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Covid-19 Death Rates and Arrogance

Something has gone wrong in the ‘Anglosphere’, as the English-speaking countries are known in some other parts of the world.

Smaller English-speaking countries are coping with the Covid-19 emergency quite well. New Zealand’s coronavirus death toll so far is eighteen, and Australia’s is 83. Even Canada, despite being next-door to the United States, has only 2,500 fatalities.

But the two big English-speaking countries are taking worse losses to the coronavirus than anywhere else. The United Kingdom has 20,000 dead already, and the United States will hit 60,000 by Wednesday at the latest. At the current daily death rate, the US will reach 100,000 in about two weeks.

Last month Sir Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said that keeping deaths below 20,000 would be a “good outcome”, but the final British death toll in this wave of the pandemic will probably be between 30,000 and 40,000 people – the highest loss in Europe.

The United States is almost as bad. Early this month President Trump congratulated himself for his belated conversion to lockdowns, boasting that “The minimum [predicted] number was 100,000 lives and I think we’ll be substantially under that number.”

American infection rates are still going up, so that is highly unlikely. But even if the US stops at the ‘minimum’ level of 100,000 deaths, that would mean Americans are dying from Covid-19 at eighty times the death rate that Chinese citizens suffered before Beijing got the virus under control. Or, if you doubt China’s statistics, at 1,515 times New Zealand’s death rate.

Other English-speaking countries, including those that use English as a common second language, like Kenya, India and South Africa, are not showing anomalous death rates. It’s just the US and the UK – so what might they have in common that none of the other English-speaking countries share?

Oh, wait a minute. Weren’t these two countries the superpowers that dominated the world one after the other for most of the past two centuries?

Might that have made them a bit arrogant? Unable to see the experience of other countries as relevant to their own situation? Reluctant to follow the advice of international bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO)? Am I getting warm here?

Britain ticks all the boxes. It has a nationalistic government obsessed with the ‘greatness’ of the country’s past and unable to grasp the reality of its modest current stature. Hence the Brexit project, for example, but exactly the same attitude is manifest in its coronavirus policies.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was saying “Test. Test. Test.” as early as January. In early March, however, Britain defied the conventional wisdom and all but abandoned both community testing and contact tracing (which is the other essential part of the ‘Test’ strategy).

Instead the UK wandered off into the lethal fantasy of seeking ‘herd immunity’ by letting infections rip, ignoring what first the East Asian countries and later all the other European countries were doing. It only panicked in late March when it realised that its National Health Service would collapse under the weight of so many deaths.

It finally declared a lockdown after all its neighbours, and it is paying the price for the delay with its death rate. This was sheer arrogance at work, with only a slight tincture of ignorance. And even now, with pressure growing for an early release from the lockdown, the UK government is still playing catch-up.

The United Kingdom is only now starting to work on building an organisation to test on a national scale (hundred of thousands of tests a day), trace the contacts of infected people, and isolate them all in order to break the chains of transmission. Yet you cannot safely ease the lockdown until the testing and contact tracing network is up and running.

Wrong at every step, Prime Minister Boris Johnson must be very grateful to have Donald ‘Lysol’ Trump to make him look good by comparison. The American president’s sins of omission on coronavirus are why the US has one-third of the Covid-19 infections in the world, with only one-twentieth of the world’s population.

Trump downplayed the threat as long as he could, then became a last-minute advocate of lockdown. He has now moved on to being the liberator of the American people from lockdown (without any contact tracing, of course). The problem with him as a leader is that he is not only arrogant but flighty and astoundingly ignorant.

But his flightiness and ignorance are merely personal attributes, and Boris Johnson is not ignorant at all (just lazy). What the two men and their respective countries both have in abundance is an arrogant exceptionalism that is leading them into increasingly grave errors.

As Joseph de Maistre remarked, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 14. (“Instead…deaths”; and “The United…running”)

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

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.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12 (“Countries…influence”)

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.
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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)’.