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.
This year has been no treat for anyone.
Even so, as loyal citizens, 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.
Perhaps it is then 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 did policy makers do?
Why, throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at the problem!
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.
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, however, a hint in the European 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.
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.
The full article with numerous charts can be found here.