Success and failure in fighting the pandemic

Eric Berne, a famous psychiatrist, wrote that there is a psychological difference between winners and losers.  The winner’s goal is victory, and the winner hopes and expects to win despite any temporary defeats.  The loser’s goal is to avoid defeat, and the loser fears and expects to lose despite any temporary victories.

It seems to me that there is a similar sorting of winners and losers among countries in regard to the pandemic.  There were some nations who sought to eradicate the virus, and largely succeeded.  There are others who sought to bring down the rate of infection to something they could live with, like polio before the Salk vaccine.

A few countries, mainly in the Far East, including China, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea [1] and Japan, had a goal of eradicating the disease, and largely succeeded. 

Their lockdowns, if they had any. were short and sharp.  Their governments by and large used the lockdowns to track down and quarantine persons who were infected before the disease took hold and there were too many to trace.  Many cut off air travel to countries that were centers of the disease.

Here in the USA, the initial reaction was to dismiss COVID-19 as just a more severe version of the ‘flu.  Michael Lewis has a new book coming out, The Premonition, about how Americans in authority failed to react.

In January and February of 2020, hundreds of Americans in Wuhan, China, were flown back to the U.S. Considering how many people had died of COVID-19 in China at that point,  it would have made sense to test those Americans who were coming back.  But according to Lewis and his sources, then-CDC Director Robert Redfield refused to test them, saying it would amount to doing research on imprisoned persons.  [snip]

According to Lewis’ reporting, the CDC basically had two positions on the pandemic early on.  Early on it was that there was nothing to see here — that this is not a big deal.  It’s being overblown.  And then there was this very quick pivot when it started spreading in the U.S. and the position became it’s too late and there’s nothing we can do.

Source: NPR

The United States had partial lockdowns.  Some Americans were able to work from home or, like me, had sufficient retirement income to stay at home.  Some lost their livelihoods and were forced into poverty.  Some had no choice but to continue working, many under extremely unsafe conditions.

The center of infection in the USA was New York City, and the source of the infection was passengers arriving by air from virus hot spots in Europe.  This was known at the time.

It should have been possible to take the temperatures of incoming passengers, given COVID tests for those running a fever and quarantined or sent back those who tested positive. 

But neither Gov. Andrew Cuomo or Mayor Bill de Blasio did this.  They would have been severely criticized if they had, because the seriousness of the problem would not have been obvious.  Instead they waited until the problem did become obvious.

At first we were told that the virus spreads in droplets, and we needed to be careful to keep our distance even out of doors, and to avoid touching surfaces including touching our faces. 

Now we know that the virus spreads as a kind of mist, and you are at risk anytime you are indoors for a long time in a space without good ventilation, even if you are six feet from anybody else.  But we still act as if the problem was droplets.

The good thing is that vaccines were developed faster than many people expected, but many of us Americans don’t want to get vaccinated.  The idea of getting to “herd immunity” has been quietly dropped.

Sadly, the USA is not an outlier.  The virus is hanging on in other countries, including rich countries, just as much as here, while it is spreading to India and other poor countries.

Lewis’s previous book, The FIfth Riskis a severe criticism of President Trump and how he disrupted the functioning of the federal government.  Trump’s downplaying of the pandemic and his campaign against masks did a lot of harm.

But Lewis told an NPR interviewer that the problem wasn’t just Trump.   It was a “perfect storm” consisting of Trump, the long history of politicization of the CDC and the lack of a good public health system in the USA, Lewis said.

Will the BIden administration change this?  Will we Americans pressure the Biden administration into changing this?  We’ll see.


Michael Lewis’ ‘The Premonition’ Is a Sweeping Indictment of the CDC by Rachel Martin for National Public Radio.

How did most of the West get the pandemic so badly wrong? by Simon Wren-Lewis for mainly macro.

SARS-CoV elimination, not mitigation, creates best outcomes for health, the economy and civil liberties in The Lancet.

Years of life lost to COVID in 81 countries in Nature magazine’s Scientific Reports.

The CDC’s Outdoor Mask Guidelines Are Too Timid by Zeynip Tufekci in The Atlantic.  Tufekci has done the best and most trustworthy reporting on the pandemic that I know of.  Her writings can be followed on her Insight Substack blog.

[1]  I’m told by a friend who has Korean contacts that there are many guest workers there, mainly from poorer Asian countries, who are not being protected from the disease and who don’t show up in the statistics.  If true, this doesn’t bode well for that country.

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2 Responses to “Success and failure in fighting the pandemic”

  1. Nikolai Vladivostok Says:

    I reckon the main common factor in countries that kept infection rates way down is that they are almost all islands or, like South Korea, island-like. With no porous land border to worry about, restricting air travel can be pretty effective.
    The US was certainly complacent in the early days of the pandemic but even if they’d acted with greater care, the virus would have eventually entered via Mexico.
    In Australia there’s a risk that people will never accept endemic Covid, even after mass vaccination, which would mean pressure on the government to keep borders closed forever. That worries me.
    While everything’s too politicized to untangle various uncontrolled variables right now, I hope that in the future there’s research into the approaches taken by countries that limited infection and death rates despite having land borders. Canada and some Scandinavian countries spring to mind.


  2. fgsjr2015 Says:

    “Their lockdowns, if they had any. were short and sharp. Their governments by and large used the lockdowns to track down and quarantine persons who were infected before the disease took hold and there were too many to trace. Many cut off air travel to countries that were centers of the disease.”

    With the 30-day exception of India and Pakistan (a travel ban now about half complete), Canada’s federal government is allowing non-essential air travel to and from Covid-19 devastated nations, notably Brazil. While the airlines benefit from continued ticket sales, I’d venture there’s little or no public interest in permitting such unnecessary air travel. It does, however, create further risk of Covid-19 variant importation.

    I believe that when the coronavirus crisis began, big business was the most influential voice to have the ear of Canada’s government (and those of other Western capitalist nations), when it should have been the independent health-sciences community. The result was resistance against an immediate halt in non-essential travel, including international flights — weeks of delay that may have translated into many additional and needless COVID-19 deaths.

    A common yet questionable refrain prevails among capitalist nation governments and corporate circles: Best business practices, including what’s best for the consumers, are best decided by business decision makers. Clearly evidenced by, as a good example, the many needless care-home deaths, big business does not always practice what’s best for its consumers, including the most vulnerable.


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