By Gwynne Dyer
After eight full months of the global pandemic, the pressure to keep economies open and let the chips (or rather, the elderly) fall where they may is growing stronger.
The ‘Great Barrington Declaration’ of 4 October, signed by three medical professors from Oxford, Harvard and Stanford universities, demands a return to “life as normal” – no masks, no social distancing, no Covid-19 tests or contact tracing – for everybody except “the vulnerable”, who would presumably self-isolate semi-permanently.
Never mind that the declaration advocates ‘herd immunity,’ a blessed state that is normally achieved by mass vaccination, not by exposing the entire population to a disease with a 3% mortality rate. Just look at what is really happening with coronavirus death rates.
The leading indicator for vulnerability to Covid-19 is speaking Spanish. Among the 10 nations with the highest death rates per million people, six are Spanish-speaking: Peru (1,010 deaths per million), Bolivia (711), Spain (710), Chile (699), Ecuador (691), and Mexico (649).
Include Portuguese-speaking Brazil (709 deaths per million), and seven out of the worst ten speak the languages of the Iberian peninsula. Two others are English-speaking countries with populist governments: the United States (666) and the United Kingdom (633). The tenth, mysteriously, is Belgium (880).
No other nation on the planet is above 600 deaths per million – and none of the other developed countries that speaks English has a very high Covid death rate. You could not find two countries more alike (except in their politics) than Canada and the United States. Yet the US death rate (666) is almost three times Canada’s (255). How can we explain all this?
The great majority of the countries with under 100 Covid deaths per million people are Asian and African nations with fast-growing populations and a median age of well under 30. Covid-19 selectively kills elderly people, and such people are very scarce in these countries.
Then there is the broad group of countries with between 100 and 500 deaths per million. Most are rich countries with relatively old populations and good medical systems, but lower social discipline.
They range from Germany (117 deaths per million) and Russia (157) to Ireland (369) and France (500). Elderly people are a big chunk of the population, and how many actually die seems to depend mainly on how well each government manages the pandemic. The wrong policy or a few days’ delay in acting can make a huge difference.
And the final group are the Latin American countries (almost all over 500), where median ages are as high as in the rich countries but medical services and government competence tend to be worse. Lots of old people die, and even many younger people don’t make it.
How did the United States and the United Kingdom end up in the same sad group? Both countries have populist governments that reflexively delay or avoid unpopular but necessary decisions. Too little, too late on the way into lock-down; too fast on the way out.
What really matters is the age profile of the population. In poor countries with fast-growing, very youthful populations, the economic cost of lock-down probably outweighs the harm done to the relatively few elderly people. In Uganda, only 2% of the population is over 65: protect them by wearing masks and so on, but don’t close down the economy.
In Germany, half the population is over 47, and almost a quarter are over 65. Taking the Great Barrington Declaration’s advice could cost half a million lives. Horses for courses.