Otago Daily Times

‘Life as nor­mal’ ap­proach would cost dearly

- Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent London jour­nal­ist. Overpopulation · Population Ageing · Infectious Diseases · Climate Change · Social Issues · Society · Health Conditions · Ecology · Oxford · Oxford University · Harvard University · Harvard · Stanford · Bolivia · Spain · Chile · Ecuador · Mexico · Brazil · United States of America · United Kingdom · Belgium · English · New Zealand · Australia · Canada · China · Japan · Germany · Russia · Russian Empire · Ireland · France · Uganda · Great Barrington, MA · American Institute for Economic Research · Charles Koch Foundation · Charles G. Koch · Peru

AF­TER eight full months of the global pan­demic, the pres­sure to keep economies open and let the chips (or rather, the el­derly) fall where they may is grow­ing strong.

The Great Bar­ring­ton Dec­la­ra­tion of Oc­to­ber 4 was signed by three med­i­cal pro­fes­sors from Ox­ford, Har­vard and Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ties and by tens of thou­sands of other peo­ple. It de­mands a re­turn to “life as nor­mal” — no men­tion of masks, so­cial dis­tanc­ing, con­tact trac­ing or Covid­19 tests — for ev­ery­body ex­cept “the vul­ner­a­ble”, who would pre­sum­ably self­iso­late semi­per­ma­nently.

Never mind that the spon­sor is the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute for Eco­nomic Re­search, a lib­er­tar­ian think­tank funded by the Charles Koch Foun­da­tion and other hardright Amer­i­can groups whose main busi­ness is cli­mate change de­nial.

Never mind that the dec­la­ra­tion ad­vo­cates ‘‘herd im­mu­nity’’, a blessed state that is nor­mally achieved by mass vac­ci­na­tion, not by ex­pos­ing the en­tire pop­u­la­tion to a dis­ease with a 3% mor­tal­ity rate.

Never mind ei­ther that re­in­fec­tions with Covid­19 are now a doc­u­mented fact, which means that ‘‘herd im­mu­nity’’ is not re­ally pos­si­ble with the var­i­ous strains of this coro­n­avirus any­way. For­get the ide­ol­ogy and look at what is re­ally hap­pen­ing with Covid­19 death rates.

The lead­ing in­di­ca­tor for vul­ner­a­bil­ity to Covid­19 is speak­ing Span­ish. Among the nations with the high­est death rates per mil­lion peo­ple, six out of the top 10 are Span­ish­s­peak­ing: Peru (1010 deaths per mil­lion), Bo­livia (711), Spain

(710), Chile (699), Ecuador (691) and Mex­ico (649).

If you in­clude Por­tugue­ses­peak­ing Brazil (709 deaths per mil­lion) then seven out of the worst 10 speak the lan­guages of the Ibe­rian penin­sula. Two oth­ers are English­speak­ing coun­tries with pop­ulist gov­ern­ments: the United States (666) and the United King­dom (633). The 10th, mys­te­ri­ously, is Bel­gium (880).

How weird is this? Well, no other na­tion on the planet is above 600 deaths per mil­lion. And equally cu­ri­ous is the fact that none of the other de­vel­oped coun­tries that speak English have ex­cep­tion­ally high Covid death rates: New Zealand (five deaths per mil­lion), Aus­tralia (35) and Canada (255).

You can ac­count for the very low Aus­tralian and New Zealand death rates by the sheer ge­o­graph­i­cal iso­la­tion of these coun­tries, but you could not find two coun­tries closer or more alike (ex­cept in their pol­i­tics) than Canada and the United States. Yet the US death rate is al­most three times the Cana­dian rate. How can we ex­plain all this?

The great ma­jor­ity of the coun­tries with un­der 100 Covid deaths per mil­lion peo­ple are Asian and African nations with fast­grow­ing pop­u­la­tions and a me­dian age of well un­der 30. Covid­19 se­lec­tively kills el­derly peo­ple, and such peo­ple are very scarce in these coun­tries.

A few richer East Asian coun­tries in this un­der100­deaths­per­mil­lion group have much older pop­u­la­tions (China’s me­dian age is 37.4 years, Ja­pan’s is 43.4 years). But these are all coun­tries with well de­vel­oped med­i­cal sys­tems, strong so­cial dis­ci­pline and re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence with sim­i­lar pan­demics.

Then there is the broad group of coun­tries with be­tween 100 and 500 deaths per mil­lion. Most are rich coun­tries with rel­a­tively old pop­u­la­tions and good med­i­cal sys­tems, but lower so­cial dis­ci­pline (or, if you pre­fer, more so­cial free­dom).

They range from Ger­many (117 deaths per mil­lion) and Rus­sia (157) to Ire­land (369) and France (500). El­derly peo­ple are a big chunk of the pop­u­la­tion, and how many ac­tu­ally die seems to de­pend mainly on how well each gov­ern­ment man­ages the pan­demic. The wrong pol­icy or a few days’ de­lay in act­ing can make a huge dif­fer­ence.

And the fi­nal group are the Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries (al­most all over 500), where me­dian ages are as high as in the rich coun­tries but med­i­cal ser­vices and gov­ern­ment com­pe­tence tend to be worse. Lots of old peo­ple die, and even many younger peo­ple who would have sur­vived in bet­ter run and less un­equal coun­tries don’t make it.

How did the United States and the United King­dom end up in the same sad group? Both coun­tries have pop­ulist gov­ern­ments so ob­sessed with their own pop­u­lar­ity that they re­flex­ively de­lay or avoid un­pop­u­lar but nec­es­sary de­ci­sions. Too lit­tle, too late on the way into lock­down; too fast on the way out.

And what about Spain and Bel­gium? Maybe that was just poor man­age­ment: there are al­ways a few out­liers. But the gen­eral con­clu­sion is clear.

What re­ally mat­ters is the age pro­file of the pop­u­la­tion. In poor coun­tries with fast­grow­ing, very youth­ful pop­u­la­tions, the eco­nomic cost of lock­down prob­a­bly out­weighs the harm done to the rel­a­tively few el­derly peo­ple. In Uganda, only 2% of the pop­u­la­tion is over 65: pro­tect them by wear­ing masks and so on, but don’t close down the econ­omy.

In Ger­many, half the pop­u­la­tion are over 47, and al­most a quar­ter are over 65. Tak­ing the Great Bar­ring­ton Dec­la­ra­tion’s ad­vice could cost half a mil­lion lives. Horses for cour­ses.

 ?? PHOTO: REUTERS ?? A man is de­tained by po­lice af­ter they raided a night­club for host­ing a party in vi­o­la­tion of Covid­19 re­stric­tions in Lima re­cently. Peru has one of the high­est death rates from the dis­ease.
PHOTO: REUTERS A man is de­tained by po­lice af­ter they raided a night­club for host­ing a party in vi­o­la­tion of Covid­19 re­stric­tions in Lima re­cently. Peru has one of the high­est death rates from the dis­ease.
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