Friday, 1 May 2020

Games with numbers


At the moment I'm more cautious than usual about venturing an opinion. This epidemic has too many moving parts to understand exactly what is happening. There are plenty of forceful opinions about but not much in the way of useful or accurate data, and even if there were, data alone doesn't necessarily clarify anything, and a figure like daily deaths is a somewhat arbitrary statistic since it's an aggregation of multiple outbreaks in various states. 

Particularly, there are a number of reporting irregularities while we also have a hidden epidemic where there is really no way to tell how severe it is. We're getting conflicting information where what is actually happening could be the exact opposite of what you might reasonably assume, all the while (much like the Brexit debate) the nation conversation is polluted by half-understood notions and alternative political narratives which again have no bearing on the real world. Time and again the same dynamic applies with cynical actors using events to stoke discord. The right are as bad as the left.

As regards to the politics, it again mirrors Brexit where we have a poorly advised executive attempting something it doesn't understand while fending off a feral and largely ignorant media, leaving the rest of us in the dark, where the more you expose yourself to the daily soap opera, the less likely you are to get an an accurate picture.

Meanwhile the lockdown argument continues to rage. Whatever the science says, the continuation of the lockdown is 100% a political decision. At some point it has to end simply because it is not economically sustainable and the public don't have the stamina or the means for a prolonged outage. 

We are told we are through the peak, but the peak is a narrative construct based aggregated data. This tells you this government has no idea what it's doing. If they're looking at a national figure they're still treating it as a single outbreak rather than several concurrent outbreaks at various stages. The virus could easily become endemic and we simply have to adapt to living with a highly contagious deadly virus. That probably means sustained social distancing measures coupled with track and trace while treating Covid patients in separate facilities. It may be some time before anything close to normal is resumed.

What makes this virus especially problematic is that we know so little about it. Any easement of the lockdown is a political gamble that could see a second surge, and with country to country comparisons being next to worthless we have no yardstick. A worthwhile look at this appears in The Guardian.
"But, of course, people are not so interested in the numbers themselves – they want to say why they are so high, and ascribe blame. But if it’s difficult to rank this country, it’s even trickier to give reasons for our position. Covid-19 mainly harms the elderly, with the average age of deaths above 80, and its fatality rate doubles every seven years as a person ages. Italy’s population is elderly (it has a median age of 47), while Ireland’s is much younger (a median age of 37), so we would expect different effects. And Covid-19 is a disease of crowded areas – New York is rather different from Reykjavik. An obsessive comparison is being made between Norway and Sweden: Sweden’s more relaxed social distancing policies may or may not have been instrumental in their current death rate being 233 per million, compared with Norway’s 38.
Even – if we can imagine it – we reach some sort of stable situation, will we ever know the direct and indirect health effects of the epidemic, taking into account reduced road accidents, the benefits of reduced pollution, the effects of recession and so on? Many studies will try to disentangle all these, but my cold, statistical approach is to wait until the end of the year, and the years after that, when we can count the excess deaths. Until then, this grim contest won’t produce any league tables we can rely on."
For now we're having to make policy on the fly on the basis of assumption and guesswork, where only time will tell. Unhelpfully we'll remain in the dark as government continues to shift the statistical goalposts. So long as the party faithful submit to the narrative they can successfully distort the national debate to cover up a multitude of sins. With a lazy and incurious media failing to investigate, we may never know how it's unfolding.

Ultimately the economics will be the decider. This lockdown is quite an expensive do for this government and there are no more rabbits in the hat. The various bailouts and funds to prop up businesses and individuals simply cannot be long term measures. This is cartoon physics. The coyote is over the cliff but hasn't yet looked down. The function of Corona funding is to keep the pilot light burning on the normal order of things, but the longer this goes on the less likely there is a normal to go back to. What is done is not so readily undone. The mantra will eventually shift from "save the NHS" to "save the economy".

Thankfully the government is now displaying signs of having exhausted all the possible errors so unless they get creative they might just start getting a few things right. That, though, is going to take some time to come to fruition so we can reasonably assume the lockdown has to roll on a while longer. Having dismantled a great deal of local capability we are faced with rebuilding our response apparatus from scratch. No easy feat.

In the early days of this epidemic we didn't have a clear idea what to expect. With only heavily redacted Chinese news to go on and Italy only just climbing the curve, we had to assume something approaching the worst case scenario. It doesn't appear to be as bad as expected in that it's not a movie style apocalypse, but that's no reason for complacency. This virus is still filling up morgues and we still have no idea what will happen in the near future. Those still claiming it's just the flu haven't grasped that the flu has a high degree of predictability. The unpredictability is what has authorities spooked, and it was politically impossible for any government to take a reckless gamble on the basis of unknowns.

As it transpires, the inaction on the early days was because the government was following a plan to deal with a flu like epidemic. It's precisely because Covid isn't like the flu that our limited containment strategy never stood a chance of working. As to whether it's more deadly than the flu, we simply don't know being that our methodology for recording deaths from either is highly questionable. Ultimately all the "it's just the flu" brigade have succeeded in doing is convincing me to take the flu much more seriously. As a younger person it doesn't really feature in my regular concerns but it probably should. The danger here is that our response to Covid is so inept it simply becomes another mass killer that we all ignore until it affects us.

I haven't looked at any news reports in any serious depth for a week now largely because I'm unconvinced that any of the headlines give us any real information. News from other countries is interesting but not especially useful, and the UK press is mostly toadying sycophancy or shrill, unhinged bleating which is even less useful except as a further marker in the decline of British political culture. That, in the long run, could be more deadly than Corona and more expensive than the lockdown.

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