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Lives vs. Livelihoods

Wuhan, the Chinese city where it all started, was locked down for 79 days before the restrictions on movement were finally lifted last week. A bit over-cautious, perhaps, but in China the coronavirus does really seem to be under control – not totally eradicated, but controllable without extreme measures.

If Donald Trump “reopens” the United States at the end of this month, then California and a few other states will have been under lockdown for only half that many days, and some states for much less time or even none. Far from being under control, the Covid-19 virus is killing huge numbers of Americans (2,405 on Tuesday), and the number is still rising.

These two giants define the extremes of the ‘lives vs. livelihoods’ debate, but almost every other country is having it too. Everybody knows that you can’t shut the economy down indefinitely, but nobody wants to risk a second wave of infections by moving too soon.

Well, almost nobody. The toddler-in-chief in the White House is frantic to reopen the economy because he has an election coming up in six months, and he will lose it if the economy has not recovered by then.

Dr Anthony Fauci has doubtless explained that lifting the restrictions on movement on 1 May will cause a second wave of deaths and a second lockdown before November, but Trump doesn’t retain that sort of information for long. His attention span is not only short but selective: he forgets unwelcome information very quickly.

Trump might actually order the country to reopen on 1 May, as he believes that “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.” But most states wouldn’t obey his command: as New York governor Andrew Cuomo said: “We have a constitution … we don’t have a king … the president doesn’t have total authority.”

Elsewhere, some countries are cautiously reopening their economies a bit at a time, but they either had a very high death rate early and have now wrestled it down again – China, Italy and Spain – or responded hard and early and never had a high infection rate, like Germany, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic, and New Zealand.

We should also note two countries that never closed their economies down at all, because they could test, identify the infected, and trace their contacts fast enough to break the chains of infection and keep deaths low: Taiwan and South Korea. All three of these groups have one vital thing in common.

They have the ability to “test, test, test”, as the World Health Organisation’s Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, put it a month ago, warning countries that they “cannot fight a fire blindfolded.” And they can follow up the tests with contact-tracing teams and apps so that not just the individual who tested positive but the whole cluster of other people who had contact with him or her can be isolated.

Any countries that have their infection rate down AND have their testing and tracing teams ready can start reopening their economies, although there will be a continuing low but steady toll of deaths until a vaccine is found. France, Canada and Australia can probably do it next month.

Countries like Turkey, Russia and South Africa are more debatable, because they gave the virus a head start, but their medical infrastructure is strong enough that they could think about letting their citizens go back to work by July. However, the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and India are very worrisome.

India is doing the right things, but it started late, its medical resources are limited, and the sheer numbers of victims may overwhelm the system. Brazil has a complete fool in charge, Jair Bolsonaro, and the many sensible people in the healthcare system may be unable to overcome his malign influence.

As for the US and the UK, they both reacted very late to the threat, which guarantees that their casualties would be considerably above the rich-country average. Worse, they do not have the testing and tracking resources in place that would make reopening the economy a relatively safe proposition.

On 3 April the British Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, pledged 100,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of the month. Half the month is gone, and the maximum number of tests carried out on a single day has been under 15,000.

The US situation is harder to judge, since there is not a unified healthcare system but a highly fragmented ‘healthcare sector’. However, nobody has spotted evidence of nationwide preparations for extensive testing and tracking once everybody goes back to work, so a second wave of deaths later in the year is practically guaranteed.

Finis Trump, perhaps, but at a high price.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12 (“Countries…influence”)

From Lock-Down to Whack-a-Mole

It’s wrong to say that there is no exit strategy from the anti-coronavirus lock-downs that have proliferated across the world. There is, and the first phase is to keep the lock-downs going long enough to bring new Covid-19 infections down to a manageable number. Maybe by June.

Then you start playing whack-a-mole until there is a vaccine (minimum 18 months). If there is no effective vaccine, then you have to keep doing it until your population has developed ‘herd immunity’ (two to four years for most places, but only if surviving the infection confers lasting immunity). But at least you can reopen most of your economy.

These are the best options left for the countries that missed the bus when the coronavirus first appeared three months ago – which is to say practically all of them, with the exception of the East Asian countries: China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The most important (and startling) statistic of the current pandemic is that Americans are 120 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than Chinese citizens.

We know how many Chinese died with some precision, because the dying has stopped in China, at least for the moment. The total is 3,331, most of them in Wuhan or the surrounding province of Hubei. The only new cases now being reported in China are in citizens returning from abroad.

The predicted death toll from Covid-19 in the United States, according to no less an authority than President Donald Trump, is 100,000.

You may be sure that that is the lowest number Trump thinks he can get away with. His chief infectious disease adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci, actually said “looking at what we’re seeing now, I would say between 100,000 and 200,000 … deaths” on 29 March, but let’s stick with the lowball figure.

One hundred thousand American deaths is a toll thirty times higher than 3,331 Chinese deaths, but that still leaves one important factor out. The population of China is four times larger than that of the United States. So in proportion to its population, Covid-19 will kill Americans at 120 times the rate it killed Chinese people.

That is shockingly high, but the comparable rates for major European countries are just as bad. Italy and Spain have just passed the peak rate of deaths – the daily rate has been falling since last week – and will probably end up with around 20,000 deaths each. The United Kingdom is still climbing the curve, but will probably end up in the same place.

Each of these countries has about one-fifth the population of the United States, and is facing about one-fifth the number of deaths. If the American death toll climbs well above 100,000, then you can start blaming Trump for the excess deaths, but there is something more fundamental happening here.

All these countries only moved very late to act against the virus, so late that their only remaining option was lock-down. Whereas all the east Asian countries reacted at once.

China, where the coronavirus originated, was blind-sided by the wave of deaths in Wuhan, but as soon as the virus had been identified Beijing locked the city down, and soon after the whole country.

A week or two were lost to the Chinese regime’s denial and its reluctance to damage the economy, but the reaction was still fast enough. The lock-down worked, and most Chinese are now back to work.

South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong got the warning at the same time as everybody else. No country other than China needed to go into lock-down at that point, because the coronavirus had not yet gained a firm foothold in their populations.

The East Asian countries have some serious experience of pandemics, however, so they immediately started testing frantically to identify new clusters of infection, tracing all the contacts of the infected people, and isolating everybody involved to break the chains of infection.

These methods never detect all of those infected, and the ones that are missed will cause new clusters of infection to emerge a few weeks later, so this is a never-ending game of whack-a-mole which requires a small army of testers and contact tracers. But it keeps the death toll down and the economy open.

Western countries did not use the ample time they had to put a similar system in place. They didn’t even stock up on masks, ventilators and protective clothing. They let the infection spread so widely that only a long, full lock-down could contain it. Why? Arrogance, wishful thinking, and a fierce determination not to harm economic growth.

A great many unnecessary deaths later, when the remaining number of infections is down to Korean levels, Western countries will finally be able to reopen their economies and join the game of whack-a-mole. But by that time, of course, the pandemic will be rampaging through Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America.

Back to normal is still a long way off.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“You may…figure”; and “Each…here”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Plague: Saving the Old

The basic choice all along with Covid-19 has been: do we let the old die, or do we take a big hit economically? So far, the decision almost everywhere has been to take the hit and save the old (or most of them), but in some places it has been a very near-run thing.

Today or tomorrow, for example, the number of deaths from coronavirus in the United States will surpass the total number who have died in China (3,304 people) from what Donald Trump generally calls the ‘Chinese virus’.

China has four times the population of the United States, but in the end around fifty times as many Americans will die from the coronavirus. That is according to Trump’s own prediction on Sunday, in the speech where he finally did a U-turn, that ‘only’ 100,000-200,000 Americans will die because of his wise decision to extend the national lockdown to 30 April.

It was a decision he took long after the last minute, if ‘last minute’ is defined as the last moment when the right decision would have held American deaths down to the Chinese level. But Trump was not alone in this dereliction of duty: his Mini-Me equivalent across the Atlantic, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, also waited much too long, and the United Kingdom will be lucky to escape with 20,000 deaths.

Why did they wait so long before imposing the restrictions on movement that will break the chain of transmission of Covid-19? Because locking down the people also means locking down the economy: huge numbers of people will lose their jobs, at least temporarily, and the stock market will crash.

Whereas if you don’t impose the restrictions, perhaps on the plausible pretext that you are pursuing an alternative solution called ‘herd immunity’, then the economy will keep ticking over nicely. However, achieving herd immunity requires 60%-70% of the population to have had the disease – and with this particular coronavirus, about one or two percent of those people will die.

But who cares? Almost all the victims will be over 70, two-thirds of them will be male, and at least half of them will also have ‘underlying conditions’ that are already forcing the health services to spend a lot just keeping them alive. They are entirely dispensable to the economy. We would be even richer if they did die.

Did Johnson understand that this was the real strategy? Possibly not: he’s never been a ‘detail’ man. But his Svengali and chief political advisor, Dominic Cummings, certainly did understand it, and seems to have been perfectly OK with it.

What forced Johnson into a thinly disguised about-face two weeks ago was one or both of the following facts. One: almost everybody his policy was condemning to death was somebody’s beloved father or mother. And two: it amounted to carrying out a cull of Conservative voters, since two-thirds of British people in the over-70s group vote for the Tories.

He was late, but not too late. Even the strictest measures now will not keep the British death toll under 20,000, according to the Imperial College London group that did the key calculations two weeks ago – but half a million would have died without them. And exactly the same equation applies to Donald Trump.

It’s always tough to know what Trump really believes, because he will say whatever he thinks works best politically at this precise moment. If it flatly contradicts what he said yesterday, he doesn’t care. And if some journalist calls him on the contradiction, he just denies what he said yesterday. It doesn’t matter if the statement is on the record; it’s ‘fake news.

We cannot know if Trump ever really understood the choice he was making when he condemned lockdowns and repeatedly promised the imminent ‘reopening’ of the economy. And then, two week after the Imperial College group published its prediction that without lockdowns 2.2 million Americans would die, he finally read it and reversed course. Or so we are supposed to believe.

He even claimed credit for saving two million American lives by abandoning his old strategy (if that’s the right word for it). His real calculation, at some level of his conscious or unconscious mind, was that his re-election in November would be even more damaged by two million needless American deaths on his watch than by a deep recession and huge unemployment.

But at least half of the Americans who will still die would have survived had he moved two weeks sooner, when he already had ample evidence that it was the only sane course. Exactly the same criticism applies to Boris Johnson. But here’s a consoling thought.

Everywhere from China and India to Spain and Russia, and even in the United Kingdom and the United States (after stalling as long as possible), governments are putting the lives of the ‘useless’ old ahead of the alleged needs of the economy. Because that’s what their people really want.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“Did…it”; and “It’s always…news”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Plague: A Few Changes

They teach you in journalism school never to use the phrase “…X has changed the world forever”. Or at least they should. Covid-19 is certainly not going to change the world forever, but it is going to change quite a few things, in some cases for a long time. Here’s nine of them, in no particular order.

1. The clean air over China’s cities in the past month, thanks to an almost total shutdown of the big sources of pollution, has saved twenty times as many Chinese lives as Covid-19 has taken. (Air pollution kills about 1.1 million people in China every year.) People will remember this when the filthy air comes back, and want something done about it. India too.

2. Online shopping was already slowly killing the retail shops. The lock-down will force tens of millions who rarely or never shop online to do it all the time. (Yes, all the websites are crashed or booked until mid-April now, but there will be lots of time to scale them up to meet the demand.) Once customers get used to shopping online, most of them won’t go back, so retail jobs will be disappearing twice as fast.

3. Not so radical a change with restaurants, but basically the same story: more take-aways and home deliveries, fewer bums on seats. Habits will change, and a lot of people won’t come back afterwards. Food sold out the door generates much less cash flow than food served at the table, and half of the waiters’ jobs are gone. There will be a severe cull of restaurants.

4. Once it becomes clear that ‘remote working’ actually works for most jobs, it will start to seem normal for people not to go in to work most days. So a steep drop in commuting, lower greenhouse-gas emissions, and eventually a lot of empty office space in city centres.

5. There will be a recession, of course, but it probably won’t be as bad or as long as the one after the financial crash of 2008. It isn’t a collapse of ‘the market’ that has cost people their jobs this time. It was a virus that made them stop working, and governments are doing far more than ever before to sustain working people through what will probably be a long siege.

When the virus is tamed and they can go back to work, the work (in most cases) will still be there. Although there will also be a few trillion dollars of extra debt.

6. Don’t worry about the debt. Banks have always created as much money as the government requires. Put too much money into the economy and you’ll cause inflation, which is bad, but just replacing what people would ordinarily be earning so that the economy doesn’t seize up is good.

So President Macron can tell the French that no business, however small, will be allowed to go bankrupt. Prime Minister Johnson can tell the British that the government will pay them 80% of their normal income, up to a limit of £2,500 ($3,000) a month, if their work has vanished. And President Trump can talk about sprinkling ‘helicopter money’ on the grateful masses.

7. What is being revealed here is a deeper truth. ‘Austerity’ – cutting back on the welfare state to ‘balance the budget’ – is a political and ideological choice, not an economic necessity. What governments are moving into, willy-nilly, is a basic income guaranteed by the state.

Just for the duration of the crisis, they say, and it’s not quite a Universal Basic Income, but that idea is now firmly on the table.

8. Collective action and government protection for the old and the poor will no longer viewed as dangerous radicalism, even in the United States. Welfare states were built all over the developed world after the Second World War. They will be expanded after the Plague ends.

Indeed, if Joe Biden were to drop out of the presidential race tomorrow for health reasons, Bernie Sanders would stand a fair chance of beating Trump in November.

9. Decisive action on the climate crisis will become possible (although not guaranteed), because we will have learned that ‘business as usual’ is not sacred. If we have to change the way we do business, we can.

So it’s an ill wind that blows no good (a saying that was already old when John Heywood first catalogued it in 1546). Some of the anticipated changes are definitely good, but we are going to pay an enormous price in lives and in loss for these benefits. It could have been dealt with a lot better.

And the West should learn a little humility. Taiwan, South Korea and China (after the early fumble) have handled this crisis far better than Europe and North America. These are already more dead in Italy than in China, and America, Britain, France and Germany will certainly follow suit.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 16. (“So…masses”; and “And the…suit”)