21 February 2021 – Sunday – #135

History and politics are rich in Barcelona.

Last week’s election was marked by low voter turnout and left Catalonia in essentially the same political configuration. That is to say, while Catalonia’s independence movement probably will control the regional government’s agenda, its voters remains split on the issue of regional independence.

My Catalan friends tell me that after the failure of the 2017 independence referendum, it will take much more than 50% popular support to achieve independence here. I assume the pro-independence parties know this and their actual political agenda is concessions from the central government rather than outright independence. After all, Catalonia has asserted its independence repeatedly since the Bourbon dynasty, so what’s the hurry?

When helicopters first fluttered above Barcelona last week, I thought the police must be monitoring post-election independence protests. However, last week’s street protests were a continuation of the protest that passed by Casa Solar three weeks ago, a protest in support of the rappers Pablo Hasel and Valtònyc. Now Hasel is in jail and Valtònyc in exile for their songs against crown.

Free Hasel graffiti on Passeig Sant Joan bus stop. It’s in English for a reason.

As political as music can be, it never occurred to me that a music conservatory would produce a political action instead of an overtly political concert. The Catalan Academy of Music, in concert with 70 arts organizations and left-leaning political parties, demanded the federal government pardon the rappers. I suppose when the government starts jailing musicians during a pandemic that has closed public stages, the stages move to the street.

Want to know where this evening’s stage is? Look in the sky for a police helicopter.

Covid-19 has more than a cameo in the recent street protests. The looting of the large Decathlon sports store downtown, for instance, has nothing to do with rap lyrics and everything to do with generating cash from stolen goods. All the luxury brands got hit on Passeig de Gracia.

Protesters ransacking stores on Passeig de Gracia.

There’s also a social media angle. How many dumpsters were set ablaze and retail windows smashed to promote street theater with clicks?

Matthew Bennett on the bounty of street protest media coverage.

The pandemic has disrupted life and income for most Barcelonians. As good as social services are here, the protests have been a way to vent the pressure from the public health restrictions and decimated economy Covid-19 hath wrought.

As the political situation simmers outside, I’m reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. From late 1936 to early 1937, Orwell fought Franco’s Fascists forces near Huesca, about 250 km (150 miles) northwest of Barcelona. Fought might be too strong a word, at least for the half the book I’ve read. Orwell participated in only one actual skirmish. The rest of the time he camped in squalid conditions with POUM militias, holding ground against Fascist forces.

On leave after his time near Huesca, Orwell returned to Barcelona, looking for a black market pistol (the militias provided few arms to soldiers), tobacco (Franco controlled domestic plantations on the Canary Islands), and a way to join the military action closer to Madrid.

On this Barcelona visit, the informal and salud of Orwell’s first visit had been replaced with usted and buenas días. He found a Barcelona where class differences had re-emerged, where indifference to Spain’s Civil War had replaced the socialist camaraderie he experienced nearer the beginning of the conflict.

Orwell also saw more clearly during this visit the agendas and relationships of the various political parties and their militias. He describes party operatives murdering members of other parties during street protests and the subsequent funerals staged for political messaging. The time Orwell spent in Catalonia became fodder not only for the commercial dud Homage to Catalonia, but later for his best-selling Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Hint: if you want wide readership of your views on political ideology, learn to write fiction.

This week’s protests, at least nominally against the Spanish crown, feel to me like echos of the Barcelona protests 84 years ago that Orwell describes (perhaps should I write eighty-four like Orwell). Certainly last week’s street protests featured neither the murders nor staged funerals that Orwell describes, but there was violence in Barcelona—dumpster fires and physical attacks on police and media.

Trash bins on fire during last week’s protests in Barcelona.

The protests spread, too. There were Hasel protests in Valencia this week. My friend Simon messaged me from Vic, reporting the protests there were “about Hasel and just freedom of expression overall.” Here’s the report from Pamplona last night.

Hasel protests in Pamplona.

The Orwellian echo I’m sensing in Catalonia may be from the way Covid-19 has revealed the region’s class differences. What protest, after all, could be more about classism and hierarchy than a protest over songs against the crown?

Besides being a hideous virus that kills and maims people, Covid-19 impartially reveals us for who we are.

Hint: the entitled are coming out ahead.

As evidence accrues on the safety and benefits of Covid-19 vaccines, the inequality of vaccine distribution was last week’s hot news topic. To start with, it seems that the Pareto Principle got its Covid-19 vaccination—ten wealthy countries have consumed 75% of vaccines produced while 130 countries have none. Not quite the 80-20 rule. Worse, actually.

Dr. Craig Spencer: “I’ve received more vaccine than 130 countries.”

Covid-19 vaccine inequity abounds. Israel, which is going gangbusters on vaccinating its citizens, is still considering whether to provide vaccine for West Bank Palestinians. Scarce front line African healthcare workers are dying from Covid-19 while a US Soulcycle instructor posing an an educator got vaccinated. US anti-immigrant sentiment is preventing immigrants from getting vaccinated, postponing herd immunity.

If you’re rich in the US, your experience of Covid-19 is more comfortable and you’re much less likely to die than if you’re poor. Wealthy Silicon Valley types are flying private jets to shelter in place on Costa Rican beaches while awaiting vaccination. Even though many wealthy New Yorkers have fled to the Hamptons or Palm Beach during the pandemic, New York City vaccinations still favor the rich and white who remain.

NYC Covid-19 vaccine administration maps.

I should mention that Covid-19 has created many inequalities other than who gets a jab. For example, school closures in Europe and elsewhere exacerbate class differences. The Guardian ran a good piece last week about Covid-19 ending relationships. Often, privileged people feel they don’t need to participate in or advocate for public health measures like masking and vaccination.

This week’s virtual G7 is discussing ways to provide Covid-19 vaccines to poor countries. In a reversal of Trump’s America First policy, President Biden committed US$2 billion now and US$2 billion later to WHO’s COVAX vaccination program for poor countries. President Macron wants rich countries to contribute 3%-5% of their vaccine purchases to poor countries as well.

One trade-off the world can make right away? Postpone second doses of vaccines so more people can get first doses. More and more studies show that the the first doses of the Moderna and Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines are highly effective. Not all scientist agree that changing the two course regime is good policy. In Israel, though, which may achieve herd immunity as early as next month, public health officials now believe the first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is at least 84% effective.

So, perhaps the inequalities Covid-19 reveal about ourselves were an impetus for the Barcelona protests. The protesters on the street, after all, probably are last in line for Covid-19 vaccine and have to be as tired of the restrictions as I am. I have to ask myself, though, what else besides Covid-19 might be fanning Barcelona’s protest flames. I believe there is another Orwellian angle to what happened here last week, a kind of death rattle of Franco. I’m going to take you to Texas to explain.

If you have a heartbeat, you know that Texas is in the midst of an energy and water infrastructure catastrophe. After a snow storm last week, energy demand spiked, crippling the state’s power grid. Within days, water systems froze and burst. Scores of Texans are dying from hypothermia and, while idling their cars for warmth, from carbon monoxide poisoning. Photos of Texans waiting in line for water look more like Maduro’s Venezuela covered in snow than like a scene of everyday life in the United States.

Republicans have had trifecta control of Texas (governorship, senate, and house) since 2003. They have controlled Texas government about half the number of years that Franco controlled Spain. That didn’t keep Governor Abbot from blaming Democrats’ Green New Deal for the blackouts.

The real problem isn’t Democrats, though. AOC and Beto O’Rourke are fundraising for victims and working phone banks to help fellow Texans with resources.

The real problem is that Texas Republicans have prioritized profits over regulation. Federal regulators warned Texas a decade ago that it needed to winterize its power infrastructure for climate change. Federal regulators lost to Republicans’ dogged support of short term profits. The cost of winterizing Texas’ power grid would have been inconsequential compared to the cost of the current catastrophe, but it would have required regulation. Republicans don’t know how to do regulation. The cost of the catastrophe won’t be passed on to the power companies that profited.

When I looked at the Texas power grid on a map, it reminded me of something.

US and Canadian power grid map.

The way Texas insulated its power grid reminded me of the way that Franco kept Spain’s train system separate from the rest of Europe.

Train gauges throughout Europe. Source: Jakub Marion’s Language Learning, Science, and Art.

The evidence isn’t complete, but one explanation is that Franco kept Spain’s distinct train gauge because he didn’t want foreign trains invading sovereign Spain. The evidence is clear, on the other hand, that Texas Republicans kept a separate power grid because they didn’t want US Federal regulators touching the state’s sovereign power structure. It’s a weak association, but stay with me. There’s a reason that people keep mentioning Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four when Republicans are in control.

The quandary Texas Republicans now find themselves in is that they are advocating small government and deregulation because they claim the free market always leads to the best outcome. They’re locked into an ideology that puts them at odds with realities of the unusual weather events that climate change brings (not to mention with the realities of Covid-19). I am not an apologist for Franco, but he wasn’t one to lock himself into ideologies.

As the catastrophe unfolded, Senator Ted Cruz hopped on a plane with his family for a vacation at a luxury resort in warm Cancun, Mexico. Chris Hayes has a great explanation of the way Cruz distorted the Republican Matrix by taking this trip.

Both Abbot and Cruz went to Fox News, of course, to present their respective cases. The Fox News echo chamber, of course, is an echo of Franco’s censorship. Fox News won’t acknowledge that climate change has better economic and health outcomes with a government coordinated response (not to mention Covid-19).

Both Abbot and Cruz depend on gerrymandering and voter suppression to maintain the Republican trifecta in Texas, an echo of Franco’s bloody political repression. If you think I’m exaggerating, well, maybe, but check with the people behind Black Lives Matter before you discount that claim entirely.

The Republican ideological intransigence has larger implications than simply, as Hayes points out in his video, having no idea how to use government resources effectively. When President Biden told his G7 counterparts that America is back on the world stage, German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron weren’t entirely convinced. They know the Republicans may control the White House again. The US may have the world’s largest economy, but it also has the one major political party that puts Jesus and profit in front of climate change and science.

So, you’re asking, what does this have to do with the protests in Barcelona last week? What does this have to do with Franco’s death rattle?

I don’t know what will happen with the US Republican party. If Texas is best the party can offer, the party is starting to look like a Franco regime in which infrastructure is separate and sovereign, in which messaging is controlled to fit the party rather than reality, in which political power is maintained through suppression, physical and otherwise, rather than free and fair elections. The Republicans could end up looking like Franco, but at least Franco knew how to get a few things done.

It also could be curtains for the current Republican party orthodoxy. It’s possible that after the power grid catastrophe, after Cruz pulled back the curtain on how wealthy people sit on the beach while the rest of us figure out how to survive, Texans will figure out that profit isn’t everything, that regulation can be good for business, that sometimes government is the best answer.

When it was curtains for Franco, he reverted to the royalist playbook, bringing back the exiled King Juan Carlos. What Franco wanted was a way to stabilize Spain after his death. I assume Franco wanted to preserve his legacy, but who knows. What Spain ended up with is an expensive government. It now supports both a monarch and a democratically elected government.

Spain also fixed its trains after Franco died. There is high speed rail and, in spite of the gauge differences, international travel doesn’t require switching trains. When Simon said the protests were “about Hasel and just freedom of expression overall,” I took that to mean not just an end to royal power, but an end to Franco.

Covid-19 bits.

  • The US will surpass 500,000 confirmed Covid-19 deaths this coming week. According to excess deaths statistics, the actual number of dead is much higher.
  • US life expectancy declined by a year during the Covid-19 pandemic last year, the largest decline since World War II. The impact on minorities was higher.
  • Johnson & Johnson will have only a few million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine ready to ship when it presumably obtains FDA approval this month.
  • Sinovac reported its Phase 3 trial results. In Brazil, no Covid-19 deaths after 14 days.
  • The US CDC says food packaging is an unlikely medium for Covid-19 transmission.
  • WHO investigators found 13 different genetic sequences from Covid-19 cases in Wuhan in December 2019, suggesting that the virus had been circulating for some time. The Biden White House has asked China for more transparency in its early Covid-19 data.
  • Israel is measuring a 94% drop in symptomatic Covid-19 cases in populations that have received the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. The real world is aligning with the trial world.
  • It looks like the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine works nearly as well with 1/2 the approved dose. Israel has measured 84%+ efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine with one dose. We also know that even though Johnson & Johnson is testing the effectiveness of using 2 doses of its vaccine, it works fine with one dose. These data points suggest that it’s possible to squeeze 2x more doses out of current production.
  • Denmark is seeing more Covid-19 outbreaks in school children as the new UK strain dominates cases there.
  • Researchers found that Covid-19 vaccines give better protection against emerging strains than natural immunity.
  • UK researchers have started the world’s first Covid-19 human challenge. About 100 young people will be exposed to the virus to study the way it infects people in a controlled setting.
  • Brazil is vaccinating the entire adult population of Serrana, a city of about 45,000 people in the south, to study how vaccinations reduce Covid-19 infections.
  • South Korea is providing Covid-19 tests for pets. If they test positive, they have to quarantine for 14 days. Fido may be dangerous for your health.
  • Researchers believe that high level of Covid-19 in saliva tests may be a good predictor of severe cases.
  • Austria will offer free Covid-19 tests in March to anyone.
  • A leaked study concludes Israel will achieve Covid-19 herd immunity next month.
  • Russia reports seven cases of H5N8 bird flu in humans. So far no reports of human-to-human transmission of this virus.

This is a helpful reminder about staying warm and ignoring Covid-19 disinformation.

14 February 2021 – Sunday – #134

Happy Valentine’s Day! Happy Election Day! Today Catalonia is having an election on the day of love. I hope that doesn’t mean the election is screwed.

Valentine’s Day pastries at Baluard.

Lots more going on this weekend in Barcelona than elections and love. Brad reported seeing Marcel Marceau at the local Merkat. Well, someone who looked like Marcel Marceau.

In fact, shopkeepers in many stores here donned costumes yesterday. With all the local and national festivals it’s hard to keep track of what we’re celebrating in addition to elections and Valentine’s Day. Best guess is the costumes were a prelude to Lent, which starts next week.

During the pandemic, it was encouraging to see “vote early” flyers posted on the entrance to every building. When I walked down Carrer de Venus last week, I noticed a long line at the location where Catsalut administered flu vaccinations last Fall. I assumed the line was for Covid-19 vaccinations, but why were there so few elders in line? Then I realized it was an early voting line.

Early voting poster for 14 February 2021 Catalan election.

Spain and Catalonia have multi-party political systems. I find it difficult enough to choose between two candidates in the US. Here voters have a myriad of choices with pretty much every political niche covered. The fear in liberal Barcelona is that the ultra-conservative Vox party may win seats for the first time today.

To me, choosing a candidate in a multi-party system seems like playing 5D chess. I’m mystified. Do people vote for the party that supports their exact point of view that radishes should be banned from salads or do they vote for the pro-radish party that’s more likely to win and also promises to form a coalition with the anti-radish parties? Pass the vinaigrette, please.

If politics isn’t confusing enough, there’s dating during the pandemic. Valentine’s Day only exacerbates the confusion. During the AIDS crisis, I remember friends who tested positive wanting to squeeze an entire lifetime relationship into the final months or days of their lives. The lethal HIV virus made friends crazy to fall in love, move in, and skip right to the “till death do us part” part.

Romance during the time of Covid-19 is different because Covid-19 sex is a different kind of crapshoot from HIV sex. Covid-19 sex isn’t so much about your own mortality like it was with HIV sex. Covid-19 sex is more family oriented. It’s about the likelihood that you could pass it on and kill grandma.

The uncertainty of Covid-19 keeps people stuck in apartments or jobs or relationships for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think I’m alone in deciding to avoid a major romantic commitment until after vaccinations.

I also don’t think France is alone in having a Covid-19 baby bust. The long joked about Lockdown Babies, or bébés du confinement, never came to pass. It’s like nine months ago everyone was playing musical chairs, the music stopped, we sat down, and now we’re waiting for the music to start again.

Covid-19 vaccines seem to be music to everyone’s ears. The main Covid-19 stories last week were vaccines and mutations. Here’s the big picture on vaccines.

World Covid-19 vaccine status, February 2021. Source: The Lancet.

If all the pharmaceuticals hit their 2021 targets, there should be enough Covid-19 vaccine for 7-8 billion people this year. In other words, in a perfect world where manufacturing scales, supply chains deliver, and healthcare systems administer shots (usually two) to every resident, the pandemic could be over this year.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.

It feels right now like vaccines are never coming to Barcelona. Many of my friends here are kvetching that many of their US friends have got the jab already, but they don’t know anyone in Barcelona who’s been vaccinated. It’s clear why. Six weeks into Catalonia’s vaccination drive and only 3% of its population has received a first dose of Covid-19 vaccine. At this rate, everyone in Barcelona will get a shot by 2036.

Percent of Catalan population vaccinated for Covid-19. Source: Catalan News.

The Spanish government predicts, however, that it will vaccinate 70% of Spain’s population by the summer. Like most EU countries, Spain’s vaccine administration capacity is good because of the structure of its single payer health system. With mostly two dose vaccines, the Covid-19 effort requires 2.1 million shots per week to meet its summer goal.

Is that feasible? Well, last Fall the country vaccinated 14 million people for the flu in eight weeks, or 1.75 million shots per week, so, yes, 2.1 million shots per week is credible.

On the supply side, though, none of the EU can hit herd immunity until vaccine shipments ramp up as promised. The good news is that it looks like the requisite supply will arrive as long as the EMA approves Covid-19 vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, and Curevax next month.

Because it’s a single-dose vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine alone should be enough to vaccinate nearly 90% of Spain as soon as it receives its allocation of 40 million doses. At 2.1 million doses per week of the one-dose J&J vaccines, that works out to 19 weeks, or about 4-1/2 months, to get to 90%.

In the US, Trump spent tens of millions of dollars on a no-bid contract for vaccine allocation planning from Palantir and tens of millions more on another no-bid contract for distribution and administration software from Deloitte. None of that really worked.

During his first three weeks in office, Biden has increased vaccine administration from under one million shots per day to over three million—last week the US exceeded three million shots (almost 1% of the population getting a first dose) in three out of seven days. Also, in the midst of Trump’s second impeachment trial, Biden announced the purchase of an additional 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine.

The Biden administration is working with pharmaceutical companies to figure out how to leverage vaccine manufacturing infrastructure. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of WHO, is also asking pharmaceuticals to share facilities.

I’m not sure how much companies can leverage each other’s facilities while they’re in the middle of figuring out how to increase production efficiency, but cajoling companies to cooperate in ways that optimize output without regard to profit is exactly what government should be doing during a pandemic. Here’s an example of the kind of problems pharmaceuticals are working out right now.

Example of scaling problems Covid-19 manufacturers face.

Since the US has managed to vaccinate over 10% of its population, I suppose that gives Americans the peace of mind to contemplate whether the world will reach Covid-19 herd immunity. Will Covid-19 go away this year? What about the new mutations?

After conversations with many friends about herd immunity, I’m finding it’s useful to review just what that term means.

The herd immunity threshold is the proportion of a population that need to be immune in order for an infectious disease to become stable in that community. If this is reached, for example through immunisation, then each case leads to a single new case (R=1) and the infection will become stable within the population.

HIT = (R0-1) / R0 , or 1 – (1 / R0)

If the threshold for herd immunity is surpassed, then R<1 and the number of cases of infection decreases.

Health Knowledge

The initial reproduction rate R0 for Covid-19 has been estimated between 1.4 and 3.9. That puts the Covid-19 herd immunity threshold between about 30% and 75%. In other words when somewhere between 30% and 75% of a community cannot transmit the virus either because they can’t get infected or because, if they do get infected, their case is too mild to propagate, the reproduction rate R drops below 1, thwarting community outbreak.

Given the new, more contagious strains from UK, South African, Brazil and California, the Covid-19 herd immunity threshold probably is closer to 75% and perhaps higher. Dr. Fauci has said he believes the US will achieve herd immunity somewhere between a 70% and 85% vaccination rate. Note that vaccines don’t have to be 100% effective at stopping infections in order to reduce transmission rates significantly and that Covid-19 transmission rates appear to be dropping in populations that have been vaccinated.

In spite of the great strides with vaccines, the scientific community is coming to a consensus that even though herd immunity is within reach, the Covid-19 is here to stay.

Even if [wealthy countries] are able to vaccinate large segments of their population by the end of 2021, the virus will keep circulating elsewhere and keep gaining mutations, eventually evolving so much that the original vaccines may become even less effective.

The Atlantic, “What If We Never Reach Herd Immunity?,” 9 February 2021.

Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky concurs, saying Covid-19 is likely endemic and people will need annual Covid-19 vaccinations.

It looks like things will get back to some semblance of “normal” by Fall 2021. However, just as with other viruses like HIV, we’ll have to learn to live with Covid-19. Here are two great audio programs about what’s next with herd immunity and Covid-19 long haulers.

First, a great interview about using data to understand the pandemic. MIT trained data scientist Youyang Gu runs a site called Covid-19 Projections (now on the Resources Page). He provided US Covid-19 predictions through Fall 2020 and now is looking at what it will take for the US to achieve herd immunity. I commend his interview with Eric Topol at Medscape as a way of understanding how scientists developed an understanding of the infection and of its resolution.

Second, the long-term impact of Covid-19 after everyone gets vaccinated. Researchers are beginning to see long-term Covid-19 in the same light as diseases like Lyme’s disease. That is to say, there will be some percent of patients who have serious long-term health problems, from fatigue to heart damage. Here is an NPR interview with Eric Topol on the effects of Covid-19 on asymptomatic patients.

Covid-19 bits.

I’m going to end today with a chart Dr. Monica Gandhi from UCSF made. The yellow column is all you really need to know about the significance of Covid-19 vaccines.

Covid-19 vaccine chart. Source: Dr. Monica Gandhi.

I write this for my sanity and to keep a record of living during the Covid-19 pandemic. If you find it useful, please pass on to friends, colleagues, and family. More frequent Covid-19 updates on my Twitter feed.

7 February 2021 – Sunday – #133

A couple of weeks ago, I reported that my friend M. was in self-imposed isolation after exposure to someone who subsequently tested positive for Covid-19. M. was sure he had Covid-19 because he spent two hours in a confined space with the other person, although the symptoms he reported to me were mild to non-existent. I noticed more misspellings in his messages. Was that a result of Covid-19? Was M. losing his marbles? Maybe I was just looking for bad symptoms since the worst M. reported was “feeling weird.”

A week into self-isolation and still presenting few symptoms, M. took a Covid-19 PCR test. He described the swab as a range of stimulations, from uncomfortable to mildly enjoyable. A day later the result came back negative. Like the swab, the results provided M. a range of feelings. He was both relieved that he didn’t have Covid-19 and let down because he didn’t get away with a pleasantly asymptomatic case.

After the negative test, M. was incredulous for quite a while because the circumstances for Covid-19 transmission seemed so clear. Two hours in a confined space is much, much longer than the 15 minutes public health officials have said it takes to risk transmission. What’s more, with the new, more contagious strains from UK, South Africa, and Brazil, public health officials now think Covid-19 transmission can happen in seconds.

Why was there no transmission during M.’s confined meeting? It could be because his friend had a Covid-19 vaccination a week before their meeting. It could be because the friend’s test was a false-positive. It could be that the friend was infected, but the meeting was before or after reaching peak viral load. It could be luck of the draw.

This is a major frustrations of Covid-19. Just when you’re sure about something, as M. was about having a Covid-19 infection, it turns out to be different.

Another example of being sure about something that turns out to be different: reinfection from the new Covid-19 strain in South Africa. Based on the placebo group results in the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine trial there, scientists now worry that the virus is mutating in ways that improve the chance for reinfection. Just as I was getting comfortable with the idea that even if I got Covid-19, a Covid-19 reinfection could be in my future, I read this thread.

So, yes, there is Covid-19 reinfection (which we’ve known for a while and so far it’s been a tiny problem), but, no, the Novavax trial data don’t give us proof that cross-strain immunity has gone out the window.

By the way, the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine uses a technology distinct from the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna) and the viral vector vaccines (AstraZeneca, Johnson&Johnson). Here’s how it works.

Covid-19 restrictions (aka, lockdowns) are another topic that people seem sure about. For example, I’m pretty sure they are a good approach.

Last Sunday, just after I posted last week’s blog post, right-wing groups in Vienna protested Covid-19 restrictions. Police lost control as the protest turned into a riot. For a little while, it seemed to this American like Vienna could be having a replay of the US Capitol resurrection. Clearly the Viennese protesters have a different take on Covid-19 restrctions from mine.

The thorniest political issue of the pandemic has been the imposition of Covid-19 restrictions and, in particular, masking and limiting gatherings.

The economy is often cited as the most important reason not to impose Covid-19 restrictions. A recent National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER) study found that Covid-19 restrictions in California are related to sales declines in specific segments. NBER is best known as the non-profit organization that determines the start and end dates of US recessions.

[Study] results suggest that local implementation and enforcement of lockdown restrictions and voluntary behavioral responses as reactions to the perceived local COVID-19 spread both played a role, but enforcement of mandatory restrictions may have had a larger impact on sales losses.

Robert W. Fairlie & Frank M. Fossen, “Sales Losses in the First Quarter of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Evidence from California Administrative Data,” National Bureau for Economic Research, January 2021.

The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) combines NBER’s study with other articles and opinion pieces to conclude that the medicine was worse than the cure, as it were, that lockdowns were at the root of the 2020 US recession, not Covid-19. The FEE article points to a December 2020 study of Covid-19 and economic statistics by US state.

Twitter thread on Oxford University study of Covid-19 responses by US state governments.

This December 2020 thread asserts that Covid-19 restrictions were authoritarian and more destructive than Covid-19 itself, an argument has been made since the first lockdowns last year. Besides characterizing public health lockdowns as “authoritarian,” the thread says Covid-19’s “impact appears to be independent of government or personal behavior.” Based on multiple studies showing that Covid-19 cases decreased in regions that mandated masks compared to regions that did not, that claim is false on its face.

I want to counter anti-lockdown arguments a few ways. One is that the Twitter thread above cherry picks Oxford study data. The severe lockdowns were in March and April when, with great uncertainty about the transmission and virulence of the virus, lockdowns were the only known way to bring community spread under control. One thing was clear from the early Italian Covid-19 outbreak: the failure to stop community spread led to a catastrophic breakdown of its healthcare system.

The spring 2020 lockdowns successfully stopped Covid-19 community spread in Asia, Europe, and North America. Unfortunately, afterwards only a few countries implemented adequate test-and-trace protocols to contain Covid-19. Community spread of Covid-19 reoccurred in countries that didn’t implement the test-and-trace protocols properly.

Of course, the spring 2020 lockdowns also slammed the world economy. The political question after these lockdowns was whether to prioritize economic recovery or public health. The Twitter thread above says that more restrictive US states ended up with the same Covid-19 death rates. The analysis then says that, since unemployment claims were worse in restrictive states, the restrictions did nothing for public health and harmed the economy.

Using a different data set from the NBER and FEE anti-lockdown arguments above, let’s look at recent world GDP data. Below is the estimated 2020 GDP growth for the world’s largest economies in order of Covid-19 deaths per million. For reasons explained below, I’ve added Sweden and Spain to the chart.

Instead of giving exact mortality numbers, I’ve grouped the countries into five per capita mortality bands of different colors (shown in the legend), countries with low Covid-19 mortality at the top of the chart and countries with high mortality at the bottom. The range of the first two mortality bands is larger (500) than the other three bands (250).

2020 GDP Growth (source: IMF) ordered from top to bottom by Covid-19 deaths per million as of 5 Feb 2021 (source: Statistica). ©2021 Steven Damron

This chart shows that as per capita Covid-19 deaths increase, GDP growth tends to decrease. The inverse relationship appears loosely correlative (correlation isn’t causation disclaimer applies!), especially if you remove the GDP outliers, US and China on the high side, Sweden and Spain on the low side (see below).

If this relationship holds generally, it is strong evidence that lockdowns don’t hurt economies. In fact, it looks like they are beneficial for economic performance. Before I remove the two largest and two smallest economies on the chart, I want to discuss them in more detail.

Both the US and China 2020 GDPs performed significantly better than peers in their respective Covid-19 mortality bands. At over US$20 trillion, the US economy is as large as the next seven economies excluding China. At over US$9 trillion, the Chinese economy is as large as Japan and Germany. The significantly larger size of these two economies probably provided the US and China with diversification and “deep pockets” to buffer against large GDP drop offs in the face of the lockdowns.

Neither Spain nor Sweden are in good company in the chart above. I included Sweden because anti-lockdown advocates cited Sweden so often as an example of how well an economy performs without restrictions. It is true that, compared to peers in its Covid-19 mortality band in the chart above, Sweden had significantly less economic contraction.

However, Sweden is much smaller than France and Brazil, so let’s look at Sweden versus its geographic and social peers, the other Scandinavian countries.

Country2020 GDP growthCovid-19 deaths per million
Norway-3.5% (E)108.8
Finland-3.3% (E)124.6
Denmark-4.4% (E)375.2
Sweden-2.9% (E)1,169.4
2020 GDP growth for Scandinavian countries ordered from lowest to highest Covid-19 deaths per million as of 5 February 2021.

While Sweden enjoyed a slightly better economic outcome in 2020 than its Scandinavian neighbors that imposed stricter Covid-19 restrictions, it came at a significantly worse loss of life. Also, because of Covid-19 outbreaks this winter, Sweden forecasts a slower 2021 recovery than its neighbors. I think the strongest claim anti-lockdown supporters can make about Sweden is that its light Covid-19 restrictions may have improved its 2020 economic performance versus peers, but at a cost of both a large loss of life and a much riskier 2021 recovery.

I included Spain because of its particular interest to me, but also because it makes an important point about market concentration. The contraction of the economy here is severe, the worst on the chart above.

About 10% of Spain’s economy is tourism and most of its tourists come from the UK. As the chart above notes, the UK economy contracted nearly as much as the Spanish economy. It’s likely the decline in Spain’s tourism was primarily due to Covid-19 (as a proxy, air travel is off by about 60% everywhere) and compounded by UK’s poor economy (Spain’s tourism revenue is off by more that 75%).

My point here is that in smaller economies that have concentrations in Covid-19 sensitive market segments like tourism, it’s difficult to compare the impact of restrictions on economic growth to other countries. This points out the problem with the NBER report above. NBER is trying to tease out a single relationship between Covid-19 restriction and economic growth across different parts of California with very different economies. I’m sure they tried hard, but I think larger, more diversified economies provide a better point of comparison.

So, let’s look at a revised version of the chart above, this time removing the two largest and two smallest countries.

2020 GDP Growth (source: IMF) ordered from top to bottom by Covid-19 deaths per million as of 5 Feb 2021 (source: Statistica). ©2021 Steven Damron

The correlation between GDP growth and Covid-19 deaths per million in this version of the chart is more clear. These countries are reasonably good peers. Their economies are in the range of US$2 trillion to US$5 trillion and most have public health systems. Assuming Covid-19 deaths per million is a good proxy for government restrictions, arguably Covid-19 restrictions lead to better economic results.

While we’re on the topic of restrictions, another contentious aspect of Covid-19 restrictions has been whether to close schools and childcare. Here’s a good Twitter thread about studies of children and transmission.

Deepti Gurdasani on children’s role in Covid-19 transmission.

In response to the protests against Covid-19 restrictions, there are public health workers and researchers working on new approaches to get to zero Covid-19. The researches advocate a ground-up NO-COVID campaign that starts with a 4-6 week lockdown to suppress community spread of Covid-19 and then enlists citizens to keep Covid-19 infections levels near zero.

Covid-19 bits.

  • The first does of the Oxford / AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine reduces transmission by 67% and, similar to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, is 76% effective. The reduction in transmission was for symptomatic cases. Asymptomatic transmission remained the same. Will public health officials allow a single-dose regime even though it wasn’t part of the trial?
  • The Russian “Sputnik” Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective. In a trial of 20,000 people published in Lancet, the vaccine was 91% effective. The formal trial was started in September, weeks after Russia started administering the vaccine.
  • The ovarian cancer drug EXO-CD24 cured 29 of 30 severe Covid-19 cases at a Tel Aviv hospital. The drug is inhaled once a day for five days and mitigates cytokines storms caused by the virus. Further human trials are needed.
  • Nigeria is the most recent country to face severe oxygen shortages due to Covid-19 outbreaks.
  • Because the Biden administration is providing quality data about Covid-19 in the US, the Covid Tracking Project will stop its tracking next month.
  • In a move to increase production and conserve vials, Moderna plans to put 15 doses of Covid-19 vaccine in each vial instead of 10.
  • New AI breast cancer prediction models could be used to help women who missed mammograms during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Ford applied to patent a clear mask that provides the same protection as an N95 mask, but allows for users’ lips to be seen. The car manufacturer also “is sharing an inexpensive open-source design for a fan and HVAC filter combination that could help reduce virus particle concentrations in enclosed spaces.”
  • The Biden administration is paying US$231m to the Australian company Ellume for its 15 minute Covid-19 test. The FDA approved the at-home test in December. Funding enables Ellume to build a US factory that will provide 500,000 tests per day.

Happy Superbowl Sunday. 22,000 fans will get to watch Superbowl LV live. If you’re watching with friends, please consider watching together on video chat!

Fans prepare for Superbowl LV.

I write this for my sanity and to create a record of living during the Covid-19 pandemic. If you like it, please pass along to family and friends. For more frequent Covid-19 updates, follow me on Twitter.