Flat White

Random thoughts on the coronavirus lockdown 

23 April 2020

5:00 AM

23 April 2020

5:00 AM

For some time now I have been a sceptic as to the relative or statistical dangers of this coronavirus as I have made clear in the Speccie and elsewhere.  Several weeks ago I pointed out that between 1,200 and 3,000 Australians die each year of the flu.  The original Imperial College model out of Britain, based on virtually no reliable empirical data when made, predicted some two million Americans and some half-a-million Brits could die from the pandemic if prompt strong-arm measures were not implemented.  Since then those predictions by that Imperial College team have dropped faster than the share prices of your favourite airline.  The predictions of deaths are orders of magnitude smaller than when first promulgated.   

So as we hit the third week of April, here’s what do we now know.  

We know for a dead certainty that the costs of this lockdown, in terms of its felt economic effects and in terms of its indirect longer-term health effects, will not be evenly distributed.  It is just sloganeering, perhaps needed for national unity but all the same just sloganeering, to pretend that it will be evenly felt.  Here’s a rule of thumb.  If you’re an Australian politician you are paying virtually none of the costs of this lockdown.  Mr Morrison has ruled out imposing any pay cuts on our pollies, even though the near-socialist Jacinda Ardern across the Tasman imposed them on Kiwi politicians.  And this is also despite the fact that our politicians are amongst the highest paid going with very generous pension arrangements and lucrative other perks – think travel benefits and more – that make this a very profitable line of work for people of ordinary abilities.  On what planet is it not the right thing to do to impose 20 or 25 per cent pay cuts on our politicians?  And why hasn’t Mr Albanese noticed this market opening and announced that Labor’s federal politicians would unilaterally take this cut?  (Once they did that any later mimicking by Liberal and National politicians would be massively discounted by the electorate.)  Let’s remember that the private sector is facing carnage.  The vast sums of money the Morrison government is throwing at people for a few months does not change the facts on the ground – small businesses will close; people who put their homes up as collateral for their businesses will not be able to pay back the mortgages; the smart young students who did what we want them to do and opted to go into the private sector and take risks by, say, throwing in their lot with a start-up will be far worse off than those who took a public sector job – and notice that the public sector is not being made to take a pay cut either so that there is a two-tier reality out there at the moment, soon to be worsened, in terms of who will be paying the costs.  The people cheerleading for the lockdown and imposing it on others are not paying the costs but the people having it imposed on them are.  When we come out of this the incentives will be all wrong.  And did I mention that too many of our politicians, the ones paying few to no economic costs, seem to be enjoying themselves far too much throughout this whole ordeal?  And did I point out this government’s natural constituency is NOT the public servants and ABC class, but the very people who are going to be hammered economically? 

This is not a war, nothing like it.  In a war, everyone pays real costs not just some chunks of society.  (See point 1 above.)  Here we are taking unprecedented steps to stop what would otherwise be, it now seems clear, no more than two or three times the number of deaths in a bad flu season.  More people than that died every day of every week of every month of any noteworthy war. 

Politicians are now addicted to throwing around the phrase ‘I’m following the science’.  When they do that it is pretty much guaranteed that they don’t know anything much about science.  Now my memory may be a bit rusty but back from my doctorate days I can still recall my Karl Popper and other philosophers of science.  Making a model and asserting it will mirror future reality is flat out not science. At best the model has been made by someone who himself, or herself, is employed as a scientist.  But that doesn’t make the model ‘science’.  The gist of any claim to being involved in a scientific endeavour is that you are proposing a hypothesis about the future that can be tested, and falsified.  The imposed reality of the external, causal world – because it actually exists and because it imposes outcomes regardless of how one happens to have been socialised or inculcated (goodbye so much social science grievance politics) – delivers mind-independent answers.  A computer model is therefore only as good as its initial assumptions and the data relied on.  A man with a model is a man with a model.  The question is how well does the model predict the future.  In the case of the initial Imperial College model, the answer is ‘incredibly poorly’.  Indeed the man with the model from Imperial College has a history of making initial models that massively overstate the badness of what is coming. (Just saying.  You can check that out yourself.  Look at the foot and mouth scare and the BSE scare.)  So the truth is not ‘we are following the science’ the truth is ‘we have delegated decision-making to people with a science background, or rather a select few of them because others from the same background have different views and we are ignoring them’. 

From that there is the inevitable follow-up question of ‘why didn’t the Imperial College initial model deliver what it promised, why are we seeing so many fewer deaths than the model first predicted?’.  I can’t believe at this point how many innumerate journalists jump straight to the answer ‘the model erred because of the stringent lockdown measures; it’s all because of what the government did – implying maybe we should be even stricter’.  How do they know that?  This is the worst sort of pseudo-science because it simply is phrased in a way that cannot be falsified.  Try this thought experiment. If the original Imperial College model had said 250 million American would otherwise die, and the lockdown led to (what now seems to be the likely tally of) 60,000 to 65,000 US deaths, would that correlation of A) propose a model followed by B) the government’s heavy-handed lockdown steps followed by C) much lower-than-first-predicted death numbers mean the predictions in the model would have been correct barring B), the government’s actions?  Really?  No matter what the model asserted?  What if the model had predicted a billion deaths?  All life on earth?  The point is that correlation is not causation.  If we’d been much more relaxed and not gone down the lockdown route would the Imperial College initial predictions still have been way, way off?  Well, the evidence seems to be ‘yes, it was a terrible first model’.  B) has played a much smaller role than people claim.  How do we know?  Because Sweden did not go down our heavy-handed route.  I’ll say that again.  Sweden resisted the hysteria and media fear porn and kept its economy open while taking sensible precautions like suggesting the old and the frail and those with existing conditions (‘comorbidities’ in the awful jargon in play) isolate themselves.  No gatherings over 49 in Sweden, yes 49, and bars and restaurants have remained open throughout.  So as  the time of writing, here are some countries’ deaths per million of population:

United States: 128 

Spain: 446 

France: 310 

UK: 243 

Sweden: 156 

Denmark: 63 

Norway: 33 

Australia: 3 

So Sweden is at worst in the middle somewhere in terms of deaths per million of population.  All up there have been 1,580 Swedish deaths registered as due to the coronavirus.  This is in a population of about 11 million.   Ignore all variables and complications for the sake of argument and just multiply by the other countries’ bigger populations to give you some assumed 4,500 odd deaths or so in Australia, 10,000 or so in Britain and France, and about 65,000 in the US.  That’s what Swedish conditions (which obviously are different in fact) would give you in those other countries.  If you check you’ll see those translated death tallies are lower than the actual numbers in Britain and France, a wee bit higher than in the US, and much higher than here (where we have yet to get close to 100).  Now don’t get me wrong.  4,500 deaths here would be terrible.  But then a bad flu season gives us 3,000 deaths and that’s terrible too.  Yet no one barely notices the bad flu season.  And we don’t cripple the economy and impose absolutely huge costs on the younger generations to fight off those extra deaths that are basically how many people die in car crashes in a year.  Remember, carnage in the economy equates to lots of future deaths.  Just look and see how much suicide deaths jumped up during the Great Depression.  Plus, if there’s no money around then Australia’s future health care system won’t be nearly as good as it otherwise would have been.  That’s yet more indirect deaths.  Don’t listen to the ABC fear-mongers.  This is not lives v. the economy.  It is lives v. lives.  Some are now and direct, the 93-year-old who catches corona and dies say.  The others are later and indirect, like the 28-year-old who can’t get work, spirals out of control and dies two years from now.  And right now it seems extremely plausible that there will be more of the latter than the former.   

Here’s another thing the evidence is now clearly showing.  Coronavirus hits old people way harder than young people.  If you’re under 30 anywhere in the world, including New York City the worst hit of all in some ways, your odds of dying are very, very small.  If you do not have some existing ailment (heart disease, lung problems, diabetes, etc) then it’s a lot more dangerous to get in a car.  This is a virus that hits older people and the frail and the already sick.  At this point, there are usually shrieks of indignation about how the mere mention of this fact – and fact it is – amounts to some sort of neo-Nazi call to cull the elderly and weak.  Bullshit.  Facts are facts and any sensible policy-making has to take them on board, not hide from them.  In Sweden, they help the old without ruining the futures of the young.  I’m for that, which to repeat is not the same as some sort of call to sacrifice the old (like my 82-year-old mother now in day 30 of isolation in Toronto).

This whole coronavirus episode involves a calculation of competing risks in life.  And many people aren’t very good at that.  Every time you get in a car and drive 80 kilometres an hour your chances of dying are considerably higher than if you drove 5 kilometres per hour.  But there are benefits as well as risks and people weigh them up and most of us drive 80, or 100, or 110.  There are over a thousand deaths a year in Australia in car crashes.  We could end those too by locking everyone down.  We don’t.  Is that because we are all heartless neo-Nazis?  No.  Life is full of risks.  Some are worth taking. Others are not.  People’s appetites for risk varies.  But almost none of us want to vegetate in our rooms to forestall the deaths due to the flu.  So once it became clear that this coronavirus was not the Black Death, nor even the Spanish Flu of 1918 which killed upwards of three per cent of those infected, and that its lethality was much, much lower than first predicted by the Imperial College crowd, why haven’t our politicians responded by shifting the balance towards the Swedish approach?

Second last thought.  Can you be too successful?  In Australia we have well under a hundred corona deaths.  Have we conditioned people to think that we won’t be like the US and Europe and somehow can have total deaths come in at a fifth of a flu season’s deaths?  Because if so, how does Team Morrison get us out of this mess?  If they loosen up deaths will go up.  It will overwhelmingly be the very old and very sick.  But each one will be on the front page of the papers and leading off the ABC news reports.  Do any of these media outlets report by saying ‘last year, by way of comparison, there were more flu deaths’?  Or more car accident deaths?  Or half as many?  Or give any context?  No.  They distort the comparative risks massively, abetted by police forces that have a few members behaving pretty heavy-handedly in my view.  Still, the point is that the Prime Minister has no easy way out if he’s being told that deaths will jump into the high hundreds when he loosens restrictions.  But odds are they will and he is.  Mr Morrison needs to start talking about the need to restart the economy.  To save future lives.  Now. 

Last thought.  Where are the free spirits in this country (and in Canada and in New Zealand and in Britain) who value their freedom and won’t be sheep-like vessels happily being ordered around by a too heavy-handed government?  I don’t see enough of them.  (And you’re dreamin’ if you think I’m downloading some App and put my trust in this or any government.)  If this is the larrikin country that spirit looks dead and buried to me.  It’s worse in Britain.  Add in a too common apparent willingness to dob in our neighbours for breaching seemingly meaningless petty restrictions and you’d be hard-pressed to call this a freedom-loving country.  Life involves risks.  Lots and lots of risks.  For almost all healthy people under 60 not on the front lines of the health service, the risks of coronavirus are tiny – and we know this from the accumulated facts, not from some computer model that has failed to predict any future events very well.  So be sensible.  Wash your hands.  Unless you take great care stay away from old people who really do have to isolate themselves.  But stop with the fear-mongering panic and hysteria.  And open the bloody economy now.  Want to make a bet?  Mr Morrison’s popularity is right now at the highest it will get.  When the lockdown is at last removed, and the bad economic times start, he will get all the blame and little of the praise.  People are like that.  Gratitude is thin on the ground.  And his core supporters, small business owners in the private sector, will be the ones who were smashed by his lockdown decisions.  They’ll want to know why he waited each extra day he did to unlock things.  Meanwhile, the current cheerleaders on the ABC and in the public service – the ones bearing virtually none of the costs – will desert the PM faster than you can read today’s sports page.  My bet is that in ten years this will be seen as a massive public policy failure and a sort of mass hysteria.  

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