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Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer has written 1851 posts for Gwynne Dyer

Herd Immunity, Reinfection and the Great Barrington Declaration

14 October 2020

After eight full months of the global pandemic, the pressure to keep the economies open and let the chips (or rather, the elderly) fall where they may is growing strong.

The ‘Great Barrington Declaration’ of 4 October was signed by three medical professors from Oxford, Harvard and Stanford universities and by tens of thousands of other people. It demands a return to “life as normal” – no mention of masks, social distancing, contact tracing or Covid-19 tests – for everybody except “the vulnerable”, who would presumably self-isolate semi-permanently.

Never mind that the sponsor is the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think-tank funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and other hard-right American groups whose main business is climate change denial.

Never mind that the declaration advocates ‘herd immunity’, a blessed state that is normally achieved by mass vaccination, not by exposing the entire population to a disease with a 3% mortality rate.

Never mind either that re-infections with Covid-19 are now a documented fact, which means that ‘herd immunity’ is not really possible with the various strains of this coronavirus. Forget the ideology and look at what is really happening with Covid-19 death rates.

The leading indicator for vulnerability to Covid-19 is speaking Spanish. Among the countries with the highest death rates per million people, six out of the top ten are Spanish-speaking: Peru (1,010 deaths per million), Bolivia (711), Spain (710), Chile (699), Ecuador (691), and Mexico (649).

If you include Portuguese-speaking Brazil (709 deaths per million), then seven out of the worst ten speak the languages of the Iberian peninsula. Two others are English-speaking countries with populist governments: the United States (666) and the United Kingdom (633). The tenth, mysteriously, is Belgium (880).

How weird is this? Well, no other country on the planet is above 600 deaths per million. And equally curious is the fact that none of the other developed countries that speak English have exceptionally high Covid death rates: New Zealand (5 deaths per million), Australia (35 ), and Canada (255).

You can account for the very low Australian and New Zealand death rates by the sheer geographical isolation of these countries, but you could not find two countries closer or more alike (except in their politics) than Canada and the United States. Yet the US death rate is almost three times the Canadian rate. How can we explain all this?

The great majority of the countries with under 100 Covid deaths per million people are Asian and African nations with fast-growing populations and a median age of well under 30. Covid-19 selectively kills elderly people, and such people are very scarce in these countries.

A few richer East Asian countries in this under-100-deaths-per million group have much older populations (China’s median age is 37.4 years, Japan’s is 43.4 years). But these are all countries with well developed medical systems, strong social discipline, and recent experience with similar pandemics.

Then there is the broad group of countries with between 100 and 500 deaths per million. Most are rich countries with relatively old populations and good medical systems, but lower social discipline (or, if you prefer, more social freedom).

They range from Germany (117 deaths per million) and Russia (157) to Ireland (369) and France (500). Elderly people are a big chunk of the population, and how many actually die seems to be determined mainly by how well each government manages the pandemic. The wrong policy or a few days’ delay in acting can make a huge difference.

And the final group are the Latin American countries (almost all over 500), where median ages are as high as in the rich countries but medical services and government competence tend to be worse. Lots of old people die, and even many younger people who would have survived in better run and less unequal countries don’t make it.

How did the United States and the United Kingdom end up in the same sad group? Both countries have populist governments so obsessed with their own popularity that they reflexively delay or avoid unpopular but necessary decisions. Too little, too late on the way into lock-down; too fast on the way out.

And what about Spain and Belgium? Maybe that was just poor management: there are always a few outliers. But the general conclusion is clear.

What really matters is the age profile of the population. In poor countries with fast-growing, very youthful populations, the economic cost of lock-down probably outweighs the harm done to the relatively few elderly people. In Uganda, only 2% of the population is over 65: protect them by wearing masks and so on, but don’t close down the economy.

In Germany, half the population are over 47, and almost a quarter are over 65. Taking the Great Barrington Declaration’s advice could cost half a million lives. Horses for courses.*
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 11 and 16. (“Never mind…denial”; “A few…pandemics”; and “And what…clear”)

Bolivia: A Free and Fair Election

12 October 2020

The quotation is usually given as “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely”, but Lord Acton’s original remark went on to say: “Great men are almost always bad men.” And so they are.

This is not to say that all bad men in power are also great men. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, in power for 26 years but currently fighting eviction after another rigged election, is clearly a bad man, but he is also a petty man of no discernible merit.

Evo Morales, president of Bolivia for 14 years, is certainly a great man: the first person of indigenous descent ever elected to lead a country where only 5% of the population is of European origin. But he was ousted from power late last year, and he deserved to be. (He is sitting out next Sunday’s election in exile in Argentina.)

This has been taken by most people elsewhere (and not just people on the left) to mean that there was a ‘coup’ in Bolivia last year, and that democracy there is in danger, or even at an end. That impression was reinforced by the fact that the caretaker president for the past eleven months has been an extreme right-wing politician.

But it wasn’t really a coup; more of a car-crash. The presidential election last year was followed by weeks of popular protests claiming that it had been rigged to give Morales a narrow victory in the first round of voting.

Morales resigned when an investigation by the Organisation of American States reported that there had been “serious irregularities” in the vote and “clear manipulations” of the voting system”. That was the right thing to do, but then his party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), made an incredible blunder.

It boycotted an ad hoc meeting held by the opposition parties, the Catholic Church and representatives of the European Union to choose an interim president. All the senior MAS officials having resigned together with Morales, the choice fell on the second vice-president of the senate, an obscure politician called Jeanine Añez – who turned out to be a monster.

Within a week journalists were digging up racist tweets in which she called Morales a “poor Indian” and declared an indigenous new year celebration “satanic”. In the same week, she fired all the military top brass, replacing them with her own appointees, and gave the police and soldiers blanket authority to use lethal force against protesters. At least 28 were killed.

Añez seemed well on the way to enshrining the rule of the extreme right. Morales was banned from seeking the presidency again, and in May she declared that she would run for the presidency herself when the election was re-run. But now that election, much postponed because of Covid-19, has come round at last – and she has just withdrawn her candidacy.

It turns out that mourning for the death of Bolivian democracy has been a bit premature. The leading candidate in this election is still from the MAS: Luis Arce, a former economy minister who oversaw the nationalisation program under Morales.

Arce’s main opponent is the same man Morales faced last year: ex-president Carlos Mesa, a former journalist and professor who is centre-left politically. Añez withdrew to give the other hard-right candidate, Luis Fernando Camacho, a better chance of getting through to the second round, but he still probably won’t make it.

The second round remains the key issue. The rules say that the leading candidate wins in the first round if he or she gets 40% of the vote, and is at least ten points ahead of the nearest rival. If not, the two leading candidates go through to the second round – but then the supporters of all the losing candidates will probably unite behind the challenger to defeat the socialist (who is invariably the leader in the first round).

Morales did not have a ten-point lead over Mesa last year when 85% of the votes had been counted – but then the ‘quick count’ stopped for no clear reason for a full day, and when it resumed Morales ended up with a 10.1% lead. So no second round: Morales wins. That’s when the mass protests started, and rightly so.

An unexplained halt of that duration in the vote-counting always means they are fixing the outcome. Given Morales’s past record – he held a referendum to end the two-term limit on the presidency, lost it, then got an MAS-dominated court to set the referendum result aside and end term limits – not too many people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

His time is up, but the MAS under Arce’s leadership could still win this election, and if it doesn’t then Mesa will probably become president, which would not be a disaster either. Democracy is not dead in Bolivia.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 2. (“The quotation…merit”)

Trump: The Odds

7 October 2020

Now is when it gets interesting.

The announcement last Friday that US President Donald Trump had fallen ill with Covid-19 hardly came as a surprise. His political strategy of playing down Covid-19 required him to be reckless about his own health, and other Republicans were already dropping like flies. Fourteen Republican Senators and Representatives have now tested positive, compared to six Democrats.

Some journalists who were up against a deadline started speculating right away about what would happen if Trump died from Covid, but that felt kind of ghoulish. Besides, the odds were long against it.

The death rate for people in their 70s who are hospitalised with Covid symptoms is much higher than for younger people, but it’s still only 8.5%. Being male and fat with a heart problem are all additional risk factors for Trump, but they are probably counterbalanced by the fact that he gets excellent medical care 24 hours a day. So wait and see.

Wait how long? After a million deaths (almost a quarter of them in the United States), we now know a good deal about the pattern of this disease, and it is rarely life-threatening in the first week after symptoms develop. Some suffer from a constant dry cough, fever, headache, fatigue, and/or a loss of the sense of smell and taste, but at worst there’s a certain shortness of breath.

We know that Trump was briefly put on oxygen last Friday and again on Saturday, but that does not mean he’s deathly ill. On the other hand, the fact that the doctors let him go home to the White House on Monday doesn’t mean they are hugely confident either.

Trump would have put immense pressure on the doctors to let him go, since that would let him do some macho posturing about having defeated the virus. They would have shrugged their shoulders and given in, because the real crisis was not due until later anyway.

Trump did indeed indulge in some major chest-beating when he got home. “Feeling really good!” he tweeted. “Don’t be afraid of COVID! Don’t let it dominate your life!… I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

Well, of course he’s feeling better. He’s on a steroid high. His doctors have put him on dexamethasone, a steroid medication that is not normally given to patients who are non-critical.

(He’s also taking remdesivir, monoclonal antibodies, zinc, vitamin D, famotidine, melatonin and aspirin, but none of those makes you feel like Superman.)

The doctors doubtless told Trump that the real make-or-break time with Covid-19 is seven to ten days after symptoms first develop, when some patients who have been feeling reasonably well suddenly go into a steep decline, with severe lung problems. That’s when you get put on the ventilator. But it probably didn’t register.

“Now I’m better, and maybe I’m immune,” he said at the White House. Then he took his mask off and, still highly contagious, walked back into the White House among the staff who were standing by inside. (Or to be more precise, those who were still standing at all. A dozen White House staff have already gone down with the disease.)

If Day 1 for Trump was last Thursday, as his doctors say, then Days 7 to 10 are this Thursday to Sunday. So it’s now reasonable for us to discuss how those days might define the future of the presidential election, and perhaps of the United States. Tastefully, of course, and with no ghoulishness.

Outcome A: Trump dies. Probability: less than 10% (see above). Consequence: Vice-President Mike Pence takes his place, and loses the election.

Outcome B: Trump gets very ill and is re-hospitalised. He survives, but cannot resume the campaign. Probability: around 10%. Consequence: Joe Biden wins the presidency with a margin big enough that Trump’s people cannot plausibly dispute it. Normal service is resumed, and Trump spends the rest of his life in court.

Outcome C: Trump recovers, and is back out campaigning within a week. Probability: more than 70%. Consequence: he still loses the election (just look at the numbers), but he is fit and able to build on the foundations he has already laid and lead a campaign from the White House (not necessarily non-violent) to dispute the postal vote.

He is desperate enough, and ruthless enough, to comprehensively muddy the waters, possibly with the help of his carefully packed Supreme Court. Perhaps the United States becomes a banana republic, perhaps not.

And we must recognise the possibility that Outcome C in some form is already inevitable because Trump contracted Covid days earlier, concealed it, and is already safely past Day 10. In which case this entire drama is just pantomime.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Wait…breath”; and “He’s also…Superman”)

The Mysterious Allure of Being French

5 October 2020

On Sunday New Caledonia voted to remain French by a majority of 53.3% to 46.%. That’s hardly an overwhelming majority, but it was the second referendum in two years to reject independence in the South Pacific archipelago, so we may take it as a done deal.

The odd thing about that outcome is that almost three-quarters of the islands’ 270,000 people are not of European descent. They are ‘Kanaks’ (descended from the original Melanesian inhabitants), other Pacific islanders, or Asians, but a substantial proportion of them want to remain citizens of a European country more than 16,000 km away.

Yet it’s not unique. While the other powers of Western Europe gave all their colonies independence more than a generation ago, France stays on not only in the South Pacific (New Caledonia and French Polynesia) but in Africa (Mayotte and Réunion), in the Caribbean (Martinique and Guadeloupe) and in South America (French Guiana).

Moreover, it does so with the approval of the local inhabitants, although nowhere are ethnic French people a majority. What is the mysterious allure of being French that persuades so many non-European people to vote in favour of living in ‘overseas departments’ of France itself?

A large part of the allure is spelled M-O-N-E-Y. If you live in an overseas department of France, then you get a good, free education and a French level of public and social services. Per capita income in New Caledonia is ten times that in other nearby island nations like Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, and the Solomon Islands.

Mauritius and Réunion are almost identical large islands off the east coast of Madagascar. They even both speak French, but Mauritius fell into British hands in 1810 and got its independence in 1968, whereas Réunion stayed under French rule and is now a overseas department of France. Per capita GDP in Mauritius is $11,203 a year, in Réunion $25,900.

It’s the same in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe and Martinique, each with around 400,000 people, have GDPs per capita of $25-27,000; the two nearest ex-British islands, Dominica and St. Lucia, are in the $7-10,000 range. And French Guiana has the highest per capita income in all of South America (though that is largely due to the fact that it hosts the European Union’s main spaceport).

Most startling of all is the Comoro Islands, north of Madagascar. Three of the four main islands voted for independence in a 1974 referendum. The fourth island, Mayotte, voted to stay with France then, and chose full ‘overseas department’ status by a 95.5% majority in another referendum in 2009.

The proudly independent ‘Union of the Comoros’, one million people strong, has a GDP per capita of $1,400. Mayotte’s is ten times as high, and half of its quarter-million people are illegal immigrants from the other islands.

The African Union still insists that Mayotte’s status is illegal, because it didn’t decolonise with the other islands, but the Mahorais aren’t interested, especially since the Union of the Comoros is also the world capital of military coups. They also don’t seem to mind that traditional Islamic law is now being replaced by the French civil code (or at least the female half of the population doesn’t).

None of these places is an earthly paradise, and none enjoys as high a living standard as France itself. There were violent independence movements in several of them in the 1970s, before France hit on the strategy of showering them with economic benefits.

It makes perfectly good sense for a New Caledonian or a Réunionnais to trade in the doubtful blessings of impoverished small-state nationhood for the citizenship of a First-World country and access to all its benefits, without even having to leave home.

And if you do want to leave home, you can move to France (as many do) or anywhere else in the European Union, for that matter. The real puzzle is: what’s in it for the French?

It’s certainly not economic gain: the subsidies France pays far outweigh any profits it might get from privileged access to the limited resources of these small territories. The benefits for France are almost all psychological.

Most other European empires were run as pragmatic business ventures. If the colonies are not turning a profit any more, perhaps because they are getting too expensive to control, then walk away and leave them to their own devices.

France had a bigger emotional investment in empire, perhaps because it was in steady decline from being the greatest European power in the 18th century to a much humbler status today. It could be pragmatic if necessary (as when it gave all its mainland African colonies independence in 1960), but it’s willing to pay for the privilege of having small bits of France in other continents.

Who could criticise the residents of those places for taking advantage of this foible?
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“Mauritius…$25,900″; and “None…benefits”)