Are we really still in a pandemic?
Excess deaths from Covid are dropping to zero in most places.
This means that the global pandemic has come and gone.
We need to declare its end in order to restore our society.
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before … Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.””
Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven, 1845
Burn the Witch
“There are 200,000 dead Americans and it’s all Trump’s fault.”
That simple statement fits this time of dystopia so well, a searing combination of blame, shame, and ill will directed at a political enemy.
There is certainly a dollop of truth in it, as Covid has carried away so many vulnerable people on Donald Trump’s watch as President.
However, it has two flaws that fatally undercut its utility as a description of reality and a guide to what might come next.
First, the US is a federation and it has been clear from day one of this pandemic that state and local governments are leading the response, with federal agencies providing the backup.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been active on the file since early January and Trump himself declared a national emergency in mid-March, releasing billions of dollars in funding, a mere two days after the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared Covid as a pandemic.
Were these actions timely enough or sufficient enough to matter? Likely not, but they are also not policies that contributed to the viral death toll (which has torn through the world at its own self-determined pace).
Second, adding up deaths to some grand total is more of a morbid sport, a social car wreck that attracts attention, than a real measure of progress against the virus. It also says far more about the past than the present or the near future.
We know already that pandemics have exponential growth in contagion in the early stages, followed by geographical spread and then contagion collapse. The latter occurs as people respond with reduced social contacts and as the disease runs out of vulnerable victims (such as care home residents and those with pronounced co-morbidities).
So, there is little point in tracking mortality in an additive way, since the virus is not linear but instead follows a bell curve. The useful information is not in the totals but in the incremental change, the way in which death numbers are either rising or falling and to what specific level.
On that basis, it is notable that today’s US mortality count is down almost four-fold from a weekly peak of 19,000 in April to fewer than 5,000 now.
That latter number is about 9% of the death rate from all causes but, even more tellingly, is part of a drop in overall US mortality that is now at or below normal levels compared to the past five years.
In other words, there is no excess or abnormally high mortality in the US right now and the trend is for even lower numbers. The “accusation” that the President is governing at a time with fewer than normal deaths just does not sing in the same way as “Trump Lied and People Died”.
Of course, logic is not something that gets in the way of politics and so people use and believe the trope that Covid is all Donald Trump’s fault.
Presumably then, as the omnipotent superman driving this carnage, he might get credit for its diminution and end. That is a very faint hope, however, since for many people in this hyper-partisan time, the man can do no right.
By the way, this analysis is not meant as a defense of the US President and his actions, as he can and does speak for himself — often, though seldom eloquently.
Rather, it is a call to think carefully about this pandemic and to understand when we need to terminate various policies (like mandatory masks, lockdowns, and work and play restrictions) that are justified only by a full-blown unprecedented health emergency.
Taken to Excess
The evidence above suggests that the US pandemic and its associated dangers are fading away to something that is simply normal or even better than normal.
But how would we know when to call an end to the pandemic, given that the concept of a pandemic itself is so loose?
As mentioned above, the WHO announced the start of the Covid pandemic in March, following its designation as an outbreak in January. Their most recent view is that it will be two years or longer until the pandemic ends.
For its part, the CDC has never announced a formal start to the US pandemic, but it is perhaps implied by their assessment that US flu and pneumonia deaths (including Covid) exceeded typical epidemic threshold rates in early March.
Equally, there is official silence from the CDC regarding the end of the pandemic. That is somewhat disconcerting, since flu and pneumonia deaths peaked in April and have since moved below the typical epidemic threshold rates as of the end of September.
Sticking to their methodology, the end of the US pandemic should therefore rightfully be declared now.
This emphasis on abnormally high deaths as a definition of epidemic and pandemic can also be examined in a number of other countries.
The Financial Times tracks these results daily and, of the 26 countries listed there, all but one of them (Indonesia) are at or approaching no excess deaths. Here too, the end of the pandemic seems at hand.
We can’t extend the excess deaths concept completely across the world, owing to missing data, but a proxy is available: tracking the rise and fall of Covid deaths over time from zero to peak and back down again to negligible levels.
I undertook that analysis and reached the following conclusions:
As of early October, almost every one of the 210 countries and territories with Covid data had already seen their pandemic peak-and-decline, or never had one in the first place since there were always negligible numbers of deaths.
The only exceptions, in order of declining severity, are Argentina, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Poland, Myanmar, Czechia, and Hungary, all of which are seeing rapid rises in deaths to a new peak.
A second group (India, Indonesia, Turkey, Romania, Morocco, Philippines, and Paraguay) have plateaued in terms of deaths, and a third group (Spain, France, Canada, and Costa Rica) are experiencing a tiny rise in mortality that is far below prior peak levels.
Thus, the pandemic never arrived for many countries (think of Taiwan or New Zealand), for most others has come and gone (most states in the US), is on its way out for a handful (India perhaps), and for less than a dozen has yet to hit its exponential peak (Argentina or Israel).
The only conclusion to reach is that the pandemic is over for most places on earth. This does not mean zero deaths going forward or an end to contagion, but it is consistent with declaring the end of this health emergency. Deaths below average rates do not make a pandemic.
And yet, the global setting for government pandemic policies, the so-called severity index, remains at a high median level of 60, dramatically tighter than the pre-pandemic level of zero and unchanged since July in spite of a drop in pandemic deaths in most places.
Government policies are therefore continuing to live (and thrive) in a world of great perceived danger, while nature has moved on to a post-pandemic environment for almost every country.
The only possible justification for these restrictions is that they are in place to prevent or ameliorate a second wave, something that is quite improbable based on the historical pattern that pandemics have single waves.
Disturbingly, with only fear of the future as a justification, and a second wave never arriving, these policies could plausibly stay forever.
This is lazy rear view policymaking, looking back to the recent exponential contagion of March as the easiest-to-grasp model for what might soon take place.
It compounds the lethargic policy mistakes of January and February, when politicians failed to take Covid seriously enough, and the overkill policy of total lockdown in March, with a myopic inability to discern that the pandemic has now come and gone.
We cannot have zero deaths from viral contagions, as every annual flu season proves in spades, and yet our political leaders are now committed to eradicating or suppressing Covid as a disease.
This hubristic “every life must be saved” approach guarantees that we will have a Neverendemic, forever hiding in fear of a disease that is a creature of the natural world we inhabit.
As the preferred alternative, our leaders, and our fellow citizens, need to carefully consider the evidence that the pandemic has come and gone, and with it the abnormal risk of death.
By declaring its termination, and the resumption of a normal public health situation, we will have the best shot at ending this social crisis and returning to our former lives.
A cry of “Rona No More” is the first necessary step in restoring our society and, ultimately, our sanity.