts has made the policy that has been followed seem so rational, so inevitable, and so entirely without alternative that it has been possible to freely vilify its opponents and largely exclude them from media which might have made their voices politically influential,” he writes.
I reached David Cayley by telephone at his home in Toronto.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Linda Pannozzo (LP): What prompted you to write these essays about the pandemic?
David Cayley (DC): Well, I just needed to wrestle with this. I was astonished by the instant consensus that seemed to take shape in March, as if everyone already knew what this was, as if really it didn’t need to be studied or thought about or discussed because we already knew it was a grave global emergency that should be followed by turning our societies upside down. So I was amazed by that and I realized I couldn’t think about it without going back to what Ivan Illich had written, since he was the author of a book called Medical Nemesis, published in the middle 1970s, which really challenged the hegemony of medical thinking in society.
LP: Given you’ve had a very long career working at the CBC, I wanted to ask you about freedom of the press. I wondered about how press freedoms have fared during the pandemic and came across a report by the International Press Institute, that was posted on Global Affairs Canada, that reported there was a “concerted effort by governments [in both democracies and authoritarian regimes] to limit independent information” and that governments all over the world were “misusing the crisis to restrict press freedom and freedom of expression.” In one of your essays you described how in the early weeks of the pandemic there was an “emerging consensus” and that this narrative had “developed such momentum, and such an impressive gravity, that marginal voices had little effect.” You also said that critics were excluded from the media, “which might have made their voices politically influential.” What do you think this has revealed in the Canadian context?
DC: Well, I’m a student of Noam Chomsky, and I think Chomsky and his associates have shown a long time ago that a free press can operate more or less as a propaganda system. So I’m not saying this is a new thing, but I think the permissible opinion has definitely narrowed during the pandemic, and I think an effective censorship has been exercised.
Probably the most singular instance for me is a statement that was released in the summer calling for what they named “a balanced response” to the pandemic, which was signed by three former chief provincial medical officers of health, a number of former deputy ministers of health, a number of deans of medicine. This was a star-studded cast in the public health field and they were saying, let’s be cautious here. Let’s remember the well-established principles of public health, which is that you consider the public health as a whole, you don’t stake everything on the control of one illness, particularly when you don’t yet know how severe the illness is and where your testing instruments may be fairly blunt and where co-morbidities may be seriously hiding from you how many are actually dying of this disease. And as I said, this was a star-studded cast of public health luminaries, and I didn’t see it reported. So don’t you find that pretty astonishing, that people of this eminence in their field and retired, so less likely to be partisan, are not heeded at all? I have found this note of incredulity again and again. I mean, the three epidemiologists who signed the so-called Great Barrington Declaration all have expressed this astonishment that what they took to be established public health principles—not controversial—are suddenly seen as a disposition to see millions die.
So what I call “scientific dissensus”—that there are varying opinions and that there are many highly qualified, cautious, thoughtful people who don’t agree with the way this has been managed is, I think, unknown to the great majority of our fellow citizens and the reason it’s unknown to them is because it has not appeared in the sources of information they consult. That seems to me to constitute a fairly effective censorship or policing of the boundaries of opinion and the justification is essentially that this is war. From the very beginning a state of war was declared. The National Post, the day that the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, ran a headline that took about a third of the page in black print saying, “PANIC.” Nobody was panicking at the time so I read it as an instruction rather than a piece of reporting. They were declaring that it was time to panic and people consented to panic.
The Globe and Mail, take another example, made a sort of formal declaration of war, stated boldly at the beginning of an editorial, “Canada is at war.” Well, you know, if you’re at war, then dissent is sedition. When Roman Baber, who’s a provincial member of parliament here in Ontario, spoke against the lockdown and was kicked out of the caucus by [premier Doug Ford], the statements that both our premier and our health minister, Christine Elliott, made at the time basically accused him of sedition: that he was spreading disaffection among the people and you can’t do that in a time of war. This is not an ordinary time. This is a special emergency time, in which different rules apply, and so I think that’s an important part of the censorship and the policing of opinion.
David Cayley (photo submitted)
LP: The countries that the International Press Institute listed—where they found there were violations— included both democratic and authoritarian regimes, but all the violations involved the government controlling or limiting what journalists could say, in some cases arresting them for questioning the mainstream narrative. But in a place like Canada—which was not among the countries listed—the message has also been controlled, as you have pointed out. Who do you think has been doing the controlling here?
DC: I think it’s a group production myself. I don’t think you can say this has been engineered by this political class or business class or any other class. I think there was a disposition seemingly to panic. So the National Post tapped into that disposition. They didn’t create it. Why? This is a huge issue in crowd psychology right now, and it has to do for me with what I’ve called “preconditions,” where you’re practicing styles of thought.
So take risk as an example. Risk consciousness has spread through our society in an amazing way over the last, let’s say almost arbitrarily, 30 years. Much more of medicine than formerly is focused on risk and risk is a kind of mathematical construct, it’s not a pragmatic assessment of danger. It’s learning to think of myself as, in effect, somebody else: the risk group that I belong to. It’s learning to think of myself as this statistical doppelganger who has a certain calculable risk, who is not me, but someone like me, someone who has the same weight as me or the same ethnicity, or the same eye colour, or whatever it is. So the habit of thinking in terms of risk develops and then suddenly the moment occurs. And the same can be said for the sanctification of safety and the glorification of management. Politicians have been constantly spanked through this crisis in all the Western countries that I know about for not managing well—or the lucky ones who seem to have managed well, like in New Zealand—but often by people who couldn’t tell you how they could possibly have managed it or whether it is possible to manage the way a virus reproduces in a population.
So there’s the sanctification of safety. Safety has increased its profile in everyday talk, amazingly, over the last 20 to 30 years. As an example, when I started at the CBC, you could walk in and out of the building. How is that possible? What about security? Surely you have to control access to every space. You can’t just have people coming in and out, right? And yet we did. We never thought about it.
So you have all these preconditions, habits of thought, that would suddenly converge on this moment including a lot of pent up apocalyptic anxiety and fear relating to climate change and other issues.
So the paradigm for me has always been the beginning of the First World War just because I’ve read about it and because I was very impressed years ago by Karl Polanyi, who was an economic historian and an officer in the First World War, who said that Europe sleepwalked into that war. That became a kind of model for me—that trancelike behavior. So the whole catastrophe of the 20th century—if you include the Second World War as an implication of the First World War, which I think is quite defensible—is entered into in a kind of trance state. It seems to me, and I say this tentatively, we seem to have entered on what may turn out to be a kind of health-security state, we seem to be entering it in a similar kind of trance without any discussion about if we want it or if there might be a better way to live.
LP: I want you to speak a bit more about the “litany of preconditions”—which is how you referred to them in your writing. You wrote that they led to “the total mobilization against the virus” and converged in a “perfect storm.” You’ve mentioned apocalyptic fear, the sanctification of safety, heightened risk awareness, and the glorification of management. Are you arguing that because we already tended to think this way as a society, when the pandemic was announced by the World Health Organization, the reaction to it was almost predictable?
DC: Well, I can’t explain it otherwise. How could it happen that a word like lockdown that came out of prisons and then some time ago began to be used in schools, could now spread to the whole society without much resistance? That everyone would start using this expression without horror but with a “Well, OK” seems to me to speak for that idea that somehow one has practiced or is accustomed to this already. Total quarantine doesn’t seem like an astonishing idea, except on the libertarian right, where they have been practicing resistance to it because they’ve believed that this kind of collectivization has been going on all along. But I don’t think the left knows what’s hit it yet.
LP: In what way?
DC: Well, I think it will be able to be shown that those who paid the price for the lockdown policy were the weakest. The most vulnerable people suffered the most and the most well established people suffered the least because they could work from home, and all they had to put up with was the irritation of too much of each other’s company. And yet the left, which thinks of itself as speaking for the weakest, is very much on board and seems to be infatuated with a zero COVID strategy, which is a total control strategy. I don’t know if that’s viable in a society where the virus is already endemic, but that’s how people are thinking.
LP: In his 2020 book Democracy without journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society, Victor Pickard argues that for roughly a century the mainstream media has functioned to help generate profits for media owners through advertising and that now, with the advent of social media, instead of “if it bleeds it leads,” the adage has become “if it’s outrageous, it’s contagious.” This might help explain why fear mongering headlines and sensational and often misleading stories overwhelmed the media during the pandemic. Do you think the suppression of press freedoms is really anything new?
DC: The short answer is ‘no.’ But I do think that can be nuanced. I mean, in a real war, let’s take the Second World War, there was an enforced consensus. There is always more or less a consensus and there’s always a boundary to what one can say. Chomsky’s example—because I said Chomsky shaped my thinking on this—was that you could always have a discussion. There could be hawks and doves, which would be more, or less in favor of the Vietnam War, but you could never say that the United States invaded South Vietnam. They didn’t invade, they defended freedom there. The United States can’t invade other countries because its hegemony is assumed. Its hegemony is not to be brought into question or put on the table. So there’s always a boundary of opinion but I think the boundaries have shrunk a little during the pandemic in a way that worries me.
LP: After I posted one of your essays on Facebook recently, a friend of mine commented that your article had been “embraced by the pro-Randy camp,” referring to Ontario MPP Randy Hillier, who has been very outspoken in his criticisms of the measures taken, particularly regarding the mandatory requirement to wear masks. My friend wanted me to ask you what you make of the fact that your essay is resonating with people who have been labelled by some as “right-wing libertarians? But I also wanted to ask, what you make of people who might otherwise be swayed by your arguments, but seem more concerned about which “camp” this might identify them with?
DC: I have believed for most of my adult life that the left–right map of political opinion is hopelessly out of date and hopelessly inept. It is essentially an antique measure going back to the 18th century, which tells you the proportions of state and market in its deployment, but nothing about what it does, how big it is, how harmful it is. So I don’t accept that framework, but I do think it’s striking that all the resistance seems to have come from the so-called right. But what has preoccupied me—since this is a huge subject and we can’t discuss all of it—is what I would call the production of conspiracy theories or forcing people farther to the right, if we can continue to use that language.
If Premier Ford calls you a “yahoo,” or Hilary Clinton puts you in her famous “basket of deplorables,” one way of dealing with the scorn and the denial of the legitimacy of your position is to adopt the character that has already been imputed to you. I’m not denying that stupidity, malice and willfulness exist, just saying we should try to minimize them rather than amplifying them. Right wing populism is partly a result of the denial of any other ground on which to stand.
So let’s take masks, for instance. There is no good science saying definitely that masks are going to help prevent the spread of this. By good science I mean randomized trials with proper controls. The only randomized trial done that I know of during the pandemic was done in Denmark, a fairly large study, and it found no statistical difference between the two groups. I didn’t see that reported in any newspapers in Canada that I know of. The other thing is that a proper study would have to take account of the possible harms from mask wearing, and who knows what they are? And in fact, our own chief medical officer of health, and it was the same in the United States, did not recommend masks initially. The change in the recommendation was not caused by a new scientific finding, it was caused by the critical need for a ritualization of this crisis.
So you have no solid science in favour of masks and yet it’s possible to say, as I read in the National Post last week, Chris Selly, speaking about the “anti-mask-wacko-sphere”—that’s the expression he used—crazy people are against masks. So this is an astonishing bit of cognitive dissonance. How can it be that there is no solid science, no gold-plated science—maybe you can find some suggestive, observational studies in favour of masks—I’m not saying you can’t—but you cannot prove it and at the same time, you can vilify those who oppose masks.
The group that began appearing outside the Ontario legislature probably in May with their first demonstrations—these demonstrations have now gone on ever since, some of them quite large, involving several thousands of people. They are never reported. The [Ontario] premier calls his fellow citizens “yahoos” for manifesting an opinion, for showing up outside the legislature. I find this an astonishment. So my view is that I have to say what I think is the case even if Donald Trump says the same thing or Randy Hillier says the same thing, for example. Trump said the cure mustn’t be worse than the disease. Well, so did Hippocrates! You know, it’s not really a controversial opinion, right, but if you said it after Trump said it, then uh, oh.
Do you remember Abbie Hoffman in the 1960s? That’s before your time. He said, “ideology is a brain disease.” This is a kind of brain disease where you only think what your enemy doesn’t think, or you let enmity form your views. This is not a good way to think. This is not thinking in fact. This is group and identity formation.
United Nations Covid 19 response (Upslash)
LP: Earlier you said the recommendations around masks was caused by the critical need for a ritualization of the crisis. What did you mean by that?
DC: I think it was because of the fear. I had trouble initially believing that, but I’ve become convinced that people were really frightened and remain really frightened. The people who don’t look at me on the street, the people who walk out into the street rather than pass me on the sidewalk, I think must be really afraid. So if you’re that afraid and you’ve had this lock down and now you’re going to come a little bit out of it, you need some way of ritualizing that fear, some way of feeling safe.
LP: What about the view that we should wear masks as a precaution, even if we don’t yet have the definitive science.
DC: I do it out of courtesy and to not embarrass others and so on. But you’d think you’d want some evidence.
LP: You’ve said that we need to “renovate our political discourse” and “make space for uncommitted thought.” What did you mean by that?
DC: Well, I think “renovate” partly means establish a new term so that we’re not in these left–right boxes quite so much. There’s really nothing in the left–right spectrum that can tell you that we need to learn to think about science critically, not because science is bad, but because we need to know what science is, what it can do, what it can’t do, what its own interests are, and so on. What I mean by “making space for uncommitted thought” is that I think thinking depends on that. You’re not thinking if you’re committed in advance, you’re just rationalizing a position that you hold in some way. That is not what I would call thinking. Thinking is either going a level down to try and understand what you think it’s built on or being able to experiment in thinking differently or just generally freely asking questions without fear or favor. But you don’t have to end in a certain place.
So my prescription for the CBC is that we desperately need a place to think as a country. I mean, that’s probably a crazy thing to say, but I’m an old man and that’s what I believe. A CBC, let’s say, or any other journalistic institution that functions as a cheerleader, however admirable the opinions for which it’s cheerleading, is not much use to us because I think that basic assumptions need to be rethought and for that there has to be such a space of uncommitted thinking.
LP: Can you give an example of a basic assumption that needs to be rethought?
DC: How about progress, or economic growth or take climate change, that would be a pretty good example. There are probably more than two, but let’s just say there are two ways out of the climate crisis. One is by a fundamental pulling back from the brink, which is a much different kind of society, which people like me have been dreaming of since the 1960s. The other is by control, by actually trying to regulate your way out of it. So that you regulate every gesture more and more minutely. How the pandemic will show itself to have been related to the ecological crisis generally is, I think, a really interesting subject and would probably take a whole other interview to discuss, but is very much about the idea of control.
LP: In terms of climate change, in one of your essays you touched on how, when the pandemic was announced, everyone appeared to know right away what it meant. For instance, some environmentalists referred to it as “nature’s wake-up call to a complacent civilization,” or a “dry-run” for a world with a changed climate, when nothing will be “normal.”
DC: Yes, my model of that is 9/11. Let’s put aside the conspiracy theories and assume this was really a small cabal who brought off this coup d’état—they brought down these immense buildings and they did a lot of damage. So is it a slam dunk that the thing we should do next is set the Middle East on fire? Well, yes, it was, in fact, because everybody knew the next morning what had happened: that the world had changed forever. One columnist proclaimed the end of the age of irony. I could only think that everyone had been in some unconscious way waiting for this. They had their answers ready. Certainly, George Bush and his friends had their answers ready, as we saw, with unimaginably catastrophic consequences if you include the destruction of Syria in the eventual implications of that invasion of Iraq and the destabilization of the whole region. That all followed as a consequence, and everybody knew what it meant. There was no pause to ask, “could this mean something else?”
LP: In your essays you also raise the point that policies around COVID excluded any recognition of the real health related harms associated with the measures themselves, such as illness and death from diseases that have gone undiagnosed or untreated, unemployment, mental health related harm, suicides, family violence and lost education. You said that whether these harms outweigh the benefits of flattening the curve is a moral question, not a scientific one. What do you mean by that? And why do you think so few have been willing publicly to take a moral stance on that?
DC: Well, I think everyone’s worried that we are abandoning science or that there is an anti- science faction or that we have to have trust in science—you hear that very commonly. But I think this is often said without any recognition of where the limits to knowledge are and that we cannot settle scientifically how to live. There are many questions that either can’t be submitted to science or that we don’t want to submit to science, and that’s what I call moral. I don’t think you could ever settle those questions. You would have a billion ways of counting up those harms. Everyone counting them differently, assessing them differently. In the end, you make a decision about how you’re going to live.
What will be the downstream consequences of this level of debt? Does anybody know the answer to that question? I don’t think so.
LP: Recently there was a CBC piece that described how the loss of jobs, routines, personal connections and life milestones for so many Canadians has resulted in a “collective grief.” And yet, the reporter stopped short of questioning the measures/ restrictions that contributed to this grief. Do you think the reason for this has to do with the “litany of preconditions” you discussed earlier or is there some other explanation?
DC: Yes, I think it ultimately has to do with the creation of the sacred or a religious ground. This is another question and this is one of these questions that I think demands thought. I think a new religion is present and its central object is life. We don’t accept death really any longer. I saw something astonishing, I think it was in The Spectator, that the average age of people dying was 82, which is above the average life expectancy, and yet it’s treated as completely unacceptable. You could turn society upside down to prevent that death. Well, what’s going on with that? I think you really have to look at the religious ground and what has been made undiscussable, untouchable, and can’t be considered. Saving lives is a desideratum that is not to be questioned.
That, I think, then allows you to become sentimental about the harms without ever touching what you’re not allowed to touch, which is, “Was shutting down the whole society a good idea in the first place?” This question has become untouchable. This increases as we go along. So now it’s become much more possible to discuss harms and even to wax very sentimental about the harms without ever bringing the policy that caused the harms into question because there can be no question about that policy because it was the right thing to do.
LP: You’ve interviewed so many people. Is there anyone in particular who’s influenced your own thinking on the pandemic as well as your personal reaction to the mobilization against it?
DC: Well, [Ivan] Illich was my teacher. Yeah, and later he was my friend. I don’t know if everybody is guided in this way, but for me, he was the man who most shaped my way of life and my thought. In 1973 he wrote a book called Tools for Conviviality, and in it he gave three essential preconditions for what he called recovery, which ecologists call re-inhabitation, which is a viable, limited human society that doesn’t constantly push the edge of the biosphere, that can actually inhabit the earth with other species. The three Illich gave were the recovery of language, which is becoming able to speak for yourself, the recovery of law—that would be like not allowing big pharmaceutical companies to collectivize the risk of their vaccines, let’s say—and the third was to get over the delusion about science and what he meant by the delusion about science is this idea that it’s not a fallible human operation.
LP: I also wanted to talk a bit about how the dying have been treated during the pandemic, which is something you also raised in your essay. My mother is 90 years old and when I was speaking to her on the phone one day, she said to me, “It’s not that I’m afraid of dying, it’s that I’m afraid of dying alone.” That really shocked me. It’s almost inconceivable that as a society, we’ve come to accept that our loved ones will die alone, which some have justified, as you say, as “an unfortunate temporary trade off.” I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about this. What’s happened here?
DC: Well, I mean, I’m reluctant to say that I know what’s happened, but I’ve been shocked. I think the accompaniment and the comforting of the dying is just something that we must do and we haven’t done it. A lot of people have died alone. So it seems to be a fundamental divide. Are you willing to say the health of all is more important than this individual? It’s dangerous to be with this individual. I might get sick. I might make somebody else sick, therefore I won’t do it. I mean, obviously St. Francis was taking quite a chance with the lepers. Christianity has put quite a strong emphasis on visiting the sick and comforting the dying. We have a new God which is life and according to that new God, this is too dangerous to do. I think it divides cultures and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future but I can’t believe that I will ever accept this. I don’t see how I could become convinced of it because it’s how I see the world. Death has become a kind of obscenity or something that should be fully under our control.
LP: I know you don’t have a crystal ball here, but do you think that we will emerge from the pandemic with our rights and freedoms and humanity intact? Or do you worry that this protracted period of restrictions and public fear will result in an erosion that’s more permanent?
DC: Yes, I do. I think that whatever is going on at the moment, we all tend to think it will go on forever. But maybe by September I’ll be at a baseball game with my grandson. Who knows? I don’t think the health–security state—if I can call it that—which has taken charge here is going to easily relax its grip without a lot of hard critical work to establish different grounds, because I think these grounds have been widely accepted and people have been on the whole, very, very obedient and willing to [negatively] characterize those who have been disobedient.
The United States found out what it means to consign that many of your neighbours to an enemy class when they elected Donald Trump. That was quite a vengeance they wreaked. I don’t think Canada is nearly that polarized but I do think we’re recklessly consigning people to categories that we should be very careful about. So yes, I’m worried. That’s why I’ve written so much about it. No one ever knows what’s going to happen next but this has been a surprise.
LP: I wanted to end on more of a personal note. I often wake up feeling quite overwhelmed with a deep sense of uncertainty and foreboding about the future. You’ve been wrestling with a lot of questions yourself and I’m wondering if you’re able to maintain a positive outlook and if so, how?
DC: Well, I’m pretty old, so I’m not going to be around as long as you and I think that if an old man isn’t a philosopher, it’s all the worse for him. But the world is beautiful, and for some reason a poem of Robert Frost’s comes to mind, a very short little lyric in which he says: The way a crow/Shook down on me/ The dust of snow/ From a hemlock tree/ Has given my heart/ A change of mood/ And saved some part/ Of a day I had rued.
So there’s the beauty of the world. And the last thing I’d say is that I think I’ve always had a crazy belief that I’m just about to convince everyone that I’m right, which is probably why I chose the profession I did. And you could probably detect that note in the interview we’ve done, that I’m hopeful that we can re-understand things, that this can be analyzed, that it can be discussed. That’s ultimately a faith because it’s not really that I have solid empirical grounds for believing it. It’s that I hope that will be the case.
[i] The Danish study cited by Cayley has proven to be a highly controversial one. The randomized controlled study—currently the only one of its kind during the pandemic—was conducted in Denmark in the spring of 2020 when the public was not being told to wear masks, but other health measures were in place. It included a total of 4,862 people—3,030 participants were randomly assigned to the recommendation to wear masks and 2,994 were assigned to the control group for a period of 30 days. Infection with COVID-19 occurred in 42 participants who were recommended masks (1.8% of participants) and 53 of the unmasked control participants (2.1%). The study authors concluded, as Cayley points out, that the difference observed was not statistically significant.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the study has been met with a great deal of scrutiny. Criticisms have included that the study deals only with infection of people who wear the masks, not the potential protective effects on the broader community. Messaging around mandatory mask wearing has been that mask-wearing doesn’t so much protect the wearer from the virus, but it protects others from being infected by the mask-wearer. The study authors concede that their study only assessed if masks offer a protective effect to uninfected wearers, and not whether masks reduced transmission from an infected person. There has been quite a bit of both positive and negative expert reaction to the study, and some of it can be found here. The lead author, Professor Henning Bundgaard of the University of Copenhagen, responded to some of the criticism in an interview and stated that while wearing a mask, “in the correct way of course, would to some extent — not a large extent but some extent — protect you,” he also recommended mask wearing as a tool among many and as a “contribution to protect others.”