What really drove our pandemic response in 2020?
Covid varies greatly from one time and one place to another.
Public policy, by contrast, has been restrictive nearly everywhere.
Politics and social fears best explain our pandemic response.
“How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?”
Attributed to Dr. Seuss, 1904–1991
This year has been no treat for anyone.
From start to finish, our lives have been hijacked by Covid, that rudely persistent disease of minds and bodies.
We have thought and talked of little else over the course of the past eleven months, to the point where exhaustion has set in and we crave absolutely anything but the pandemic.
And even then, there is no respite, as the virus refuses to retreat and our political masters impose one burden after another upon us in response.
It’s a “no pity” situation for many of us, since the shame and blame crowd believe that the pandemic is all our fault.
According to this view, if only more people wore masks, washed their hands, avoided others, bought nothing, travelled nowhere, kept kids at home and granny away, all would be well.
That perspective, like the claimed benefits of socialism (“it’s never been properly tried!”), can never really be refuted, because most sensible people would never act that way …
… oh, except that is exactly how they have been forced to behave since every government on Earth decided to “do something” in March.
As loyal citizens then, and in the context of a widespread shame campaign, pretty much everyone has taken the basic health precautions to heart.
Social avoidance is universal, all public activities are restricted, mask usage is in the 80th and 90th percentiles, hundreds of millions have been tested, few travel any distance or go out socially, and everyone has had a taste of lockdown medicine for weeks and months at a time.
So, given this heroic and historic effort waged against Nature itself, what results do we now see?
Sadly, the virus is spreading just as much as it has since before we entered the fray so many months ago.
What a crushing defeat — and what a dispiriting way to close out this awful year!
Perhaps it is time to review where we have been, how we have responded, and then rethink our basic strategy. After all, reflection and hope are all you have when everything else has failed.
An honest survey of this year’s global battlefield should start with hard facts.
The following charts show fatalities from Covid around the world, scaled to the number of deaths per million people in each place.
What can we take away from this information?
First, the pandemic varies tremendously across the planet.
Europe and the Americas were hardest hit and Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and Oceania generally had very mild pandemics, (noting that the scale of the latter chart is ten times lower than the others).
Specifically, the largest outbreaks in Europe were in the UK, Italy, France, Spain, and Russia and in the US, Brazil, and Mexico in the Americas.
Egypt and North Africa dominated MENA (Middle East and North Africa) mortality, South Africa in the rest of that continent, India and Iran in south and central Asia, and Australia (and more specifically greater Melbourne) in Oceania.
Even though Covid went global, there are huge disparities between and within countries.
Second, this is in many ways a plague on richer and older urban societies, suggesting that there is sometimes a downside to integrated and open countries with fragile and long-lived populations.
It is also a direct riposte to those who want to blame the victims and their fellow citizens for the extent of contagion.
Does anyone seriously think that billions of people in places with sky high mortality rates (like Spain or New York) are that much more careless, incautious, selfish, irresponsible, or otherwise character flawed than those in places with near zero deaths (like Taiwan or New Zealand)?
The idea is preposterous.
Third, the pandemic has a definite cycle, moving from one time and place to another.
The first contagion spikes in Europe have returned (with a high probability of peaking in November), as has the spread from western to eastern nations there.
At the same time, countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, mostly located in the southern hemisphere, saw little Covid in the spring, then a summer peak and a current decline in their pandemics.
We can see this rise-and-decline and spread from place to place by looking at the US by region:
No US region has been spared from Covid deaths, but it is equally true that the horrendous loss of life in the northeast cities has not been repeated elsewhere.
There is a notable seasonal effect, with temperate zone states peaking in the spring and the Sunbelt states seeing their worst over the summer (an air conditioning effect?) and now heading down an improving trend.
Like Europe, the northern and eastern states are experiencing a renewed (but more subdued) increase in mortality.
As in the rest of the world, the disease in the US appears to swing by the season and does not last long in each place during its highly acute phase.
For those who might downplay the overall seriousness of these numbers, the next two charts show significant all-causes excess deaths in the US this year and a pandemic that is much more destructive than seasonal flu or pneumonia.
Nevertheless, given falling excess deaths recently, rising immunity, and coming vaccines, it is probable that we are well past the worst of the US pandemic in terms of contagion leading to death.
What to Do?
So that is the state of play: a global pandemic that has hit some places hard and barely affected others, a virus that peaks and declines in a matter of a few months, and a regional contagion that seems to be linked to seasonality.
Given that nuanced reality, what do policy makers do?
Why, throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at the problem!
The next charts show that there is no policy relationship whatsoever to what we have seen above in the mortality data:
Whether across the world or within the US, restrictive public policies were jacked up to unprecedented heights in March and April and then only gradually eased in subsequent months. This includes lockdowns and other restrictions on work, school, public events, transport, movement, and travel.
It did not matter if the virus was barely existent (as in Vietnam or most of Australia) or running wild (as in Italy or Iran), our political leaders slammed on the brakes and have been tapping them ever since.
They all basically did the same thing.
This universal approach is precisely why we will never be able to prove that our interventions have affected the pandemic.
Since every politician acted in unison, and citizens responded the same way in every place, there is no possible policy correlation to a pandemic that varies from place to place.
There is a hint in these charts, however, that explains the real underlying relationship between policy and the pandemic.
Note that the two European policy lines tightened up in October and November, counter to everywhere else. At the same time, they saw the fastest and largest resurgence of Covid deaths in the world.
I believe this is evidence that policy follows the pandemic, rather than the other way around, suggesting that policy is a politicized decision that triggers restrictions as people become more fearful with rising contagion.
Policy moves in response to general fears and concerns, and it is therefore also usually late and ineffective, often hitting its most restrictive phase at or after the local contagion has naturally peaked and started to decline.
This socio-political view also explains why it is so hard to ease the restrictions after the virus has done its deed:
People remain anxious, governments are locked into policy commitments, special interests continue to be vocal, and uncertainty about the future course of the pandemic stays high.
There is no magic “all’s clear” signal to tell us when we should go back to normal and so policy inertia takes over.
Just like the legacy of the War on Terror, we may be stuck with anti-Covid policies forever.
The timelessness of that outcome would be a great irony, given the facts that point to Covid as a finite pandemic with a predilection for rising and falling and then moving on to other places.
While nature abhors permanence, our political institutions seem to have a fondness for doing the same thing over and over to the same effect. As a wise person once quipped, that is the very definition of insanity. Poor us.