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Covid-19, politics, government – some observations

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No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.

Aneurin Bevan, founder of the UK’s NHS

Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva, engaged in the dangerous task of exposing Putin’s lies

Let me look at Covid-19 cases and deaths in different countries in terms of the political persuasions (and gender) of their leadership, with some obvious caveats and reservations, e.g. that correlation isn’t causation, that there are a whole host of factors influencing how well or badly particular nations are faring, that the data coming from many nations is highly suspect, etc. My statistics come from the Worldometer site, which names a wide variety of sources, and notably tends to be slightly less conservative than the WHO and Johns Hopkins sites in terms of numbers. The differences aren’t great, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the overall numbers are greater than even the Worldometer site has been able to confirm.

I’m doing this because I’ve been checking the stats on a daily basis for weeks now, and impressions have, not surprisingly, been forming about the relationship between national leadership and the impact of the virus. So here are some statistics, and some speculations on them, for what they’re worth.

The UK (I was born in Scotland) has fared worse than any other country, apart from Belgium, in terms of deaths per million. Conservative PM Boris Johnson, prior to catching the virus himself, seemed to suggest letting it run its course through the community, which of course would have led to a huge death rate, and generally the messages from the beginning were confused, and mostly of a softly softly nature, which has clearly proved disastrous. The NHS has suffered years of severe cuts under ten years of conservative government, and mixed messaging has continued to damage what has been a truly woeful governmental response to the crisis. Scotland, which has a female First Minister and a centre-left government, has a slightly lower ‘excess death toll’ than England, but it’s still high compared to most countries, and higher than those of Wales and Northern Ireland. England is, of course, by far the most densely populated of the four UK nations.

Belgium wears the shame of having the worst Covid-19 mortality rate of any significant-sized nation (of say, 5 million or more) on the planet. However, to be fair, Belgium appears to have an accounting system for the virus which is as anomalous as is that of Russia at the other end of the spectrum (a spectrum from inclusive, i.e Belgium, to exclusive in Russia’s case). This issue of accounting is too enormously complex and fraught to be dealt with here (though many are suggesting that measuring ‘excess mortality’ might be the best option), so I’ll take Belgium’s disastrous figures at face value for now. The country’s PM, Sophie Wilmès, is a member of the centrist Mouvement Réformateur, and heads a coalition government. In fact Belgium has long been so factionalised that coalition governments are a more or less permanent feature of government there, and internal squabbling in recent years has led to a lot of government inertia. Though clear information is hard to find, the lack of strong, supported central government is very likely negatively affecting the country’s Covid-19 experience.

Germany is generally regarded as the success story of Europe. It’s Europe’s largest country, and currently the 19th most populated country in the world. It is 12th overall in the number of cases, and 11th in the number of deaths. This may look bad, but we know that western Europe has been particularly hard-hit, and it’s worth comparing Germany to its neighbouring countries. Interestingly, Germany shares its border with no less than nine different countries, and in terms of deaths per million, which I think is a good guide of a nation’s internal handling of the pandemic, it is doing far better than its westerly neighbours (Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark), and considerably worse than its easterly ones (Austria, Czechia and Poland). Again I’m skeptical of some of the stats, especially in a country like Poland, which has descended into a quasi dictatorship under its all-powerful Law and Justice party, but there does seem to be a radical divide between the eastern and western halves of Europe in terms of the pandemic’s impact. Anyway, Germany’s centrist Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in power since 2005, and she’s recently suffered under the description, ‘leader of the free world’ in lieu of the USA’s absence of leadership. Being a former research scientist, she’s been credited, rightly or wrongly, with having shepherded the country through this crisis better than most. Wikipedia has this to say about the country’s response:

The country’s low fatality rate, compared to fatality rates in Italy and Spain, has generated a discussion and explanations that cite the country’s higher number of tests performed, higher number of available intensive care beds with respiratory support and higher proportion of positive cases among younger people.

Italy, a country renowned for its political instability, fared disastrously early on (in March and April) in terms of cases and deaths, but has reduced the numbers greatly in recent weeks. Even so, Italy’s deaths per million is one of the worst rates in the world, five times that of Germany. Italy has in recent years developed closer ties with China than any other country in western Europe, and evidence points to the virus arriving in northern Italy via a Chinese couple from Wuhan. It’s clear that there was early skepticism and government officials were caught unawares by the magnitude of the crisis, and the rapidity of spread. The wealthy and densely populated Lombardy region has been disproportionately affected. Italy’s PM, Giuseppe Conte, has held the position for two years, making him one of the longest serving leaders in Italy’s post-war history. The nation’s volatile political history makes co-ordinated strategic planning for pandemics very difficult. This article on Italy from the Harvard Business Review, aimed at an American readership, captures the problems that face individualistic nations who favour rights over responsibilities:

Consider the decision to initially lock down some regions but not others. When the decree announcing the closing of northern Italy became public, it touched off a massive exodus to southern Italy, undoubtedly spreading the virus to regions where it had not been present.

This illustrates what is now clear to many observers: An effective response to the virus needs to be orchestrated as a coherent system of actions taken simultaneously. The results of the approaches taken in China and South Korea underscore this point. While the public discussion of the policies followed in these countries often focuses on single elements of their models (such as extensive testing), what truly characterises their effective responses is the multitude of actions that were taken at once. Testing is effective when it’s combined with rigorously contact tracing, and tracing is effective as long as it is combined with an effective communication system that collects and disseminates information on the movements of potentially infected people, and so forth.

Clearly this information-collecting, when it isn’t coercive, requires compliance and collaboration for the broader good. Libertarians are reluctant, it seems, to admit this.

Sweden‘s record on the pandemic is worth comparing to the other four countries comprising Scandinavia – Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Sweden is certainly the most populous of the five, but its deaths per million tell a grim story – more than five times those of Denmark, around ten times those of Norway and Finland, and almost 20 times those of isolated Iceland. The rate is higher than that of the USA and France, and not far below that of Italy. Currently, the centre-left PM Stefan Löfven heads a highly unstable coalition, which clearly isn’t able to provide the co-ordinated response required in a pandemic. In fact the country deliberately took a ‘relaxed’ attitude to the virus, and are now paying the price, though some of the country’s epidemiologists are still standing by the nation’s approach, astonishingly enough. Around half of the country’s fatalities have occurred in nursing homes. Apart from Sweden, all of the Scandinavian countries have female leaders. Just saying.

Russia, which has recorded the third highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world, has a bizarrely low death-rate, which can’t be accounted for from an epidemiological perspective, as I’ve reported before. Dmitry Peskov, one of Putin’s favourite arse-lickers, defended the record, saying “Have you ever thought about the possibility of Russia’s health care system being more effective?” This in fact caused a spike in fatalities, as several thousand Russians immediately died laughing. A very brave doctor, Anastasia Vasilyeva, founder and head of the medical trade union Alliance of Doctors, is creating videos exposing Putin’s lies about Russia’s handling of the pandemic, showing run-down hospitals, sick and unprotected medical staff and a generally under-funded and unprepared healthcare system. She has, of course, been viciously attacked by Putin’s media thugs, arrested and generally harassed. It’s safe to say that nothing credible is coming out of Russia’s state reporting of Covid-19, and the same must be said of China, or any other state which has more or less complete control of its media. So the full truth of what is happening in Russia, and in other closed societies, will likely not come out for years.

Final remarks – from what we’ve seen so far, right-wing, limited government, libertarian-type governments do worse than strong, centralised governments, especially those led by women. Closed societies generally can’t be trusted on their reporting, so it’s virtually impossible to judge their performance vis-à-vis  the pandemic.

Next time I’ll look at some countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.


Written by stewart henderson

June 29, 2020 at 10:08 am

a few thoughts on libertarianism

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Libertarianism is like Leninism: a fascinating, internally consistent political theory with some good underlying points that, regrettably, makes prescriptions about how to run human society that can only work if we replace real messy human beings with frictionless spherical humanoids of uniform density (because it relies on simplifying assumptions about human behavior which are unfortunately wrong). I don’t know who wrote this.

not quite

Aren’t libertarians a lovely lot?

I might look more closely at some libertarian philosophy later, but for now I want to critique the kind of standard libertarianism I’ve heard from politicians and bloggers.

Well, okay, I’ll start with a philosopher, Robert Nozick, whose much-vaunted/pilloried book Anarchy, State and Utopia I tried to read in the eighties. I found it pretty indigestible and essentially learned from others that his argument depended rather too much on one principle – the human right of individuals to certain positive and negative freedoms, but especially negative ones, like the right to be left largely alone, to make their own decisions for example about how to contribute to the greater good. The book ended up advocating for a minimalist state, in which everyone gets to create their own communities of kindred spirits, organically grown A cornucopia of utopias. The kind of state that, ummm, like, doesn’t exist anywhere. That’s the problem. Utopia is definable as a society that only exists in fantasy.

And then there’s the exaltation of the individual. This is the problem I’ve encountered with every libertarian I’ve read or viewed – and I’m quite glad I’ve rarely had any personal encounters with them.

If I did, here would be my response. Homo sapiens are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. Language has massively facilitated this, and in turn has become our most powerful social product. Common languages have created civilisations, and this has allowed us to dominate the planet, for better or worse. And civilisation requires, or just is, organised social structure. That’s to say, a state, that eternal bogey-man of the libertarian.

This entity, the state, has shaped humans for millennia. Today, we owe (largely) to the state the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the education we’re hopefully still having, the jobs we’ve had and lost, the houses we live in, the cars we used to drive, and the good health we increasingly enjoy. That’s why, it seems to me, we owe it to ourselves to make the state we live in as good as we can make it, in terms of health, safety, opportunity, support, pleasure and self-improvement, for all its members.

It seems to me we have to work with what exists instead of trying to invent utopias – because, obviously, one person’s utopia is another’s nightmare. What exists today is a variety of states, some clearly better than others. The minimalist states are among the worst, and they’re understandably called failed states. There is no effectively functioning minimalist state on the planet, a fact that many libertarians blithely ignore. Their emphasis on individual liberty seems to me the product of either beggar-thy-neighbour selfishness or starry-eyed optimism about natural affinities.

Again, I turn to the USA, my favourite whipping-state. This hotbed of libertarians has not blossomed as it could, considering its booming economy. From this distance, it seems a sad and often stomach-turning mixture of white-collar fraudsters and chronically disadvantaged, over-incarcerated victims, and good people who largely accept this as the status quo. The you-can-achieve-anything mantra of the American Dream generally sees individuals as blank slates who can best fulfil their potential when pulled from the rubble of the coercive state. Or State, as many libertarians prefer.

It didn’t take my recent reading of Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, a superb overview of human behaviour and its multifarious and interactive underpinnings, or Steven Pinker’s earlier The Blank Slate, to realise that this was a dangerous myth. It was always screamingly obvious to me, from my observation of the working-class milieu of my childhood, the variety of skills my classmates displayed and the problems they faced from the outset, together with my readings of more privileged worthies and their patrician connections (Bertrand Russell on the knee of William Gladstone always comes irritatingly to mind), that there has never been anything like an even playing field for exhibiting and making the most of whatever qualities we’re gifted with or are motivated to cultivate and improve.

So this is the problem: we’re not free to undo what has been ‘done to us’ – the parents we have, the country (or century) we’re born in, the traumas and joys we’ve experienced in the womb, our complex genetic inheritance and so forth. All of these things are connected to a much wider world and a past over which we have no control. They shape us (into go-getting libertarians or bleeding-heart liberals or whatever) much more than we’re generally prepared to admit. And these shaping forces, since the emergence of civilisation and that sometimes messily organised unit called the state, are profoundly social. And even if we’re not talking about western civilisation it’s the same – it takes a village to raise a child.

These shaping forces aren’t necessarily bad or good, they just are. But all in all we should be glad they are. The social brain is the brightest, most complex brain, and such brains wouldn’t have developed if the individual was sacrosanct, in receipt of the right to be ‘left alone’. Civilisation is surely the most impressive achievement of human evolution, and as Ralph Adolphs of Caltech puts it, ‘no component of our civilization would be possible without large-scale collective behavior’. 

The state, of course, has its drawbacks, as do all large-scale multifaceted administrative entities. The ancient Greek city-states produced a host of brilliant contributors to their own esteem as well as to the world history of drama, philosophy, mathematics and history itself, in spite of being built on slavery and denying any equitable role to women, but even there the (probably few) slaves who worked in the most enlightened households would’ve benefitted from the collective, and the women, however officially treated, were surely just as involved and brainy as the men.

As society has grown increasingly complex we as individuals have grown in proportion, as have our individual delusions of grandeur. At least in some cases. What the best of us should have learned, though, is that a rich, diverse, dynamic society, which cannot but be organised, produces the best offerings to its children. Diminishing the state by refusing to contribute to it actually diminishes and impoverishes the self, diminishes connection and the recognition of collective value. This raises the rather large point that the self isn’t what most people think it is – an autonomous, self-actuated entity. Instead, it is driven by complex social inputs from the very start, indeed from long before it came into being. Just as events from long before a crow is born, or even conceived, will go a long way in determining how that adult crow behaves.

Yet the myth of the individual, autonomous self is a live one, and it’s what drives most libertarians. In so far as people see themselves as self-actualising, they will argue the same for others, and absolve themselves from responsibility for others’ failures, mistakes or incapacities. Such attitudes significantly play down disadvantages of background, and even reduce exposure to those differences. Since everyone has the choice to be as successful as me (according to my own measure of success), why should I waste time hanging out with losers? By that measure, to suggest that silver-spoon libertarians would willingly provide support to disadvantaged communities is as unrealistic as expecting Donald Trump to hang out with the construction workers on his trumpy towers.

In some respects, libertarianism represents the opposite pole to communism, on a continuum that stretches into complete delusion at both ends. There have never been any actual, functioning communist or libertarian states. Both are essentially abstract ideologies, which take little account of the science of evolved human behaviour. When we do take account of that science, we find it is fiendishly complex, with the individual as a unit being driven and shaped by social dependencies, connections and responsibilities, which are generally vital to that individual’s well-being. In western democratic societies, apart from family and workplace organisations, we have government, which includes, in Australia, councils, states and a federation of states. It all sound terribly complex and web-like, and some apparently see it as ‘the enemy of individual liberty’ but in fact it’s the web of civilised human life, which we’ve all contributed to creating, and it’s a pretty impressive web – though more impressive in some places than in others. I think the best thing we can try to do is to improve it rather than trying to extricate ourselves from it. In any case, doing so – I mean, removing ourselves from organised society – just won’t work, and fundamentally misunderstands the nature of our evolved humanity.

Written by stewart henderson

April 3, 2019 at 2:32 pm