Looking Back on the Plague Year

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The coronavirus was not good for libertarians.

In the tribal war between the Left and the Right, the Left charged that the dreaded bug might kill a million Americans, and that President Trump was as useless as one of his red hats. The Right labeled the Left’s warnings a political hoax, a move to impeach their dear leader and take away the people’s freedom.

On March 31, 2020, I argued on this page that the Left had the better argument. When I wrote that, the virus had killed fewer than 3,000 Americans. It has now extinguished nearly 350,000. Before this is over, it will probably top half a million. If so, it will be the third-largest cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer. It will be more than all U.S. military deaths during World War II (416,000).

I don’t hear voices on the Right saying, “We were wrong” — but, hey, you were. The virus was as bad as the other side said it was.

The virus has now extinguished nearly 350,000 Americans. Before this is over, it will probably top half a million.

Libertarians do have a point about officials imposing extraordinary controls. They have, and some of their controls have not been clearly lawful. But what would you have officials do? Leave us free to choose? That would be the libertarian way. The Swedes tried a liberal policy and libertarians cheered them on. Lately they have decided to impose more controls on behavior, an admission that the looser policy wasn’t up to the job.

Look around the world. Which countries have beaten the coronavirus, and which ones have succumbed to it? The best measure is the cumulative number of COVID-19 deaths per million inhabitants. As I write, on a list of 220 nations and such mini-jurisdictions as San Marino and Hong Kong, the United States is 14th worst, with a rate (on Jan. 1, 2021) of 1,073 deaths per million. The United Kingdom, with 1,089 deaths per million, is no better. Among major countries, Belgium is the worst, with 1,681 deaths per million.

Among the Scandinavian countries, Sweden, with 861 deaths per million, has a fatality rate four times that of the next-highest Scandinavian country, Denmark (228 deaths per million), and more than 10 times the death rate in next-door Norway (80 per million).

The region with the best record against the disease is East Asia. China, where the epidemic began, has a death rate of just three per million.

Probably that is understated. Multiply it by five if you like. Multiply it by 10. The number you are starting with is three, compared with the US death rate of 1,073.

East Asia was hit by the same waves of infection that washed over the United States, but fought back more effectively.

It would seem that if any government has done a fabulous job, it was not the one led by Donald Trump. The American president accused China of covering up the coronavirus — criminally covering it up. And in Wuhan, where the plague began, officials did cover up the “China virus” for several weeks. But once the leaders in Beijing got wind of it in mid-January 2020, the central government moved in, cleared aside the footdraggers, sent in tens of thousands of medical people and locked down Wuhan for 76 days.

China is not the only country with a rock-bottom rate of death from Covid-19. Taiwan’s is 0.3 per million; Thailand’s, 0.9; Singapore’s, 5; South Korea’s, 18; Hong Kong’s, 20; Japan’s, 27. Most of East Asia did a far better job relative to Europe and the Americas, and they did it without China’s heavy-handed police tactics or by locking up critics of the government. The stories that I’ve read — and you can Google “East Asia” and “coronavirus” and read them yourself — give the picture:

Fortune recalled on Dec. 28, 2020: “On Jan. 22, the day after Taiwan’s first confirmed case, Taiwan’s government began distributing face masks to convenience stores, releasing 1 million masks per week and advising people ‘to remain calm and not rush to buy them.’ Before January was over, Taiwan had banned exports of face masks, placed limits on the number of masks that outbound travelers could take with them and capped the number of masks that each person could buy at one time.”

Compare this with the US government’s Center for Disease Control, which didn’t recommend masks to the public until April — and Donald Trump, who didn’t wear a mask in public until July, after he was hectored into it by a hostile press.

Foreign Policy magazine reported on Dec. 29, “East Asian governments acted faster than the West, but they also benefited from publics that saw masks as a social good while Western experts were busy wrongly arguing that they had little value.”

When you’re fighting for life, you do what works.

East Asia was hit by the same waves of infection that washed over the United States, but fought back more effectively. By October, most of the region was disease-free:

CBC reported from Wuhan in November, “The place is wide-open. The restaurants are jammed, the bars are jammed.” That’s not to say the people were happy about the government’s heavy-handed lockdown of the spring. “People do look at it as a nightmare,” the Canada’s TV network reported. “They remember it as a very grim time in Wuhan . . . [but] most people will tell you it was probably worth it.”

In December, the third wave hit East Asia:

Voice of America reported December 7 from Taiwan that East Asian governments were “stepping up controls without shuttering businesses in most cases or ordering people to stay home . . . [They were] quarantining sick people, tracing their contacts and mandating bigger social distances in public. International borders remain shut to tourists.”

East Asia’s relative success is not only about governments but individuals. “People in the region habitually comply with the rules, even where on one’s on hand to enforce them,” the VOA correspondent said. “Collective wellbeing is prioritized over individual liberty.”

I imagine this grates on the libertarian ear. It grates on mine. But when you’re fighting for life, you do what works.

Trump deserves some credit. He gave the green light to the pharma companies to develop, test, and produce vaccines in record time. But he downplayed the disease from the start. He said it would go away, fought with his public-health experts and promoted cures that didn’t work. He hobnobbed and shook hands with politicos and eventually got sick himself. Before, during, and after his illness he behaved as if the virus were no big deal.

Individuality. Rights. That is who we are, but it is not helpful in fighting an epidemic.

Would a President Biden’s response have been better? On the public health aspects, almost certainly yes. On the vaccine, perhaps not. I can imagine a President Bernie Sanders bullying the pharma companies, which would not have helped.

But whoever was president, Republican or Democrat, was bound to be too late. East Asia snapped to attention in late January of 2020, when the Republicans and Democrats in Washington DC were fixed on Trump’s impeachment. Several administration officials warned in January of what was coming, but they were ignored. The first U.S deaths from COVID-19 were reported at the end of February in a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington,15 miles from where I live. And when that news hit, the US government was not ready. The 50 state governments, Red and Blue alike, were not ready. The hospitals were not ready and the private sector suppliers were not ready.

Probably we couldn’t expect to be ready. Asia was ready because people remembered the SARS epidemic of 2003. We were hardly touched by that. What’s more, we have a different culture. We celebrate rebels. Individuality. Rights. That is who we are, but it is not helpful in fighting an epidemic. Given the American character, the initial response to COVID-19 had to be strong. Decisive. It had to impress people that this was real, it was serious, and that they had better cooperate.

After the “lockdown” of March and April, the virus spread anyway. The conclusion to draw is not that the effort was all useless; it surely helped to “flatten the curve.” But to have been really effective, the lockdown should have come earlier. As a nation, we were too slow.

The countries that clamped down earlier, when there were few enough people to use contact tracing and individual quarantine, got better results. The Right needs to acknowledge this. If the United States had a cumulative death rate less than 1% of China’s, you’d be hearing about it. If Sweden, with its looser policy, had the best results in Scandinavia — even the same results — you’d be hearing about it. As it is, my political allies seem curiously uninterested in the data.

Much of the concern among conservatives and libertarians has been the rules that put people out of work. I had a sense of the shutdowns a few weeks ago by walking through downtown Seattle for an hour. It looked like a war zone. Block after block, storefronts are boarded up. Much of it is because of the window-breaking by the Black Lives Matter protesters, and behind the plywood some businesses are still operating. But with COVID-19 they’ve been hit twice, and many are closed. The work-from-home movement has killed the lunch places.

I agree that the people’s need to make a living cannot be swept aside by the glib answer, “We have to deal with COVID first.” No; we have to deal with both at the same time. We don’t know how long COVID will hang on, and we can’t have a huge section of the people sitting at home indefinitely, living off government welfare. Businesses have to come up with ways to safely stay open, and officials have to allow them to do that. I’m thinking of the Mexican restaurant I saw in Cle Elum, WA, last summer: the owner had cut a window in a brick wall so he could serve customers in their cars. He told me that that window had saved the business. In my neighborhood, restaurants set up tables on the sidewalk during the summer. On the other hand, all the buffet restaurants I know of are closed.

All of these adaptations include the wearing of masks. In its public protests against masks, the Right has made fools of themselves. I’m thinking of a particular Internet wiseacre who mocks the face mask as “the diaper.” I’m not a medical authority, but neither is the Diaper Man, whose expertise is automobiles.

Right now, though, I think the people in Wuhan, China, have more ground-level personal freedom than I — the freedom to go to a restaurant, to host a hot-pot dinner, to go to work.

I’ll make my stand for masks on the following ideas. First, the people who are authorities — the medical doctors and public-health officials — insist on them. I respect those people. Second, in the cities of East Asia, which has had the best results in the fight against COVID-19, mask-wearing is near-universal. Third, if the virus spreads through droplets in the breath, which scientists say it does, common sense says that covering the mouth should help. Fourth, arguments against masks usually misconstrue their purpose as protecting only the wearer. Their purpose is to stop the spread and thereby protect the community.

There another reason for masks. It sends a message. It is a constant reminder to the wearer not to forget: don’t rub your nose, don’t chew your fingernails, don’t hug other people or shake their hands. Mask-wearing is also a social signal: Hey, you! Stay away from me! And, Where’s your mask? I’m wearing mine!

I don’t like wearing masks, breathing my own air and struggling to communicate with people by talking through a blanket. I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten out of the car and halfway to the store thought, “Damn! I forgot my mask.” But when I get in the store, I am glad that someone required everyone to wear them.

I do want my freedom — and to live to enjoy it. Right now, though, I think the people in Wuhan, China, have more ground-level personal freedom than I — the freedom to go to a restaurant, to host a hot-pot dinner, to go to work. They have it because of what their government did — which in some respects was too harsh, but was quick enough and thorough enough to stop the virus.

2 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Weiss

    Very interesting article! I think that there is often a need or desire to compare how we in the US are doing with other countries. I do it most mornings too. However, I think that one must be careful in our assumptions on how comparable numbers are. Although taking into account population size is a good start, it doesn’t deal with the many other factors, such as previous exposure to similar diseases and immunity, cultural differences (e.g., in cleanliness or in greetings), obesity rates, age distribution, and even how the COVID-19 deaths are counted. The US and Belgium count them much more liberally than in most places, which I am not saying is right or wrong but it will make a difference in the end outcome. Here is an article that deals with the variance in comparing COVID-19 deaths:
    https://www.politico.eu/article/coronavirus-the-challenge-of-counting-covid-19-deaths/

    And, here is one on Singapore’s low death, which highlights the role of WHO’s method of counting deaths towards the end:
    https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-singapore-explainer-idUSKBN2680TF

    And, from Dr. Birx, the US method of counting: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2020/04/08/dr_birx_unlike_some_countries_if_someone_dies_with_covid-19_we_are_counting_that_as_a_covid-19_death.html#!

    And, an article in Scientific American that highlights the difficulties in determining the cause of death with both perspectives:
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-covid-19-deaths-are-counted1/

  2. James Loughman

    A couple more scattershot questions and observations.

    # 1- – How trustworthy are the Covid-death #’s out of Red China?

    I recall news stories early on during the pandemic suggesting there were 40 TIMES as many deaths there as were being officially reported.

    # 2- – How many “excess deaths” in the USA died (i.e., for 2020 compared to 2019) are attributable to the “lock down” (e.g., due to increased substance abuse, suicide, domestic violence, delayed medical care, general economic hardship) as opposed to Covid itself.

    I recall news stories early on (during the height of the initial lockdown) suggesting that, with fewer cars on the road, people were driving a lot faster, resulting in a lot more traffic fatalities.

    # 3 – – What was the average age of mortality for Covid deaths in the USA (in 2020) versus the average age of deaths generally (in 2019)?

    I recall one source (in mid-summer) indicating the average age of Covid mortality was 82, and the average age of mortality generally was right about the same.

    If accurate, it would suggest the vast majority of folks who have died of Covid only had a relatively short life expectancy even in its absence.

    Or, to put it another way, the Covid victims were deprived (on average) of relatively few years of remaining life compared to those of (say) the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which disproportionately killed those in the prime of their life (i.e., 20’s to 40’s).

    Of course, any death is tragic, but I would respectfully submit the death of an 82 (or 96) year old is less tragic than that of a 20 (or 40) year old – – particularly where the cause of death (i.e., illness) is what would traditionally be considered “natural causes.”

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