Monday, February 21, 2022

My COVID story - Part 1

March 2020 — People lose their minds

My first ever public comment about COVID was this. I was both prescient and wrong.

Everyone has lost their shit about coronavirus as if lives lost this way are worth orders of magnitude more than lives lost any other way. In two to three weeks time the reality will set in that there are real costs of locking down society that can be measured both in value of resources wasted and in blood. All perspective has been lost at present.

If only I’d written years instead of weeks, then it would have been spot on.

As someone who has thought about health policy, well-being, and trade-offs for many years, my first reaction to the media coverage of COVID and the mystery China virus was to ask the following question: What is the normal number of deaths in a city the size of Wuhan? Without this context, all the media coverage made no sense. A city with 12 million people can expect about 96,000 deaths a year. That’s 264 a day.

So when I read headlines like “Death toll rises to 600” and that smoke from crematoriums working overtime was filling the city, I had a reasonable baseline from which to sniff out nonsense. The numbers mattered then and they still matter now.

If you search online for news articles of COVID or coronavirus deaths from February 2020 you will see just how small the death numbers are and how crazed and fearful the reporting was. Some of the reporting just had made-up figures, with orders of magnitude differences from one article to the next. No one really cared.

Even at this early stage, the lack of deadliness of the virus was becoming clear for those who wanted to find out. The case fatality rate was likely to be sub 0.7%, even with relatively limited testing (i.e. 0.7% of known cases, not all cases). Clearly, this implied that early estimates were hugely biased because infections were far more widespread than initially assumed.   

The Diamond Princess cruise ship had 3,711 people on board and had 14 deaths.  On this cruise, 0.37% of people died over a two month period. Is that good or bad?

We know that background mortality is about 0.8%. So every two months you can expect 0.13% of people to die. But this is across the whole age distribution. Even a small skew towards the elderly massively increases this number. For example, in your 80s you have a one in twenty chance of dying each year on average. In your 90s, a one in five chance.

The age distribution of the Diamond Princess was super high, so 0.37% of people dying within two months is totally within the normal range.

We knew this in March 2020.

Image source:

We already knew then from the Italian outbreak that the average age of COVID deaths was higher than deaths from all other causes combined.

Taking all this information together was pretty encouraging. This is why herd immunity was thought to be simply a matter of months away. Flatten the curve for two weeks, then a month or two later the whole thing would be over. No one expected to be having masks, border closures, vaccine mandates and passports for two years.

With markets crashing I took the opportunity to put forward some ideas about macro-stabilisation policy, such as having a public agency take equity stakes in companies that wanted bail-out money and buying up housing developments in distress to smooth construction cycles and add to public housing stocks.

Of course, none were taken up. But looking back, they were much more sensible than what we got with a JobKeeper giveaway, a Cashflow Boost, that cost hundreds of millions and resulted in a net upwards redistribution of wealth.

Read the rest of this post at my new substack page and please subscribe there to get new posts to your email.

No comments:

Post a Comment