On Jan. 30, Cochrane, a British organization whose systematic reviews of medical literature are regarded as the gold standard of evidence-based medicine, released a review of 78 randomized controlled trials on the efficacy of face masks in preventing the spread of Covid and other respiratory illnesses. The authors of the review concluded that masks make “little or no difference.” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens glossed this conclusion in the title of his widely discussed Feb. 21 op-ed: “Mask Mandates Did Nothing.”

Stephens is correct that mask mandates didn’t “work” in the way officials told us they would, but he is too generous in characterizing them as well-intentioned but ill-fated attempts to “do something” in response to a threat. It isn’t true that the mask mandates “did nothing.” They accomplished a great deal—just not what we were told they would accomplish. Masks were never the solution to a crisis; on the contrary, masks perpetuated the illusion of crisis. Face coverings—both seen on TV and in real life—became the pivotal propaganda image of the Covid era: a relentless reminder that everyone was a potential source of disease and death.

Masks perpetuated the lie of universal risk on which lockdowns were predicated, and thereby helped keep in place school and business closures and stay-at-home orders. Globally, the pre-vaccination infection fatality rate of Covid was similar to the seasonal flu for non-elderly populations. To maintain the deceit that mass quarantine was necessary, leaders told us that a magical talisman, not our own immune systems, was what kept us alive when we went outside. This talisman, supposedly, was how essential workers could keep working, how hospital staff didn’t all die, and how we could eventually get some of our freedoms back. Later, officials replaced this talisman with the vaccine—a sacrament they initially said would allow us to unmask. In this way, masks trained people to accept coercive medical demands as a prerequisite for accessing public life. Mask mandates made vaccine mandates and passports possible.