WEST RIVER, MARYLAND – How’s the battle against COVID-19 going?
After almost a full year, we thought we should check in.
There is no need to remind dear readers – nor they to remind us! – we know nothing about epidemiology.
Our views are simply those of someone who reads the news and tries to connect the dots.
And we only bother with the coronavirus dots because it – and the American government’s response to it – just clipped $500 billion off the economy. Here’s Reuters:
COVID-19 Savages U.S. Economy, 2020 Performance Worst in 74 Years
The U.S. economy contracted at its deepest pace since World War Two in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic depressed consumer spending and business investment, pushing millions of Americans out of work and into poverty.
Gross domestic product decreased 3.5% in 2020, the biggest drop since 1946. That followed 2.2% growth in 2019 and was the first annual decline in GDP since the 2007-09 Great Recession.
So, was it worth it?
Readers will know as well as we do that much of the data is squirrelly. A “case” is not a death. And a positive test result is not necessarily meaningful at all; it depends on what the test was looking for and how the results were read.
And if you ask the simplest, most basic question – How many people joined the shades because of the virus? – the answer is: Nobody knows.
Most often, the victim had other ailments, so it was not clear what did him in. And some places reported more cases and deaths than they probably should have, while other places reported fewer.
Still, corpses don’t lie. And the death counts are the data least likely to be fudged.
So did the mitigation measures – lockdowns, face masks, and social distancing – result in fewer deaths… or not?
Answer: We don’t know that, either. But it doesn’t look like it.
In the U.S., it was a sloppy social science experiment. Some states tried to control the spread of the virus much more vigorously than others.
Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, and South Dakota, for example, were half-hearted about it, at best.
New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, California, and Illinois, on the other hand, allegedly did a better job. (For example, Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, became a nationwide celebrity, of sorts, for appearing to lead the battle against the coronavirus.)
Well… How did it turn out?
Each state has its own particularities. But if the mitigations had any effect, you’d expect to see some sign of it. So let’s look.
Here are the deaths per million of the abovementioned states, as of last week:
Florida – 1212
Georgia – 1302
South Carolina – 1341
Arkansas – 1585
South Dakota – 1960
New York – 2221
Massachusetts – 2082
Wisconsin – 998
California – 1002
At first, they look like they’re all over the place.
Looking more closely, we see that Andrew Cuomo might have led the charge, but he lost the war. New York has the worst result of the whole bunch. And it appears that even these were understated. Here’s the story from the Associated Press:
New York may have undercounted COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents by thousands, the state attorney general charged in a report Thursday that dealt a blow to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s oft-repeated claims that his state is doing better than others in protecting its most vulnerable.
The 76-page report found an undercount of more than 50%, backing up the findings of an Associated Press investigation last year that focused on the fact that New York is one of the only states in the nation that count residents who died on nursing home property and not those who later died in hospitals.
And if we average out the death rates over the two groups – those with tight controls and those without them – we find that those that tried to stop the virus had an average of 1,593 deaths per million of population, while the others had an average of 1,480.
In America overall, the death count is 1,336, so it appears that those places that the plague hit hardest were those that tried hardest to avoid it.
Looking at the rest of the world, we find more puzzlements.
France has a lower body count – with 1,144 deaths per million. Britain is higher, at 1,515.
But Germany has 671. The Dutch have 805 deaths per million, while Canada’s death toll is 518.
Did the Germans, the Dutch, and the Canadians do a better job of keeping the illness at bay?
Then what about Iraq, with even fewer COVID-19 corpses, at 320 per million… or Pakistan, with 52 per million? Did they do a better job, too?
Oh… and there’s Sweden at 1,144 – lower than Britain or the U.S.
Sweden famously took a path less traveled (at the start). And that has made little difference at all.
When, in the early spring of 2020, it became clear that Sweden was not going to go into lockdown, media scolds were quick to issue warnings. The country would soon resemble the classic Swedish movie, The Seventh Seal, they said, which shows a knight returning from the Crusades to a country overrun by the plague. Death is everywhere.
The New York Times put ink to paper, describing the coming Nordic apocalypse. It portrayed Sweden as a failed state, a “world’s cautionary tale,” against letting people ignore Dr. Fauci’s advice.
So what happened? Well, a lot of people just failed to die.
We have in front of us a study: “Final Report on Swedish Mortality 2020, Anno Covidius.” It appears, at least to us, to be a very reputable étude. The authors took the raw numbers…
…and adjusted them for population growth… and an aging population… (more people = more deaths; more old people also = a higher death rate per million)…
…and then smoothed them over two years (if fewer old people died in 2019, the 2020 death toll might naturally be higher)…
…and then took out the immigrants (one out of five people in Sweden was born somewhere else. The immigrants are younger than the native-born population. They are more mobile, with different health habits and different living standards – thus skewing the results in one way or another…)
The result? The report found that 2020 was almost like every other year! Here are the actual conclusions:
Yes, COVID-19 was real (and continues to be real, at least until spring 2021, as is the case with all seasonal viruses). The number of deaths in 2020 was higher than it should have been, whichever way we define “excess.” Not exceptionally higher, and far from all the disaster scenarios painted by media, politicians, and failed scientists.
Was COVID-19 our generation’s “Spanish Flu”? No. Far from it… Age-adjusted mortality in 2020 was on par with 2013.
Was the Swedish government’s response adequate? To a large extent, yes…
Where “The Strategy” failed was in protecting the frail and elderly, particularly those in the care homes…
The psychological effect on populations having spent a year or more in lockdown, thus missing most of what makes life and living worthwhile, will be interesting to observe… as will be whether social interaction patterns and behaviors eventually return to normal, or whether our future social interactions will be so deeply ingrained by Anno Covidius that we will, similar to Pavlov’s dogs, continue regarding fellow human beings as potentially deadly virus vectors.
You can make of this whatever you want. We take away two things.
First, transmission was much harder to stop than the authorities believed…
On this point, Holman Jenkins of The Wall Street Journal came to the same conclusion:
A 9-year-old could see the math didn’t work. Covid spreads more easily than the flu. An overwhelming share of cases are asymptomatic or indistinguishable from ailments that millions of Americans suffer every day. In a country as big, mobile and open as the U.S., there was zero chance of catching and isolating enough spreaders to matter.
That was also the conclusion of Tufts Medical Center epidemiologist, Shira Dorn:
Businesses and restaurants have not been shown to be a significant source of spread of infection, and it’s not clear that the additional measures that were instituted in November and December actually helped.
Our second observation is that the coronavirus, as an indiscriminate killer, was greatly overrated.
Managing Editor’s Note: Yesterday, Bill and his Bonner-Denning Letter coauthor, Dan Denning, revealed their new Trade of the Decade. Bill’s previous two trades of the decade would have seen a 500%+ return… versus just over 120% for the S&P 500.
If you’re already a Bonner-Denning Letter subscriber, click here to read all about Bill’s latest Trade of the Decade. If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can sign up here.
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