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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.
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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)’.

Covid-19: The Exit Problem

Most of the countries in Asia, Europe and North America are now in lockdown to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus. This is the ‘suppression’ strategy, and it should keep the death rate from going exponential for a while. The unanswered question is: what do we do next?

There is no exit strategy. “This type of intensive intervention package [‘social distancing’ of the entire population, home isolation of Covid-19 cases, and household quarantine of their family members] will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more) – given that we predict that transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed.”

That’s from the executive summary of the key Imperial College London report that on Monday forced the British government to abandon its insane policy of letting the infections grow and hoping the population (or what was left of it) would achieve ‘herd immunity’.

The 30-strong Imperial College team estimated that an ‘unmitigated epidemic’ – no closure of schools, shops, restaurants and bars, no household quarantines of suspected coronavirus cases and their families, no ‘social distancing’ – would directly cause 510,000 deaths in the United Kingdom in the first wave of infections (now to July or August).

Infections would grow rapidly through March, and the demand for beds in intensive care units (ICUs) would exceed supply by the second week of April. At the peak of the first wave of infections in mid-May, demand for ICU beds would be thirty times greater than supply.

They did the same calculations for the United States, and concluded that 2.2 million Americans would die in the first wave of infections. (This number was instrumental in jolting the Trump administration out of its ‘deny, distract and downplay’ strategy last weekend.) Such huge case loads would inevitably crash the health-care systems in both countries, causing further ‘secondary’ losses of life.

So the team moved on to consider the ‘mitigation’ model. This concentrates on ‘flattening the curve’ of infections, which would now peak in late June. Suspected cases of infection are confined to their homes and their families are also quarantined, schools are closed, over-70s are required to self-isolate – but shops, bars, restaurants, etc. stay open, and the economy staggers on more or less intact.

The mitigation policy’s outcome is slightly better, but the peak case load is still so high that it crashes the health system. Total deaths in the first wave are reduced only by half: i.e a quarter-million die in the United Kingdom, and a million in the United States. So the Imperial College team moved on to examine the third option: ‘suppression’.

Suppression, or ‘lockdown’ if you prefer, drastically reduces human contact in order to reverse the rate at which infections are spreading. ‘Social distancing’ applies to everyone, not just the over-70s, and almost all public venues except food shops and pharmacies are closed. It does the job – after a few weeks death rates drop sharply – but the economy also goes into decline: probably 6% down or worse by the end of the year.

This is now the policy in most developed countries: mass death is no longer on the doorstep. The United States as a whole is still in ‘mitigation’, because it takes a long time to turn a supertanker like Mr Trump all the way around, but New York and some other big American cities and states have already moved on to suppression.

It has all happened very fast, and governments are just starting to realise that we will be in this mode for a long time. In fact, unless this particular coronavirus fails to cause a second wave of infections next winter – it isn’t certain – we will probably be stuck in lockdown most of the time until an effective vaccine becomes widely available, probably no sooner than eighteen months from now. August of 2021, let’s say.

In the meantime, the best we can hope for is a few breaks when new infections have fallen so low that the controls can be “relaxed temporarily in relatively short time windows” for a month or two. But the virus will still be at large in the population, and we’ll probably have to re-impose the controls as the number of infections starts to spike again.

Economically, it will be as big a hit as the Great Recession of 2008-9. Saving everything from shuttered shops, theatres and restaurants to passenger-starved airlines from bankruptcy will be a huge challenge. Keeping their laid-off employees out of poverty will be just as hard. There will have to be mortgage and rent holidays and maybe ‘helicopter money’ (dropped from above by central banks).

But here’s a silver lining, if you want one. In every country we have collectively decided, without even an argument, that we care more about the lives of our fellow-citizens than we do about the damned economy.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“This is…suppression”; and “In the…again”)

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

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)’.

Three Small Victories: A Turning Point?

Have we reached peak fascist in Europe? Well, all right then, peak hard-right nationalist, but are we there yet? That would be reassuring, and three events in the past week give some cause for hope.

First, on Sunday Germany’s far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), failed to win first place in the two state elections where it had a chance of forming the government, Saxony and Brandenburg.

Both states seethe with resentment because former East Germany is still poorer than the western part of the country thirty years after reunification. Never having experienced immigration under Communist rule before 1990, many people in the east live in permanent panic about being overwhelmed by immigrants (although there are actually very few immigrants there).

So out of Germany’s sixteen states, Brandenburg and Saxony should have been the easiest wins for the AfD – but they didn’t win. They came a close second in both states, but they were beaten by an unusually high turn-out, clearly made up largely of people who don’t ordinarily bother to vote but realised that their votes were needed to stop the AfD.

Secondly, on Tuesday it became clear that the hard-right League party in Italy has been comprehensively snookered. Back in the days when it was the ‘Northern’ League it was more openly racist, and wanted to secede from Italy to get away from the allegedly lazy and corrupt southern Italians. “South of Rome lies Africa,” as the nastier variety of northern Italians say.

The League, although renamed and prettied up, is still the Nasty Party, but for the past eighteen months it has been in a coalition government with the anti-establishment (but not so nasty) Five-Star Movement (M5S). The League was doing well in the opinion polls, however, so its leader, Matteo Salvini, broke up the coalition in the hope of winning sole power in a new election.

Instead, the Five-Star Movement found a new coalition partner, the Democratic Party, and the League is out in the cold. On Tuesday 79,634 members of the M5S ratified the deal in an online vote – the party is ultra-democratic – and the League may have to wait another three-and-a-half years for a general election. Maybe by then its polling numbers will be down.

And then there’s the United Kingdom, where new Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson met parliament for the first time on Tuesday and immediately lost a key vote – because 21 members of his own party voted against him.

Boris –‘Al’ to his friends, family and many lovers, but he switched to ‘Boris’ as a young man because he thought it was more memorable – is not a neo-fascist. He is not ideological at all, just an opportunist who will wear whatever identity gets him where he wants to go. At the moment, his identity is hard-right English nationalist.

Many of the people around him have drunk the Kool-Aid, however, and really are ‘Little-Englander’ nationalists who don’t care if Brexit breaks up the United Kingdom. Together they have hijacked the Conservative Party.

Johnson is currently pretending to negotiate with the European Union while actually planning to crash out of the EU in a ‘no-deal’ exit that would do severe damage to the British economy. But it would secure his own political future as the man who finally delivered Brexit (albeit a Brexit far more extreme than anybody imagined back when they voted for it in 2016).

Such a Brexit would create enormous opportunities for the ‘disaster capitalists’ who have been quietly funding the Brexit movement, and who hope to asset-strip a crippled England. It certainly offers the non-English parts of the ‘United’ Kingdom, and especially Scotland, a perfect pretext for holding independence referendums of their own.

But Boris’s political future is unclear. He is currently a contender for the title of shortest prime ministership in British history, because his defeat in parliament and the defection of so many moderate Conservative members of parliament mean that there will have to be an election – which Johnson may well lose.

There have been no epic victories this week, no decisive turning points. The virus of nationalism still infects the politics of many European countries, and even the long-term future of the European Union, guarantor of peace in the continent for the past sixty years, cannot be taken for granted. But clearly the far-right nationalists can lose as well as win.

That should have been obvious, but the populists seemed almost unstoppable when they first surged to prominence in 2016. Brexit and Trump, then Hungary and Poland, then Italy and Germany – the only question was ‘Who’s next?’.

Now the bloom is off the rose. They win some, they lose some – and they lost three big ones in the past week. They will doubtless be around for quite a while, but we may be nearing peak populist.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Johnson…own”)