For a lot of the time (heading towards two years) that I’ve been posting these graphs, Australia has either looked like a footnote at the bottom or (like my last post) I’ve shown it just with other countries with low case numbers. Well, now Australia is competing on the international stage but not in a good way.
There is still a way to go to catch up but the graphs showing daily confirmed cases is way up there with the famous countries.
This huge growth in cases is also a known underestimate as access to PCR tests has become difficult because of the systems being overwhelmed.
It is summer here and the main school holidays last until the end of January, so schools would be closed anyway but there’s not going to be sufficient time to get younger people vaccinated before the start of the school year.
Not wanting to start your year with doom, I waited a day.
I didn’t post much satellite global temperature data last year because I was busy. Here’s how things look up to November 2021.
The usual caveats apply here: not the best temperature record but the one that side-steps some time-wasting arguments. If you focus just on a very short time period, it looks like a stable wobble around a mean but over long time periods, the move upwards continues as expected.
La Niña conditions have kept things relatively cool & wet in Australia but the impacts on North America are less benign. When things shift away from those conditions it’s likely to be a bad fire season again here at some point.
While the 2019/2020 fire season was notoriously bad, the timing could have been worse. Australia missed having catastrophic fires and a pandemic at the same time. How is Covid going here? Well, the virus is having a great time. New South Wales dialled back its anti-pandemic measures just in time for the omicron variant. Here’s how the cumulative case numbers per million people are looking, with some other industrialised nations which have had relatively low numbers put in for comparison.
Vaccines have made a difference to the deadliness of the virus but exponential growth will still lead to lots of people with major health impacts (including death). The impact on hospitals is getting bad here also, which has health impacts on everybody.
Hospitalisation data is more limited worldwide and obviously when comparing countries, there are going to be a lot of other factors involved. Having said that, I thought this graph showing Canada and Australia together (and adjusted for population size) was interesting.
Canada & Australia are both very different countries and very similar countries depending on what aspects you consider. Up to around the fourth quarter of 2021, they also had very different experiences of the pandemic (Canada’s proximity to the US being a major factor). In more recent months those hospitalisation figures have become a lot more similar. No big conclusion there, I just thought the coincidence was interesting.
I don’t know if covid will become seasonal like the flu but currently, it isn’t. Public policy and viral mutation appear to be having a bigger impact than the time of year.
Back in November, I made this post on how covid numbers stabilised after the NSW lockdown lifted. Various reasons were offered but I thought it was probably just a matter of time. Anyway, it really was just a matter of time:
“New South Wales has recorded Australia’s highest ever daily Covid case tally as the Omicron variant, combined with a wave of Delta cases spread at Christmas gatherings, has caused the number of infections to spike.
The spike comes just days after the NSW government decided to go ahead with removing almost all remaining Covid restrictions, including the requirement to wear masks in crowded retail settings.”
The mask decision appears to be motivated by a desire to ensure activity during the Christmas shopping season combined with a hope that the Omicron variant is less dangerous plus decent vaccination rates among the more vulnerable.
[content warning: discussion of violence and murder]
Robert Heinlein’s “crazy years” were a period in his extrapolation of history into the future where rapid technological change would accompany a period of cultural and social decline. The idea resembles aspects of accelerationism and the sense of galloping technological change and social unrest is one the world has been grappling with culturally since at least the nineteenth century. Among science fiction writers, and particularly science fiction writers with an interest in the Campbellian “Golden Age”, Heinlein’s “crazy years” were an apt metaphor for contemporary social ills.
The exact start of the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t known. At the time of writing this chapter (November 2021), it is believed that via some means a variant of a coronavirus found in other mammals made its way into the human population. A less likely possibility (on current evidence) is that the virus outbreak was due to an accidental exposure from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It’s likely that there will never be a wholly unambiguous answer to this question because viruses don’t keep diaries or film their activities for Tik-Tok. This chapter isn’t the story of a virus or a pandemic though — there are better places to read about how Covid-19 spread around the world. This is a story about fear, uncertainty and doubts both natural and manufactured but also about how people coped with a challenging year.
This is one of those posts where I want to assert something in a Debarkle chapter but showing the original research in the chapter would be clunky and make the footnotes unmanageable.
This is 28 posts on or relevant to Covid-19 from Sarah Hoyt (or by others on her blog) mainly from February 2020 to mid-May 2020. I’m not suggesting anybody read them but if you want to follow the evolution of a set of ideas they get neatly documented this way. I’m not saying the right-wing reaction against anti-covid measures all comes from Sarah Hoyt, these ideas come from multiple places and many are centred on some actual facts or what were (to varying degrees) reasonable doubts or concerns at some point. What’s relevant is how the ideas coalesce into a counter-orthodoxy over time and shift from maybe-X,Y,Z to a more dogmatic and partisan set of beliefs.
Why stop at mid-May? Mainly because the counter-narrative doesn’t shift much until a. the Presidential election and then b. vaccine rollouts. The May 13 posts on masks wearing is the usual chaotic mix of ideas that you’ll find in a Hoyt post but the important thing here that differentiate it from a thousand posts elsewhere on why wearing a surgical mask sucks and/or may not be that effective is that it frames mask-wearing in terms of a kind of partisan allegiance in the broader culture war.
[Item 19 isn’t from Hoyt’s blog but a segment from the late Rush Limbaugh where he promotes Hoyt’s PJ Media piece.]
After a breakout of covid in July leading to a lockdown and a peak of cases in August, the number of covid cases has fallen and then stabilised.
After hitting the vaccination goals, the state opened up from lockdown a few weeks ago. A lot of people are vaccinated but there’s still a significant chunk of people who can’t get vaccinated or don’t want to. Vaccine rollout was slower in rural areas and children under 12 aren’t vaccinated yet, so there’s a lot of scope for another growth in cases. Elsewhere, other countries are facing post-vaccine roll-out waves of cases among the unvaccinated or the under-vaccinated.
I hope these reasons are correct but I suspect it is just a matter of time. The quoted vaccination figures sound good but they are for the population aged 16+ and when looked at as a per cent of the whole population are lower than some countries that are having a new uptick in cases.
Victoria had a literal earthquake yesterday, an event that is unusual in Australia. However, the bigger news over the past three days is a series of protests in Melbourne that have resulted in violent clashes with police. Here’s the ABC on yesterday’s protest:
“More than 200 protesters have been arrested after a stand-off with police at the Shrine of Remembrance, with two police officers sustaining injuries in the showdown. The protesters were given penalty infringement notices, with some charged with more serious offences for discharging flares, and throwing golf balls, tap handles and batteries at police.
The two police officers injured were struck in the head with bottles, while another was admitted to hospital with chest pains.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at the war memorial on Wednesday to protest against the coronavirus lockdown and mandatory vaccines.”
It’s worth adding a degree of scepticism as to why a protest turns violent when there are riot police involved but overall these appear to be more than just rowdy protests that became violent once police attempted to disrupt them.
Ostensibly, the protests were because of new restrictions on construction sites due to anti-covid measures. Construction work had been allowed during recent lockdowns but under strict rules to prevent the spread of covid on sites. However, due to poor compliance with these measures, the Victorian government had indicated that tougher measures would need to be implemented. After Monday’s protest, they shut down most construction work for two weeks.
And this is where things get murky. Monday’s protests focused on the construction worker’s union, the CFMEU and appeared to be construction workers unhappy with lockdown measures and mandatory vaccinations for people on construction sites. However, the CFMEU doesn’t support mandatory vaccinations and quickly alleged that many of the protestors were not members of the union and also that many might not be construction workers at all (or “tradies” i.e. people in associated trades). Observers pointed out that while protestors were wearing the characteristic hi-vis clothing, that often the clothing was new and unlabelled. (Having said that, wearing clothes without elements that make it easier for you to be identified would be a smart thing to do regardless.)
The counter-claim, which has a lot of substance, is the protests were predominantly anti-vax/anti-lockdown protestors with some construction workers, as well as far-right groups and (of course) in a big city there are going to be at least some people who are all three of those things. News reports are also suggesting that the proportional makeup of the protests has shifted over the past few days so that the number of construction workers involved has reduced.
There’s a longer analysis of the protests here:
“The far right has really sought to mobilise frustrated people and push them more toward right-wing narratives, particularly white nationalist narratives. There is a strong historical animosity toward trade unions (as the vanguard of the political left) by the far right. It would be disingenuous to view the far right as unintelligent thugs. They are learned in the history of national socialism and fascism and the preconditions for its rise.
So you see the far right working very hard to undermine trade unions and the way they represent the organised working class. There is an attempt to undermine trust in trade unions and paint them as traitors and sell-outs who are in bed with the government.
Among the protesters there was a really self-conscious effort to represent themselves as themselves as tradies and workers. Some observed protest organisers encouraging people to wear hi-vis clothing to these rallies.”
Partly this came out of trying to describe the journey some right-wing figures have taken during the covid pandemic. Once you step into right-wing social media there’s often a Gish Gallop of stuff on covid with a broad conspiratorial message (i.e. the idea that covid is somehow a plot by the government against everybody). The problem is you get such a mix of things that reasonable and semi-reasonable positions are mixed in with utter crackpot stuff. For example, there are legitimate questions about lockdown measures and about heavy-handed police tactics that are actually becoming harder to discuss because those issues keep getting hijacked by gibberish.
The overall goal is to undermine the consensus and effectiveness of public health measures by tapping into a. legitimate fears and b. existing nonsensical fears. By legitimate fears, I mean for example the usual kind of policing & surveillance powers governments grab in a crisis but also legitimate questions about jobs or the psychological & social impacts of the current situation.
If you are careful you can pick out things that are semi-reasonable amid the things that are nonsense, and some of the nonsense has plausible elements.
I’m playing with a list of common elements in these kinds of positions to help clarify how far down the conspiracy trail particular figures have gone. Some of these elements are, by themselves, reasonable positions or, at some point in time, were reasonable positions to have questions about. Others are just nonsense or built from more general anti-vaccine or anti-government tropes reapplied to the current crisis.
This is a rough initial list and not presented in a particular order. I would expect a reasonable, non-conspiracy theory minded person to at least have some sympathy or accept the reasonableness of some of these points i.e. many of these in isolation don’t make you a covid-denier by any means and several of them have their own spectrum that runs from reasonable doubts to full-on conspiracy-mongering.
Blames China: this is more of general tone of attributing Covid-19 as the fault of China in a vague sense. More spin and framing than conspiracy theory if presented in isolation.
Claims China created the pandemic: this is an overt conspiracy theory, more common in the early days of 2020, that the virus is a deliberate policy of the Chinese government. This grew less popular on the right because it sits poorly with the other conspiracy idea that covid-19 is a minor ailment.
Lab leak hypothesis: a hypothesis isn’t a conspiracy theory and currently it’s not impossible that covid-19 arose in a medical laboratory researching corona viruses. Not impossible…but also the evidence remains thin and circumstantial. The path into conspiratorial thinking is the step were a hypothesis is asserted as fact despite the paucity of evidence AND the idea that the ‘truth’ is being hidden by governments internationally.
Covid statistics/reporting is false: obviously medical statistics are imperfect and as we’ve seen in other fields, any legitimate uncertainty in figures can be used to cast doubt on everything. We legitimately don’t know the ‘true’ rate of infections because cases of covid can be asymptomatic but that’s not the same as people having no idea at all.
Low mortality claims: a more specific claim about covid stats is that the number of deaths is exaggerated. More common last year but still present and usually based on the idea that older people dying of covid may have been close to death anyway. Obviously, there are going to be edge cases with cause-of-death reporting but that’s always true. This is also an example where the initial situation when health officials had little information to go on is used to discredit official information in general (i.e. the figures changed over time as people got better data).
Low infection rates claims: similar to the above but with the degree to which data on infection rates is imperfect and subject to change.
Strawman claims social distancing doesn’t work: arguably it doesn’t “work” because by itself it doesn’t stop covid but the claim here is were people ignore that social distancing is part of multiple strategies to slow the spread. The arguments presented by the more conspiratorial minded treat social distancing as a strawman where it was supposed to (somehow) stop covid completely…and as it hasn’t therefore everything was a big lie etc.
Strawman claims masks don’t work: this one has had a long evolution and was exacerbated by initial confused messaging about masks. You can find people on the right who were initially pro-mask when the official advice was at best mixed about masks (first quarter of 2020) who shifted to being anti-max when the advice changed in favour of masks. Rules mandating masks have been an obvious point of friction and understandably so. However, the efficacy of masks follows arguments similar to ones about social distancing i.e. if they are imperfect then they must (somehow) be useless with no territory inbetween 100% effective and 0%. Also, it really isn’t impossible that when all is said & done and long term studies of mask policies evaluate their effecitvness, that perhaps those policies didn’t do much (or maybe the opposite and they saved many lives). Imperfect knowledge is part of the nature of dealing with a new disease.
Claims that messaging on anti-covid measure were lies because they changed: these are agument intended to discredit whatever the current advice is and tie into questions about social distancing, masks and lockdowns or other restrictions. There’s an undeniable fact there that public health messaging changed over time but the reasons are obvious. Firstly imperfect knowledge and secondly public policy is always going to be a trade off based on multiple political factors.
Claims lockdowns don’t work: another big spectrum of claims that range from reasonable criticism to absurdities. International and regional approaches to lockdowns have been varied and the implimentation of them has raised many legitimate questions. Mixed in with that spectrum of discussion are variations on some of the same style of strawman arguments discussed above.
Lockdowns are damaging: this is undeniable. Clealry being stuck in a house is psychologically unpleasant at best and very difficult for many people. There are clear economic impacts as well. However, the impact of lockdowns is not easy to quantify and in the more conspiratorial social media space you quickly find poorly sourced claims that impact is much higher than has been documented.
Lockdowns are some sort of plot: this is more overt conspiracy mongering i.e. the idea that government are trying to trap people in their homes for nefarious reasons. It’s hard to deny the authoritarian streak in many governments but that streak has always been accompanied by those same governments wanting people going to work and if not working, going to the shops.
Survelliance issues: government covid tracking apps or sign-in apps have created an issue where the balance of a public health crisis meets the genuine fear of how the government or police might abuse the information they collect. Many abosultely 100% legitimate concerns but also an entry point into broader conspiracies.
Food shortage predictions: these were more common mid-2020 with the idea that lockdown measures were going to stop farmers growing food or a general economic collapse because of covid.
Anti-Fauci: specifically in the US. This is one of the simplest and most direct indications of somebody going a long way down the covid-denial rabbit hole. Memes or rhetoric attacking Dr Anthony Fauci because of his high profile role as chief medical advisor to the US President. In other countries, this might be directed at similar figures who have had equivalent roles.
Experts were wrong: this is similar to the issue about changing messaging on public health advice but with a specific focus on claiming that key experts (such as Dr Fauci) were wrong at some point in the pandemic but in particular focusing on what was said in the first several months of 2020. The point here is to discredit medical expertise in general (as opposed to just government public health advice in general but obviously the two are connected).
Experts lied: the more extreme version of the point above but with the added twist that what was said was lies or intended to decieve the public for nefarious reasons.
Pro-Hydroxychloroquine: the drug did really once look like it might have some effect against covid-19 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroxychloroquine but systematic trials showed that whatever benefits it might have were slim (at best) compared to the risks. So there’s a bit of a time spectrum here, somebody saying in March 2020 “hydroxychloroquine might be a cure” is speculating whereas somebody saying that it is a cure in March 2021 is ignoring medical evidence. Again, medical understanding changes and who knows, somebody might discover a way it treats covid in some people or in some circumstances at some point in the future…or they very well might not. Claiming it is a cure now is making claims that run counter to known facts.
Pro-Ivermectin: there genuinely were studies showing some effectiveness of this anti-parasite drug against covid but those were in-vitro studies with high concentration. Clinical trials led to a mess of information when a number of low-quality (and possibly fraudulent) trials showed amazing success, along with other trials that showed little or no positive results. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivermectin So again, there’s a time factor here. A reasonable person could have looked at the available evidence late in 2020 and concluded that ivermectin had promise. Not changing your mind about that in the face of evidence is a different matter. There’s another dimension here which is the socioeconomics of the pandemic. With access to vaccines being far more limited in many developing nations, the use of ivermectin has continued because of its relative availability as an anti-parisitic drug for humans and animals. If, on the other hand, you are an affluent person in a affluent city taking horse paste instead of a vaccine then, yes, you deserve at least some mockery.
Other fake cures: by this is mean the more obvious non-science based quackery. If somebody is selling homeopathic cures for covid for example.
General anti-vaccine nonsense: there is a two-way street here. There are reasonable and semi-reasonable issues listed above that help bring some people along into more weird positions. Similarly, people who were already anti-vaccine follow a path to adopting other positions (or joining an anti-lockdown protest). In principle somebody could be anti-vaccine but pro-lockdowns or pro-vaccine specifically as an alternative to lockdowns but the further down the conspiracy path you go, the more the whole set of beliefs gets adopted.
Covid vaccine dangers: vaccines don’t have zero risks but they have low risks compared to other common medication. Hyping up actual side effects or claiming false causality when a vaccinated person suffers some unrelated ailment, are standard anti-vaccine tactics. Again, there’s a spectrum here of reasonable concern through to conspiratorial nonsense.
Claims covid vaccines don’t work: this varies from ‘just asking questions’ stances as to why the vaccines haven’t been miracle cures already to overt claims that the vaccines don’t work. This is often accompanied by misinformation or misleading stats (e.g. pointing to the proportion of covid cases in the vaccinated v unvaccinated in countries with 70%+ of the population with at least one vaccine dose).
Claims covid vaccines aren’t vaccines: this maybe specifically pointed at vaccines such the mRNA style vaccine such as the Pfizer vaccine on the ground that they don’t work in the traditional way. This is often a lead into nuttier anti-vaccine conspiracies.
Nuttier anti-vaccine conspiracies: too many to list but these are the more obviously out-there claims about tracking chips and 5G networks etc.
Anti-booster shot: many vaccines need multiple shots. Chicken pox, for example, is the gift that keeps on giving and past infection doesn’t give you lifelong immunity but instead the chance of getting shingles in later life. Influenza adapts to human immunity with such agility that yearly vaccinations are needed. However, the fact that covid vaccines might need additional shots is being used as a rhetorical point to bolster other claims from the nuttier ones to stoking fears of side-effects.
Anti-vaccine mandate: can and should governments make you take a vaccine? What about employers? There are legitimate ethical questions there but add in any of the more conspiratorial aspects listed above and the idea that people will be pressured or legal obligied to take covid vaccines takes on a more sinister aspect.
I’m not sure if I should group these or rank them (e.g. from reasonable to utter nonsense) or group them thematically and then rank them. I want to stress again that I’m including reasonable points (or points that start reasonably or which were reasonable at some point prior to further data) not to demonise people who have sensible concerns but to try and get a sense of the spectrum of the issues and to see the entry points to more radical beliefs.
Vaccine denial and vaccine hesitancy have a very long history and as with many of these things, overt nonsense is mixed in with genuine concerns. Many socially and economically disadvantaged groups have reasons to be wary of the medical profession and many developing nations have reasons to be wary of initiatives from Western governments and/or companies for example.
However, what we’ve seen almost in real-time is vaccine misinformation shift from being a fringe belief only partly connected with ideology to something that is increasingly not just political but politically partisan.
As always, my canary in the coal mine for tracking this is Theodore Beale aka Vox “I’m not a neo-Nazi” Day. Now Day has a long history of pushing vaccine misinformation and fears, including hyping up concerns about mercury in vaccines and the false claims of vaccines being a cause of autism. Yet despite a history of raising fears about “vaccine safety” that date back to at least 2004, the volume of his posts about vaccines split approximately 50/50 from prior to 1/1/2021 to after 1/1/201*
Vox D then grabbed some other persons attempt to spin one table from that report and then did some basic arithmetic to jump to an erroneous conclusion.
“Do the math. An unvaccinated individual in the UK who contracts COVID has a 1 in 597 chance of dying. A fully-vaccinated individual has a 1 in 117 chance of dying, which is 5.1 times greater.”
Where is the error? Not in the division. He divided some numbers and got those values but simply doing a calculation correctly isn’t the same as doing the right calculation.
The data he worked with is from a table on pages 18 & 19 from the report above. In fact, he’s mainly using the last row of the table which spills over onto page 19. I’ve put together the rows and columns he used but I won’t include all the other columns to focus on the numbers he uses:
All Deaths (delta)
All delta cases
1 chance in
Data taken from Table 5. Attendance to emergency care and deaths of confirmed and provisional Delta cases in England by vaccination status (1 February 2021 to 2 August 2021) with added calculations
Out of context, that looks alarming and confusing! Yeah but no. It’s horribly misleading and relies on two errors. The first is that you aren’t comparing like with like from the data in the table itself and the second is a baseline error. Day claims that a “fully-vaccinated individual has a 1 in 117 chance of dying” but that conclusion is demonstrably false.
So the first error can be seen directly in the table. The data split cases by age: <50 years old and ≥50 years old. That’s obviously important with mortality statistics (and even more so with COVID19) but also with vaccination status.
Do the same calculations again but this time use the data from the table that is specific to the age groups.
1 chance in
1 chance in
The first problem with Day’s calculation becomes apparent. The proportions of the two age groups is different between the 2 dose group and the unvaccinated group. A greater proportion of the unvaccinated over 50s died compared to the 2 doses over 50s.
So OK, Day screwed up that “5.1 times greater” figure and screwed up the probability by comparing two groups that were demographically dissimilar but don’t the data still point to their being an issue? After all for the under 50s that small percentage who died is still bigger than the percentage for the unvaccinated? Still no because it ignores a key fact about the UK for the time range the table applies to.
Britain started its vaccine program very early and by 2 August 2021, a majority of people had been vaccinated https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/vaccinations The vaccines aren’t foolproof, they do reduce the risk of catching COVID19 and do reduce the chance of hospitalisation and death substantially but there’s always some chance. So we also have to factor in the proportions of the population vaccinated.
By 2 August, 71% of the UK population over 16 had received two doses of a COVID19 vaccine. 86.2% had received at least one dose, which leaves 13.8% unvaccinated at all. We can’t directly apply those numbers to the numbers above because obviously, those proportions shifted over the several months worth of data shown in the table above. The number of cases from fully vaccinated people comes from a much bigger group of people than those from the unvaccinated. Not only that but you are unlikely to have the same patterns of hospital admission between vaccinated and unvaccinated people as well as other demographic differences between the two.
*[based on using date ranges in a site-specific Google search – your mileage may vary]