What Does a Sustainable Fight against COVID Look Like?

What Does a Sustainable Fight against COVID Look Like?

The extraordinary and never-ending spat between state premiers and between state premiers and federal politicians has been mighty entertaining. And I don’t even know whether I’m referring to the German, UK, Japanese, US, or Australian political systems. The same zingers and humble pies have been flying around everywhere I can keep up with.

And between nations too, right New Zealand?

But the chaos is not just entertainment. It also reveals a fundamental truth about the pandemic: the authorities have no idea what they’re doing. Nor what they’re dealing with.

Speaking of which, I better mention the results of last week’s poll. The question was:

Which do you think is looking more likely?

Do you think central bankers will try to rein in inflation at the risk of popping the stock market, property market, and bond market bubble?

Or do you think they’ll ignore their inflation mandate in favour of financial stability and keeping their mates at the Treasury funded?

So far, 339 people have voted, and 90% of them think central bankers will keep the party going, even if inflation soars.

You can still vote here now.

But before you do, you might want to check in with Iceland and South Korea’s central bankers for what they’ve been up to…

Back to today’s topic of equally clueless policy makers on the pandemic front.

You see, the science of COVID does not differ between different places. And yet, politicians manage to put in place wildly different policies. All of them claim to be following ‘the science’, though.

For every state in lockdown, there’s another that refuses to lock down. For every place with a mask mandate, there’s another without. For every restriction, there is a wide variation in compliance between nations. For every assumption made by an epidemiologist or politician, there is another that undermines it. For every model with one conclusion, there is another that extrapolates otherwise. For every study, another concludes differently. Every expert has their critic — every group of doctors their corresponding tribe on the other side.

If the science were settled, as they say, then there would be consistency between policies. Instead, it has been a free for all. As if each jurisdiction’s top epidemiologist is making it up as they go along.

The study, which reversed the US’s policy on masks for the umpteenth time, was highlighted by a Bloomberg article about how little we still really know about COVID, pandemic policies, and vaccines. I’ve added emphasis where I laughed out loud:

One of the best known outbreaks among vaccinated people occurred in the small beach town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, as thousands of vaccinated and unvaccinated alike gathered on dance floors and at house parties over the Fourth of July weekend to celebrate the holiday — and what seemed like a turning point in the pandemic. About three-fourths of the 469 infections were among vaccinated people.

Authors of a CDC case study said this might mean that they were just as likely to transmit Covid-19 as the unvaccinated. Even so, they cautioned, as more people are vaccinated, it’s natural that they would also account for a larger share of Covid-19 infections and this one study was not sufficient to draw any conclusions. The incident prompted the CDC to reverse a recommendation it had issued just a few weeks earlier and once again urge the vaccinated to mask up in certain settings.

Yes, a study about a Fourth of July party — which made clear that it’s not a basis for reaching conclusions — was used to determine national policy. Cue the furore between state politicians and the federales.

The same mess applies to vaccinations.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine went from being undersupplied to banned to approved to oversupplied and unwanted in the EU.

Israel’s study on the effectiveness of the vaccines against delta provided a completely different estimate to the US’s.

The optimal timing for when to get the vaccines has varied too, with the longer dosage timing supposedly making the UK’s use of AstraZeneca more effective than the US’s use of Pfizer. In other words, when you get the vaccines might matter more than which.

Whatever you might believe, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitted their major discovery so far in the pandemic is…that it’s hard to figure out what they even know so far:

“We have to be humble about what we do know and what we don’t know,” said Tom Frieden, a former director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the head of the nonprofit Resolve to Save Lives. “There are a few things we can say definitively. One is that this is a hard question to address.”

Well, that’s helpful! How long has the pandemic been going for? How long have we had the vaccines?

Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, was even less helpful:

We all know someone who has had [a breakthrough infection]. But we don’t have great clinical data.

You might think having good clinical data on the results of the vaccines is a good idea generally. But we don’t have it, apparently. Hence all the disagreements can continue to rage, especially in Australia.

The point is that, when you hear someone claim that policy is based on science, this is a laughable assertion in the face of policy being so wildly different between different nations, all of which claim to be following the same science.

Which nations’ ability to ‘follow the science’ do you happen to believe in? For every leading national epidemiologist you quote, another will say otherwise.

No, there is something very different at work, which determines national policy. Something that differs between nations. And something that didn’t happen in Sweden, apparently.

Here’s what I think it is: in Sweden, the leading epidemiologist didn’t scare the bejeezus out of the government. In other places, they did.

What makes Sweden interesting is not its high level of total deaths initially or lack of deaths recently. Nor the differences in its policies relative to other nations — the comparative lack of restrictions and lockdowns.

Nor the mistake of refusing emergency care to the elderly with COVID in order to protect hospitals from being overwhelmed. This was a bizarre mistake made in an extraordinary number of jurisdictions. Scotland, New York, England, and probably Victoria either rejected COVID cases from care homes, discharged patients back to care homes without testing them for COVID, or sent positive testing patients to care homes.

What makes Sweden’s story so interesting, especially for Australians, is this, from the mouth of Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s infamous epidemiologist, with my emphasis added again:

At the outset, we talked very much about sustainability, and I think that’s something we managed to keep to. And also be a bit resistant to quick fixes, to realise that this is not going to be easy, it is not going to be a short-term kind of thing, it’s not going to be fixed by one kind of measure. We see a disease that we’re going to have to handle for a long time into the future and we need to build up systems for doing that.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been told every step of the way by politicians in three countries that the pandemic is almost over. And this justified the extraordinary and increasingly bizarre measures each time. The fact that lockdown would only be a matter of a few days…a few more days…a few more weeks…made them bearable.

The idea that the pandemic would be with us for a long time would’ve undermined these short-term fixes all along. It would’ve shifted the focus to what we can sustain. What level of restriction both ends the never-ending emergency and fights COVID.

But in Sweden, they acknowledged from the beginning the fact that we’d be stuck where we are now around about now. And this exposed the futility of those draconian policies each step of the way. Instead, the sustainable level of restrictions was put in place — largely voluntary ones.

That’s why people outside Sweden are gradually joining the protests. Everyone has a limit. And that limit would’ve been hit a long time ago if we had known how long a lockdown roulette we were singing up for.

Especially in Australia, which seems hardly any closer to escaping the lockdown roulette while other nations may have escaped already. Especially given Israel’s experience with the vaccines.

The results for Sweden’s policy of sustainable measures to fight the pandemic show up quite well in GDP data too. Reuters reported at the end of July:

Sweden’s economy looks to have recovered all of the losses wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, economists said, after preliminary figures released on Thursday showed the country was at the forefront of the economic rebound.

While its economy shrank 2.8% in 2020 when the pandemic first hit, Sweden was not hit as hard as many other countries thanks in part to less onerous COVID-19 rules which allowed most businesses to stay open.

In comparison, the UK saw its economy shrink by almost 10% in 2020 — the worst recession in 300 years. Unfortunately, the data is largely a question of timing. The UK went into lockdown towards the end of 2020, which makes the annual data look especially bad. Also, my family left the UK in October, and the shift in my wife’s spending accounts for much of the contraction.

So, perhaps, one day, we’ll all be like Sweden and pursue a sustainable policy to fight COVID.

But what will that look like?

Until next time,

Nick Hubble Signature

Nickolai Hubble,
Editor, The Daily Reckoning Australia Weekend

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