Bill Blain. Donald Luskin, Coronavirus, Covid-19, Death Laundering, False Positives, Federalism, Flatten the Curve, Jacob Sullum, Kyle Lamb, National Bureau of Economic Research, Non-Pharmaceutical interventions, NPIs, Oxford Stringency Index, The Ethical Skeptic
There are a bunch of nice graphs below summarizing the course of the coronavirus (C19) pandemic in different countries, as well as their policy responses. The charts are courtesy of Kyle Lamb, who has been an unlikely (in my mind…) but forceful voice regarding the pandemic over the past few months. I’m sorry if the resolution in some of the charts is poor, but I hope you can click on them for a better view.
The data reported in the charts goes through September 12. The first few charts below are “mirror charts”: they show newly diagnosed C19 cases by day on top, right-side up; on the bottom of each chart are C19-attributed deaths, but the vertical axis is inverted to create the “mirror effect”. The scales on the bottom are heavily stretched compared to the top (deaths are much smaller than cases), and the scales for different countries aren’t comparable. The patterns are informative nevertheless, and I’ll provide per capita deaths separately.
Let’s start with the U.S., where the early part of the pandemic in the spring was quite deadly, while the second, geographically distinct “wave” of the pandemic was less deadly. It looks bad, but the high number of deaths in the spring was partly a consequence of mismanagement by a few prominent government officials in the Northeast, most glaringly Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. The full pattern for the U.S. combines different waves in different regions. The overall outcome to-date is 622 deaths per million of population.
Then we have charts for (deaths/mil in parens): the UK (628), Italy (591), Spain (653), France (467), Germany (114), the Netherlands (364), and Switzerland (240), which all have had second waves in cases, of but hardly any noticeable second wave in deaths, at least not yet:
And finally, we have Sweden (576), which had many deaths during the first wave, but very few now. Overall, to-date, Sweden has faired better than the U.S., Spain, the UK, and Italy — not to mention Belgium (870), for which I don’t have mirror charts.
There are several points to make about the charts:
First, the so-called second wave this summer has not been as deadly as the virus was in the spring. The U.S. is not an exception in that regard, though it did have more C19 deaths than the other countries. The count of U.S. deaths in the summer was partly due to C19 false positives under a much heavier testing regime, as well as “death laundering” by public health authorities that looks suspiciously like a politicization of the attribution process: C19 deaths over the summer have been well in excess of what would be expected from C19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions. It’s also evident that deaths are being reallocated to C19 from other natural causes, as this chart from The Ethical Skeptic shows (compare the bright line for 2020 to the (very) dim but tightly clustered baselines from prior years):
Second, most of the charts for Europe (not Sweden) show a late summer escalation in cases, though cases in Spain and Germany appear to have crested already. If an uptrend in deaths is to follow, it should become noticeable soon. Thus far, the wave certainly looks less threatening.
Finally, it’s noteworthy that Sweden’s early experience, which was plagued by mismanagement of the virus’ threat to the nursing home population, later transitioned to a dramatic fading of cases and deaths. There has been no late summer wave in Sweden as we’ve seen elsewhere. This despite Sweden’s far less stringent non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs). Sweden’s deaths per million of population are now less than in the US, the UK, Italy, Spain, and Belgium, and most of those differences are growing.
All of the other countries discussed above have had far more stringent lockdown policies than Sweden, and at far greater economic cost. The following charts show some cross-country comparisons of an Oxford University index of NPI stringency over time. It combines a number of different dimensions of NPIs, such as mask mandates, restrictions on public gatherings, and school closures. The first chart below shows the U.S. and the UK contrasted with Sweden. The other countries discussed above are shown in separate charts that follow.
In the U.S., there has been tremendous variation across states in terms of stringency due to the federalist approach required by the U.S. Constitution, but overall, the Oxford measure for the U.S. has been broadly similar to the UK over time, with the largest departures from one another at the start of the pandemic.
The stringency of NPIs over the full pandemic depends on their day-by-day strength as well as their duration at various levels. One could measure stringency indices and deaths at various points in time and produce all kinds of conflicting results as to the efficacy of NPIs. On the whole, however, these charts suggest that stringent NPIs hold no particular advantage except perhaps as a way to temporarily avoid overwhelming the health care system. Even the original “flatten the curve” argument acknowledged that the virus could not be avoided indefinitely at a reasonable cost via NPIs, especially in an otherwise free society.
Note that most of these countries eased their NPIs after the initial wave in the spring, but several remained far more stringent than Sweden’s policies. That did not prevent the second wave of cases, though again, those were far less deadly.
As Jacob Sullum writes, and what is increasingly clear to honest observers: lockdowns tend to be ineffective and even destructive over lengthy periods.
A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that four different “stylized facts” about the growth in C19 deaths are consistent across countries and states having different policy responses to the virus. The authors say:
“… failing to account for these four stylized facts may result in overstating the importance of policy mandated [non-pharmaceutical interventions] for shaping the progression of this deadly pandemic.“
Here’s Bill Blain’s discussion of the inefficacy of lockdowns. And here is Donald Luskin’s summary of his firm’s research that appeared in the WSJ, which likewise casts extreme doubt on the wisdom of stringent NPIs.
The virus is far from gone, but this summer’s wave has been much more docile in both Europe and the U.S. There are reasons to think that subsequent waves will be dampened in many areas via the cumulative immunity gained from exposure thus far, not to mention improvements in treatment and knowledge regarding prophylaxis such as Vitamin D supplements. Government authorities and their public health advisors should dispense with the pretense that stringent NPIs can mitigate the impact of the virus at a reasonable cost. These measures are constitutionally flawed, impinge on basic freedoms, and look increasingly like government failure. Risk mitigation should be practiced by those who are either vulnerable or fearful, but for most people, particularly children and people of working age, those risks no longer appear to be much worse than a bad year for influenza.