A twitter argument about covid

I got into an argument with Damien Walter about covid. I’m still not really sure what his position is. I can see a lot of legitimate reasons for criticising how the UK is handling lockdowns in a clumsy and inequitable manner but I don’t think that was the point he was trying to make. I think he is expecting a let-it-run-its-course strategy to work? Not sure.

Damien @damiengwalter
I’m divided on the economic hurricane heading towards the UK.
As a former Marxist and anti-capitalist I can appreciate the need to blow up late stage capitalism to make space for something better. And where better to start than Britain?
UK credit rating downgraded by Moody’s amid growth concerns Ratings agency cites weakening economic, Brexit woes and coronavirus shocks theguardian.com

Damien @damiengwalter
As a human being, I’m incredibly worried for the lives of all the people in the UK that are in process of being torn apart by Hurricane Brexit-Covid.
Britain is uniquely exposed to this “perfect storm” of economic devastation.

Damien @damiengwalter
The UK as a nation now seems dominated by two equally delusional factions. On one hand are the Brexit conservatives, who believe you can cut-off the UK from the world and somehow not get cut down by global finance in the process.

Damien @damiengwalter
On the other hand are the Lockdown liberals, who I’m certain see it as an essential response to Covid (despite the lack of any evidence to support that belief)
and seem completely blind to what this means in terms of human suffering from the widespread poverty its unleashing.

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
Do you mean lockdowns in general or the specific lockdown approach in the UK?

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
I’m not going to defend BorisJ, who has demonstrated his incompetence – but covid demonstrably kills large numbers of people & nobody knows yet what the long term health impact is on those who don’t die. Restrictions to reduce infection rates make sense in principle

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
…and they have demonstrably worked in other countries. More interestingly we have before&after comparisons of nations that initially imposed strong measures and then let them slip e.g. Israel.
Israel initially managed to control the spread of infection then, due to multiple reasons, undermined its own sucess. There’s a good discussion about it here https://lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2020/07/from-new-zealand-to-america-covid-19-in-israel…

Damien @damiengwalter
You can suppress the virus, or you can flatten the curve. Note: lockdown was dishonestly sold as 2 weeks to flatten the curve, when it would obviously escalate into a suppression strategy.
Suppression is simply not viable longterm. It’s a fantasy.

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
Longterm as in say 10 years, maybe not. As in long enough to plan, adjust and get treatments & vaccines? It’s a great idea. NZ isn’t suffering much additional economic pain as a consequence

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
I’d also recommend reading this https://ourworldindata.org/covid-health-economy…
It’s noisy data but strong covid measures per country aren’t a big driver of economic downturn.
It’s the OVERALL world effect – the impact on trade etc that drives a lot of the economic pain.
Which countries have protected both health and the economy in the pandemic? Responses to the pandemic have often been framed in terms of striking a balance between protecting people’s health and protecting the economy. There is an assumption that countries face a trade-off… ourworldindata.org

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
Of course in the UK you’ve got the triple whammy of covid, Brexit and PM who couldn’t run a chip shop without it burning down. ‘Lockdowns’ are only a small part of the economic hell-hole you are in.

Damien @damiengwalter
Longterm is whatever length of time people keep trying to suppress a coronavirus. It’s a fantasy, supported by an imaginary vaccine which the science is clear will never happen. You might get a 30% V in t years, won’t stop Covid being endemic pike flu.

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
A vaccine as effective as the flu vaccine would still be a win and would still put a nation that had followed a supression strategy in a much better position than a country that hadn’t. If covid is like flu then there’s no long term immunity post-infection…

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
…so there’s no immunity gain for countries that let covid run-its-course. It would mean long-term adjustments to the covid reality. There’s nothing new there — all nations have made long term adjusmtents to infectious diseases often with gov intervention…

Damien @damiengwalter
Read about the history of coronavirus vaccine research. Any plan that turns on getting a vaccine is delusional.

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
I have read about coronavirus vaccine research. As I said, if a vaccine is unlikely or ineffective that also implies no long term immunity post infection. A let-the-virus-run-its-course in that circumstance is a disaster. Everybody who recovers faces a new bout every year.

Damien @damiengwalter
Sigh. That’s the point. Covid is endemic and here to stay. Suppression strategies are a denial of this. We can hope it normalises to near non-lethal like other coronaviruses, and we can hope its herd immunity level is low towards 20% not up at 70%….

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
You aren’t going to get ‘herd immunity’ to a significant degree without a vaccine & the scenario where a covid vaccine is less effective (eg flu-like) is the one where there’s no lasting immunity from infection. You gain nothing from not following a suppression strategy now.

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
Suppression buys time and lives. The economic cost is less (on average & with noisy data) than not following a suppression strategy. Also, an effective suppression strategy gets a country into more relaxed conditions quicker & safer & more sustainably

Damien @damiengwalter
Nonsense. You must live in comfortable bubble think so. Get out of it. Go and look at what mass unemployment looks like in the lower parts of society. And it’ll.look much the same in the higher parts as the shockwaves move out.

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
I’ve lived through mass unemployment in the UK. I’m very familiar with its consequences & impact but even if I hadn’t that wouldn’t change the veracity of what I stated.

Damien @damiengwalter
That wasn’t even close. You have no idea what this has unleashed.

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
You think more people are unemployed now in the Uk than the were in the early 80’s? https://ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peoplenotinwork/unemployment/timeseries/mgsc/unem…

Camestros Felapton @CamestrosF
Now true, thinks will definitely get a LOT WORSE in the UK because of Brexit & government incompetence. However that’s not a great argument against suppression strategies in general.
It’s a good argument for economic stimulus & generous benefits & deficit spending.

That last one got this response:

Meanwhile in film news…

Frankly, I still can’t imagine going to the cinema. I have some friends who went to see TENET when it was released and a few others are sometimes going to movie theatres were they are showing classic blockbusters to fill in the hole caused by so few new movies being released. However, even though cinemas have technically been open in most parts of Australia (excepting Victoria) for some time, they aren’t an attractive proposition.

  1. They are typically within large shopping malls.
  2. You are stuck in one place with people you don’t know for even longer than being in, say, a restaurant.
  3. It’s not actually a very sociable experience — so it carries many of the covid risks associated with socialising but none of the benefits.

I do like to see films on a big screen for many reasons. A key one is that if I watch a film on TV or on a device then I will interrupt my own watching (or someone else will). A film at a cinema is a much more immersive experience and I really like that aspect of it.

In Sydney we are in a low-key state of the on-going covid-normal. People go to offices to work…but not most days. People go shopping…but not as much. People go to cafes and restaurants…but the capacity is smaller and there are new rituals of signing in via QR codes. Cinemas? Don’t really fit in the picture.

Meanwhile, in a feedback effect, major films are being pushed later and later into 2021. With few things to draw people to the cinema there are fewer reasons to go back to the cinema.

It will be an interesting marker, I think, of when we enter the post-pandemic period. When going to the movies becomes a habit again. Anyway, Dune will be out later next year and Doctor Strange will be in the next Spider Man movie.

Looking at covid stats again

Our World in Data has an interesting section on covid infection modelling, that looks at estimates of the ‘true’ number of infections based on the available data. https://ourworldindata.org/covid-models

Meanwhile, here is an update of the graph I showed in my previous post.

The same caveats apply. The exact number of confirmed cases isn’t comparable between countries for multiple reasons. However, the trajectory of cases tells us a lot and to that end I’ve left Singapore and Sweden on the graph for comparison. As I said previously, both countries have different circumstances and different approaches to the pandemic but they’ve ended up with similar curves that show slow growth in cases but not rapidly surging growth.

Here is a similar graph but with a modified choice of countries that shows a variety of different patterns each of which tell their own national story.

Israel, Spain, the UK and Australia each have had situations of initial growth in infections that was then met with various lockdown measures, leading to a flattening of the curve, leading to a degree of relaxation of measures…then being hit by a second wave. I hadn’t been aware of how badly the situation had changed in Israel. Abigail Nussbaum has an excellent account of what went wrong here https://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2020/07/from-new-zealand-to-america-covid-19-in-israel It looks like the UK may be on a similar path but potentially it may flatten out again.

Poor leadership, confused strategy and confused public health messaging do appear to be a common theme in countries struggling to control infection rates. I wonder if that will be confirmed when we finally get past this pandemic and researchers have had time to sift through how policy responses impacted both infection rates and death rates.

Our World in Data also has a page on the economic impact of the virus: https://ourworldindata.org/covid-health-economy I’ve been sceptical of the data on death rates for multiple reasons but that page has an interesting graph comparing confirmed deaths per million people and GDP growth compared with 2019 (the ‘growth’ is all negative of course). The article contends:

“But among countries with available GDP data, we do not see any evidence of a trade-off between protecting people’s health and protecting the economy. Rather the relationship we see between the health and economic impacts of the pandemic goes in the opposite direction. As well as saving lives, countries controlling the outbreak effectively may have adopted the best economic strategy too.”

I’d still be sceptical about making a stronger conclusion there i.e. that poor controls of the virus lead to worse economic impact. However, I think we can safely conclude that framing health measures as a trade-off with economic growth is misleading. Avoiding taking measures to control the rate of infection brings no observable national economic benefits.

Covid stats update

It is just under a month since I made this post https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/07/19/more-covid-cherry-picking/ and things haven’t got any better in the Americas. Of countries with populations of more than 5 million, Chile is still the nation with the most cases per capita. The US is second on that criteria but as the graph shows, Peru and Brazil are following a similar trajectory. I’ve included Sweden and Singapore in the graphs again for comparison because they really highlight the difference between “lots of cases” versus the trajectory of the cases: both countries have a high number of cases per capita[1] but both countries are on relatively slow trajectories.

I think Sweden and Singapore (very different countries culturally, geographically, climatically etc) help demonstrate that consistency and social co-operation with anti-pandemic measures make an impact more than stringency. This stands to reason, as it is the actual behaviours of people that reduce the spread rather than the laws on the books.

Meanwhile in the antipodes, the Melbourne outbreak continues to halt the shift back to normality in Australia. New Zealand has also encountered some cases again and has flipped back to tight measures to keep their elimination strategy in place.

[1] The usual caveat applies. The number of recorded cases is influenced by two related factors: the actual underlying number of cases and how many of those cases are being detected and recorded.

Pandemics & Politics

The soup of conspiracy mongering about the covid-19 pandemic has never truly settled on a clear story. Even as the virus began spreading internationally, reactions ranged from claims that China was exaggerating the numbers of people infected to China was hiding the ‘true’ scale of infection. The common theme with conspiratorial thinking is that genuine doubt, genuine ignorance and genuine shifts in opinion about a novel situation are actually examples of deceit. There is a paradoxical relationship with authority and expertise in any conspiracy theory as the claims of deception always imply that the authorities genuinely do know a lot more about the true state of affairs than everybody else but are lying about it.

The most recent iteration of covid conspiracy-mongering is the ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy video which has sprouted out of anti-vaccine conspiracies. You can read more about it here https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/14/plandemic-movie-discredited-dr-doctor-judy-mikovits-how-debunked-conspiracy-theory-film-went-viral but there is also a good analysis of conspiracy-theory thinking which uses it as an example here https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-plandemic-and-the-seven-traits-of-conspiratorial-thinking-138483. The conspiracy is being promoted among some sections of the media in the usual just-asking-questions/exploring-the-controversy way:

“Local television stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group are set to air a conspiracy theory over the weekend that suggests Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases, was responsible for the creation of the coronavirus.The baseless conspiracy theory is set to air on stations across the country in a segment during the program “America This Week” hosted by Eric Bolling. The show, which is posted online before it is broadcast over the weekend, is distributed to Sinclair Broadcast Group’s network of local television stations, one of the largest in the country. A survey by Pew Research Group earlier this year showed that local news was a vital source of information on the coronavirus for many Americans, and more trusted than the media overall.”[1]


What the various conspiracy theories have in common is a belief that pandemic fears and public health measures are specifically a plot against Donald Trump. The details vary (or even contradict each other) but they aim to support a motive for the imagined conspiracy i.e. that the ‘ruling classes’ have manufactured pandemic fears as a way to undermine Donald Trump. To support this idea conspiracy-theorists point to pre-pandemic articles discussing how Trump might cope with a pandemic (e.g. this one by Ed Yong in 2016 https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/outbreaks-trump-disease-epidemic-ebola/511127/ ) as evidence that people were ‘planning’ to use pandemic fears against Trump.

Ironically, across the world many political leaders have gained popular support as a consequence of the pandemic (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/05/13/some-world-leaders-popularity-grows-along-with-coronavirus-case-numbers/ ). This pandemic poll-boost has helped politicians both on the left and right and isn’t tied to any particular policy measure nor even whether the covid-19 response was particularly successful. Clear messaging and decisive policy appear to be the main factors but even the shambolic Boris Johnson gained an initial popularity boost (although he eventually squandered it https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/14/poll-uk-government-losing-public-approval-over-handling-of-virus ).

The reality of natural disasters, including pandemics, is that they can often boost the standing of national leaders. Nor is it difficult to gain support because it is mainly a halo effect from the leader being seen in the company of competent people doing their jobs at a time when people will naturally hope for national unity. It actually takes some effort to mess up. Notably, the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, managed to do this during the 2019/20 bushfire crisis leading to a rapid plummet in support and humiliating scenes of firefighters refusing to shake his hand. Conversely, Morrison saw his poll numbers boosted during the pandemic, mainly by not repeating the same basic errors he had a few months earlier.

In short, natural disasters are more likely to boost a national leader than undermine them. As a plot against Trump, a pandemic would be a terrible idea: all Trump would need to do is look presidential, let experts speak and pat them on the back. Of course, there is a counter-argument here. A pandemic may well be an actually electoral boost for most politicians but specifically a problem for Trump. As we have seen, Trump has spectacularly failed but this was entirely due to his own incompetence and the incompetence of his cronies. Even so, in late March, the pandemic led to Trump’s approval numbers steadily improving, only to be undermined by Trump’s inability to handle a crisis.

In short, as a plot against Trump, a pandemic would only undermine Trump’s popularity if Trump was actually a uniquely bad president. Of course, he is actually a uniquely bad president, so I guess that is one thing the conspiracy theories have going for them.

[1] Apparently Sinclair media have since changed their plans https://twitter.com/WeAreSinclair/status/1287110687093714944

More covid cherry picking

There are so many statistics on the covid-19 pandemic that there is usually one that helps a given narrative. Back in June I wrote about one example from the right-wing ‘news’ outlet PJMedia (where one notable Sad Puppy often writes and very prone to covid-conspiracy mongering) https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/06/11/a-current-snapshot-of-covid-19/

The same writer I linked to in that earlier post has another attempt at trying to minimise the perilous state of things in the US. His focus this time is the case fatality rate i.e. the proportion of confirmed deaths to confirmed cases. The article is correct in pointing out that the CFR for the US is relatively low compared to many other countries. Except, while an interesting statistic the CFR combines both the issues with confirmed cases as a statistic (e.g. testing policy, accuracy and reporting) and the issues with deaths as a statistic (e.g. which deaths are counted). The main site I use for covid-19 graphs (OurWorldinData.org) has a long explainer on it here https://ourworldindata.org/covid-mortality-risk that is worth a read.

At the end of the article the author points to his earlier article from March and states:

“That data didn’t show the United States as number one for deaths or cases.”

Here he means number one on a per-capita basis and like myself he has been using the OurWorldinData.org figures. Personally I don’t think the deaths statistic is working well for cross national comparisons. Similar countries, with similar health systems and similar histories with the pandemic show quite different figures for population adjusted death rates. Maybe there’s some real difference in mortality there but if there is, nobody is clear on what it might be. With the US mortality statistics there is an odd fact that the deaths are skewing younger than other countries (https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/06/24/when-covid-19-deaths-are-analysed-by-age-america-is-an-outlier ) one possible reason for that might be that deaths of older people are either being under-counted in the US or over-counted in other countries (or both).

I’ve tended to stick with looking at cases per capita. Again, big flaws with using that for comparisons because testing regimes change the figures and also there are differences in who gets counted (e.g. if you get tested twice and a positive both times is that 1 person in the count or 2?). Still, the PJMedia article in both cases points to cases per capita as a statistic where the US is not the worst in the world.

So how is the US doing on that figure? You can look at the figures in a table here https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/total-confirmed-cases-of-covid-19-per-million-people?tab=table

Overall, the US is 11th in the list. 10 countries are worse on this stat! But…most of those ten are relatively small countries or actually VERY small countries (eg the Vatican) and a single outbreak sends a per capita figure soaring. Filter out those nations with populations less than 5 million and you more clearly see nations with proportionally large numbers. This is the top 15. The US is not number one…it’s number 2 because Chile is worse. The top 4 are all in the Americas. Sweden and Singapore are both special cases in their own way and may not be that comparable. After the table, I’ll look at a way both Sweden and Singapore are observably quite different.

CountryCases per millionPopulation
United States11,020.20329,064,917
Saudi Arabia7,061.8734,268,528
United Arab Emirates5,704.729,770,529
South Africa5,692.1558,558,270

As I’ve said, the cases stat is questionable because if you don’t do any testing then you don’t find cases, likewise the number of infections will also lead to an increase in testing and hence finding more cases. However, I’ve found watching the trajectory of cases per million to be an effective way of seeing what is going on. It’s an imperfect indicator but one of the better ones (as always, never depend on one statistic.

I said Sweden and Singapore are different and I think the graph of the top 6 nations in that table illustrates that and shows what I mean by trajectories.

As nations, Sweden and Singapore are chalk-and-cheese in terms of location, demographics, methods of funding healthcare and even pandemic response policies. However, their current paths are similar. Whether their high cases-per-million stat is an accounting issue or due to effective testing policies catching a greater proportion of asymptomatic people, I don’t know but what we can see is that cases aren’t accelerating.

The same cannot be said for the USA. It really is genuinely a very bad situation that it is in looking at the spread of cases. It really isn’t media exaggeration.

What a second wave suggests about lockdowns

After many weeks of stability with covid cases, Australia hit a second wave of cases. The new outbreak began in Victoria and appears to be connected to lapses in quarantine for people returning overseas. It is particularly interesting because Australia pretty much did have the lid on covid spread, so while elsewhere it’s hard to distinguish second waves with just geographical spread (or frank incompetence), it is much easier to match numbers to events here.

A lot has changed since March:

  • It’s winter now and at least in Victoria there is genuine cold weather.
  • Although lockdown measured were eased, they hadn’t gone entirely. Schools are open (or were in Victoria just prior to this new out break) and social gatherings had been allowed. However, many people still worked from home and other restrictions were in place.
  • Testing infrastructure and contact tracing efforts have improved.

I mention all that partly to dismiss it. The trajectory of infections looks very similar to the situation in early March despite all that. During the more severe lockdown phase growth in cases wasn’t zero and officially this was a suppression strategy rather than an elimination strategy (unlike NZ that went for an even stricter lockdown in the hope of bringing cases to zero).

So does this disprove the value of lockdowns or demonstrate the value of lockdowns? I believe it shows the level of lockdown measures needed to keep growth in cases low and linear. There are specific causes behind the current outbreak but when the number of contagious people is greater than zero, outbreaks act as kind of random events (i.e. we can identify the specific errors that led to an outbreak but also shit-happens given enough time).

The lockdown-lite situation Australia was in prior to the Victorian outbreak (and which still applies in the other states) isn’t sufficient to prevent exponential growth in the event of an outbreak, even with reduced interpersonal contact and improved monitoring. I think that fits with what we are seeing elsewhere but Australia’s situation provides a semi-controlled experiment of that idea.

Could Australia have gone for an elimination strategy like NZ? Maybe but it would have been tough in a bigger country with more people returning from overseas. While that’s an interesting question for Australia, an elimination strategy was never going to be viable in Europe or North America.

Of course what level of lockdown a country can manage both politically (i.e. people will willingly cooperate with it) and economically (i.e. the extra economic impact above the impact of the pandemic in general) is another question. However, the sweet spot with lockdown measures for a strong suppression strategy (i.e. growth in total cases low and linear) starts to become clearer.

This is “Stringency Index” and like any such index it’s a bit of a creative work of numerical fiction, created by lumping together incommensurable things. You can see the Australian story playing out here. A rapid rise in restriction in March, April followed by a steady state in May and then slow phased re-lifting of measures. In late June the Victorian outbreak leads to stricter measures in Victoria (less so other states).

So where was Australia in late May?

  • Schools had already re-opened. Schools are shut again in Victoria and right now it’s normal school holidays in most states. Policies on schools are all over the place internationally with some countries with light measure having strict school closures and vice-versa. In Australia, it genuinely does look like opening schools is a relatively safe measure once rates of cases is low.
  • Public gatherings were still limited to very small numbers of people. In June pubs and restaurants started re-opening. Outbreaks in Victoria have been linked to family gatherings and a subsequent outbreak in NSW has been linked to a Victorian visiting a busy pub in NSW.
  • Church services, marriages and funerals are still limited.
  • Travel from overseas is strictly limited. This hasn’t changed but lapses in security in quarantine hotels is linked to the Victorian outbreak that was then spread via family gatherings.
  • Internal travel is partly limited. This is state by state. Western Australia cut itself off (aside from goods traffic). Queensland limited border crossings from NSW. Prior to the Victorian outbreak, NSW/Vic border was open throughout (it’s now closed).
  • Workplaces were largely working from home were possible and that hadn’t changed much since.
  • Public transport was operating throughout.

Looking at that, I’d suggest social gatherings particularly indoors were the key intervention. Since the end of May, beaches have been open (but it’s winter but it’s also Australian winter, so often t-shirt weather), public swimming pools have re-opened (typically outdoors here) and there have been some major protests. None of these appear to have contributed to the new growth in cases.

Masks? Harder to say. At anytime of year in the CBD of a major Australian city you will see people wearing paper masks but primarily people who have lived in major SE Asian or Chinese cities prior. Masks haven’t been a major policy option in Australia and locally I rarely see people wearing them. That’s not say they don’t work, just that there’s no before-and-after like data when looking at Australia. Maybe if masks had been mandated the story would look very different but there’s no way of knowing from looking at Australia alone.

Having said all that: severely limiting the number of people mingling INDOORS really seems to be a key measure. Obviously, how and whether that applies elsewhere is a whole other question.

Review: Superior by Angela Saini

Science journalist Angela Saini’s third book Superior: the Return of Race Science is a very timely survey of the history and contemporary impact of the attempts to use science to prop up racism and beliefs about race.

From Carl Linnaeus to the sinister Pioneer Fund, Saini maps the shifts both in actual understanding and the layers of post-hoc rationalisations for prejudices. She does this with minimal (but appropriate) editorialising and instead lets the views of a very wide range of interviewees inform the reader about how views have shifted or, in some cases, stubbornly refused to shift.

Much of it covered topics and personalities I was already familiar with and if you have read books like Stephen J Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, then you’ll be familiar with a lot of the background. However, Saini takes a broader survey and branches out into topics like the misguided but often well intentioned use of race in prescription medicines. I found that the sections that covered areas I was already very familiar with where both interesting and provided good insights, although I obviously got more value out of the sections on topics I was less aware of.

Saini also charts recent events such as the rise of the alt-right, the renewed ideological racism in populist governments (in particular Trump’s America but also Modi’s Hindu nationalism) and demonstrates how the 18th century obsession with race is connected to modern concerns and pseudoscience.

The people-centred approach of the book gives it a very human quality. Saini has a knack at humanising many of the protagonists without excusing or apologising either for their mistakes or (in many cases) their bigotry. Rather, by focusing on the individuals her approach highlights their motives and in the cases of many of the scientists involved how they managed to fool themselves into thinking they had transcended their own prejudices and somehow found objective truths instead of discovering convoluted ways of having their own biased assumptions echoing back to them.

I listened to the audio-book version which is narrated by Saini herself. I really highly recommend this book both in terms of the insights she gives on the topic but also as an example of excellent modern science writing.

Covid-19 in Australia Update

For largely good reasons, international coverage of the covid-19 pandemic is not currently focused on Australia. However, the dusty continent is where I keep my body, so I pay a bit more attention to it. While New Zealand remains almost virus free (the exception being people returning from overseas), Australia has low numbers of new cases but there remain a persistent number of cases apparently from community transmission.

The main attention is on the state of Victoria that has had a spike of 41 new cases on Saturday. New South Wales has much smaller numbers but there are still cases that appear to be community transmission (i.e. not people in quarantine who have recently returned from overseas). Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Western Australia has been able to further ease restrictions with pubs and nightclubs opening fully.

One geographic/demographic aspect of Australia that is relevant to WA opening up is the degree to which each state can restrict travel between states. This has lead to some tension between New South Wales and Queensland which still retain some border restrictions.

Things have otherwise pretty much relaxed into a new normal. Cafes and restaurants are sort of open, the roads are busy again but public transport is less crowded. Most people who can work from home (those that work in the great Excel and Microsoft Word mines churning out documents) still are.

Schools have been open for time. Post-pandemic there will be a lot of discussion about schools. As a policy intervention, school closures has been one of the most erratic i.e. there are countries with quite strict lockdowns that have left schools open or partly open and countries with less strict lockdowns that have kept schools closed. Overall, it does look like children aren’t a major source of transmission but it is also clear that the social logistics of closing schools was a genuine challenge. In future pandemics we might not be so lucky (yes, I can’t say anything about this feels lucky except in the sense of it really could have been even worse). A different disease might have more aggressively affected children and governments really need to start planning for ways of closing down schools in a sustainable way.

I travelled into Sydney CBD the other day and there was a normality to the city. The streets were busy with cars and people again. I wore a mask but most of the other people I saw wearing masks were ethnically Asian. Mask wearing hasn’t become habitual here and Australia didn’t have a ‘wear masks at the shops’ level of eased-restrictions mainly because the number of cases fell pretty rapidly (we got to skip that step). Australia likes to boast about itself as part of the Asia-Pacific region but it would do well to adopt the habit of major cities in the region and make mask wearing the norm.

There were Black Lives Matter protests here but so far there have been no recorded covid-19 cases that appear to have originated with the protests. Of course, protestors were generally very good at wearing masks and other PPE (police…not so much).

The shortages in various goods experienced in April had largely been forgotten, aside from some shops being overstocked with off-brand toilet paper. However, the small but scary surge of cases in Victoria has led to supermarket chains imposing restrictions pre-emptively. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-24/woolworths-reintroduces-item-limits-victorian-stores/12388436

The big difference with this new upswing in cases is that testing is now widely available and the infrastructure for contact tracing exists. The contact tracing app doesn’t look like it has had enough people downloading it and using it to make a big difference though.

I think it is still too early to draw any clear conclusions about policy responses to covid-19 other than ‘do not have Boris Johnson or Donald Trump as your national leader’. Mask-wearing? It looks like it works but to have really made a difference to the covid-19 outbreak, people needed to be wearing the masks before they knew about the pandemic. That’s not absurd so long as people in major cities just start adopting that as a habit, particularly if they have the sniffles. Panic-buying of PPE would have been a potential disaster for health workers in the early weeks of the pandemic. However, if people habitually wear them then people will have supplies in and ready. In Australia we may need them anyway if we get another bad fire season (oh, yes that was still this year even if it feels like it was decades ago).

Above all, Australia was lucky rather than smart. Our national government isn’t particularly competent but they managed to step over the low bar that the UK Tories and USA GOP failed on. As I have suggested before, I believe the PR disaster that befell the PM (Scott Morrison) because of his woeful handling of the bushfire crisis resulted in the federal government fearful of a repeat performance.

A current snapshot of covid-19

It’s been a couple of weeks since I posted a graph of the covid-19 cases adjusted for population size. https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/05/24/i-havent-written-about-covid-19-for-awhile/

Here’s how the comparable graph looks now:


There’s a jump in Sweden’s numbers that I’m pretty sure is a change in methodology or a data revision around June 3 but I can’t find a note saying that. As always, testing rates, data collection methods and definitions make comparisons between countries dubious. However, the trajectories themselves tell a story.

Back in late March the woeful right-wing news outlet PJMedia was railing against headlines saying that the USA had the most number of cases in the world. It was of course true, within the limits of available data but

“According to their report, the United States, following “a series of missteps,” is now “the epicenter of the pandemic.” But, is it really?”


Well, yes — it really was (again, within the limits of available data). However, the article claimed it wasn’t because (aha!) the US didn’t look so bad if you went with population adjusted stats. The graph at the time looked like this:

I was going to write about it at the time but there was more overt covid-19 nonsense coming from that outlet. It’s a good example though of why one graph is never enough. A single graph is like a two dimensional picture of a three dimensional object except that it’s actually a five or six dimensional object and it is also moving. I like the ‘per million’ graph partly because news media were generally going with headline figures of numbers of cases but they weren’t wrong to do so — I was picking a different graph precisely because it added extra information not because it somehow negated a false impression. The sheer number of cases in the US at that point in time was, indeed, very bad news for the USA because the volume of cases pointed to it being a situation that the US was unlikely to be able to control.

[I should add that the graph above is out of date in a different sense. If we use the tools available from the same source to look back at March 28 the graph now looks a bit different for a couple of countries.

The difference in the two graphs of the same is due changes in methodology as well as data catching up with itself. Yet that fuzzy aspect of ‘current’ data is one way conspiracy theorist try to discredit information]

The raw numbers and the population adjusted numbers told different stories but they were complimentary stories. The US had by late march more cases than it could hope to contain without severe measures. The population adjusted graph also helped illustrate how much worse it could get.

Here is the current graph but for the same countries as the PJMedia one:

[Note: I don’t think the Iran data is reliable and it could be massively worse than what is shown but it was one of the countries picked]