Big numbers, globalization, lessons from Israel and lack of Covid strategy

The Covid pandemic is about big numbers. How many are vaccinated, how many have tested positive, how many have died, how long will lockdowns continue.

We were told early on in the crisis that if we were not “epidemiologists” we shouldn’t comment about what was happening. We should listen to health experts. Some did and some didn’t. Some leaders did and some didn’t. Some countries tried different methods.

The facts are well-known today. 105 million cases and 2.2 million dead by February 5. The WHO has a team now in Wuhan, where the outbreak started. If you wondered why it took a year for that investigation to get there, you’re as perplexed as I am.

One of the most shocking aspects of watching the pandemic unfold and the policy chaos that has resulted is wondering about why governments haven’t done what we expected them to do. In movies when there is a crisis, like a pandemic, the government gets together its best scientists and it investigates and finds some solution. That is always what happens. Whether it’s the Michael Chrichton book Andromeda Strain, or in Contagion. It doesn’t only happen in movies. It happens in real life. When countries face a crisis they tend to put the best and brightest to work on it. When the US wanted to build a nuclear bomb or get into space, that is what they did. However, when it came to the pandemic there was no massive project like the Manhattan Project to deal with this issue. The best scientists were not whisked away to a secret location to figure out what to do next.

Unfortunately governments did not see this as a national security issue. Despite talk of “war” and “winning” there wasn’t much of an emergency treating this like a war. It’s true that national policies have lurched from one extreme to another. In Western Australia millions went into lockdown due to a single case in February 2021. but policies are largely arbitrary from one country to the next. Airports stopped flights from the UK in December 2020 due to a new “variant” but then reopened them. Israel closed its only international airport in January 2021, ostensibly because of fears over “variants.”

There is no massive, trillion-dollar, Covid facility that was established by countries from the West or the Five Eyes or NATO or the EU. In short, the various economic blocs and political alliances didn’t pool resources and set a strategy. You would have thought, given the threat, that they would have a massive facility that immediately collects details about new variants and tests them against vaccines. You might have thought they would do what the US did in the Second World War and convert industry to make vaccines and address this issue on a massive scale.

Instead there is chaos and go-it-alone strategy. We hear complaints about “vaccine” nationalism and some worldwide schemes such as COVAX which will give vaccines “fairly” to various countries. However by June 2021 that will only be enough for 3.3% of the world. Even in countries where vaccines may be available, many people say they will not take it. One Guardian report says “nearly four in ten people in France, more than 25% of those in the US and 23% in Germany say they definitely or probably will not get vaccinated against Covid-19, according to a survey that underlines the challenge facing governments.”

While those who oppose lockdowns claim national governments are using them to control people politically, even if you simply follow the guidelines and don’t believe it has ulterior motives, the map does not look good. While countries estimated several weeks to “slow the spread” or told people to “stay home” and this would help stop the pandemic in March 2020, the reality is setting in, that this won’t end for years or maybe forever.

The era of globalization was supposed to make sharing information better. However what we have seen with the pandemic is that sharing information doesn’t seem to work that well. While it does appear lockdowns and some policies were based on advice presented by some experts, there was an overall lack of clarity. This included mixed messaging on masks and also the refusal of the WHO to even declare a pandemic until many weeks after it was too late to stop the spread. Key questions should be asked about why that took so long. But asking questions has not be something that most governments are willing to do. Why did we do this, did it work, are not questions that seem to get much play when there is a continued national emergency and rising cases, even during the vaccine rollout. In some ways one could applaud the public for “keeping calm” and carrying on. They have accepted their fate like good martyrs to the cause. After all when they are told that hundreds of thousands more will die, they accept it.

It is very hard to get strait answers. Israel has seen an alarming increase in transmission among children of the virus. Are new variants to blame? Is the vaccine working on variants? How many of these variants are there? We know that the WHO experts spent about 3-1/2 hours “at the heavily-guarded Wuhan Institute of Virology” in February 2021. But why hasn’t the Institute been better at aiding the world to find a solution, since it was ostensibly one of the places studying these types of viruses? Articles note that the Institute has been at the center of conspiracy theories. But a more reasonable question is simply how it is possible that the Institute in the city where this began which happened to also be experts in this, still didn’t aid in preventing this from spreading globally. One would think that an ideal place to have a pandemic start, if it is going to happen, is in the one place where you have the best experts on this type of pandemic. For instance, had this begun in the Congo, would it have been worse? There is lack of clarity on the failed efforts to stop the pandemic in January 2020.

Some say this is water under the bridge, you can’t go back. Indeed.

Israel’s cautionary tale

Israel was aware of the threat of the pandemic in late February. It was following reports carefully and preparing. Preparations boiled down to personal protective gear. Like most countries it was thrown into a chaotic response. Israel had a very tough lockdown in March and April. However the country appeared to have done a good job reducing deaths to near zero by May. The toll didn’t begin to increase again until July.

Schools closed after a decision September 16 as the spread grew rapidly. New infections grew to 11,316 on September 23. This was among the highest per capita in the world. Israel never really reopened after that September closures. Malls reopened on November 27 but were closed again on December 23. IKEA, which had reopened on April 22, as the first lockdowns ended, tried reopening again on December 6, but was soon closed again. Schools had now been closed from March 12 to April and then again on September 16 to November and then again in late December. Israel’s roller coaster also included having the highest morbidity rate on August 6, 2020.

By December Israel rolled out its mass vaccination plan, in a deal with Pfizer. By the first of January 1 million had received their first dose. While thousands who were vaccinated with only the first jab would still get Covid, by January 14 two million had received the first jab and by February 1st that was 3 million. By February 5 two million had received the full two doses.

However, Israel’s story is cautionary. While it gambled on vaccines, it has not seen its number of new infections go down or the number of deaths. In many religious areas the numbers vaccinated are low and in Jerusalem, with a more religious and younger population, the numbers were only 11 percent in early February while they reached more than 30% in many other places. Israel’s goal was to get 90% of those over 50 vaccinated.

However, despite a lockdown since late December, Israel’s rate of infection has remained largely the same over January, with deaths and infections even rising. Some 7-8,000 were testing positive a day, among the highest numbers in the pandemic in the country. Every day brings dozens of deaths, which is a lot for a small country. It took from March to September 5 for Israel to have 1,000 deaths. By January 17 there were 4,000 dead and by February 4 there were 5,000 dead. That means that it took just two and a half weeks to reach the number dead that it had taken almost six months to reach previously. And this was during the height of the vaccinations, as most of those in the vulnerable population were supposed to be vaccinated.

Israel closed its airport on January 24, banning international travel and on January 27 closed the land borders as well. Israel has had a problem internally of controlling the spread especially among religious populations. Israel’s police and government have been accused of not enforcing the guidelines in ultra-Orthodox areas. IN Arab minority areas it also appears that enforcement is more lax. This results in a cautionary tale. While Israel has shut its borders and airport, ostensibly due to concern over variants, it has not bothered to control the spread internally. its third lockdown didn’t work at all to reduce the spread. Deaths increased.

Israel’s tale also shows that the hope for vaccinations being a kind of magic bullet to end the Covid crisis is at least in part either an illusion or a slower process than was though. With COVAX and other programs promising to merely vaccinate some 3-5% of populations, Israel’s attempt to vaccinate basically everyone over age 16, was unprecedented and ambitious. Israel has led the world in vaccinations per capita. Yet deaths did not decline weeks after the roll-out. Countries that gambled on the idea they could do one shot certainly must look at Israel and wonder. Where are the declines in deaths?

The key issue facing countries, especially once they decided to allow a certain number of cases, is to keep the problem under control at hospitals. That means reducing the number of patients. It is not just about having less people get Covid. There are portions of the population that are less likely to need hospital treatment, so far. New variants may change that. What is though is that new variants made things more easy to transmit the virus in the fall of 2020.

The key question for countries is what happens when you vaccinate large numbers but the number of cases remain high or even relatively low. Since much of the pandemic is about large numbers, reducing the rate of infection so that people don’t infect too many others, it’s hard to know what magic number governments want to look for after vaccinations to believe they have done a good job. Charts and discussions in UK media, for instance, point to continuing urging rates of infection. Israel’s cautionary tale is that the country appeared to handle some things well, but it has still led to policy chaos and no easy end.

The message a year after all this began is that most countries still have no real plan. We hear stories about “exit” strategies and herd immunity and getting economies back on track, but there is lack of clarity about when travel and basic things will return to normal. A swath of the economy has been eliminated and small businesses ruined, perhaps forever altering certain delicate balances and relationships between sectors of the economy or globalized sectors. This black swan-style event is only beginning to show itself. When you read that Bloomberg news predicts it will take seven years to vaccinate the world, then the repercussions could go on for decades or a century. The stories about travel bubbles emerging and deals between states to reopen some borders, or some sectors of the economy in “green” areas has not emerged. There are not vaccination passports yet and no concepts that say that if an area reaches 20-50% vaccination it will reopen. There is no real incentive to vaccinate, like letting the vaccinated go back to restaurants and seeing films. Experts will argue that masks and social distancing will continue. It is also unclear when a new variant may emerge that sets the ball rolling all over again. Can the world live forever waiting for the next variant to close all the world’s borders again for a year? What if the next variant is more dangerous for other parts of society. So far major democracies locked many people indoors due to a virus that was threatening elderly people the most. What will the reaction be if this affects younger people, key people in industries that were permitted to keep operating? Western governments which approached the pandemic slouching, lurching, or just wandering into it without any plan or seriousness or much transparency, may find they have to do what countries that were successful such as South Korea or Vietnam did.

Israel’s model certainly will not work then. It allowed a huge swath of society to simply ignore regulations, largely to avoid civil strife.

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