Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, July 07, 2020
The political virus

The idea that politics are "left" or "right" originated in the seating order of the parliament during the French Revolution of 1789. The disadvantage of that descriptor is that if you aren't already familiar with the political positions of the left and the right, the term itself isn't of much help. Personally I would call myself a centrist, which is to say that when I write a political opinion on this blog I get shouted at by people from both sides. :)

There are a number of different other ways to describe the political left and right. But in the context that I want to talk about here, it helps to think of the right as being for the individual, and the left for the collective. I am not putting any value judgement here, both the interests of the individual and the collective need to be defended. Different countries at different times chose governments that were more on one side or more on the other, and many of them worked reasonably well, if they weren't too extreme. There is a matter of cultural preferences, with American politics for example being a bit more on the individualistic side, and European politics a bit more on the collective side. And that is perfectly fine.

As a hobby historian, it is interesting to me how the world changing around us affects human behavior, including economics and politics. And the corona virus pandemic certainly is a world changing event. The big strength of humans, as a species, is how good they are at adapting to their environment. And if you look at how the world has been doing over the first half of 2020 with an open mind, you can't help but notice that there appears to be a link between left/right politics and the success of "flattening the curve": Countries more on the left side of the political spectrum had a better success rate at containing the epidemic than countries on the right side of the political spectrum.

That isn't totally surprising. While the virus by itself is apolitical, a person that is more concerned for the welfare of the collective is going to infect a fewer number of other people than a person that is more concerned with his individual freedom. Wearing a face mask protects other people more from you than it protects you from other people. Even without government intervention and regulations, how willing somebody is to wear a face mask in public correlates with his politics. Furthermore, once a person is infected, the severity of his illness is correlated with the health care he receives, and the health care he received previously, as pre-existing conditions play a big role. It comes as no surprise that Germany, which introduced universal health care in 1871 is doing better than the USA, who is still discussing that option.

The question that is still open today is how the pandemic will change politics over time. Maybe after a vaccine is found, everything goes back to the way it was before. Or maybe some countries will experience a political pull towards the left, at least on subjects like the usefulness of universal health care. If right-wing governments send out relief cheques to every citizen, a previously extreme left idea like universal basic income suddenly doesn't look so outlandish anymore.

Flattening the curve is a measurement to deal with the rapid increase of cases and not at all a measure to deal the the virus itself.
If you have enough capacity (or the ability to ramp up) to deal with all infections, there would be no need to delay the spread.

That is exactly the issue: the countries with universal health care still lead in terms of per capita deaths. Sure, that might change with the rising new infections in the US, but Belgium with its 9.7k deaths is leading the chart at more that twice (85 per 100k) the US (39 per 100k) and 20 points higher than the UK (66), followed by Spain (60), Italy (57), Sweden (53), France (46) and only then the US (39).
Besides Sweden and the US all of those countries have two things in common universal healthcare and a fatality rate of 11 (Spain) to 15% (Belgium). (Sweden sits at 7.4%, US at 4.5%).

Fatality rate might be a bad number to look at since limiting the spread to only a few cases but then losing those, would lead to higher rates. On the other hand the US and Brazil have 3 and 1.6 million cases. So large numbers kick in, which suggest that the fatality rate is between 4 and 5%.

What do we make of it? Well, I think we should hold off judgement until it's over and we know more.
"If you have enough capacity (or the ability to ramp up) to deal with all infections, there would be no need to delay the spread."

Actually, there's a very good reason to delay the spread, and it's that if you find yourself with a lot of people ill at the same time, the whole country grinds to a halt, and you start to get a ton of additional deaths for collateral causes. Or, in other words, our society is not able to deal with half of the people ill at home.....
Gaining time means also more time to develop a treatment or a vaccine.

"What do we make of it? Well, I think we should hold off judgement until it's over and we know more."

Exactly.... comparing the values during an epidemic is useless, since there are too many variables still at play.
Well, most European countries have flattened the curve down to a few hundred new cases per day, compared to 50k new cases per day in the USA. I'd call that "dealing with the virus".

Belgium has a severe lack of testing capability. Instead of testing people who died in care homes post mortem, they simply count every suspect death as "Covid death", leading to a severe overestimation of Covid lethality. If you use other data, like the overmortality, the real Covid deaths in Belgium per 100k are similar to those in France.

Meanwhile the USA does the opposite and underreports Covid deaths for political reasons, because it is an election year. Which is kind of funny, because that is exactly what they are accusing China of doing.
The problem with this is that according to secondary (read non-governmental) sources both Brazil and the US are under reporting deaths. Much like China and Russia and other conservative or authoritarian countries were/are accused of doing.

It sure seems like right leaning governments are actively suppressing testing numbers and under reporting deaths.

So how can we ever truly evaluate a response if certain parties aren't playing fair with their data?
Overtime all longstanding governments (unless they undergo regime or ideology changes) drift left.

It's pretty much a constant slow drift over time. A modern US conservative today would be viewed as progressive or liberal in 1920.

The only thing that changes is the rate of this drift. It remains to be seen whether that rate has changed in the US due to recent events.
I would like to add that not only universal healthcare, but also things like paid sick leave makes a big difference. Here inpin the UKwUK quite a few whowwho infected couldn't isolate, because else they would starve.
""What do we make of it? Well, I think we should hold off judgement until it's over and we know more."

Exactly.... comparing the values during an epidemic is useless, since there are too many variables still at play."

=> In a theoric world that would be perfect, but the governement - and the citizen electing it in democracies - need to start comparison to help them decide what is the best course of action.

There is also clearly a size ( meaning geographic distance) effect in play in the COVID spread : bigger city seems to suffer more, being even 50km away from the city can be enough to drastically decrease the contamination rate. Being an international hub is not helping. US being multiple time bigger than any European country, it is expected that the average rate in the US to be lower than specific european country. Comparing US states to europen countries could make more sense.
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