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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”)

Spain, Coronavirus and Basic Income

In times of great emergency, when the normal rules have been suspended, all sorts of things that used to seem unthinkable suddenly enter the realm of possibility. A national health service paid for by taxes and free at the point of delivery in the United States, for example – or a guaranteed basic income in Spain.

“We are going to implement a minimum basic income as soon as possible,” said Nadia Calviño, Spain’s deputy prime minister and economics minister, on Monday. She added that it will not “just be for this special situation, but for good.”

Plenty of governments are providing what amounts to a basic income to millions of laid-off employees for the duration of this ‘special situation’. Britain is covering 80% of people’s normal salaries for at least three months, up to a maximum of £2,500 ($3,000) a month, if their employers will just keep them on the books.

Even freelancers and ‘gig’ workers are not being forgotten (80% of the income they reported for taxes, averaged over the past three years). And all this from a Conservative government.

Canada is paying workers affected by the coronavirus outbreak $C2,000 a month for up to four months. Even the US government will be providing its citizens with two $1,000 cheques over the next three months (plus $500 extra for each child) – and they don’t even have to be out of work to get them.

But all these benefits are temporary, to be withdrawn again when things are back to normal. The question is: do we really want to go back to ‘normal’, if that means that many people live on welfare and barely scrape by, and a great many more (the ‘working poor’) do have jobs and work very hard, but still don’t have enough to live a comfortable life?

In normal times, this is a highly ideological issue, with a lot of people convinced that those below them on the income ladder are just lazy and undeserving even of charity, let alone welfare payments. Yet those convictions are easily put on hold when some unforeseen emergency means that those higher up the ladder also need government help.

Calviño is clearly using this crisis to advance a project that she and many others in her party have long favoured: a basic income that nobody can fall below, with any shortfall made up by the government. (Not, as some have incorrectly reported, a ‘Universal Basic Income’ that goes to everybody regardless of need).

There’s nothing wrong with exploiting the disruption caused by a crisis to launch new policies. As Niccolo Machiavelli said 500 years ago: “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.” But is Basic Income a good policy?

It’s certainly a good policy politically, because those who benefit from it will probably vote for you. It’s probably a good policy economically, because the beneficiaries, still being relatively poor, will immediately spend the money and boost the economy.

And it may well be neutral fiscally, because the money doled out in various unemployment and welfare programmes, plus the cost of administering all those programmes, may be around the same as the cost of bringing the poorest fifth of the population up to the level of the slightly higher earners in the next fifth in a single, simple payment.

If it should turn out to cost a bit more, it would still be a small price to pay for raising so many people out of desperation and giving their children better opportunities for the future.

This was the kind of thinking that motivated the people who had lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War to build welfare states in all the developed countries in the quarter-century after 1945. They wanted to improve the lives of their citizens, but they also wanted to head off the populist anger and nationalist demagoguery that had made the war possible.

Those things are on the rise again, because the gap between the rich and the rest has widened steadily for the past forty years in the developed countries. Fixing it will require a reshaping of the welfare state, and nothing will narrow the gap faster than raising the incomes of the poorest.

Making that kind of change in normal times is a Sisyphean task, but when the government must confine much of the population to their homes because of the pandemic and many of them lose their incomes as a result, it tends to broaden people’s minds about the possibilities.

A small wager. The Spanish government will be only the first of many to propose a basic income as a permanent part of the economy before the current crisis is over.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 4. (“In times…Spain”; and “Even…government”)

Fragmentation: The Tribalisation of Politics

‘Homo economicus’ is dead. Long live ‘homo tribuarius’!

That’s not really something to celebrate, but it’s certainly true that in most democratic countries economic self-interest is no longer the most important factor in voters’ choices. Tribalism of various sorts is taking its place, and that is not an improvement.

Take three quite different countries that are all stalled in the middle of political transitions that would have been done and dusted in no time twenty years ago: Spain, Israel and the United Kingdom.

Spain has just had its fourth election in four years, and the stalemate is worse than ever. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez went back to the polls in the hope of increasing his
centre-left PSOE party’s seats in parliament enough to make the arithmetic work. He had no chance of winning an overall majority, of course, but maybe with a few more seats and a more willing coalition partner….

Not a chance. He went back to parliament with a few less seats, and so did his skittish intended coalition partner, Unidos Podemos. They have now swallowed their pride and agreed on a coalition, but they still need 21 seats from elsewhere for a majority, and it’s hard to see where that will come from.

This is not how things used to be. A couple of decades ago the PSOE and its centre-right rival, the People’s Party, used to sweep up 80% of the vote, leaving just scraps for the ‘minor’ parties. In last April’s election, the two historic ‘major’ parties only got 48% of the votes between them.

Or consider Israel, where two elections this year failed to any set of political parties – out of a total of nine – with enough common ground to build a coalition government that works. The two ‘major’ parties together got only 51% of the votes.

Binyamin Netayahu’s Likud party tried and failed to form a coalition government. Benny Ganz’s Blue and White Party is still trying, and there is talk of a power-sharing ‘grand coalition’ between the two biggest parties, but otherwise Israel is probably heading for a third election within months.

Even if there is a deal between Likud and the Blue and White Party, the resulting government would be prone to fall apart at the first bump in the road. As that perspicacious political observer Donald Trump said on Monday, “They keep having elections and nobody gets elected.”

And then there’s the United Kingdom, stuck in the Brexit swamp for over three years and still looking for the exit. The two big traditional parties, Labour and the Conservatives, managed to win 80% of the vote in the last election, but subsequent defections from both the big parties made a decision on what kind of Brexit it should be (if any) impossible. Why is this happening?

In Britain, the Labour-Conservative disagreement used to be basically economic. Labour sought to redistribute the wealth, the Conservatives tried to defend the existing order, and most people made their choices according to their position in the economic pyramid.

That was never entirely true, of course. Some intellectuals in posh houses voted for Labour, and the Conservatives always managed to attract some working-class votes by stressing racial, sectarian and ‘values’ issues. But most people did vote for their economic interests.

Not now. The Conservatives are the pro-Brexit party, but 42% of their traditional voters supported ‘Remain’ in the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. Similarly, one-third of traditional Labour voters backed ‘Leave’. Never mind the economy; the referendum was driven by English nationalism. Or tribalism, if you prefer.

You can find similarly indecisive outcomes all over the place. The two traditional ‘major’ parties in Germany got only 54% of the vote in the last election. In 2017, the Netherlands went 208 days without a government. In 2018 Sweden went four months ‘ungoverned’ before a coalition was finally formed.

You can’t blame these outcomes on ‘the internet’, although that certainly makes it easier to spread disinformation. You can’t just blame it on ‘proportional representation’ voting systems, either: the UK has a simple winner-takes-all (or ‘first-past-the-post’) system. You probably can blame it on a rising level of anger everywhere, but then you have to explain the anger.

The one common denominator that might explain it is the growing disparity of wealth – the gulf between the rich and the rest – in practically every democratic country.

Since the 1970s, income growth for households on the middle and lower rungs of the ladder has slowed sharply in almost every country, while incomes at the top have continued to grow strongly. The concentration of income at the very top is now at a level last seen 90 years ago during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ – just before the Great Depression.

We could fix this by politics, if we can get past the tribalisation. Or we could ‘fix’ it by wars, the way we did last time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 12. (“Even…elected”; and “That was…interests”)

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

The Catalan Dilemma

The demonstrations, some of them violent, are still going on in Catalonia a week after Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced nine separatist leaders to between nine and thirteen years in prison for sedition. This was the last thing Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez needed three weeks before a national election in which his Socialist Party was already losing ground to right-wing nationalist parties.

Catalan separatists are convinced that the evil ‘Spanish state’ as a whole is conspiring to crush their movement, but the Court had little choice because those leaders deliberately broke the law. They held an illegal independence referendum two years ago in which few people except the separatists voted, and used that ‘victory’ to proclaim independence.

Opinion poll always show that a majority of people in Catalonia don’t want independence, but 92% of those who participated in the referendum voted for it. It was cynical manipulation which exploited the fact that the anti-separatist parties in Catalonia all told their supporters not to vote in an illegal poll.

The bid for independence failed when Madrid dissolved the regional parliament and removed the separatists from office. In the subsequent provincial election in December 2017, the pro-independence parties got 47.7% of the vote, so the separatists would probably have lost a real referendum by the same margin.

Yet it was the separatists who formed the next provincial government too, because they enjoy strong support in rural constituencies where almost everybody speaks Catalan. As in most countries, the system gives more weight to rural voters, so the separatists won five more seats in parliament than the pro-Spain parties and are still in power.

The real problem for the separatists is that about half the people in Catalonia are Spanish-speakers who have no interest whatever in seceding from Spain. Some are relatively recent arrivals, but most were born in Catalonia, the children and grandchildren of migrants from other parts of Spain who were attracted by the booming economy.

It’s still one of the richest parts of Spain, and – again as in most developed countries – some of its tax revenues are transferred to help poorer regions of the country. This is bitterly resented by most Catalan-speakers and partly explains the drive for independence, although the most powerful factor is simply ethnic nationalism.

How can ethnic Catalans achieve their goal in a democratic way, however, when half the voters by definition are not interested in it? The only way is somehow to define Spanish-speakers as not really full citizens of Catalonia, and although they never say that in so many words that was their unspoken justification for the manipulation they practised in the 2017 ‘referendum’.

Josep Borrel, Spain’s foreign minister, but himself a Catalan, recently offered a lethal analysis of this attitude: “I think the root of the problem is that the independence movement denies the ‘Catalanness’ of those people who aren’t in favour of independence. When you…claim that only those who think like you are ‘the people’, that’s a totalitarian attitude.”

‘Totalitarian’ is too strong a word, but there’s no doubt that this opinion is widely shared among Catalans, and that it makes Spanish-speakers keep their heads down. You’d never think, looking at the half-million-strong crowds of protesters who have been thronging Barcelona’s streets in the past week, that more than half the city’s residents are actually Spanish-speakers who oppose independence.

On the other hand, you cannot fail to feel some sympathy for the Catalan nationalists, for as recently as 1950 the great majority of the city’s residents were Catalan-speakers. You also cannot ignore the history: Catalans are not oppressed now, but the only language used in the schools and in all official communications in Catalonia under the Franco dictatorship, right down to the 1980s, was Spanish.

None of this has been forgotten by the Catalans, who at one time even feared that their language might be lost. An independent Catalonia might have restricted the arrival of so many Spanish-speakers if such an entity had existed 75 years ago, but it’s too late now.

Those Catalans who respect democracy but want independence therefore face an insoluble problem, and it’s only Spain’s refusal to permit a real referendum that spares them from having to face up to the conflict between these two values. But the Spanish constitution talks of the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’ and does not permit any region to hold a referendum on independence.

This is hardly surprising in a country that has had four civil wars in the past two centuries, but it effectively guarantees that the unrest in Catalonia will continue indefinitely.

So far it has been almost entirely non-violent, but the traditional pro-independence civil society groups, the Catalan National Assembly and Omnium Cultural, are now being outflanked by Tsunami Democratic, a more combative and secretive group. (It was they who occupied the airport last week.)

They are almost all young, they are at home with apps and social media, and they are up for a fight, but Catalonia is still a pretty peaceful place. Long may it remain so.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 10. (“Yet…power”; “It’s…nationalism”; and “Totalitarian…independence”)