Draco was a democratic legislator in 622 B.C. who moved Athenian law from an oral tradition known only to the elite, to a written code of law, which could be called upon by any citizen. A reformer. However, his laws were very harsh, applying the death penalty for minor offences, and his code was repealed by Solon in the early 6th century BC, save for his section on homicide. Law is born out of despair at human nature, and Draco despaired.
It would be interesting to know if Draco’s laws led to better behaviour among Athenians, with less stealing of cabbages, and whether Solon subsequently ushered in an age of depravity, but I merely mention that severe measures are now described as draconian, and this condemnation is expected be understood and agreed by all.
How should countries respond to this coronavirus? Doing nothing is the base case, and no country has openly adopted that policy. Perhaps failed states would be an interesting test case. The two current options are Contain or Mitigate. Palpably, nations failed to contain the virus, though China after an uncertain start in which the severity of the problem was denied, did a fast catch-up and imposed, er, Draconian measures. That is, the relevant ones. Singapore took a more nuanced but effective approach. Taiwan seems to have done well. South Korea was doing OK when one deluded believer jumped hospital quarantine to attend a religious meeting, infecting many, matters being made worse by the reluctance of the religious leaders to say who had attended their service.
Here in the UK the key modelling work is being done by Imperial College, and here is a recent interview with the team leader, and then a much more detailed argument from the same group.
The key picture is the estimate of intensive care beds required under various policy scenarios, which will be closely related to death rates, since those beds are very limited in number.
Basically, we are now able to model something which more advanced principalities in Mediaeval Europe knew instinctively: the way to stop an epidemic is to deny it its stepping stones. You have to block the vector, and deny the enemy its next host. Scorched earth, in fact.
In contrast, here is a podcast with Greg Cochran, in person a mild and courteous companion, and in the abstract an acerbic commentator on all muddled thinking.
For those of you in a great hurry, his main points are:
You have to get the R0 down by whatever means you can; that the main vector of spread is sneezing, coughing and breathing, with hand touching secondary; that closing schools helps reduce the vector, and the children are the vectors, not the victims in this case; UK policy is wrong: if you allow any proportion of the population to get infected you very quickly get a small proportion of that infected proportion who get very ill, and that swamps the intensive care facilities anyway, and hospitals overflow. Respiratory facilities are very limited. Wuhan thought people had acquired immunity, but they were wrong. A few people, just a few, caught the virus, and that was sufficient to swamp facilities, even with the extra hospitals. What the Chinese achieved they did by limiting social interactions. Taiwan and Singapore also succeeded in the same way. Testing for fever and Covid is the way forward. If you let the virus go through the population in the hope of getting immunity you kill a lot of people.
UK advisors seem to take it as gospel that what China did can’t be done in the UK. They are wrong. Furthermore, you don’t have to regard finding a vaccine as the only way forwards. Some old drugs may work partially. Serums will probably work. We need to use any avenue to reduce cases and to reduce death rates.
Now: ship cruises. After I die, I intend to go on one.
The Diamond Princess cruise ship had the misfortune to be boarded by a person already showing symptoms, who was later tested and shown to be infected with Covid-19, by which time he had infected 634 other passengers. This shows that using average figures for the reproductive index can be highly misleading in settings where many people are close together in confined circumstances.
Among those infected, the death rate was 1.2% 12 times worse than ordinary flu. Not nice, as my Granny used to say.
Worse, among those over 70, the death rate was 9%. Definitely not nice. For those whose infection becomes symptomatic and reaches case level, the death rate doubles to 18%.
So, at least two weeks too late, in the UK we are keeping the most vulnerable away from obvious harm, and keeping the fit and young from needless infection. The key error was to keep planes flying, and to keep borders open so that the virus could hitch a ride and use every country as stepping stones to the next victim.
As someone in self-isolation I can tell you that food home delivery systems are struggling, their websites crashing, and deliveries are being cancelled. Pharmacies have local shortages, supermarkets as well. The neighbourhood is pretty deserted, few people about, few of the usual construction workers about, fewer cars on the road, but still a fair number of cyclists. Neighbours who are either younger, fitter or simply more courageous are willing to do errands.
Has the UK goofed? Like other countries it made the fundamental error of running an open house with airlines, visitors, tourists, cruise ships for far too long.
Only the death rate per million will give us the answer as to how badly we have done, in 2021, or 2022, or 2025, depending on how many waves hit us.