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As you may have heard, there’s a bad cold going around. Ahem.

I’m not going to bother with any preamble; this shit is all anyone is talking about. Anyway, a few weeks ago I said among friends that here in Europe we’d be very lucky if deaths were kept to the low thousands vs tens of thousands. The lucky outcome is obviously out the window now, but I didn’t think it would get this bad – responses in some countries have been incredibly irresponsible. So this is an attempt at an updated assessment, based on nothing more reliable than my status as a political analysis addict. Pinch of salt etc.

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Yes, the bad news outweighs the good. Scary things include:

– Though cases in northern Italy are dropping, they’re now starting to climb again in the country overall, due to increases in cases in the south. We need to see if this is a trend caused by escaping contagion, or a blip (i.e. does it hold over a week or two), but based on everything I’ve heard about the stress on the Italian health service at the moment, I don’t think they will be able to even remotely cope with a wider outbreak. I really, really hope these numbers don’t augur anything worse to come.

– Spain is basically Italy 2 weeks ago. The case load is jumping by 20-30% regularly now, and the UK isn’t far behind. Both will probably match Italy in severity. By the end of next week things will be dramatically worse.

– Reports are that something like 1-1.5 million Iranians traveled for the Persian new year festival of Nowruz. Iran still has no lockdown of any kind, and I feel confident saying that the death toll in Iran is the highest in the world, probably by some margin. The official numbers are a massive lie, and the stupidity of allowing millions of people travel right now beggars belief.

– In Switzerland heedlessness seems to be resulting in calamity. With a population of less than 9m they have around 40% more cases (total and new) than the UK, a country of 63m people. I don’t really understand why this is (I don’t follow Swiss politics really), but they also still have no lockdown, so my guess is a dysfunctional political system. Maybe federated cantons suck when you need centralised command and control, no idea honestly.

– America… yeah what is there to say. In 2 weeks the entire country is going collectively go to shit. If you thought people stockpiling toilet paper was bad, consider that in America they’ve had queues outside gun stores. Let that one sink in.

Happy things include:

– Wealthy-Asia is doing well. Even though there are concerns about what will happen if china lifts restrictions, fundamentally that is a good problem to have. They can reduce restrictions knowing they have what is demonstrably the best and most clear-eyed response force in the world.

– Lots of smaller European countries are doing much better. You can pretty much predict the efficacy of a country’s response by how functional/toxic politics were to begin with.

– As bad as the resulting economic crisis is (and it’s really bad), it is at least good to see that most European governments have rapidly pivoted to a wartime footing. The dramatic increase in the role and power of the state, irrespective of your ideological inclinations, is exactly what is needed right now. It’s been a relief to see even the most stalwart neoliberals embrace interventionism.

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I think it’s now fair to say that Europe will do well to keep deaths under 100,000 by the end of April. From where we are now, that’s the best-case scenario. Worst-case scenario? I really don’t want to say. But for some perspective: if 20% of Europe’s population catches this by the end of April, given a 1% case fatality rate, that’s about 1m deaths. I don’t think it will be that high, because I am assuming it will not be allowed to spread to that extent, that fast. But right now, we have well over a hundred thousand cases in Europe. If that grows by 20% a day, then by the end of April about 60m Europeans will have the virus. At a 1% CFR, that’s 600,000 deaths. If growth were closer to 30%, deaths would be closer to a 900,000.

A bit like climate change, it can be hard to grapple with the abstractions involved here. The key similarity is that like the lag between emissions and cumulative warming, today’s deaths represent patients who caught the virus 2-3 weeks ago. Even allowing for massive expansion treatment capacity, a lot of deaths are locked-in. And unfortunately, growth in cases is likely to outpace growth in treatment capacity. That means less capacity, and as a result a higher CFR.

I’m not going to discuss America at length here, partly because the shambolic response means nobody has any clue how bad it is, except that it’s much worse than we know. The other reason is that it’s extremely depressing: I think Americans will die in the millions, not hundreds of thousands.

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This post was pretty grim, I know. I’m going to try and write something a bit more hopeful soon, because I think there is a real chance that fundamental and lasting change could result from this. And we will need it.

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