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What of the Photo of the Space-helmeted Woman?

Here’s a letter to an e-mail correspondent:

Mr. M__:

You’re one of three people to object to my critical posting earlier today at my blog of a photo of a masked woman at the Charlotte airport wearing a space helmet. You write that “chances are the person suffers from an extreme phobia which makes her an outlier…. The photo is worthless as a piece of information.”

Of course it’s true that very few people go to such extremes as to wear space helmets. But I disagree that the photo, as a piece of information, is worthless. I believe that it reveals the dangerous degree of misinformation now afoot.

Before Covid, almost no such sights were seen. Yet now, it’s common to encounter persons who behave in ways that, while (typically) not as extreme as wearing space helmets, are nevertheless most straightforwardly interpreted as indicating a complete misapprehension of the risks of Covid.

I myself, in November 2020, was on a flight from Washington to Dallas with a young woman dressed in a hazmat suit. Every day, here in my home in northern Virginia, I see individuals driving alone in their automobiles wearing masks. Every day I see people walking outdoors – often alone – while fully masked, and sometimes even with face shields over their masked faces. On many trips to the supermarket I see men and women using sanitizing wipes to cleanse shopping carts of some invisible surface venom. It’s not unusual to see customers in supermarkets and retail stores wearing latex gloves.

About a week ago a mother and her teenage daughter – both masked and likely fully vaccinated and boosted – refused to get into an elevator with me, presumably because I was unmasked. When the door opened and they saw me as they started to enter, they jumped back as if I were Vlad the Impaler. And about a year ago I witnessed a 40-something man walk into a restaurant and, while waiting to fetch his take-out order, slather hand-sanitizer not only on his hands, but also all over his face and neck.

One or a few instances of such behavior would indeed be worthless as information about the state of society. But what is revealing is the frequency of such behavior.

And among the sad realities revealed is the fact that a distressingly large number of people vastly overestimate the actual dangers of Covid. (Before Covid, only vanishingly few people behaved in such ways to avoid the likes of the flu or pneumonia.) Also revealed is the failure to put risks in perspective, given that many of the people who I see driving alone while masked are at greater risk of being killed or injured while in their automobiles than of suffering serious harm from Covid. Revealed, too, is widespread ignorance of the fact that Covid is rarely transmitted in the open air or from surfaces.

The photo of the space-helmeted woman, therefore, is evidence not that a small number of human beings have extreme phobias or mental-health issues. It instead is evidence of the dismaying fact that a significant swathe of humanity – until two years ago normal – has been driven hysterical by the misinformation and panic porn that continue to pour forth from the mainstream media, from many politicians, and from the likes of Anthony Fauci and other so-called ‘public-health experts.’

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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