In this “summary” post on Corona 2020, I will cover some of the following.
- Recap what we know about Corona, what we have learned in the past year, and what policies should have been undertaken;
- The big picture of global excess mortality that is emerging for 2020;
- Discuss the vaccines, “vaccine geopolitics”, and Corona’s impact on The Great Bifurcation between the US and China;
- Conclude with some general political and sociological observations, such as what Corona has revealed about state capacity around the world, the phenomenon of “rightoid cope”, and the bipartisan nature of ideological self-delusion.
The Year of Corona
As readers may have noticed, I haven’t been posting much about Corona in the past few months. The main reason is that I already wrote about most of what would happen in the first half of this year, and since then it’s been a matter of seeing all my more pessimistic predictions come true, intermittently recognized by rationalists and assaulted by an emergent crop of “Coronahoax” conspiracy-mongers. (As such, it has almost become more interesting to me as a sociological, as opposed to an epidemiological or geopolitical, phenomenon; I will comment more upon that later in this post).
The second reason is that we haven’t made any particularly radical discoveries about Corona, or the best ways of suppressing it, which remain – then as now – centered around universal masking, centralized quarantine, mass testing, and travel restrictions. Otherwise, precisely the same countries that managed to implement those policies and did correspondingly well during the first wave are also avoiding the brunt of the current wave. There are ultimately deep political, cultural, and perhaps even HBD reasons for these differentiated responses, and the capacity of individual pundits to make a difference is limited. The broad course of future events was clear by the summer and my Twitter more than sufficed for minor updates.
The one true game-changer is the unprecedented rapid appearance of multiple safe, excellent (>90% efficacy) vaccines within less than a year, as opposed to the 1-2 years or more that were initially being gloomily projected. This triumph of science and technology will allow the world economy and social interactions to recover to some semblance of normalcy during the following year, at least as soon as vaccine production capacity can be ramped up. Total deaths may be capped at no more than 10 megadeaths as Corona is systemically culled throughout the world during 2021-23, as opposed to the tens of millions that would have likely happened otherwise.
It’s rare that “silver bullets” end up rescuing nations from their own stupidity, so the appropriate response should be one of relief and gratefulness for the scientists who developed the vaccines, as well as a marked humbleness on civilization’s capability to deal with future, potentially more serious crises. Perhaps the single biggest thing that Corona has revealed is that said capability is extremely scarce.
Corona: Summing Up
The successful development of multiple vaccines and their rapid rollout means Corona should not dominate the headlines beyond this year. The bodies will continue to pile on for a few more months – perhaps a year or two, in the more remote and underdeveloped places of the world – but the main story will now involve dealing with the fiscal and monetary overhang from the Corona Crisis, as well as broader trends that will once again come to the forefront, such as the rapid advancements in AI and the accelerating cold war between China and the US.
As such, this would be a good time to “wrap up” the topic.
In particular, I am “happy” (if that is indeed the appropriate term – it would have been much better to have been proved wrong) with the following posts:
- Can’t Quarantine The Corona-chan: Predicted 20M dead, attempts to contain were “ultimately just attempts to shore up a crumbling dam”, and mentioned the BSL-4 lab in Wuhan.
- Corona Will Kill Millions & Crater the World Economy: Self-explanatory.
- Corona & the Cost of Doing Nothing: Permanent fall of ~2.5 years in US life expectancy should SARS-2 become endemic. (A scenario that vaccines will likely, happily, rule out).
- Dulce et Decorum Est Pro GDP Mori!: Or, “here is how Trump can still win”… when it still mattered.
Finally, I already tallied many of my predictions this May (see Corona Scorecard: Is AK Bad, Wrong, and a COVID Fascist?). I do not have cause to make any major reassessments:
- Early alarm & prediction of global spread, while many epidemiologists waxed unconcerned as late as February.
- Corona IFR correct to OOM (unlike Ioannidis’ 0.1%).
- Projected global death toll was almost correct to order of magnitude (“millions”).
- In retrospect, overly gloomy on world economy – underestimated impact of fiscal/monetary stimulus, and then vaccines came for Christmas. But it was made when betting markets weren’t even calling a recession.
- As regards regional predictions: Broadly correct on most places (if ultimately too optimistic on Russia).
- Broadly made the right calls on needed policies, and early on – I can only really think of Lyman Stone who was notably earlier and consistently better.
All in all, I do think I have done somewhat better than at least some of my most dedicated “fans”:
Now to be sure, I don’t make any claim to unique prescience. Many other prominent bloggers and pundits deserve recognition, such as Lyman Stone (overall “winner”?), Tomas Pueyo, Roko Mijic, Steve Sailer, Razib Khan, Ron Unz, Greg Cochran, JayMan, hbd*chick, Scott Alexander, E. Harding, Noah Carl, Mark Sleboda, and Philippe Lemoine, to name just a few – though it could really just as easily be extended to at least half of the “rationalist”-sphere and considerable numbers of my regular commenters.
The Infection Fatality Rate of ~1% (May 2020) remains correct to the nearest order of magnitude, although it has since happily fallen by a third or even half thanks to adoption of best practices – current CDC estimate seems to be 0.65%.
The fundamental observation that it is one order of magnitude (OOM) more dangerous than “The Flu” across all age groups remains intact, as evidenced by one of the most comprehensive studies on the matter by Mark Bevand.
Demographers now estimate that the US will lose 2-3 years in life expectancy this year, plummeting from 78.8 years in 2019 to levels last seen in the late 1990s.
This is broadly congruent with my March estimate of a 2.5 year LE decline using the age-specific mortality rates derived from the Diamond Princess and assuming a 10% infection rate.
|Seroprevalence in the US during July 2020, before the second wave, was at just 8% – well below the level needed for “herd immunity” (as noted), so today it should be around 20-25%. So my assumptions were too pessimistic for what a 10% infection scenario would do, since the Diamond Princess numbers were obviously from before advances in medical care significantly improved Corona outcomes.|
Given the continued failure to contain Corona outside East Asia, it is only thanks to the timely development of vaccines and a stroke of good fortunate in that the critical protein spike on which many of these vaccines latch on to did not undergo significant mutations that should not expect to see comparable death rates beyond this annus horribilis.
This is not something that could have been taken for granted. Had the coronavirus mutated into multiple variegated strains that required too many separate vaccines to be feasibly suppressed, then it truly would have become “The Flu” in epidemiological terms – one that was several times as lethal – but nonetheless something that that we would have had to “learn to live with”. Infecting 10%-20% of the population every year, it would have resulted in a permanent loss of 2-3 years worth of life expectancy and diminished life quality for many survivors.
|There is a widespread misconception amongst “COVID dissidents” that Corona only cuts off a year or just a few months from life expectancy, based on the average age of death. But life expectancy does not go down by one year with every year you age – the typical 80 year old Italian, for instance, has a remaining life expectancy of 10 years, not 1 year. Statistically, this implies not infrequent cases where two or three decades of potential life are lost. As for non-lethal, but QoL-impairing outcomes, there are many reports of lingering tiredness, physical underperformance, and distortions of sense of smell (“parosmia”) even amongst very young people. Long term effects on health and robustness remain unknown. This confirms my earliest judgments from January that while Corona is from the worst disease to get, it’s still something you would very much want to avoid.|
The coronavirus has failed to mutate into something more lethal, which was also a distinct possibility; as Greg Cochran has repeatedly pointed out, the idea that a pathogen has to become less lethal over time is just a meme.
Knowing the basics about perennial plagues like smallpox and falciparum malaria, or short-term-visitors like the English sweat, helps clarify the mind of people that say silly things about evolution always favoring milder strains that spare the host: apparently nobody told smallpox about this, since its CFR was around 30% for thousands of years.
Fortunately, what mutations we did see – first in Italy, more recently in the Britain – have acted almost exclusively on transmissibility. Through no particular effort or achievement of our own, the worst nightmare scenarios – divergence into multiple strains beyond the reach of a single vaccine or feasible cocktail of vaccines, and/or a sharp increase in virulence – have been averted, at least barring some last minute disaster**.
As Corona progressed, it soon became clear that there were several things that were especially effective at “flattening” or “crushing” the curve (it was soon pointed out by the more acute observers that in a globalized world, the distinction between the two was really being quite arbitrary, even if the Western world’s decision to rhetorically focus on the former could be said to have presaged defeatism).
The Big Three can be said to have been the following:
(1) Universal mask wearing, with its efficacy growing exponentially the greater a percentage of the population engaged in the practice. 95% mask wearing – covering the nose and mouth! – is vastly, cardinally better than 80% mask wearing – it reflects the general difference in the social response to Corona in the East Asian success stories and the failures in most of the rest of the world. Due to its unique degree of social solidarity and discipline, Japan has avoided large-scale outbreaks (translating into noticeable excess mortality) without severe lockdowns mainly through truly near universal mask wearing.
(2) Centralized quarantine – vital once the epidemic blows up beyond the capacity of conventional contact tracing, which often happened early on. Unfortunately, as Lyman Stone points out, nobody really did that outside East Asia. You would think that politely but firmly sequestering a few tens of thousands of people for a couple of weeks – while supporting hotels suffering from the collapse of tourism! – would be a superior outcome to 100,000’s of deaths and lockdowns and restrictions for millions, but apparently most Westerners beg to differ. The end result is that the countries that set up so-called “concentration camps”, such as China, ended up de facto far freer than those that didn’t – cue the scenes of massive crowds in Wuhan’s swimming pools this autumn.
(3) Travel restrictions are self-explanatory. On a related note, it’s probably no surprise that the Western country with the smallest, most easily controlled outbreak was the remote island of New Zealand.
In locales where the epidemic did threaten to overspill despite Big Three policies beyond the capabilities of human-run contact tracing programs, it was possible to institute localized lockdowns. This is how China, South Korea, and Vietnam stymied Corona from blowing out of control.
These policies, taken together, had the capacity to keep Corona largely contained at trivial costs to the economy and society, at least relative to letting the disease rampage out of control and getting forced into ruinously expensive general lockdowns to avoid the PR disaster of overflowing hospitals and the collapsing approval ratings that would ensue from that (recall that SARS-2 is one order of magnitude more virulent than the flu + that a typical hospital stay is several times longer than for the flu + the fact of no pre-existing herd immunity → you were looking at up to 2 orders of magnitude greater pressure on hospital capacity relative to a normal flu season). A few societies, primarily in East Asia, with a sufficient degree of social cohesion and state writ, managed this. Most of the rest of the developed world instead subjected society to a year-long “idiot’s limbo” of uncertainty and cycling lockdowns
Intermittently, various pundits and visionaries proposed bolder “technocratic” ideas, such as:
- Truly mass testing (~10% of the population daily), such as what was implemented at the University of Illinois on a small scale.
- “Cyber Panopticon” concepts (e.g. Singapore), essentially boiling down to offloading contact tracing work to mobile apps and AI when it escalated beyond the human capacity of national epidemiological services.
- Moving everything outdoors and installing far-UV lights in public areas.
- Robin Hanson’s ideas on mass variolation: paying younger people to get infected with the coronavirus in small doses in a controlled hospital setting.
- Dogs sniffing out Corona?
- Accelerating regulatory approval of the new vaccines, e.g. the Moderna one was ready in two days’ time. So far as 80 year olds are concerned, the “Russian roulette”-level risks of getting Corona are in any case vastly higher than those from any vaccine.
Although some of these ideas are more expensive than others, they are all far cheaper, efficacious, and ultimately ethical than hard lockdowns (repeat: “Letting it rip” was politically impossible well nigh everywhere – a false dichotomy). However, the countries with competent healthcare bureaucracies that could enforce the low-hanging Big Three had scant need for these more unconventional solutions anyway, while those without them would appear to have been doomed either way.
There was also the “brute force”, most decisively and visibly practiced during the initial outbreak in Wuhan, where life was shut down so totally that r0 was driven down to 0.32. Under such conditions, Corona is quickly extinguished to the point where other contact tracing could pick up the pace. That lockdown wasn’t vastly more restrictive of personal freedoms than that seen in many Western countries, but it was much shorter and clearly did far less economic or psychological damage. But this was only a choice had it been applied in late February/early March, when it was becoming rapidly clear to the observant (i.e., few epidemiologists) that Corona clusters were forming all across the world.
The result is some piecemeal and largely reactive adaptations of all of the above methods – lockdowns that are economically ruinous but not harsh enough or long enough to achieve full suppression, coupled with patchily enforced mask wearing, scant effort devoted to contact tracing, and travel restrictions that are introduced after the horse had already bolted. All of this accompanied by straight-out showmanship, such as breaking up beach or park outings (infections in the open air are freak occurrences), or making gloves compulsory along with masks even though infections through surface contact are also freak occurrences (a more particular idiocy that I believe might be quite specific to Russia). For bureaucrats and politicians, the appearance of appearing to be doing something is more important than whether it actually works or not.
Now in fairness, the idiot’s limbo is no longer as total as it was half a year ago. The strategy the West seems to have settled upon is to let Corona quietly rip in the background, while dialing restrictions and lockdowns up and down in such a way as to avoid scenes of overflowing hospitals before the cameras while reducing economic damage and steadily grinding towards “herd immunity”. This isn’t the optimal route, but it is the politically safest ones, and the one that appears to be within their elites’ capabilities. This is reasonable, given the lack of will to work towards total suppression.
Early on, we had to rely on official COVID-19 mortality statistics from national disease task forces and aggregator dashboards such as the ones I collated here: https://akarlin.com/corona-resources/
The official numbers were not very accurate, because in many cases, deaths from COVID-19 were not correctly registered, e.g. being ascribed instead to generic flu, or the proximate cause of death. (The case numbers were even worse, given problems with procuring test kits early on). Conversely, there were claims – mainly from the “Coronahoax” right – that COVID-19 deaths were if anything being overestimated, because doctors were supposedly labeling any which death as being caused by COVID-19. The only way to cut through these claims and counterclaims was to look at something called “excess deaths” – that is, by how much deaths increased (or decreased) relative to the same period last year in the absence of Corona, or (in more sophisticated versions) relative to preexisting mortality trendlines. These statistics would become progressively more available for increasing numbers of countries as the year wore on.
The most comprehensive such project that I know of has been carried out by the Financial Times’ stats man John Burn-Murdoch, who released his latest update just a couple of days ago:
At the global level, we have the following picture:
- Excess mortality estimates give 1.5 million for the countries tracked, compared to 960,000 attributed to COVID-19 in the same countries during the same period in what is a heavily First World-based sample.
- The undercount can be safely said to be far higher in the Third World (discussed below).
- There will be ~1.8 million official deaths in 2020.
- Multiplying that by 50% gives 2.7 million deaths.
- But Third World undercounting means that probably something like 5-7 million is likelier (or, 10% of the world’s ~60 million annual deaths).
- I suspect something like 10 million deaths globally before vaccines stamp it out in the next couple of years – and in the process preempt the death toll from going into the tens of millions range.
The FT numbers have recently been very closely reproduced by Russian stats professor/blogger Dmitry Kobak.
This all entirely and completely if sadly congruent with my Feb 24, 2020 prediction that “Corona Will Kill Millions & Crater the World Economy“.
Now to be sure, excess deaths are not the ultimate authority – they can have other causes. But if they happen during some notable, mortality-elevating event – for instance, a heat wave, a famine, or a pandemic – then the onus needs to be on the critics to provide an alternate explanation for why deaths would spike during that precise time interval – for instance, by demonstrating that there was a universal cause behind it (e.g. Soviet apologists for the 1932-33 collectivization famines have claimed that millions of Americans died of starvation in the same period due to global climatic effects; these claims are baseless and demographically illiterate, but points for trying, I guess).
The Corona Hoaxers’ equivalent of “drought” are the lockdowns. But as we see from the above table, Taiwan, Australia, Iceland, and South Korea – all countries that notable managed to contain their outbreaks at a low or negligible level – actually saw an overall reduction in mortality. Since many of them had lockdowns of some kind – very harsh ones, in Australia’s case – it obviously can’t be ascribed to suicides or missed operations. If anything, lockdowns have a pronounced mortality-reducing effect (reductions in traffic accidents are one obvious factor).
The foremost “accessible” authority on Corona in the US is demographer Lyman Stone, who provides “deaths day” updates for US excess mortality once every few weeks. Latest one as of now is from Dec 11:
There will probably be something like 450,000 excess deaths in the US during 2020, raising total deaths to 3.3 million from the usual level of 2.8-2.9 million in the past few years. Incidentally, this is pretty much the half a million that Ron Unz projected in his August podcast with Robert Stark.
The most interesting finding, perhaps, is that the US has generally done better than Europe – the part of it that regularly reports excess deaths, at any rate – with the second wave hitting the latter much harder. There has been no truly cardinal difference in Corona response – although European lockdowns were longer (and economically harder-hitting), Europeans did not wear masks at a much higher rate than Americans, nor did either region practice centralized quarantine. So I think this difference is ultimately more a function of geographic factors (US is more spread out), a younger American median age (though partially balanced out by more diabetes and obesity), and better US healthcare. What Europe has done undoubtedly better in is with PR, with virtually none of its leading politicians playing about with floomerism as Trump did – for which he was punished at the polls.
So far as concerns internal variation within Europe, the question of why Germanics and Nords enjoyed lower mortality from Corona – even after adjusting for infection rates – than the Med remains an open one. Perhaps something as banal as population physiological differences, e.g. in lung capacity, in addition to better healthcare systems in the latter.
Meanwhile, Eastern Europe – hitherto the least affected major European region – is surging ahead of cumulative death tolls observed even in Spain, the country hardest hit by the first wave.
Here are the estimated COVID-19 mortality numbers from stats professor/blogger Dmitry Kobak, based on the prior official Corona mortality to excess mortality ratios and projecting forwards to Dec 29, 2020.
US excess mortality for the year is estimated at 450,000 deaths, which dovetails with Lyman Stone’s. He projects Russia going up to 360,000 excess deaths by the end of the year.
The per capita numbers for Russia (254/100k) and Poland (222/100k) seem to be going along a similar trajectory, so it seems unlikely that the situation is cardinally better in any major countries within that region. For instance, official Ukrainian Corona mortality exploded from October – and the undercount there is likely to be massive as well. There is also a large undercount in Hungary. I don’t expect very major differences in outcomes within this region, which seems on track to systematically “overtake” Mediterranean Europe and approach or exceed the death tolls of some of the Latin American countries: Peru (279/100k), Ecuador (246/100k), Mexico (243/100k).
So which country is going to end up with the dubious “honor” of volunteering the greatest amounts of tributes to Corona-chan as a share of its population?
Croat Twitter user @volvoks99 believes it will be in the Balkans. They have a bad combination of Med social vibes, middle-income country healthcare quality, and European age profile.
The ex-USSR is not as “social” as the Balkanoids, but OTOH, they have a greater legacy of vodka abuse and their populations are much less healthy than Westerners at any particular age. Both the Balkanoids and ex-sovoks were relatively “shielded” during the first wave because they are more peripheral on global traffic/tourism flows, then summer came. But with Corona now endemic throughout the world, that’s no longer a big factor during this winter wave.
ECE/V4 do have an outside chance – perhaps Hungary especially – but I doubt it.
Although so far as available estimates of excess mortality are concerned, Peru still has an overall global lead. However, it is now “summer” there, and by mid-2020, it’ll probably have access to vaccines.
Here’s an astounding fact: We know more about births/deaths in mid-18th century Sweden than we do for much of Black Africa in the 2010s. It’s a demographic black box.
That said, recent results suggest that the coronavirus has raged through Africa no less than in much of the rest of the world; some 20% of people in the Republic of Congo were registered as having antibodies against SARS-2 as early as July 2020 (see right).
There would certainly have been many excess deaths amongst older Africans from such infection rates – it is interesting to note that the only world leaders to die from Corona both hailed from Black Africa: eSwatini Ambrose Dlamini, and possibly Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza. However, the relative effect on overall mortality would be strongly diluted by the very low median age of the population (most of Sub-Saharan Africa is at 20 years!) as well as relatively high pre-existing death rates.
As we can see from the FT tables, excess mortality even in lower middle-income countries places like Ecuador (+79%) and Peru (+89%), where the median age is 28 years, or in Jakarta, Indonesia (+71%), where the median age is around 30 years for the country as a whole, the increases are very substantial. We even observe large increases in the more “Third World” regions of countries like Russia (e.g. Dagestan, Chechnya). Moreover, not only is there the obvious factor that healthcare quality is much lower in the Third World, but in many cases people are themselves more “fragile” and “weaker” at any given age due to a lifetime of nutritional and epidemiological shocks. As such, the aggregate effect on global mortality from the Third World will be very substantial – even if much of it remains uncaptured in national statistics.
Nonetheless, bearing in mind that even rich Western countries were unable to contain Corona, it’s obvious now that locking down was a bad idea for any Third World country (as I suggested as such back in April). At least unless they have First World-tier human capital, like Vietnam.
Latest World Bank estimates see global GDP contracting by an estimated 4.4%, which is 50% deeper than the Great Recession and the greatest economic collapse on record since post-World War II demobilization.
So, in retrospect, the Corona to “crater the world economy” was quite the accurate prediction – especially in the context of betting markets in late February giving just a 32% chance of a global recession within the next year.
Just weeks later, American GDP was crashing by a third and oil futures going into negative figures.
A depression was avoided mainly thanks to massive monetary loosening and fiscal stimulus equivalent to a sixth of US GDP (similar figures in other developed countries), the seasonal reprieve during summer, and growing confidence that vaccines would soon put the whole affair behind us.
So far as individual regions and countries go (IMF Oct 2020 figures):
- United States growth of -4.3% is much better than the -5.8% projected for the advanced economies at large. Ironically, in the big picture, Corona could be seen as an Amerotriumph in comparison to most everyone except China. Not only will the US eventually lose fewer people than Europe in per capita terms, its economy will also be hurt to a somewhat lesser extent. In fairness, US stimulus spending was higher as a percentage of GDP than any major country except Japan (though this is partially mitigated by the fact that in Europe’s more generous welfare states, stimulus spending increases “by default” during recessions).
- European Union will grow by -7.6%, with the hardest hit being the Med – our early 2010s friends the PIGS – all of whom will decline by 10-12%, thanks in significant part to a collapse in tourism revenue. Their debt to GDP ratios will also swell, perhaps presaging new crises in the early 2020s. The UK and France will also decline by 10%. Germany did much better, it will only decline by 6% – numbers which are also typical of the ECE and Scandinavia. Its single best performer is Poland, which will only fall by 3.6%.
- Eastern Europe will do much better, growing at -4.6% – with Russia in particular doing much better than expected, only falling by 4.1% (discussed separately here).
- East Asia is the only region to see positive growth at 0.3%, led by China with 1.9% – performance in the rest of the year making up for its deep Q1 2020 collapse. Japan is not bad at -5.3%, although that was only achieved through stimulus spending equivalent to 21% of its GDP – the single highest such figure of any G20 country.
- Latin America (-8.1%) does very badly, although Brazil will do better at -5.8%. Thanks to Bolsonaro’s generous income support for poor Brazilians, it will – almost uniquely – see an absolute decline in poverty this year. South Asia (-8.4%) will both do very badly, driven above all by India’s 10.3% decline. All its meager gains relative to China in the past few years have evaporated in 2020. National performance in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa seems to have been heavily variegated.
Whither now? The unprecedented global monetary and fiscal experiments this year have led to the rather paradoxical effect that even as economic activity contracted, stock markets and many other assets (e.g. cryptocurrencies) have exploded to record heights, as all the newly created dollars had to go somewhere. Market cap to GDP in the US has never been higher, and US stock markets in turn may be the world’s most overvalued at the present time (Tesla with its 1,000+ p/e ratio can be seen as the poster child for this). We are in uncharted waters so far as economic policy is concerned, long-term consequences are unclear, and my Twitter followers are all over the place so far as the timing of the next recession is concerned.
Corona Geopolitics & State Capacity
I think part of the fascination with Corona-watching (at least for me) is that while it won’t much change the balance of power per se (e.g. overall demographic impact is close to negligible), it is perhaps the most strenuous “standardized test” of state capacity since World War II. Some countries reacted promptly and effectively, while other countries – that is, almost everyone outside East Asia – floundered and failed (despite the irony of Europeans having brought modern epidemiology into China in the first place). Many national stereotypes were confirmed, but others were rejected. Or subverted. The Swedish strategy, suboptimal or not as it may eventually turn out to be, required huge social discipline to sustain, a sort of stoicism in the face of encroaching danger that recalled how, during the Thirty Years War, aghast observers would remark upon Swedish soldiers’ unusual willingness to march unflinching into grapeshot.
Probably the single simplest measure of the effectiveness of the coronavirus response could be something like the sum of:
- The socio-economic disruption caused by an event like Corona 2020, as proxied by the change in GDP growth from what it was otherwise expected to be.
- The percentage increase in excess deaths relative to recent trends.
Such an index of state capacity would look something like the following:
- East Asia ~5%, almost all of it due to slower GDP growth: China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, etc. are pretty clearly in the lead.
- USA ~25%, having had a ~15-18% increase in excess mortality and a 4% GDP decline versus 2%-3% it would have had otherwise,
- Europe largely at ~20-30%, with 15-20% increase in excess mortality and 5-10% GDP declines.
- Russia currently at ~30%, with 23% increase in excess mortality as of Dec 29 and -4% projected GDP growth versus the 2% or 3% it would have had otherwise.
- Latin American countries at 50%+ with huge increases in excess mortality and large GDP declines.
For all the weakness and simplicity of this method (doesn’t account for age structure, etc.) it seems like a remarkably accurate approximation of real state capacity in the world today relative to stereotypes (even though Western supremacists will understandably not be happy to hear that China is basically a developed East Asian state in that respect).
So far as the world’s prospects at large are concerned – as I wrote at the start, the global response to Corona has generally made me more skeptical about the world’s capacity to deal with future, potentially much more dangerous crises than Corona:
- We see that European societies from the US to Eastern Europe are all relatively dysfunctional compare to East Asia so far as real world outcomes are concerned.
- Clean, efficient, Big Data-friendly bureaucracies such as Taiwan’s are the exception, not the rule. The cynical view that they are overwhelmingly driven by the need to be seen to be doing something as opposed to doing things that are effective at minimal cost and inconvenient is unfortunately true.
- The academic establishment and the media ecosystem that hangs on their every word tends to conservative, ossified thinking while the rightoids are too dumb and crazy and the rationalists too few and autistic to effectively challenge them.
- Demotic regimes – this encompasses not just classical Western “democracies”, but “hybrid” regimes like Russia’s that are still dependent on popular legitimation – are too short-termist to commit to an optimal policy and see it through to the end.
- Although an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, not just in medicine but in policy towards natural disasters, “myopic voters” overwhelmingly award politicians who invest in the latter (i.e. show themselves to be “doing something”). As such, the problem is fundamental: Demotism; mediocre average IQ; competence – you can’t have all three.
If a civilization can’t deal adequately with a relatively “simple” problem like Corona, I don’t see it “solving” Mars colonization, long-term dysgenics, or the control problem in AI. Except by lucking out, at any rate.
The Vaccines Race
The development of vaccines has opened up another arena of geopolitical struggle. Getting priority access to them is important not just as a means of capping mortality and enabling recovery, but also signaling elite country status. The main spheres/countries to indigenously develop their own vaccines are an elite club of transnational but Western-based pharma giants as well as primarily state-based institutions in China (Sinovac, etc.) and – surprisingly to some – Russian (Sputnik V).
Amusingly, their geographic spread reflects geopolitical alignments,
There are also concrete limits to Western virtue signaling – as one can see, Third World countries with no close geopolitical alignments and no indigenous vaccine production capacities of their own are last in line.
Incidentally, vaccination will also be the latest test of state capacity. The faster that countries ensure mass vaccination – something that is a function of state technological resources, national wealth, access to good allies, and the level of enlightenment and discipline of the general population – the sooner that the epidemic will be controlled within their borders. Israel has made a sterling start, with 20% of its over 65’s already vaccinated as of the time of writing.
“China Lied, People Died” as Wypipo Cope
One of the most fascinating things about the Corona Crisis was how various right-wing conspiracy theorists would simultaneously claim that China purposefully spread its “China Virus”/WuFlu on purpose, which is actually a hoax that is just the flu, but which has also killed tens of millions of Chinese because millions of phone numbers vanished from Wuhan and which the Chicoms are hiding from the world.
Meanwhile, the slightly smarter if similarly deranged neocons have been demanding
gibsmedats reparations, such as the British tabloid The Sun and the German tabloid Bild, the Henry Jackson Society, the Claremont Institute, Bannon, and now Nigel Farage.
But perhaps the most “powerful” take of all belonged to Tyler Cowen, who has argued that letting Corona ran rampant… is actually a way to “own” the Chicoms:
There is one other factor that people are loathe to discuss (with one exception). Yes, the U.S. has botched its response to Covid-19. At the same time, its experience shows that America as a nation can in fact tolerate casualties, too many in fact. It had long been standard Chinese doctrine that Americans are “soft” and unwilling to take on much risk. If you were a Chinese war game planner, might you now reconsider that assumption?
Fred Reed has been next to no-one in lampooning this rightoid schizophrenia, while on a more serious note, Philippe Lemoine has written the definitive case arguing that China neither substantially hid the scale of its epidemic nor that it could be blamed for Western incompetence at containing Corona in a magisterial 4-part series at Quillette .
The Western rage at China is all the more hilarious considering their own denouncements of China’s “authoritarian” Corona response in January and Schadenfreude at the difficulties it was going to face (e.g. Wilbur Ross’ comments).
As noted and subsequently lampooned by the Chinese themselves:
In reality, at least so far as epidemic control is control, China has merely demonstrated that it has surpassed the West – as in many other areas. As pointed out by E. Harding, its response outside Wuhan was South Korea-tier.
Meanwhile, much of the West was revealed to have a catastrophic deficit of state capacity, its leaders unable to even replicate what Vietnam was capable of.
Nonetheless, credit where credit’s due – contra my own expectations, the US has managed to deflect most of the blame for its own failures onto China not just so far as its domestic audience is concerned, but even amongst many Europeans, whose opinions of China have sharply worsened this year. Although I predicted that Corona would accelerate the Great Bifurcation between the US and China, I was not quite correct to believe that it would rebound to China’s benefit. Propaganda is certainly one sphere in which the Western supremacists retain an overwhelming advantage, with most Americans believing that the Chinese coronavirus was worse than theirs.
Corona Politics & Rightoid Cope
Despite the prevalence of “floomerism” in online rhetoric, it is something that has been avoided by the smarter politicians, although there were a few prominent exceptions:
- Donald Trump has been sort of 50/50, but thanks to very bad PR he ended up being associated himself with the floomer camp and failed to capitalize on what he did get right (e.g. early travel bans). I personally told Trumperino what he needed to do to win – he failed to follow my advice and paid for it at the polls.
- Alexander Lukashenko – crushing the protests over electoral fraud would have certainly been easier to justify had he not been a dedicated floomer.
- Jair Bolsonaro was perhaps the most “powerful” floomer, up to the point that he faced something of a mini-revolt from Brazilian governors. In the end, his approval ratings were rescued by direct payments to the Brazilian poor, which – almost uniquely – have resulted in a reduction of poverty in 2020 and a fall in the Gini index from 0.55 to 0.49. Unlike Trump, Bolsonaro was a real populist, and his people thanked him for it.
Most of the other country leaders didn’t insist on scoring own goals and, where they did not suppress Corona, at least compensated with adequate PR, gravitas, making sure the cameras didn’t capture overflowing hospitals.
Hilariously, this includes politicians that rightoids tend to worship, e.g. Putin, whose Corona response may have been substandard but who has made his disdain for “COVID dissidents” quite clear. Ergo for Netanyahu, Orban, etc. Floomerism wasn’t part of their rhetoric.
Hence my observation, back in May, that “coronaskepticism” was actually rather ideologically heterogenous so far as political alignments went.
And certainly at the beginning the idiocy and incompetence seemed to be quite bipartisan.
There was widespread signaling on the part of the centrist elites against travel restrictions (somewhat linked to Trump Derangement Syndrome) and even outright dismissal of the threat of Corona back in March. The rationalist Roko Mijic and @PurpleBaptist have both produced good Twitter threads collecting failed expert advice and predictions from the period. The single most pronounced failure , of course, the pronounced warning against wearing masks in March – something that I and many other bloggers and commenters repeatedly pointed out at the time. Incidentally, this was a “white lie” to save up masks for healthcare workers, as was subsequently claimed; Scott Alexander demonstrated early (see #7) on that it reflected the medical profession’s ossified conversatism and (in this case, tragically misplaced) risk averseness.
Even so, at least so far as the Corona question goes, the “experts” and the MSM did at least adapt quite quickly and correct course. Even as “the libs” scurried to “clean up” the public record of their predictive failures – Vox recently proudly announced it had deleted two tweets from March about mask-wearing – this “Anti-Masks Cause” was subsequently monopolized by American rightoids, and since stupidity is contagious, by their ideological brethren across the world. It’s one thing to be wrong out of excess caution and professional groupthink, it’s quite another to seize the mantle of stupidity and proudly don it one’s head. Like making geocentrism a lynchpin of your political identity after Galileo.
This is not to imply that there aren’t many people with an accurate view of Corona who are right-wing or conservative. Nor is it to say that the liberals and/or the Left have suddenly become much fundamentally rational. Leftoids believed that the #BLM rallies did not spread coronavirus, just as rightoids thought the same about MAGA rallies. Even so, in both incidence and sheer magnitude of idiotic rhetoric, there’s no doubt the rightoids have ascended head and shoulders above any other political faction, adopting patently losing and incorrect positions that there were under absolutely no obligation to adopt, and which were often outright schizophrenic and self-contradictory to boot – notably, barking at China for spreading a “flu” that they simultaneously claimed wasn’t killing anybody. Unsurprisingly, this kind of unhinged idiocy doesn’t appeal much to normie voters, who punished Trump at the polls, while politicians such as Jacinda Ardern who successfully protected their people were instead praised and lavishly rewarded by the adoring masses.
So why did rightoids insist on scoring own goals? One can speculate endlessly, but ultimately I think it comes down to them having something like 10 fewer IQ points than liberals on average, and 5 fewer IQ points than leftoids. Stupider people tend to make bad decisions and adopt losing positions. Stupider people tend to make bad decisions while putting themselves in a position where they can easily and not even all that unfairly be portrayed as psychopaths by people who dislike them and who also happen to control 90% of the media and tech.
Now again, to be clear, it’s not as if the neolibs are the “party of science” or whatever. They have been censoring suggestions to more rapidly roll out vaccines by limiting injections to a single dose – even though that is something that has been suggested by the developers of the Sputnik V vaccine, and by David Salisbury, the one time British head of immunizations at the Department of Health. At least in the US, they are also making clearly politicized decisions about which demographic groups are got the vaccines first.
But this has no comparison to aggressive signaling against vaccination, which so far as mainstream politics goes seems to be near exclusively monopolized by rightoids. Flea-infested hippies and Nation of Islam nutjobs are not mainstream, but Bolsonaro is ranting about how the vaccines are going to turn you into an alligator is. I suppose that’s at least more creative than the Bill Gates microchip theory.
So far as the “COVID dissidence” movement goes, it has long become an almost exclusively rightoid phenomenon, and I say that as someone that had the “privilege” of getting to observe it first hand over the past few months, becoming something of an object of hatred for these rightoids both on Twitter (see right for one creative example) and amongst certain commenters at this webzine, despite my own positions on the optimal Corona response being consistently based on costs/benefits-type analysis devoid of puritanical zeal, and which are not for that matter notably more “hardline” than normie positions and in many cases, even the contrary.
That is because rightoids tend to live in a world of their own imagining, whereas in the real one, 72% of Britons support Boris Johnson’s recent decision to return to a lockdown. (My own position on this matter is agnostic these days – on the one hand, what’s the point, if white countries have already generally demonstrated they’re not serious about suppression? Though admittedly, a case can be made for it if there is a credible UK commitment to use the lockdown to run through a crash vaccination program, like Israel is doing. In other words, I am – on this particular point – more “COVID skeptic” than a solid majority of the British population).
But what matters more is that following my recommendations and those of many others would have largely annulled the need for hard lockdowns in principle. Now certainly it would have been very good if we had indeed been listened to, even if it would have had the ironic effect of making our gloomy prognostications wrong:
We will be wrong if people listen to us – which, happy as the overall outcome will be, will expose us to an avalanche of second guessing asshats.
But thing is, we've already been proved right. East Asia has vindicated us.
— 🇷🇺 ANATꙮLY 🤔 KARLIN (@akarlin88) March 24, 2020
Like, OK – I expected to be attacked if I was wrong and prompt action had averted our bad Corona outcome (even if my gloomy prognostications had played some minor role in doing so).
Nor did I expect to be lauded and praised if I was in fact right. Those who forecast ill winds are never popular.
But I admittedly did not expect to be correct on almost all of the key issues – including on issues that intersected against the grain of left/liberal theology – and to nonetheless have the overwhelming of subsequent attacks and accusations of chicanery come from rightoids for my sheer affronterty and chutzpah of… being correct? Certainly there was not a lot of that from leftoids, and not at all liberals.