At the outset, I want to set out what this post is NOT about:
- It is not, per se, either an endorsement or a refutation of “coronapilling” or “coronaskepticism.” (Though yes, obviously, I am personally closer to the former position).
- It is not a judgment on how we should manage the tradeoff between lives and GDP/unemployment. This is ultimately a normative question.
- It is not even a fixed assessment of ultimate success in the epidemic – if there is no vaccine within the medium-term, it is entirely possible that Corona rolling through most of the population in most countries may become inevitable (in which case Sweden & Co. will feel vindicated).
- OTOH, if there is a safe and effective vaccine soon – or if technical/social innovations allow us to reliably push r0 below 1 at low cost – then Sweden & Co. may well feel stupid.
I think these are all pretty uncontroversial points that any reasonable person can agree with.
What this post is about is establishing just how well the ideologically highly ideologically heterogeneous “coronaskeptic” countries in terms of one of a state’s prime responsibilities (safeguarding its population) relative to culturally comparable neighbors.
There are now many online COVID-19 visualization tools, see here: https://akarlin.com/corona-resources/
I will be using Our World in Data’s Data Explorer.
Finally, an important note. Yes, there are a lot of confounds. Culture and general conscientiousness. Mask acceptance. Geography – population density, urbanization, international connectedness. Living arrangement. Automobilization. “Bottom-up” social distancing, which happens everywhere to some extent, regardless of government decree – and, incidentally, and together with the decline in international trade, also dooms the economy to recession, if a lighter one than in the absence of lockdowns. The severity and precise details of lockdowns vary across countries, regions, and time. Finally, even in all of the “coronaskeptic” countries, there are still substantial degrees of epidemic-related restrictions and/or regional defiance of central “coronaskeptic” decrees.
Sweden vs. Nordics
I don’t think extra commentary is necessary.
Sweden, the poster child for “coronaskepticism” amongst the Western countries, has had an order of magnitude more deaths than its Nordic neighbors and relatives.
Meanwhile, “herd immunity” is nowhere in sight (7.3% seroprevalence in Stockholm at end-April).
I don’t think you can ascribe the difference to plausible geographic/cultural factors. While Sweden may be more “central” than Norway or, especially, Finland – and the Finns are also famously solitary people, who “socially distance” by default – this does not apply to Denmark. The Danish population is much denser, and more than a third of it is concentrated in the Copenhagen metropolitan area, which hosts 2.1 million people – not that far off from Stockholm’s 2.4 million.
As Alexander Mercouris points out:
In Sweden the reputations of too many important people are bound up with the country’s mitigation strategy for it to be openly abandoned. However, restrictions have been quietly tightened throughout April.
This makes the discrepancy all the more glaring.
However, it is also important to note that Sweden’s approach enjoys broad-based support amongst its population.
Brazil vs. LatAms
Though eclipsed in parts by Ecuador – believed to be the epicenter of the epidemic in Latin America – Brazil has surged ahead and deaths have since outpaced even Ecuador and Peru.
Mexico, run by initially coronaskeptic AMLO, hasn’t done great either.
Argentina and Uruguay, which had both luck and locked down early, are successfully containing their epidemics at a low level.
Incidentally – like it or not, but it seems majority of Brazilians disapprove of Bolsonaro’s performance. His net approval rating fell from ~-5% in February to ~-15% now. As of the latest poll (XP/Ipespe, May 16–18, 2020), a net 37% of Brazilians are unhappy with his Corona response in particular. The coronaskeptics cannot claim that they have public opinion on their side, at least so far as Brazil is concerned.
Belarus vs. East Slavs
This is the one case that I am aware of in which there has been seemingly little difference in performance between countries, regardless of policy.
Amongst the three major Slavic countries of the former USSR, it was the Ukraine that had the hardest lockdown, while Belarus had no significant lockdown at all, with Russia intermediate between them. However, the Ukraine has consistently done very badly with testing, while both Russia and Belarus have done extensive testing; Russia’s numbers, in per capita terms, have always been comparable to those of the major West European countries.
UKROTRIUMPH. Contra my expectations at the start, it is in fact the Ukraine that has done better than either Russia or Belarus at suppressing deaths. It is perhaps my one Corona prediction that I got unequivocally wrong.
Now all else equal, Belarus was probably expected to do best by default. Minsk only has 2 million people, vs. 4 million in Kiev and up to 15 million in the Moscow metropolitan area. Though it now has (had) substantial numbers of Gastarbeiters in Western Europe, they were still 3-4x less prevalent than Ukrainians even in per capita terms, nor was there a ~70,000 strong community based specifically in Italy predominantly hailing from Ternopil oblast (which led to a localized but contained outbreak in that region).
Adjusting for Moscow, which officially accounts for more than half of Russia’s deaths (though very likely less in reality), and we see that Belarus’ figures are still essentially comparable to Russia’s.
Can we then say that Lukashenko, who refused to cancel in-person Easter services and the Victory Day parade, has been vindicated?
This certainly seems like one victory for the coronaskeptic camp, if the only one out of three.
However, against that, we need to point that just like with data from a certain number of predominantly southern Russian oblasts, where daily new cases have suspiciously clustered just below 100 for weeks on end (Lipetsk governor has even been recorded ordering subordinates to fiddle the numbers), the numbers from Belarus – which, unlike Russia, is an outright dictatorship, with no significant scope for investigative journalism – also raise questions.
The number of new cases in Belarus have, since the end of April, consistently clustered at just below 1,000 – almost as if the country was some crony-run Russian province in the boondocks, blown up tenfold. Are there any other countries with such remarkable, long-running day-to-day stability? Belarus does a lot of tests – as many as Russia in per capita terms, or at least it claims to – so this is presumably unlikely to arise as a result of testing constraints (as, for instance, happened during the first few weeks of the Wuhan epidemic). If you purposefully fiddle with case numbers, no reason to believe you’re not fiddling the deaths numbers either.
As I said above, I am not going to take away this “victory” from the coronaskeptics, in the absence of concrete evidence that Belarus’ numbers are fundamentally incorrect. But it is something to bear to mind.
For obvious reasons, it’s hard to impossible to gauge how happy Belorussians are with Lukashenko’s policies.