Covid cases over time

New South Wales is still anxiously watching whether a recent cluster of cases will lead to a new lockdown. The rises in cases linked to the Northern Beaches area of Sydney has led to one major policy change: there is now a mandatory mask requirement for some locations https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jan/02/nsw-makes-face-masks-mandatory-as-state-records-seven-new-covid-cases

I’ve largely stuck to the data here that shows number of cases relative to the size of the population. One thing that graph can also show is change over time. https://ourworldindata.org/covid-cases#world-maps-confirmed-cases-relative-to-the-size-of-the-population

You can set a date and then watch the figures change as it rolls forward to the current day. I’ve made a video capture of that to show how some selected countries changed. I think this helps illustrate what I mean by the trajectory mattering more than the actual number. We can’t really be sure what the true number of cases is because of different levels of testing but the rate of change is a different matter.

Multiple good news on Covid-19 vaccines

News from the UK is that the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine appears to be at least 70% effective:

“The announcement today takes us another step closer to the time when we can use vaccines to bring an end to the devastation caused by [the virus],” said the vaccine’s architect, Prof Sarah Gilbert.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/health-55040635

That is good news that comes shortly after the announcement from the US that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could be 90% effective:

“The developers – Pfizer and BioNTech – described it as a “great day for science and humanity”.
Their vaccine has been tested on 43,500 people in six countries and no safety concerns have been raised.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/health-54873105

What is doubly good is these two vaccines have been developed using completely different principles and work in quite different ways. There are disadvantages to both but in ways that are distinctly different.

As I understand it, the Oxford vaccine uses a different virus (one that causes colds in chimps) to deliver a key protein from the covid coronavirus to provoke our immune system into creating the needed antibodies. A similar vaccine is also under development in Russia and is also showing success https://www.bbc.com/news/health-54905330

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and a similar one being developed by Moderna ( https://www.bbc.com/news/health-54902908 ) uses a more novel technique, exploiting messenger RNA. The use of mRNA potentially opens up faster and more adaptable vaccine development in general.

“Vaccines train the immune system to recognize the disease-causing part of a virus. Vaccines traditionally contain either weakened viruses or purified signature proteins of the virus.

But an mRNA vaccine is different, because rather than having the viral protein injected, a person receives genetic material – mRNA – that encodes the viral protein. When these genetic instructions are injected into the upper arm, the muscle cells translate them to make the viral protein directly in the body.

This approach mimics what the SARS-CoV-2 does in nature – but the vaccine mRNA codes only for the critical fragment of the viral protein. This gives the immune system a preview of what the real virus looks like without causing disease. This preview gives the immune system time to design powerful antibodies that can neutralize the real virus if the individual is ever infected.”

https://theconversation.com/how-mrna-vaccines-from-pfizer-and-moderna-work-why-theyre-a-breakthrough-and-why-they-need-to-be-kept-so-cold-150238

An added advantage for the mRNA vaccines is that it can be produced without a biological step. Apparently the challenge for mRNA vaccine development has been finding ways of keeping the mRNA sufficiently stable that vaccines can be produced en-masse. While those hurdles have been overcome, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has to be stored at very cold temperatures and degrades within days even at normal fridge temperatures.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is more conventional and much easier to store. It is also easier to manufacture as it uses existing processes and will be much cheaper than the mRNA based vaccines.

Meanwhile, there are multiple other vaccines for covid-19 under development. This table from a PubMed article in June, has a good overview of the variety of types of vaccines under development. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7301825/table/t0005/?report=objectonly

Covid in mid-November

I’ll confess to a degree of superstition in not posting any graphs of cases recently. Currently things in Australia are looking optimistic after a scary period in Victoria. Ironically that’s made me more anxious as things here are beginning to feel a bit ‘post-covid’ but when I look at the Northern Hemisphere winter the reality is anything but.

The countries shown this time are just the default offered by the website with the addition of the Philippines and Africa as a whole. If we want a good news story about Covid-19 it really does look like Africa as a continent has managed to escape the worst of things. The ‘why’ of that has had several months of speculation and I think we won’t know really for some time.

I added the Philippines because of the horrific impact currently of typhoon Vamco on the country.

“The death toll from the deadliest cyclone to hit the Philippines this year has climbed to 67, with 12 people still missing, the national disaster management agency has said.”

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-11-15/death-toll-from-years-deadliest-typhoon-in-philippines-climbs/12885864

What the impact of a major natural disaster will be in the time of a pandemic is an open question. In addition with a news cycle crowded with political tantrums, attention and donations from wealthy countries is impacted. https://secure.oxfam.org.au/donate/international-crisis-fund

The USA was already on a steep trajectory of cases and that somehow has got steeper. Just in time not just for winter but also for maximum dysfunction in federal government.

The good news is that overall case fatality rates have fallen substantially. Some of this may be purely statistical (more testing of people who get mild cases) and some of it is improved treatment.

This graph shows excess mortality in the USA over several years for comparison.

It’s deadly but these figures do suggest that improved treatment and protecting more vunerable groups may reduce deaths. However, to temper that good news the long term impacts of the disease on people who survive is becoming clearer:

“Young and previously healthy people with ongoing symptoms of Covid-19 are showing signs of damage to multiple organs four months after the initial infection, a study suggests.”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/15/damage-to-multiple-organs-recorded-in-long-covid-cases

As I said at the start, things down-under are increasingly normal – worryingly so perhaps. Trains are getting busy again and generally people are acting a lot more relaxed about things. As we’ve seen elsewhere, covid-19 can spread slowly and asymptomatically in a population for awhile before a few events lead to more sudden and rapid growth.

A vaccine is looking hopeful though:

The impact of a new Covid vaccine will kick in significantly over summer and life should be back to normal by next winter, one of its creators has said.
Prof Ugur Sahin, BioNTech co-founder, also raised hopes the jab could halve transmission of the virus, resulting in a “dramatic reduction in cases”.
Last week, BioNTech and co-developers Pfizer said preliminary analysis showed their vaccine could prevent more than 90% of people from getting Covid-19.
About 43,000 people took part in tests.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/health-54949799

Let’s hope so.

The Eve of Something

…but we don’t know what.

By virtue of time zones, it is already Tuesday 3 November here. In a normal year, this would be Melbourne Cup day — the big Australian horse race that everybody bets on and people wear hats and get drunk. This year, things are a bit more subdued.

Meanwhile, it is still Monday in the USA. The final vote tally for the US Presidential election won’t be known for awhile but tomorrow things will be changing rapidly towards a conclusion. The polls and the models point toward a victory for the Biden/Harris ticket. Over shadowing those polls is the fact that Trump won last time and, more darkly, that Trump may not accept defeat even if he does lose.

Nate Silver at 538 is busy reminding people that a 10% chance is not a 0% chance https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/im-here-to-remind-you-that-trump-can-still-win/ There are uncertainties of many kinds, particularly around Pennsylvania and Florida where the chance of a Trump winning the state is much closer than in national polls.

In addition, the polls and models are unlikely to have adequately compensated for a number of factors:

  • Increased early voting
  • Potentially increased turn out
  • Attempts at voter suppression
  • Attempts at vote intimidation

There are also claims of a “shy Trump voter” bias in the polls — more centre-leaning Trump voters not wanting to say they are Trump voters out of shame or fear. This last one I am doubtful of.

Back in 2016 I thought it would be interesting to see how people associated with the Sad/Rabid Puppies movement would shift (or not) during the Trump years. As reflected more broadly in the polls, people who were already solidly right wing have only consolidated more in their support of Trump. Where a number of notable Sad Puppies were dubious (or even hostile) towards Trump during the GOP Presidential nomination process all those years ago, most shifted towards some degree of support by the election (or at the very least overt hostility towards his opponent). In between times, that has only strengthened. John C Wright and Sarah Hoyt shifted from sceptical/grudging support to full on Trump-advocacy. Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen have been more circumspect and adopted an ‘anti-anti-Trump’ position. I don’t think either of them have overtly said they’d vote for him but their anti-Biden position is unambiguous and also shallow (focusing on Biden’s age and his dodgy son — qualities which don’t distinguish him from Trump). Vox Day has been an avid Trump supporter and remains so.

On the whole, most of this former leaders of the Puppy groups remain bullish about the election. There is an underlying belief that Trump is very popular and the polls are very wrong. That is compounded with a confusion about how wrong the polls were in 2016 — as if dismissing the result of the popular vote for constitutional reasons also (magically) means the polls got it wrong that Hillary Clinton was more popular than Trump.

Adjacent to the Puppy leaders we have other puppy-characters like Michael A Rothman being super bullish on Facebook:

“Mark this as my official prediction:
Trump wins electoral with at least the same margin as last time.
Trump likely wins popular vote as well.”

https://www.facebook.com/MARothman/posts/10217545584647542

That seems unlikely.

If the opposite happens and Biden’s win is more substantial then maybe some Republicans will re-evaluate their support of the Electoral College. That will be interesting to see. Because of the above, I’ve ended up watching Utah conservatives extolling the virtue of the EC, even though it remains a bad deal for Utah conservatives (the way the Senate works is a different question). Ironically, the 2016 election would have been an opportunity for Utah Republicans to leverage the EC by voting Democratic and ironically giving themselves far more influence over the GOP as a result…but that’s not how people actually vote or behave.

Speaking of which, I was gifted yesterday a cursed item: a book! Entitled “Divided we Fall: One Possible Future” it is a political-science fiction anthology edited by the pseudonymous Mack Henckel and according to the cover features:

“Stories by Sarah Hoyt, Brad Torgersen, Jon Del Arroz and More!”

The premise is all the bad things that will happen to America if Trump loses. This is the flip side of the apparent bullishness: a deep seated fear of what happens next.

You won’t be astonished to hear that it isn’t very good but let me reassure you that even by standards of Hoyt’s, Torgersen’s and Arroz’s writing, it isn’t very good. Indeed, all three are more than capable of word-smithing readable fiction — they aren’t inherently bad writers and Hoyt in particular gains a lot more clarity when she writes fiction. This book though, is rushed and poorly edited both in a broad sense and in a copy-editing sense. It falls even below my extraordinarily low standards for typos.

Torgersen’s persecution fantasy is that the Federal Government will outlaw the Mormons:

“Ephraim Roberts watched the feds from behind his own sunglasses. Until six months prior, he’d been among their number. The injunction—which had come swift on the heels of the church having its tax-exempt status revoked—had put paid to any plans Ephraim had of retiring on a federal pension. He’d watched two nephews and one niece go to jail during the early days, when idealistic church members still actively challenged the blockades that had sprung up around every single Latter-Day Saint temple in the United States.”

Secret Combinations by Brad Torgersen, in Divided we Fall: One Possible Future

Jon Del Arroz’s story is more unpleasant but is basically just trolling for outrage. Sarah Hoyt’s story is quasi-autobiographical which has the unfortunate effect of making it read like one of her not-intended-to-be-fiction columns. The protagonist lives in Colorado and in 2016 is considering voting Libertarian but is persuaded reluctantly to vote for Trump. Unlike Hoyt, the protagonist is gay and has a liberal wife but the dialogue from either of them reads like direct quotes from her columns. For example take this dialogue about Covid19:

‘“Sure. Very dangerous, if you’re like 80. Maybe. Look, I did a deep dive into the Diamond Princess numbers. It can’t be that dangerous. Those ships are plague vessels at the best of times.”
“Ah.”
“And what they’re doing is putting an entire country under house arrest. A lot of the economy won’t come back, can’t come back.’

Teach the Children by Sarah Hoyt, in Divided we Fall: One Possible Future

Anyway then tomorrow happens and society collapses:

‘Well, you know what happened. The election was called for Joe and the Ho, and Trump didn’t dispute it. And things got crazy. Really crazy. It was hard to know what was actually happening, you know, because the news was all bizarre. They’d started the fiction with their Tales of the Covid, and they just ramped that up. The Green New Deal was going to save us. The Native Americans were coming out of the reservations to teach us to love Mother Earth. Police were disbanded. The committees of reconciliation…’

Teach the Children by Sarah Hoyt, in Divided we Fall: One Possible Future

The story rapidly skips into an apocalypse society but the protagonist and friends keep the faith and at the end have started a kind of religion whose faith is the USA (a theme Hoyt has used before).

…and so on. Yes, obviously the anthology is an attempt to make a quick buck (and a quick book) but the fear mongering is both cynical and sincere. That combination is quintessentially the story of the Puppy years — a mix of grift, confabulation and paranoia.

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]

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/24/media/sinclair-fauci-conspiracy-bolling/index.html

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
Chile17,081.7918,952,038
United States11,020.20329,064,917
Peru10,479.7632,510,453
Brazil9,627.09211,049,527
Singapore8,111.155,804,337
Sweden7,652.1410,036,379
Saudi Arabia7,061.8734,268,528
Belarus6,961.569,452,411
United Arab Emirates5,704.729,770,529
South Africa5,692.1558,558,270
Israel5,483.088,519,377
Belgium5,478.9611,539,328
Russia5,245.07145,872,256
Bolivia4,806.1211,513,100

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.