It’s not a trick question. Of course the rich, the connected and big companies won but today let’s look at fatality rates around the world.
You might argue, why bother? What does it matter if a few of one country’s diabetic dementia patients got to live eighteen months longer than another country’s?
A good question, and one for which I have a good answer:
This time around the pandemic virus was fairly mild. Next time, and there will be a next time, it might be more like bird flu, SARS or Ebola.
As I said about a year ago, Covid is a good practice run to see what countermeasures can work against a respiratory or otherwise highly contagious virus.
Now that we’ve got more than a year’s worth of data, let see what jumps out at us.
I’m using Worldometer’s Covid tracker and setting the table of data to sort by Deaths /1M pop. Keep in mind that these figures are mostly pre-vaccine.
Islands. Many, many islands.
Greenland, Samoa, Fiji, Singapore, New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia.
In amongst these island are some not-islands that can be sealed off like islands: South Korea (not much traffic across that land border), Eritrea, Bhutan.
There’s another group in the low-fatality set that are not island-like at all: most of the countries in Indochina. What happened there? Got lucky? Dodgy figures? Tight borders? I don’t know.
There is also a large number of sub-Saharan countries here. Could be unreliable reporting, very young populations or a lack of urbanization. I’m guessing.
Note that some islands did badly despite being islands: Japan and most of the Caribbean are in the middle of the pack, Malta had a high fatality rate and the UK was among the highest.
The lesson here looks pretty obvious. It is possible to keep out highly infectious diseases by closing borders if you can seal them properly.
I am not justifying Covid border closures. They were an overreaction and the cost was too great to liberty and the economy. What I am saying is that if a future, seriously nasty virus is doing the rounds, border closures are a plausible way of keeping it out for some countries.
But, for how long? At the time of writing Taiwan, Singapore and other places that initially suffered little from Covid are experiencing large outbreaks.
Sometimes a virus will turn out to be a flash-in-the-pan that disappears as soon as it appeared, like SARS. In that case, border closures might be enough on their own.
If the virus threatens to become endemic, border closures can only buy time. In that case, governments must ask themselves: buy time for what? To prepare hospitals and hoard medications? Gather further information? Develop a vaccine? If the last, can borders really be kept closed that long? And how will you get the population to accept their reopening?
These are things governments should consider before closing the border rather than a year after closing them as Australia did.
There are some clear but mysterious patterns among the nations with the highest Covid fatality rates.
First we see much of Eastern Europe: Hungary, Czechia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Croatia, Romania.
Then there’s Latin America: Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Panama, Ecuador etc.
There’s no pattern to their policies. Some enforced strict lockdowns and mask mandates, some didn’t. Chile and Mexico were polar opposites in that respect.
Together with Eastern Europe and Latin America we find mixed in a collection of Western countries: Italy, UK, USA, Spain, France, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland.
Some of this is age-related. Asia has old countries too, but they were able to insulate themselves better.
Some of it probably relates to preexisting health and fitness. The worst-performing countries in the group tend to be the fattest. I wonder if that was a factor in Latin America, although the data I looked at suggests the women there are fatter than men while Covid attacks men more than women.
Once again, Western polices varied widely, from Sweden staying largely open to the UK arresting people for going out to buy wine and chips.
For the record, Scandinavian countries aside from Sweden came around the middle of the pack alongside much of the Middle East and the Caribbean. I have heard several theories as to why, including a bad 2019 flu season and closed borders, but I don’t know. Some of their internal restrictions were not much tighter than in Sweden.
Let us note, not for the first time on this blog, that all the supposed medical prowess of the West did little to help against Covid until the vaccines were developed, and the evidence is mounting that this is because effective, conventional treatments were suppressed for a combination of political and avaricious reasons.
It is sobering to realize that when the Big One hits, pharmaceutical companies will again be thinking first of profit and politicians will begin calculating how to make themselves look good and their rivals bad. How to manage the infection will be an afterthought, if Covid was any guide.
It’s probably nothing, but . . .
All regions that did badly have a lot of European DNA in their populations while those that did best have more Asian DNA.
If some sort of airborne super-Ebola starts spreading around the globe tomorrow, we still don’t know much about what policies might help.
Some countries could close their borders to limit the spread for a while but aside from that it’s hard to make sense from these varied outcomes.
More than a year ago I said, when the dust settles we need to examine Covid policies and see what worked. We now know that Covid isn’t very dangerous, with the average age of fatalities being around the same as the average life expectancy in most places, but questions remain.
We need serious research, not an amateur blog post, to figure out what these patterns teach us about the spread of viruses. This research needs to forego the political baggage that has dogged Covid at every step, peer through the fog and figure out why some countries got the worst of it.
In 2020-21, the poorly performing countries lost more elderly and very ill people than in other places. In some future pandemic, they might be losing millions of healthy people compared to tens of thousands in luckier places.
These differences might be due to random factors that we can’t control like the nature of the population or the geography of the country.
If, on the other hand, some policies for managing pandemics really are more effective than others, we should probably figure out what those effective policies are.