There are some hints of good news on the spread of the coronavirus in a few of the “hot spots“ that developed this fall. This could be very good news, but it’s a bit too early to draw definitive conclusions.
The number of new cases plateaued in Europe a few weeks ago. Of course, Europe’s average latitude is higher than in most of the U.S., and the seasonal spread began there a little earlier. It makes sense that it might ebb there a bit sooner than in the U.S. as well.
In the U.S., cases shot up in the upper Midwest four to six weeks ago, depending on the state. Now, however, new cases have turned down in Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin (first chart below), and they appear to have plateaued in Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, and Missouri (second chart below, but ending a few days earlier). These are the hottest of the recent hot states.
These plateaus and declines were preceded by a decline in the growth rates of new cases around 10 days ago, shown below.
The timing of these patterns roughly correspond to the timing of the spread in other regions earlier in the year. It’s been suggested that after seroprevalence reaches levels of around 15% – 25% that individuals with new antibodies, together with individuals having an existing pre-immunity from other coronaviruses, is enough to bring the virus reproduction rate (R) to a value of one or less. That means a breach of the effective herd immunity threshold. It’s possible that many of these states are reaching those levels. Of course, this is very uncertain, but the patterns are certainly encouraging.
Deaths lag behind new infections, and it generally takes several weeks before actual deaths by date-of-death are known with any precision. However, we might expect deaths to turn down within two to three weeks.
Deaths by date-of-death are strongly associated with emergency room patients from three weeks prior who presented symptoms of COVID-like illness (CLI) or influenza-like illness ((ILI). The following chart shows CLI and ILI separately for the entire U.S. (ILI is the lowest dashed line), but the last few observations of both series, after a peak on November 15th, suggest a downturn in CLI + ILI. If the relationship holds up, actual U.S. deaths by date-of-death should peak around December 7th, though we won’t know precisely until early in the new year.
As a side note, it continues to look like the flu season will be exceptionally mild this year. See the next chart. That’s tremendous because it should take some of the normal seasonable pressure off health care resources.
So Happy Thanksgiving!
Note: I saved all those charts over the last few days but lost track of the individual sources on Twitter. I’m too lazy and busy to go back and search through Twitter posts, so instead I’ll just list a few of my frequent sources here with links to recent posts, which are not necessarily apropos of the above: Don Wolt, Justin Hart, AlexL, The Ethical Skeptic, Aaron Ginn, and HOLD2.
The other day a friend told me “your data points always seem to miss the people points.” He imagines a failure on my part to appreciate the human cost of the coronavirus. Evidently, he feels that I treat data on cases, hospitalizations, and deaths as mere accounting issues, all while emphasizing the negative aspects of government interventions.
This fellow reads my posts very selectively, hampered in part by his own mood affiliation. Indeed, he seems to lack an appreciation for the nuance and zeitgeist of my body of blogging on the topic… my oeuvre! This despite his past comments on the very things he claims I haven’t mentioned. His responses usually rely on anecdotes relayed to him by nurses or doctors he knows. Anecdotes can be important, of course. But I know nurses and doctors too, and they are not of the same mind as his nurses and doctors. Anecdotes! We’re talking about the determination of optimal policy here, and you know what Dr. Fauci says about relying on anecdotes!
Incremental Costs and Benefits
My friend must first understand that my views are based on an economic argument, one emphasizing the benefits and costs of particular actions, including human costs. COVID is dangerous, but primarily to the elderly, and no approach to managing the virus is free. Here are two rather disparate choices:
Mandated minimization of economic and social interactions throughout society over some time interval in the hope of reducing the spread of the virus;
Laissez faire for the general population while minimizing dangers to high-risk individuals, subject to free choice for mentally competent, high-risk individuals.
To be clear, #2 entails all voluntary actions taken by individuals to mitigate risks. Therefore, #1 implies a set of incremental binding restrictions on behavior beyond those voluntary actions. However, I also include in #1 the behavioral effects of scare mongering by public officials, who regularly issue pronouncements having no empirical basis.
The first option above entails so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) by government. These are the elements of so-called lockdowns, such as quarantines and other restrictions on mobility, business and consumer activity, social activities, health care activities, school closures, and mask mandates. NPIs carry costs that are increasing in the severity of constraints they impose on society.
And before I proceed, remember this: tallying all fatal COVID cases is really irrelevant to the policy exercise. Nothing we do, or could have done, would save all those lives. We should compare what lives can be saved from COVID via lockdowns, if any, with the cost of those lockdowns in terms of human life and human misery, including economic costs.
NPIs involve a loss of economic output that can never be recovered… it is gone forever, and a loss is likely to continue for some time to come. That sounds so very anodyne, despite the tremendous magnitude of the loss involved. But let’s stay with it for just a second. The loss of U.S. output in 2020 due to COVID has been estimated at $2.5 trillion. As Don Boudreaux and Tyler Cowen have noted, what we normally spend on safety and precautionary measures (willingness-to-pay), together with the probabilities of losses, implies that we value our lives at less than $4 million on average. Let’s say the COVID death toll reaches 300,000 by year-end (that’s incremental in this case— but it might be a bit high). That equates to a total loss of $1.2 trillion in life-value if we ignore distinctions in life-years lost. Now ask this: if our $2.5 trillion output loss could have saved every one of those 300,000 lives, would it have been worth it? Not even close, and the truth is that the sacrifice will not have saved even a small fraction of those lives. I grant, however, that the economic losses are partly attributable to voluntary decisions, but goaded to a great extent by the alarmist commentary of public health officials.
The full depth of losses is far worse than the dollars and cents comparison above might sound. Output losses are always matched by (and, in value, are exactly the same as) income losses. That involves lost jobs, lost hours, failed businesses, and destroyed careers. Ah, now we’re getting a bit more “human”, aren’t we! It’s nothing short of callous to discount these costs. Unfortunately, the burden falls disproportionately on low-income workers. Our elites can mostly stay home and do their jobs remotely, and earn handsome incomes. The working poor spend their time in line at food banks.
Yes, government checks can help those with a loss of income compete with elites for the available supply of goods, but of course that doesn’t replace the lost supply of goods! Government aid of this kind is a palliative measure; it doesn’t offset the real losses during a suspension of economic activity.
Decimated Public Health
The strain of the losses has been massive in the U.S. and nearly everywhere in the world. People are struggling financially, making do with less on the table, depleting their savings, and seeking forbearance on debts. The emotional strains are no less real. Anxiety is rampant, drug overdoses have increased, calls to suicide hotlines have exploded, and the permanence of the economic losses may add to suicide rates for some time to come. Dr. Robert Redfield of the CDC says more teenagers will commit suicide this year than will die from COVID (also see here). There’s also been a terrifying escalation in domestic abuse during the pandemic, including domestic homicide. The despair caused by economic losses is all too real and should be viewed as a multiplier on the total cost of severe NPIs.
More on human costs: a health care disaster has befallen locked-down populations, including avoidance of care on account of panic fomented by so-called public health experts, the media, and government. Some of the consequences are listed here. But to name just a few, we have huge numbers of delayed cancer diagnoses, which sharply decrease survival time; mass avoidance of emergency room visits, including undiagnosed heart attacks and strokes; and unacceptable delays in cardiac treatments. Moreover, lockdowns worldwide have severely damaged efforts to deal with scourges like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.
The CDC reports that excess mortality among 25-44 year-olds this year was up more than 26%, and the vast bulk of these were non-COVID deaths. A Lancet study indicates that a measles outbreak is likely in 2021 due to skipped vaccinations caused by lockdowns. The WHO estimates that 130,000,000 people are starving worldwide due to lockdowns. That is roughly the population of the U.S. east coast. Again, the callousness with which people willfully ignore these repercussions is stunning, selfish and inhumane, or just stupid.
Can we quantify all this? Yes we can, as a matter of fact. I’ve offered estimates in the past, and I already mentioned that excess deaths, COVID and non-COVID, are reported on the CDC’s web site. The Ethical Skeptic (TES) does a good job of summarizing these statistics, though the last full set of estimates was from October 31. Here is the graphic from the TES Twitter feed:
Note particularly the huge number of excess deaths attributable to SAAAD (Suicide, Addiction Abandonment, Abuse and Despair): over 50,000! The estimate of life-years lost due to non-COVID excess deaths is almost double that of COVID deaths because of the difference in the age distributions of those deaths.
Here are a few supporting charts on selected categories of excess deaths, though they are a week behind the counts from above. The first is all non-COVID, natural-cause excess deaths (the vertical gap between the two lines), followed by excess deaths from Alzheimer’s and dementia, other respiratory diseases, and malignant neoplasms (cancer):
The clearest visual gap in these charts is the excess Alzheimer’s and dementia deaths. Note the increase corresponding to the start of the pandemic, when these patients were suddenly shut off from loved ones and the company of other patients. I also believe some of these deaths were (and are) due to overwhelmed staff at care homes struck by COVID, but even discounting this category of excess deaths leaves us with a huge number of non-COVD deaths that could have been avoided without lockdowns. This represents a human cost over and above those tied to the economic losses discussed earlier.
Degraded Education and Health
Lockdowns have also been destructive to the education of children. The United Nations has estimated that 24 million children may drop out of school permanently as a result of lockdowns and school closures. This a burden that falls disproportionately on impoverished children. This article in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network notes the destructive impact of primary school closures on educational attainment. Its conclusions should make advocates of school closures reconsider their position, but it won’t:
“… missed instruction during 2020 could be associated with an estimated 5.53 million years of life lost. This loss in life expectancy was likely to be greater than would have been observed if leaving primary schools open had led to an expansion of the first wave of the pandemic.“
Lockdowns just don’t work. There was never any scientific evidence that they did. For one thing, they are difficult to enforce and compliance is not a given. Of course, Sweden offers a prime example that draconian lockdowns are unnecessary, and deaths remain low there. This Lancet study, published in July, found no association between lockdowns and country mortality, though early border closures were associated with lower COVID caseloads. A French research paper concludes that public decisions had no impact on COVID mortality across 188 countries, U.S. states, and Chinese states. A paper by a group of Irish physicians and scientists stated the following:
“Lockdown has not previously been employed as a strategy in pandemic management, in fact it was ruled out in 2019 WHO and Irish pandemic guidelines, and as expected, it has proven a poor mitigator of morbidity and mortality.”
One of the chief arguments in favor of lockdowns is the fear that asymptomatic individuals circulating in the community (and there are many) would spread the virus. However, there is no evidence that they do. In part, that’s because the window during which an individual with the virus is infectious is narrow, but tests may detect tiny fragments of the virus over a much longer span of time. And there is even some evidence that lockdown measures may increase the spread of the virus!
Lockdown decisions are invariably arbitrary in their impact as well. The crackdown on gyms is one noteworthy example, but gyms are safe. Restaurants don’t turn up in many contact traces either, and yet restaurants have been repeatedly implicated as danger zones. And think of the many small retailers shut down by government, while giant competitors like Wal-Mart continue to operate with little restriction. This is manifest corporatism!
Then there is the matter of mask mandates. As readers of this blog know, I think masks probably help reduce transmission from droplets issued by a carrier, that is, at close range. However, this recent Danish study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that cloth masks are ineffective in protecting the wearer. They do not stop aerosols, which seem to be the primary source of transmission. They might reduce viral loads, at least if worn properly and either cleaned often or replaced. Those are big “ifs”.
To the extent that masks offer any protection, I’m happy to wear them within indoor public accommodations, at least for the time being. To the extent that people are “scared”, I’m happy to observe the courtesy of wearing a mask, but not outside in uncrowded conditions. To the extent that masks are required under private “house rules”, of course I comply. Public mask mandates outside of government buildings are over the line, however. The evidence that those mandates work is too tenuous and our liberties are too precious too allow that kind of coercion. And private facilities should be subject to private rules only.
So my poor friend is quite correct that COVID is especially deadly to certain cohorts and challenging for the health care community. But he must come to grips with a few realities:
The virus won’t be defeated with NPIs; they don’t work!
NPIs inflict massive harm to human well-being.
Lockdowns or NPIs are little or no gain, high-pain propositions.
“The lockdowns and other restrictions on economic and social activities are astronomically costly – in a direct economic sense, in an emotional and spiritual sense, and in a ‘what-the-hell-do-these-arbitrary-diktats-portend-for-our-freedom?’ sense.”
This doctor has a message for the those denizens of social media with an honest wish to dispense helpful public health advice:
“Americans have admitted that they will meet for Thanksgiving. Scolding and shaming them for wanting this is unlikely to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, though it may earn you likes and retweets. Starting with compassion, and thinking of ways they can meet, but as safely as possible, is the task of real public health. Now is the time to save public health from social media.”
The fall wave of the coronavirus has brought with it an increase in COVID hospitalizations. It’s a serious situation for the infected and for those who care for them. But while hospital utilization is rising and is reaching tight conditions in some areas, claims that it is already a widespread national problem are without merit.
National and State Hospital Utilization
The table below shows national and state statistics comparing beds used during November 1-9 to the three-year average from 2017 – 19, from Justin Hart. There are some real flaws in the comparison: one is that full-year averages are not readily comparable to particular times of the year, with or without COVID. Nevertheless, the comparison does serve to show that current overall bed usage is not “crazy high” in most states, as it were. The increase in utilization shown in the table is highest in IA, MT, NV, PA, VT, and WI, and there are a few other states with sizable increases.
Another limitation is that the utilization rates in the far right column do not appear to be calculated on the basis of “staffed” beds, but total beds. The U.S. bed utilization rate would be 74% in terms of staffed beds.
Average historical hospital occupancy rates from Statista look like this:
Again, these don’t seem to be calculated on the basis of staffed beds, but current occupancies are probably higher now based on either staffed beds or total beds.
As of November 11th, a table available at HealthData.gov indicates that staffed bed utilization in the U.S. is at nearly 74%, with ICU utilization also at 74%. As the table above shows, states vary tremendously in their hospital bed utilization, a point to which I’ll return below.
COVID patients were using just over 9% of of all staffed beds and just over 19% of ICU beds as of November 11th. One caveat on the reported COVID shares you’ll see for dates going forward: the CDC changed its guidelines on counting COVID hospitalizations as of November 12th. It is now a COVID patient’s entire hospital stay, rather than only when a patient is in isolation with COVID. That might be a better metric if we can trust the accuracy of COVID tests (and I don’t), but either way, the change will cause a jump in the COVID share of occupied beds.
Interpreting Hospital Utilization
Many issues impinge on the interpretation of hospital utilization rates:
First, cases and utilization rates are increasing, which is worrisome, but the question is whether they have already reached crisis levels or will very soon. The data doesn’t suggest that is the case in the aggregate, but there certainly there are hospitals bumping up against capacity constraints in some parts of the country.
Second, occupancies are increasing due to COVID patients as well as patients suffering from lockdown-related problems such as self-harm, psychiatric problems, drug abuse, and conditions worsened by earlier deferrals of care. We can expect more of that in coming weeks.
Third, lockdowns create other hospital capacity issues related to staffing. Health care workers with school-aged children face the daunting task of caring for their kids and maintaining hours on jobs for which they are critically needed.
Fourth, there are capacity issues related to PPE and medical equipment that are not addressed by the statistics above. Different uses must compete for these resources within any hospital, so the share of COVID admissions has a strong bearing on how the care of other kinds of patients must be managed.
Fifth, some of the alarm is purely case-driven: all admissions are tested for COVID, and non-COVID admissions often become COVID admissions after false-positive PCR tests, or simply due to the presence of mild COVID with a more serious condition or injury. However, severe COVID cases have an outsized impact on utilization of staff because their care is relatively labor-intensive.
Sixth, there are reports that the average length of COVID patient stays has decreased markedly since the spring (it is hard to find nationwide figures), but it is also increasingly difficult to find facilities for post-acute care required for some patients on discharge. Nevertheless, if improved treatment reduces average length of stay, it helps hospitals deal with the surge.
Finally, thus far, the influenza season has been remarkably light, as the following chart from the CDC shows. It is still early in the season, but the near-complete absence of flu patients is helping hospitals manage their resources.
St. Louis Hotspot
The St. Louis metro area has been proclaimed a COVID “hotspot” by the local media and government officials, which certainly doesn’t make St. Louis unique in terms of conditions or alarmism. I’m curious about the data there, however, since it’s my hometown. Here is hospital occupancy on the Missouri side of the St. Louis region:
It seems this chart is based on total beds, not staffed beds, However, one of the interesting aspects of this chart is the variation in capacity over time, with several significant jumps in the series. This has to do with data coverage and some variation in daily reporting. Almost all of these data dashboards are relatively new, so their coverage has been increasing, but generally in fits and starts. Reporting is spotty on a day-to-day basis, so there are jagged patterns. And of course, capacity can vary from day-to-day and week-to-week — there is some flexibility in the number of beds that can be made available.
The share of St. Louis area beds in use was 61% as of November 11th (preliminary). COVID patients accounted for 12% of hospital beds. ICU utilization in the St. Louis region was a preliminary 67% as of Nov. 11, with COVID patients using 29% of ICU capacity (which is quite high). Again, these figures probably aren’t calculated on the basis of “staffed” beds, so actual hospital-bed and ICU-bed utilization rates could be several percentage points higher. More importantly, it does not appear that utilization in the St. Louis area has trended up over the past month.
At the moment, the St. Louis region appears to have more spare hospital capacity than the nation, but COVID patients are using a larger share of all beds and ICU beds in St. Louis than nationwide. So this is a mixed bag. And again, capacity is not spread evenly across hospitals, and it’s clear that hospitals are under pressure to manage capacity more actively. In fact, hospitals only have so many options as the share of COVID admissions increases: divert or discharge COVID and non-COVID patients, defer elective procedures, discharge COVID and non-COVID patients earlier, allow beds to be more thinly staffed and/or add temporary beds wherever possible.
Anyone with severe symptoms of COVID-19 probably should be hospitalized. The beds must be available, or else at-home care will become more commonplace, as it was for non-COVID maladies earlier in the pandemic. A continued escalation in severe COVID cases would require more drastic steps to make hospital resources available. That said, we do not yet have a widespread capacity crisis, although that’s small consolation to areas now under stress. And a few of the states with the highest utilization rates now have been rather stable in terms of hospitalizations — they already had high average utilization rates, which is potentially dangerous.
COVID is a seasonal disease, and it’s no surprise that it’s raging now in areas that did not experience large outbreaks in the spring and summer. And those areas that had earlier outbreaks have not had a serious surge this fall, at least not yet. My expectation and hope is that the midwestern and northern states now seeing high case counts will soon reach a level of prevalence at which new infections will begin to subside. And we’re likely to see a far lower infection fatality rate than experienced in the Northeast last spring.
Writing about COVID as a respite from election madness is very cold comfort, but here goes….
COVID deaths in the U.S. still haven’t shown the kind of upward trend this fall that many had feared. It could happen, but it hasn’t yet. In the chart above, new cases are shown in brown (along with the rolling seven-day average), while deaths (on the right axis) are shown in blue. It’s been over six weeks since new case counts began to rise, but deaths have risen for about two weeks, and it’s been gradual relative to the first two waves. Either the average lag between diagnosis and death is much longer than earlier in the year, or the current “casedemic” is much less deadly, or perhaps both. It could change. And granted, this is national data; states in the midwest have had the strongest trends in cases, especially the upper midwest, as well as stronger trends in hospitalizations and deaths. Most of those areas had milder experiences with the virus in the spring and summer.
What’s tricky about this is that both case reports and death reports in the chart above are significantly lagged. A COVID test might not take place until several days after infection (if at all), and sometimes not until hospitalization or death. Then the test result might not be known for several days. However, the greater availability of tests and faster turnaround time have almost certainly shortened that lag.
Deaths are reported with an even a greater delay, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to the media or some of the organizations that track these statistics, such as Johns Hopkins University and the COVID Tracking Project. Thus far, they only tell you what’s reported on a given day. This article from Rational Ground does a good job of explaining the issue and the distortion it causes in discerning trends.
Deaths by actual date-of-death
I’ve reported on the issue of lagged COVID deaths myself. The following graph from Justin Hart is a clear presentation of the reporting delays.
Reported deaths for the most recent week (10/24) are shown in dark blue, and those deaths were spread over a number of prior weeks. Actual deaths in a given week are represented by a “stack” of deaths reported later, in subsequent weeks. One word of caution: actual deaths in the most recent weeks are “provisional”, and more will be added in subsequent reporting weeks. Hence the steep drop off for the 10/17 and 10/24 reporting weeks.
Going back three or four weeks, it’s clear that actual deaths continued to decline into October. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell us much about the recent trend or whether actual deaths have started to rise given the increase in new cases. I have seen a new weekly update with the deaths by actual date of death, but it is not “stacked” by reporting week. However, it does show a slight increase in the week of 10/10, the first weekly increase since the end of June. So perhaps we’ll see an uptick more in-line with the earlier lags between diagnosis and death, but that’s far from certain.
Another important point is that the number of deaths each week, and each day, are not as high as reported by the media and the popular tracking sites. How often have you heard “more than 1,000 people a day are dying”. That’s high even for weekly averages of reported deaths. As of three weeks ago, actual daily deaths were running at about 560. That’s still very high, but based on seroprevalence estimates (the actual number of infections from the presence of antibodies), the infection fatality keeps dropping toward levels that are comparable to the flu at ages less than 65.
Where is the flu?
Speaking of the flu, this chart from the World Health Organization is revealing: the flu appears to have virtually disappeared in 2020:
It’s still very early in the northern flu season, but the case count was very light this summer in the Southern Hemisphere. There are several possible explanations. One favored by the “lockdown crowd” is that mitigation efforts, including masks and social distancing, have curtailed the flu bug. Not just curtailed … quashed! If that’s true, it’s more than a little odd because the same measures have been so unsuccessful in curtailing COVID, which is transmitted the same way! Also, these measures vary widely around the globe, which weakens the explanation.
There are other, more likely explanations: perhaps the flu is being undercounted because COVID is being overcounted. False positive COVID tests might override the reporting of a few flu cases, but not all diagnoses are made via testing. Other respiratory diseases can be mistaken for the flu and vice versus, and they are now more likely to be diagnosed as COVID absent a test — and as the joke goes, the flu is now illegal! And another partial explanation: it is rare to be infected with two viruses at once. Thus, COVID is said to be “crowding out” the flu.
Waiting for data
There is other good news about transmission, treatment, and immunity, but I’ll devote another post to that, and I’ll wait for more data. For now, the “third wave” appears to be geographically distinct from the first two, as was the second wave from the first. This suggests a sort of herd immunity in areas that were hit more severely in earlier waves. But the best news is that COVID deaths, thus far this fall, are not showing much if any upward movement, and estimates of infection fatality rates continue to fall.
There are several gigantic problems with foggy Joe’s idea: first, it’s not within a president’s power to impose a nationwide lockdown, as the chorus of experts reminded us last spring when Trump mentioned it. Second, the evidence suggests that lockdowns don’t work to eliminate the virus; they delay its spread at best. Third, as we’ve witnessed, lockdowns themselves have enormous public health consequences, leading to a variety of severe maladies, despondency, and excess non-COVID deaths. That’s simply unacceptable. Finally, the economic damage imposed by lockdowns is horrific and often permanent. We’re talking about destroying the independent livelihoods of people. Permanently! Lockdowns are especially hard on those at the bottom of the economic ladder, who are disproportionately minorities. That’s so obvious, and yet very difficult for elites to gather in.
Measures like those Biden contemplates are major assaults on our liberty. And the thing is, if any of it comes to pass, the restrictions might never go away. We’ll be asked to do this every flu season, or perhaps permanently to protect each other from “germs”. This is an authoritarian move, one that we should all resist, even if you’re freaked out by the virus. The best way to resist right now is to vote for Donald Trump.
And please, don’t give me any bullshit about our “responsibility” to lock down, and how mandatory masks are necessary to protect the vulnerable. Is poverty now a “responsibility”? The most highly vulnerable can be protected without masks, and maybe better. Beyond that, people must be free to determine their own level of risk tolerance, just as they have for millennia with respect to a broad spectrum of serious risks, pathogens or otherwise. That’s a dimension of freedom about which no one should be so cavalier.
As a “practical” libertarian, my primary test for any candidate for public office is whether he or she supports less government dominance over private decisions than the status quo. When it comes to Joe Biden and his pack of ventriloquists, the answer is a resounding NO! That should clinch it, right? Probably, but Donald Trump is more complicated….
I’ve always viewed Trump as a corporatist at heart, one who, as a private businessman, didn’t give a thought to free market integrity when he saw rent-seeking opportunities. Now, as a public servant, his laudable desire to “get things done” can also manifest to the advantage of cronyists, which he probably thinks is no big deal. Unfortunately, that is often the way of government, as the Biden family knows all too well. On balance, however, Trump generally stands against big government, as some of the points below will demonstrate.
Trump’s spoken “stream of consciousness” can be maddening. He tends to be inarticulate in discussing policy issues, but at times I enjoy hearing him wonder aloud about policy; at other times, it sounds like an exercise in self-rationalization. He seldom prevaricates when his mind is made up, however.
Not that Biden is such a great orator. He needs cheat sheets, and his cadence and pitch often sound like a weak, repeating loop. In fairness, however, he manages to break it up a bit with an occasional “C’mon, man!”, or “Here’s the deal.”
I have mixed feelings about Trump’s bumptiousness. For example, his verbal treatment of leftists is usually well-deserved and entertaining. Then there are his jokes and sarcasm, for which one apparently must have an ear. He can amuse me, but then he can grate on me. There are times when he’s far too defensive. He tweets just a bit too much. But he talks like a tough, New York working man, which is basically in his DNA. He keeps an insane schedule, and I believe this is true: nobody works harder.
With that mixed bag, I’ll now get on to policy:
Deregulation: Trump has sought to reduce federal regulation and has succeeded to an impressive extent, eliminating about five old regulations for every new federal rule-making. This ranges from rolling back the EPA’s authority to regulate certain “waters” under the Clean Water Act, to liberalized future mileage standards on car manufacturers, to ending destructive efforts to enforce so-called net neutrality. By minimizing opportunities for over-reach by federal regulators, resources can be conserved and managed more efficiently, paving the way for greater productivity and lower costs.
And now, look! Trump has signed a new executive order making federal workers employees-at-will! Yes, let’s “deconstruct the administrative state”. And another new executive order prohibits critical race theory training both in the federal bureaucracy and by federal contractors. End the ridiculous struggle sessions!
Judicial Appointments: Bravo! Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and over 200 federal judges have been placed on the bench by Trump in a single term. I like constitutional originalism and I believe a “living constitution” is a corrupt judicial philosophy. The founding document is as relevant today as it was at its original drafting and at the time of every amendment. I think Trump understands this.
Corporate Taxes: Trump’s reductions in corporate tax rates have promoted economic growth and higher labor income. In 2017, I noted that labor shares the burden of the corporate income tax, so a reversal of those cuts would be counterproductive for labor and capital.
At the same time, the 2017 tax package was a mixed blessing for many so-called “pass-through” businesses (proprietors, partnerships, and S corporations). It wasn’t exactly a simplification, nor was it uniformly a tax cut.
Individual Income Taxes: Rates were reduced for many taxpayers, but not for all, and taxes were certainly not simplified in a meaningful way. The link in the last paragraph provides a few more details.
I am not a big fan of Trump’s proposed payroll tax cut. Such a temporary move will not be of any direct help to those who are unemployed, and it’s unlikely to stimulate much spending from those who are employed. Moreover, without significant reform, payroll tax cuts will directly accelerate the coming insolvency of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds.
Nonetheless, I believe permanent tax cuts are stimulative to the economy in ways that increased government spending is not: they improve incentives for effort, capital investment, and innovation, thus increasing the nation’s productive capacity. Trump seems to agree.
Upward Mobility: Here’s Joel Kotkin on the gains enjoyed by minorities under the Trump Administration. The credit goes to strong private economic growth, pre-pandemic, as opposed to government aid programs.
Foreign Policy: Peace in the Middle East is shaping up as a real possibility under the Abraham Accords. While the issue of coexisting, sovereign Palestinian and Zionist homelands remains unsettled, it now seems achievable. Progress like this has eluded diplomatic efforts for well over five decades, and Trump deserves a peace prize for getting this far with it.
Iran is a thorn, and the regime is a terrorist actor. I support a tough approach with respect to the ayatollahs, which a Trump has delivered. He’s also pushed for troop withdrawals in various parts of the world. He has moved U.S. troops out of Germany and into Poland, where they represent a greater deterrent to Russian expansionism. Trump has pushed our NATO allies to take responsibility for more of their own defense needs, all to the better. Trump has successfully managed North Korean intransigence, though it is an ongoing problem. We are at odds with the leadership in mainland China, but the regime is adversarial, expansionist, and genocidal, so I believe it’s best to take a tough approach with them. At the UN, some of our international “partners” have successfully manipulated the organization in ways that make continued participation by the U.S. of questionable value. Like me, Trump is no fan of UN governance as it is currently practiced.
Gun Rights: Trump is far more likely to stand for Second Amendment rights than Joe Biden. Especially now, given the riots in many cities and calls to “defund police”, it is vitally important that people have a means of self-defense. See this excellent piece by David E. Bernstein on that point.
National Defense: a pure public good; I’m sympathetic to the argument that much of our “defense capital” has deteriorated. Therefore, Trump’s effort to rebuild was overdue. The improved deterrent value of these assets reduces the chance they will ever have to be used against adversaries. Of course, this investment makes budget balance a much more difficult proposition, but a strong national defense is a priority, as long as we avoid the role of the world’s policeman.
Energy Policy: The Trump Administration has made efforts to encourage U.S. energy independence with a series of deregulatory moves. This has succeeded to the extent the U.S. is now a net energy exporter. At the same time, Trump has sought to eliminate subsidies for wasteful renewable energy projects. Unfortunately, ethanol is still favored by energy policy, which might reflect Trump’s desire to assuage the farm lobby.
COVID-19 Response: As I’ve written several times, in the midst of a distracting and fraudulent impeachment attempt, Trump took swift action to halt inbound flights from China. He marshaled resources to obtain PPE, equipment, and extra hospital space in hot spots, and he kick-started the rapid development of vaccines. He followed the advice of his sometimes fickle medical experts early in the pandemic, which was not always a good thing. In general, his policy stance honored federalist principles by allowing lower levels of government to address local pandemic conditions on appropriate terms. If the pandemic has you in economic straits, you probably have your governor or local officials to thank. As for the most recent efforts to pass federal COVID relief, Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats have insisted on loading up the legislation with non-COVID spending provisions. They have otherwise refused to negotiate pre-election, as if to blame the delay on Trump.
Immigration: My libertarian leanings often put me at odds with nationalists, but I do believe in national sovereignty and the obligation of the federal government to control our borders. Trump is obviously on board with that. My qualms with the border wall are its cost and the availability of cheaper alternatives leveraging technological surveillance. I might differ with Trump in my belief in liberalizing legal immigration. I more strongly differ with his opposition to granting permanent legal residency to so-called Dreamers, individuals who arrived in the U.S. as minors with parents who entered illegally. However, Trump did offer a legal path to citizenship for Dreamers in exchange for funding of the border wall, a deal refused by congressional Democrats.
Health Care: No more penalty (tax?) to enforce the individual mandate, and the mandate itself is likely to be struck down by the Supreme Court as beyond legislative intent. Trump also oversaw a liberalization of insurance offerings and competition by authorizing short-term coverage of up to a year and enabling small businesses to pool their employees with others in order to obtain better rates, among other reforms. Trump seems to have deferred work on a full-fledged plan to replace the Affordable Care Act because there’s been little chance of an acceptable deal with congressional Democrats. That’s unfortunate, but I count it as a concession to political reality.
Foreign Trade: I’m generally a free-trader, so I’m not wholeheartedly behind Trump’s approach to trade. However, our trade deals of the past have hardly constituted “free trade” in action, so tough negotiation has its place. It’s also true that foreign governments regularly apply tariffs and subsidize their home industries to place them at a competitive advantage vis-a-vis the U.S. As the COVID pandemic has shown, there are valid national security arguments to be made for protecting domestic industries. But make no mistake: ultimately consumers pay the price of tariffs and quotas on foreign goods. I cut Trump some slack here, but this is an area about which I have concerns.
Executive Action: Barack Obama boasted that he had a pen and a phone, his euphemism for exercising authority over the executive branch within the scope of existing law. Trump is taking full advantage of his authority when he deems it necessary. It’s unfortunate that legislation must be so general as to allow significant leeway for executive-branch interpretation and rule-making. But there are times when the proper boundaries for these executive actions are debatable.
Presidents have increasingly pressed their authority to extremes over the years, and sometimes Trump seems eager to push the limits. Part of this is born out of his frustration with the legislative process, but I’m uncomfortable with the notion of unchecked executive authority.
Of course I’ll vote for Trump! I had greater misgivings about voting for him in 2016, when I couldn’t be sure what we’d get once he took office. After all, his politics had been all over the map over preceding decades. But in many ways I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I’m much more confident now that he is our best presidential bet for peace, prosperity, and liberty.
We’ve known for some times that COVID-19 (C19) follows seasonal patterns typical of the flu, though without the flu’s frequent antigenic drift. Now that we’re moving well into autumn, we’ve seen a surge in new C19 case counts in Europe and in a number of U.S. states, especially along the northern tier of the country.
The new case surge began in early to mid-September, depending on the state, and it’s been coincident with another surge in tests. From late July through early October, we had a near doubling in the number of tests per positive in the U.S. An increase in tests also accompanied the previous surge during the summer, which claimed far fewer lives than the initial wave in the early spring. In the summer, infections were much more prevalent among younger people than in the spring. Vitamin D levels were almost certainly higher during the summer months, our ability to treat the virus had also improved, and immunities imparted by prior infections left fewer susceptible individuals in the population. We have many of those advantages now, but D levels will fade as the fall progresses.
As for the new surge in cases, another qualification is that false positives are still a major testing problem; they inflate both case counts and C19-attributed deaths. In the absence of any improvement in test specificity, of which there is no evidence, the exaggeration caused by false positives grows larger as testing increases and positivity rates fall. So take all the numbers with that as a caveat.
How deadly will the virus be this fall? So far in Europe, the trends look very promising. Kyle Lamb provided the following charts from WHO on Twitter yesterday. (We should all be grateful that Twitter hasn’t censored Kyle yet, because he’s been a force in exposing alarmism in the mainstream media and among the public health establishment.) Take a look at these charts, and note particularly the lag between the first wave of infections and deaths, as well as the low counts of deaths now:
If the lag between diagnosis and death is similar now to the spring, Europe should have seen a strong upward trend in deaths by now, yet it’s hardly discernible in most of those countries. The fatality rates are low as well:
As Lamb notes, the IFRs in the last column look about like the flu, though again, the reporting of deaths and their causes are often subject to lags.
What about the U.S.? Nationwide, C19 cases and attributed death reports declined after July. See the chart below. More recently, reported deaths have stabilized at under 700 per day. Note again the relatively short lags between turns in cases and deaths in both the spring and summer waves.
Clearly, there has been no acceleration in C19 deaths corresponding to the recent trend in new cases. Northeastern states that had elevated death rates in the spring saw no resurgence in the summer; southern states that experienced a surge in the summer have now enjoyed taperings of both cases and deaths. But with each season, the virus seems to roll to regions that have been relatively unscathed to that point. Now, cases are surging in the upper Midwest and upper mountain states, though some of these states are lightly populated and their data are thin.
A few state charts are shown below, but trends in deaths are very difficult to tease out in some cases. First, here are new cases and reported deaths in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. There is a clear uptrend in cases in these states along with a very slight rise in deaths, but reported deaths are very low.
Next are Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. A slight uptrend in cases began as early as August. Idaho and Montana have had few deaths, so they are not plotted in the second chart. The Dakotas have had days with higher reported deaths, and while the data are thin and volatile, the visual impression is definitely of an uptrend in deaths.
The following states are somewhat more central in latitude: Colorado, Illinois, and Ohio. There is a slight upward trend in new cases, but not deaths. Illinois is experiencing its own second wave in cases.
Out of curiosity, I also plotted Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, all of which suffered in the first wave during the spring. They are now experiencing uptrends in cases, especially Massachusetts, but deaths have been restrained thus far.
The upshot is that states having little previous exposure to the virus are seeing an uptrend in deaths this fall. The same does not seem to be happening in states with significant prior exposure, at least not yet.
There are major questions about the reasons for the lingering death counts in the U.S.. But consider the following: first, the infection fatality rate (IFR) keeps falling, despite the stubborn level of daily reported deaths. Second, deaths reported have increasingly been pulled forward from deaths that actually occurred in the more distant past. This sort of “laundering” lends the appearance of greater persistence in deaths than is real. Third, again, false positives exaggerate not just cases, but also C19 deaths. Hospitals test everyone admitted, and patients who test positive for C19 are reimbursed at higher rates under the CARES Act; Medicare reimburses at a higher rates for C19 patients as well.
We’re definitely seeing a seasonal upswing in C19 infections in the US., now going on five weeks. In Europe, the surge in cases began slightly earlier. However, in both Europe and the U.S., these new cases have not yet been associated with a meaningful surge in deaths. The exceptions in the U.S. are the low-density upper mountain states, which have had little prior exposure to the virus. The lag between cases and deaths in the spring and summer was just two to three weeks, and while it’s too early to draw conclusions, the absence of a surge in deaths thus far bodes well for the IFR going forward. If we’re so fortunate, we can thank a combination of factors: a younger set of infecteds, earlier detection, better treatment and therapeutics, lower viral loads, and a subset of individuals who have already gained immunity.
Acceptance of risk is a necessary part of a good life, and extreme efforts to avoid it are your own business. Government has no power to guarantee absolute safety, nor should we presume to have such a right. Ongoing COVID lockdowns are an implicit assertion of exactly that kind of government power, despite the impotence of those efforts, and they constitute a rejection of more fundamental rights.
Lockdowns have had destructive effects on health and economic well being while conferring little if any benefit in mitigating harm from the virus. The lockdowns were originally sold as a way to “flatten the curve”, that is, to avoid a spike in cases and an overburdened health care system. However, this arguably well-qualified rationale later expanded in scope to encompass the mitigation of smaller and much less deadly outbreaks among younger cohorts, and then to the very idea of extinguishing the virus altogether. It’s become painfully obvious that such measures are not capable of achieving those goals.
In the U.S., the ongoing lockdowns have been a cause célèbre largely on the interventionist Left, and they have been prolonged mainly by Democrats at various levels of government. In a way, this is not unlike many other policies championed by the Left, often ostensibly designed to help members of the underclasses: instead, those policies often destroy or wrongly obviate incentives and promote dependency on the state. In this case, the plunge into dependency is a reality the Left would very much like to ignore, or to blame on someone else. You know who.
The lockdowns have been largely unsuccessful in mitigating the spread of the virus. At the same time, they have been used as a pretext to deny constitutional rights such as the free practice of religion, assembly, and a broad range of unenumerated rights under the “penumbra” of the Bill of Rights and the Ninth Amendment. What’s more, the severity of the economic blow caused by lockdowns has been borne disproportionately by the working poor and the small businesses who employ so many of them.
Lockdowns are deadly. It’s not clear that they’ve saved any lives, but they have massively disrupted the operation of the health care system with major consequences for those with chronic and undiagnosed conditions. The lockdowns have also led to spikes in mental health issues, alcoholism, drug abuse, and deaths of despair. A recent study found that over 26% of the excess deaths during the pandemic were non-COVID deaths. Those deaths were avoidable or accelerated, whereas the lockdowns have failed to meaningfully curtail COVID deaths. Don’t tell me about reduced traffic fatalities: that reduction is relatively small relative to the increase in non-COVID excess deaths (see below).
The Ethical Skeptic (TES) on Twitter has been tracking a measure of lockdown deaths for some time now. The following graphic provides a breakdown of excess non-COVID deaths since the start of the pandemic. The total “pie” shows almost 320,000 excess deaths through September 26th (avoiding less complete counts in recent weeks), as reported by the CDC. COVID accounted for 202,000 of those deaths, based on state-level reporting. Of the remaining 117,000 excess deaths, TES uses CDC data to allocate roughly 85,000 to various causes, the largest (more than half) being “Suicide, Addiction, Abandonment, and Abuse”. Other large categories include Cardio/Diabetes, Stroke, premature Alzheimers/Dementia death, and Cancer Access. Nearly 32,000 excess deaths remain as a “backlog”, not yet reported with a cause by states.
Also of interest in the graphic are estimates of life-years lost. The vast bulk of COVID victims are elderly, of course, which means that any estimate of lost years per victim must be relatively low. On the other hand, most non-COVID, lockdown-related deaths are among younger victims, with correspondingly greater life-years lost. TES’s aggregate estimate is that lockdown-related excess deaths involve double the life-years lost of COVID deaths. Of course, that is an estimate, but even granting some latitude for error, the reality is horrifying!
John Tierney in City Journal cites several recent studies concluding that lockdowns have been largely ineffective in Europe and in the U.S. While Tierney doesn’t rule out the possibility that lockdowns have produced some benefits, they have carried excessive costs and risks to public health going forward, such as lingering issues for those having deferred important health care decisions as well as disruption in future economic prospects. Ultimately, lockdowns don’t accomplish anything:
“While the economic and social costs have been enormous, it’s not clear that the lockdowns have brought significant health benefits beyond what was achieved by people’s voluntary social distancing and other actions.”
Tierney also discusses the costs and benefits of lockdowns in terms of life years: quality-adjusted life-years (QALY), which is a widely-used measure for evaluating of the use of health care resources:
“By the QALY measure, the lockdowns must be the most costly—and cost-ineffective—medical intervention in history because most of the beneficiaries are so near the end of life. Covid-19 disproportionately affects people over 65, who have accounted for nearly 80 percent of the deaths in the United States. The vast majority suffered from other ailments, and more than 40 percent of the victims were living in nursing homes, where the median life expectancy after admission is just five months. In Britain, a study led by the Imperial College economist David Miles concluded that even if you gave the lockdown full credit for averting the most unrealistic worst-case scenario (the projection of 500,000 British deaths, more than ten times the current toll), it would still flunk even the most lenient QALY cost-benefit test.”
We can now count the World Health Organizationamong the detractors of lockdowns. According to WHO’s Dr. David Nabarro:
“Lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer…. Look what’s happened to smallholder farmers all over the world. … Look what’s happening to poverty levels. It seems that we may well have a doubling of world poverty by next year. We may well have at least a doubling of child malnutrition.”
In another condemnation of the public health consequences of lockdowns, number of distinguished epidemiologists have signed off on a statement known as The Great Barrington Declaration. The declaration advocates a focused approach of protecting the most vulnerable from the virus, while allowing those at low risk to proceed with their lives in whatever way they deem acceptable. Those at low risk of severe disease can acquire immunity, which ultimately inures to the benefit of the most vulnerable. With few, brief, and local exceptions, this is how we have always dealt with pandemics in the past. That’s real life!
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: allegations of the White House’s “poor leadership” and preparedness for COVID-19 (C19) are a matter of selective memory. At the link above, I “graded” Trump’s pandemic job performance through May. Among other things, I said:
“Many have criticized the Trump Administration for not being ‘ready’ for a pandemic. I assign no grade on that basis because absolutely no one was ready, at least not in the West, so there is no sound premise for judgement. I also view the very general charge that Trump did not provide “leadership” as code for either ‘I don’t like him’, or ‘he refused to impose more authoritarian measures’, like a full-scale nationwide lockdown. Such is the over-prescriptive instinct of the Left.”
The President of the United States does not have the constitutional authority to impose a national lockdown, though Trump himself seemed confused at times as to whether he had that power. However, on this basis at least, the ad nauseam denigration of his “leadership” is vapid. At this point, the course of the pandemic in the U.S. is less severe than in several other industrialized countries who didn’t even have Andrew Cuomo around to exacerbate the toll, and it’s still not as deadly in per capita terms as the Asian Flu of 1957-58.
Who exactly was “ready” for C19? Perhaps critics are thinking of South Korea, or parts of South Asia. Those countries might have been “ready” to the extent that they had significant prior exposure to SARS viruses. There was already some degree of immunological protection. Those countries also were exposed to an earlier genetic variant of C19 that was much less severe than the strain that hit most of the western world. These are hardly reasons to blame Trump for a lack of “readiness”.
A related charge I hear all the time is that Trump “ignored the advice of medical experts“, or that he “ignored the science“. Presumably, those “experts” include the darling of the Prescriptive Class, Dr. Anthony Fauci. On February 28, Dr Fauci said:
“Right now, at this moment, there’s no need to change anything you’re doing on a day by day basis.“
Likewise, Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, said the following on February 27:
“The risk to the American public is low. We have an aggressive containment strategy that really has worked up to this time, 15 cases in the United States. Until the last case that we just had in Sacramento we hadn’t had a new case in two weeks.”
Then there is the World Health Organization, whichdownplayed the virus in January and February, and giving a convincing impression that it servied as a mouthpiece for the CCP.
In fact, the American people were badly harmed by wrongheaded decisions made by the “experts” at the CDC in January and February, when the agency insisted that testing could not proceed until a test of their own design was ready. Then, the first version it approved was discovered to be flawed! This set the testing effort back by well over a month, a delay that proved critical. It’s no exaggeration to say this bureaucratic overreach denied the whole country, and Trump, the information needed to properly assess the spread of the virus.
But let’s think about actual policy once it became clear that the virus was getting to be a serious matter in parts of the U.S. Here’s another excerpt from my post in May:
“Trump cannot be accused of ignoring expert advice through the episode. He was obviously on-board with Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, Dr. Robert Redfield, and other health care advisors on the ‘15 Days to Slow the Spread‘ guidelines issued on March 16. His messaging wavered during those 15 days, expressing a desire to fully reopen the nation by Easter, which Vice President Michael Pence later described as “aspirational”. Before the end of March, however, Trump went along with a 30-day extension of the guidelines. Finally, by mid-April, the White House released guidelines for ‘Opening Up America Again‘, which was a collaboration between Trump’s health care experts and the economic team. Trump agreed that the timeline for reopening should be governed by ‘the data’.”
We should give Trump credit for shutting down flights into the U.S. from China, where the virus originated, late in January. That was an undeniably prescient move. Let’s also not forget that the original intent of the “15 Days” was to prevent hospitals and other medical resources from being overwhelmed. Today, the data show a strong seasonal tendency to the spread of the virus, but medical resources are not close to being overwhelmed, our ability to treat the virus has vastly improved, and its consequences are much less deadly than in the spring. That’s good progress, whatever the President’s detractors may say.
More than anything else, what Trump’s COVID critics fail to understand is that the executive leader of a republic is not possessed of monarchical powers. And in the U.S., the Constitution provides an additional layer of sovereignty for member states of the Union, a manifestation of the federalist principals without which the Union would not have been possible. The 15-day guidelines produced by the White House, and the guidelines for reopening, were consistent with this framework. The states have adapted their own policies to actual conditions and, if their leaders haven’t worn out their goodwill among voters, internal political realities. Those adaptations were often bad from my perspective, or even tyrannical, but sometimes good. That is exactly how our federalist system was designed to work.
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.
In advanced civilizations the period loosely called Alexandrian is usually associated with flexible morals, perfunctory religion, populist standards and cosmopolitan tastes, feminism, exotic cults, and the rapid turnover of high and low fads---in short, a falling away (which is all that decadence means) from the strictness of traditional rules, embodied in character and inforced from within. -- Jacques Barzun