Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘COVID-19

Follow-up II: Pinning the tail to the COVID-19 donkey

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As I wrote last week ([1]), the German government has been jumping back-and-forth on the topic of an Easter ease-up, clamp-down, or business-as-usual (by the COVID standards).

It appeared that the last bid had been “business as usual”, but, as I learned a few days later,* this was not the case. The individual German Bundesländer (“states”), to some degree individual municipalities**, are allowed to set their own rules, within some limits, and it appears that they are doing so. In the case of Wuppertal, where I live, I have been unable to find a reasonable description of the exact rules that will apply, but it appears that stores may only be visited after a “rapid test” (“Schnelltest”) during the Easter days. I am taking the safe course and treating the situation as a five-day*** everything-will-be-closed. Correspondingly, despite having been grocery shopping yesterday, I went again today to load up a little.

*I had not originally looked into the details, but merely noted the repeated pin-the-tail attitude.

**With reservations for what exact word applies.

***There appears to be some unclarity over the time spam, but my impression is that the Sunday (everything closed anyway) and the two holidays (everything closed anyway) are complemented by restrictions for both tomorrow/April 1st (ha!) and Saturday (April 3rd).

Here we have two issues: Firstly, does it really matter from a COVID-POV whether I went to the store today or whether I had done so on Saturday (as originally planned)? I doubt it. Secondly, quite a few other people seemed to have had the same idea, making the store unusually full for the time of day (and likely to grew much worse as the day progresses). Considering the governmental obsession with keeping distance, would this not make matters worse from a governmental perspective than if the store visits had been spread over several days? It would not surprise me.

The bigger picture also raises at least two other issues:

Firstly, federalism and subsidiarity. Normally, I am in favor of this more often than not; however, here we see it backfire. One of the most important points behind these principles is to protect the citizens (and other entities, including individual states and municipalities) from too arbitrary, too undiscriminating, too self-serving, whatnot decisions “from above”. If we look at the U.S. and the COVID approach of e.g. Texas and Florida, we see how this can work well.* In Germany, however, there appears to only be two approaches—hard lockdowns and harder lockdowns. Here subsidiarity does not serve to protect the citizens from the federation but to screw them over even when the federation does not. (While I have not looked into the details on other issues, my general impression is similar: if the federation does not screw something up, count on the Bundesländer to do so; if the Bundesländer do not, count on the municipalities.)

*Generally, my fears of the complete corruption of the U.S. in the wake of Biden have been slightly reduced in light of my growing awareness of the power remaining with the individual states and that the GOP might have fared better on the local level than on the federal level. (Nevertheless, the picture is very, very bleak. By the next federal elections in 2022, the damage will be absolutely horrifying, if things continue down the current path—even COVID aside.)

Unfortunately, I have no good solution to offer that would also preserve the positive aspects of federalism and subsidiarity, but a general principle might be that a “lower” entity may only ever weaken restrictions and regulations, reduce taxes, and whatnot compared to what a “higher” entity suggests. (Possibly, with some exemptions for extraordinary circumstances, say a local natural disaster or local riots.)

Secondly, communication: It absolutely, positively, must be mandatory that the involved entities communicate various rules in an explicit, clear, and timely* manner. This, notably, not restricted to COVID but in general. For instance, I have had massive problems, because my (now de-installed) gas heater was subject to various obscure, counter-intuitive, internationally unusual laws and regulations, spread over several different texts, none of which I had even encountered during my twenty-something years in Germany—until a belligerent and incompetent piece-of-shit of a chimney-sweep sics the authorities on me.** Given these laws, even discounting that they are unreasonable to begin with, it should have been the governments responsibility to inform me that I had to pay attention to certain regulations—which would have been trivial in light of both the heater being on registry and my purchase of the apartment being registered. Given the extreme size and complexity of current laws, and how often they go against common sense and/or vary drastically from place to place, the principle of ignorantia juris non excusat simply is neither conscionable nor compatible with Rechtsstaatlichkeit when the government has not actively informed the citizens or when the need for citizen to inform himself is obvious.

*To the degree that the situation allows. That e.g. an explosion in the infection rates can force a short-term measure is understandable, but this is not the case here where politicians have just been pinning-the-tail, and often concurrently.

**I will not go into details of the overall situation, but as a for instance: portions of the regulations are buried in the “Schornsteinfeger-Handwerksgesetz” (“chimney-sweep trade law”). That a regular citizen would even contemplate investigating what appears to be regulations strictly for the chimney-sweep trade is highly unlikely. Would you bother to read a “dog-groomer trade law” in order to find out e.g. whether pets must be spayed and neutered? Hardly. Would you even be aware that one existed? I doubt it. (That there is a “chimney-sweep trade law”, at all, might be seen as proof of over-regulation, even if the justification is larger than for dog grooming.)

As a minor correction to [1], it appears that Merkel’s back-tracking was only partially caused by the public outcry. Another part came from a business outcry, a “we simply cannot reasonably shutdown with such short warning”. This is certainly a legitimate concern, but one that should have been obvious to the government and one which I assumed had been taking into consideration, e.g. through discussing this with relevant business organizations. Apparently, this was not the case, and that makes the approach the more amateurish. To take just one example from my own professional experiences: In my last project, the topic of bank holidays was important, e.g. to calculate payout dates, often a week or more in advance. Assume that such a date is calculated and communicated today, and arrangements are made for payouts and book-keeping, based on a certain set of bank holidays, possibly spanning several countries. Assume next that tomorrow someone adds a new holiday, retroactively making these dates incorrect. Now, how are we going to resolve this? Without massive additional effort and chain-reactions affecting other businesses, the best bet might be to just send apologies (“due to circumstances outside our control, blah blah”) and hope that no-one is sufficiently dissatisfied as to sue, shorten payments, or jump to another provider.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 31, 2021 at 12:36 pm

Follow-up: Pinning the tail to the COVID-19 donkey

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I have repeatedly compared government policy regarding COVID to pinning-the-tail, most notably in [1]. This especially regarding my local German situation.

This includes a statement that I considered hyperbole at the time:

Grab a pin-board. Pin notes with possible counter-measures on the board. Put on a blindfold. Throw darts at the board. See what counter-measures were hit. There we have this weeks policy. Next week? Who knows.

Today, I am wondering whether it actually was that hyperbolic: A few weeks ago, there was considerable talk of easing up on the restrictions over Easter, to allow this special-to-many occasion to actually take place in a reasonable manner. But, no, suddenly there was a drastic course reversal—the lockdown must be made even harsher than before, lest Easter turn into a major occasion for infections instead of celebrations. Cue public outcry—and suddenly the harsher lockdown is off the table again.

We still have a few days left. I wonder whether Frau Merkel will throw another dart …

Written by michaeleriksson

March 26, 2021 at 2:54 am

German department stores (and COVID-19)

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As a follow-up to an excursion in an earlier text ([1]):

Barmen’s is, obviously, not the only city center that risks severe damage or structural changes due to the COVID-19 counter-measures. A good example is the recent claim that about half of Germany’s department stores might close (cf. a German source [2])).

As historical background, for a large portion of the 20th century, Germany had a flowering department-store business, with a number of large* individual stores and a number of chains. Over time, these consolidated almost entirely into two chains, Karstadt and Kaufhof, which both ended up struggling.

*At least by the standard of the day. While some, like the famous KaDeWe, are large even by today’s standard, others need not have been.

When I moved to Germany, in 1997, this consolidation was already mostly completed, but older names were often still in use. For instance, the big Karstadt store in Frankfurt still carried the “Hertie” name. Since then, I have seen these names disappearing, more and more stores closing, and an endless stream of news about Kaufhof and its poor profitability (including repeated owner changes and almost-bankruptcies*).

*Reminding me of the German saying “totgesagte leben länger” (roughly, “those believed dead live longer”), as it has come back from apparent death more often than Michael Myers.

About a year ago, these two chains began a merger process, which automatically would imply a reduction of business, e.g. to avoid having two large department stores from the same chain in close vicinity to each other.

Now, factor in the damage done by the COVID-19 counter-measures and we have the situation discussed in [2], where about 80 of the remaining 170-or-so stores might close.

Even apart from the drop in the level of competition and the risk that the overall “shopping opportunities” (I know of no good word) are reduced, this is highly unfortunate, because there has been a long drift towards small stores that are almost pointless to visit. For instance, a typical German* mall has just a few decent-size stores and then a barrage of “hole in the wall” stores, often with a strongly overlapping set of products, often differentiated only by what brand or which few brands are offered. (This particularly when it comes to clothes.) Effectively, a customer can take a few steps inside the store, look left and right, and determine that there is nothing to bother with. Alternatively, there is one thing to look at, which in nine cases out of ten turns out to be a waste of time, e.g. because of an excessively high price.

*I suspect that this is not limited to Germany, but my experiences from other countries are much more limited.

With a larger store, the chance of finding something worthwhile are larger, the product and price ranges are wider, it is easier to make price comparisons, …

These problems are artificially made worse, because even the larger stores (department stores included) often sort products by brand instead of e.g. type. Let us say that I want to buy a pair of trousers: in a good store, I would find wherever the dark, somewhat business-like trousers were, go to the right size grouping, and look through the various item with an eye at aspects like looks, price, and quality. In a typical larger store, as is, I have to go to section for brand 1, find the right product type, find the right size grouping, look through it, then go to brand 2, lather-rinse-repeat. In a small store, I would go to the one brand, find the right product type, find the right size grouping, look through the mere handful of candidates, and then make a decision whether to (a) buy from this particular store, (b) go to a different store, hoping to find something better, (c) go to several stores, try to make comparisons, and then go back to the best alternative. No wonder that eCommerce is beating brick-and-mortar …

Of course, in a larger store, ideal or actual, I would also stand a good chance of making several purchases at once: if I need a new pair of trousers, I can also pick up a few shirts. Not so with a smaller store, because it is unlikely that I would find both in the same store. (Sometimes, they are not both present at all in a non-trivial scope; but, even when they are, I am unlikely to find a good match for both in a single store.) In a big department store, I could find not only trousers and shirts but also e.g. a lamp and a few DVDs.

To discuss the reasons behind these developments goes beyond the scope of this text, and would likely require a lot of research, but I do note the push towards shopping-as-an-experience (rather than shopping-to-get-a-needed-product), the increased influence of the individual brands in the trade and the brand obsession of many irrational customers, and a deliberate tactic by at least some stores and/or brands to make comparisons harder, as they know that they would not come off well in these comparisons.

From another angle, chances are that increasing costs of business (notably, rent) in the more attractive city centers has favored high-markup articles, implying e.g. that the generic clothing store has been closed in favor of a Prada store.

This, in turn, could be a contributor to the failure of the department stores, as they have often stuck to a high-markup* strategy, making it unnecessarily expensive to buy there and forcing entire product ranges out. (For instance, many department stores do not sell lamps.) Now, I understand the wish to optimize profitability, but this type of action has often amounted to cutting off the branch one sits on. In particular, from my point of view, the attraction of a department store is rooted in the idea of “everything under one roof”—that I can go to one store and get all my purchases done in one go. This ideal, however, was only weakly adhered to even in 1997—today, not at all. When I do not have “everything under one roof”, when I still have to visit several different stores, and I have to pay a considerable markup for what I do buy, why should I bother? There we have one customer less, less revenue, a need to optimize profitability even further, and the vicious circle continues.

*Notably, department stores often come with a double markup: one for the brand, as highly over-priced brand products are favored, and one for the store.

As is, the likes of Walmart are closer to the department store ideal than department stores are—and at much better prices. But: the likes* of Walmart are rarely found in city-centers, requiring use of a car to reach some far off, obscure location … Sadly, I had one of these just a few kilometers away, when I first came to Barmen, but it has since closed—incidentally, leaving the (otherwise very small) mall that it anchored almost dead.

*Specifically Walmart is likely not present in Germany anymore, but stores with a similar “hyper market” concept are, if likely not to the degree of e.g. the U.S.

Excursion on suicidal optimization:
The aforementioned type of optimization, which damages long-term business development, is quite common, even to the point that the net-effect might be negative* or that a niche for upstart competitors is accidentally created. One of the first examples that I encountered was the railway connection between the very small town of Kopparberg, where I lived for most of my pre-adult life, and the rest of the world. Early on, the train had a number of halts at even smaller places. Every know and then, one of them was cut from the schedule—presumably,** because too few passengers traveled to and from them. Possibly, in any given case, this was a rational decision, but it had the effect that overall passenger load was reduced and that fewer passengers used the other stations, making the next cut that more tempting.*** The result was a continual deterioration of both revenue for the business and service for the population—and the creation of a niche for a competitor, who has by now been trafficking quite a few of these stations since the 1990s.

*Which is by no means a given, as the optimization presumably also has positive effects. It is, e.g., conceivable that the German department stores would have failed even faster without them, that the vicious circle resulted from a damned-if-do-damned-if-you-don’t dilemma.

**Likely helped by a wish to reduce travel times on the main line.

***I note that this was deep in the country-side, where almost everyone had a car, and that it was rarely worth the trouble to take the car to the next station: unless the intended train travel was very long, one might just as well go the entire distance by car as go to a further-away station by car and then taking the train from there.

Excursion on the main topics:
As to the main topics of [1], and with a strong connection to e.g. [3], I note that there have been several interesting political decisions recently, e.g. the new, insanely large, and hopefully-to-be-blocked-by-the-senate U.S. COVID-19 rescue package, or the recently finalized German pension increase. In the latter, the monthly payout is hiked for many former low earners*, the increases are, so far, unfinanced, will almost certainly come from tax hikes for the rest of the population, and they are implemented despite the extra expenditures through COVID-19. Apart from the boost in working-class votes, would it not be better to put it on ice until we know what happens with the economy and what resources will actually be available? Of course, the extra costs to finance this reform will leave others with less money available, a lesser ability to secure their own future, and a greater need for government support, be it now or in the future.**

*This also raises questions of fairness, incentives, etc.: On the one hand, many of those benefiting have done the best that they could, and might deserve a leg up in their old age; on the other, many have not. They will also have paid in much less in the pension system than most others, many will already have received considerable handouts during their working years, and this might make future generations the less likely to work hard to secure their own future, as they are taught to rely on the government to put food on the table.

**This particular reform, alone, is unlikely to have much of an effect, but the overall pressure on the citizens is enormous: a major reason why the current level of pensions, social security, health insurance, … is “needed” is simply that the population pays so much in taxes, pension fees, social-security fees, health-insurance fees, …, that their ability to build own buffers and to pay running costs through earnings is limited. In a twist, this is a partial parallel to the previous excursion, as every change makes the situation worse for the population. (But it is, arguably, an anti-parallel when comparing the train company and the government, as the government benefits from the increased reliance of the population on the government.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 16, 2020 at 11:02 am

COVID-19 and state support

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As the COVID-19 crisis and restrictions are slowly ending in Germany, the calls for support from the state are increasing—everyone and his uncle wants to receive (or already does receive) support, be it unemployed workers, businesses on the verge of bankruptcy, an opportunistic automotive industry, or cities/municipalities/whatnot.

On the one hand, the damage done to the economy is mostly to blame on the government imposed counter-measures (rather than COVID-19, per se), which makes it hard to deny these requests from an ethical point of view. (Not that I expect e.g. the typical politician to understand this, however.)

On the other, who is actually eventually supposed to pay for this? When the demands for support are this large and wide-spread, the state cannot just fiddle a little with the budget and create space for handouts—and it certainly does not have an immense surplus to spread on the needy. Where will the money come from? Printing money ups inflation and, indirectly, destroys wealth. Borrowing money only postpones the problem. Increasing taxes just pushes money back and forth, while incurring waste. (Someone receives a support check from the state’s left hand and a new tax demand from the right.) Cutting in the existing expenses will be both hard to justify politically and take a long time, even when it comes to bureaucracy and waste.* Considering the strong Leftist tendencies in Germany, I fear that the “solution” will ultimately be that the “rich” must “show solidarity” with the “poor”, which is implemented e.g. by the government simply confiscating large portions of wealth (hypothetically, 20 % of all bank assets above 100.000 Euro). A perpetuation of the highly unethical and abused “Solidaritätszuschlag” seems likely—a “temporary” tax of the past thirty years, which, before COVID-19, finally seemed to approach the end of its life.

*And even here, the cuts will do damage somewhere, which might require additional intervention and/or reduce the beneficial effects of the handouts. (But, to avoid misunderstandings, apart from the political obstacles, I would consider this the best way to go, as those damaged will often lose an unfair benefit, e.g. that of being employed for life as a civil servant while being incompetent and lazy, and as the long-term societal effects are likely to be positive.)

The most that can be hoped for is some degree of redistribution of damage, but this hardly ever ends up fair either, and often implies that the smart, hard-working, economically prudent, whatnot pay for the dumb, lazy, wasteful, and/or you-name-it. The COVID-19 countermeasures have hit more randomly than, say, regular career or business success, but it has not resulted in a “negative lottery”. For instance, a business with a sounder original economy, greater buffers, less debt,* fewer unnecessary costs, …, will be less endangered than a less sound business—but which will receive more governmental support and which will tendentially be at risk for an additional tax payment? Similarly, the individual who has saved as little as 100 Euro a month during his working life will be more likely to come out of this without needing help than the one who has consistently spent the same 100 Euro in a bar or on a bigger apartment.

*In a bigger picture, this is a strong indication that running businesses in debt and deficit, even be it to achieve growth and in the hope of future profits, is a dangerous strategy. (Often for the individual business, even more often for society as a whole.) Here very considerable rethinking might be beneficial. Generally, everyone, individuals, businesses, municipalities, …, should strive to build buffers instead of living on credit.

Indeed, just like COVID-19 kills far more among the elderly and those already in poor health than among the young and healthy, the counter-measures will kill struggling business first. (But also, unfortunately and unfairly, small businesses, which could have very negative effects on the “demographics” of businesses.) Compensation then risks saving businesses that would have failed anyway comparatively soon and might well still fail despite the compensation within a year or two—and if they grab onto COVID-19 as an excuse, we might see a larger scale repetition of e.g. the decades long German coal-industry subventions. This amounts to a great waste of money and could additional skew competition in a manner that is harmful for society.

Then there are those who might fake or grossly exaggerate a crisis in order to get compensation that they do not at all deserve …

It would have been better, had there been fewer and/or less drastic countermeasures, with (a) less damage* and (b) a greater justification for letting business developments run their course without support. As is, the situation is extremely poor with no good answers. I do suspect, however, that erring on the side of too little compensation will be the better way to go.

*And note that even a comparatively small change in damage can have a large effect on the businesses (and more generally, persons, entities, whatnot) that are close to the border of failure, e.g. in that being closed one week less or one week more can be a make-or-break criterion, as can having a tenth of the normal revenue vs. being closed entirely.

Excursion on Barmen:
I live in Barmen, a part of the German city of Wuppertal. Just a few hundred meters from my house is the local city center, once flowering. Even during my few years here, I have noticed a continual drop in stores, presumably driven by a mixture of the general brick-and-mortar crisis and the establishment of a major new mall in Elberfeld (another part of Wuppertal). This possibly aided by a drift towards shopping in nearby Düsseldorf. Of course, such decline leads to a vicious circle, where every store that closes makes it less attractive to shop in Barmen than in Elberfeld, shifting even more of the commerce away, which risks more store deaths, … Add in the negative consequences of the COVID-19 countermeasures and this could end badly.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 7, 2020 at 7:53 am

Pinning the tail to the COVID-19 donkey

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Recently, I wrote that there “has been a very strong element of pin-the-tail-to-the-donkey so far”, regarding COVID-19.

Right now, we can see an excellent example of this in Germany: As the actual disease seemed to be easing up, there were signs that the counter-measures would to, including last weeks partial re-opening of stores. However, apparently, as of today, it is mandatory to use face masks in stores, which is an increased imposition* on the citizens. So, are we reducing or increasing impositions—and why? If it made sense to have most stores closed and without a face-mask imposition two weeks ago, how come it makes sense to have most stores opened but with a face-mask imposition today?

*I do not necessarily say that it is a disproportionate or ill-advised imposition. (In particular, face masks appear to bring little benefit to the wearer and more to other people, which implies that arguments relating to own choice, own risks, and citizens actually being adults are much less relevant than when it comes to closing stores.) However, it is an imposition and it is something hitherto not deemed necessary.

Possibly, a connection could be seen, that stores are opened now to cap the damage and that (mandatory) face masks are introduced to compensate for the perceived increase in risk. But if so: Why was there a delay between the opening of the stores and the face masks?

Possibly, vital new information concerning face masks has been discovered, but if so, I am not aware of it. On the contrary, the claims that I have heard so far seem to go in the direction that the benefit of face masks has been overestimated … (True, there were findings that infection through non-aerial means was less likely than originally thought, which could increase the relative benefit of face masks. However, these findings are not very recent and the change would have made more sense earlier, when the disease was growing faster.)

Possibly, the changing rate of infections and the number of known infected has led to a different situation,* and I could see that as strongly contributing to partial re-openings. It is a mystery to me, however, how a lower number of infected would lead to a greater need for face masks.

*Official statistics show a small and still shrinking percentage of newly infected and the number of currently infected is continually diminishing. (But I caution that these statistics could over- or under-estimate a number of aspects of the situation.)

That this face-mask decision appears to have come with very little warning makes the situation worse. There has been a debate about it, yes, and some individual Bundesländer (“states”) had already implemented mandatory face-masks. However, as late as yesterday, I had no idea that the this was coming today (or, necessarily, at all), be it in nationwide or in my own Bundesland.

Grab a pin-board. Pin notes with possible counter-measures on the board. Put on a blindfold. Throw darts at the board. See what counter-measures were hit. There we have this weeks policy. Next week? Who knows.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 27, 2020 at 9:26 am

COVID-19 and information harassment

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A particular annoyance with the COVID-19 situation is over-information, that entities that have no legitimate reason to speak on the topic do speak and that entities that should say something little instead bombard us with information. The result is that virtually nothing is achieved (except annoyance) while the ears and eyes are start to filter information to such a degree that something important might be missed. Of course, this type intrusive “information”, presumption to demand obedience from others without any true own expertise*, and the resulting annoyance, are all likely to contribute to recalcitrance—causing the opposite of what was intended** through psychological naivete. (This not to be confused with the extreme amount of information from e.g. newspapers, which can be similarly annoying and have similarly negative effects, but at least is a legitimate part of the business at hand. Too much, possibly, but basically legitimate.)

*What does (cf. below) a grocery store or my bank know about COVID-19 that goes beyond the informed citizen? (And: What gives it a reason to speak in addition to what e.g. governmental agencies say?) Little or nothing. A strong sign of this problem is the constant, highly misleading use of “corona” over the more specific “COVID-19” and “SARS-CoV-2”. Indeed, chances are that they are often outright misinformed through going strictly by “official channels” without applying critical thinking or considering the (legitimate, non-“fake news”) experts that have a dissenting opinion. The sad truth is that there has been a very strong element of pin-the-tail-to-the-donkey so far, even among experts, with an only slowly improving information situation.

**Unless the intention is just to fulfill some external requirement or to be able to show that something has been done, without regard to effectiveness and efficiency. Sadly, this is quite common, e.g. in politics.

For instance, earlier today, I went to buy groceries. The store was (still!) plastered with identical notices about corona-this and keep-distance-that, while every few minutes a patronizing and overly loud keep-your-distance announcement was repeated on the PA system. Why?!? Post a big sign on the entry door and be done with it! For instance, when I last logged into my Internet banking I was not allow to proceed without dealing with an intrusive blocking pop-up that requested whether I wanted to be informed about “corona” now, later, or not at all. There should have been absolutely no information on the general topic at all—and to more specifically relevant information, e.g. changes to opening hours due to COVID-19, a regular notification that “We have restricted our opening hours.” with a link to details would have been appropriate.

The general attitude seems to be that “everyone else is an uninformed idiot and we, specifically we, must inform and save the day”.

That the information/instructions provided are often contradictory from entity to entity does not help, e.g. that the one store requires a distance of 1.5 meters between customers and the other 2 meters. Sometimes even the same entity is contradictory (and/or redundant), as with the very small newspaper-and-whatnot store that I visited a few days ago to buy stamps: on the one hand, customers must keep a distance of at least two meters; on the other, only one customers was allowed in the store at any given time. And, yes, the store was large enough that a distance of two meters was possible. (Except when passing each other, but that applies to supermarkets too.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 25, 2020 at 9:29 am

A few further observations around COVID-19

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Some random items:

  1. Sweden is regularly cited as going its own road in the fight against COVID-19, as being more permissive and giving the citizens a greater own choice and responsibility than most other countries.

    That Sweden chooses its own road is not new, but: Sweden is historically, likely, the non-dictatorship most strongly associated with the “nanny state” mentality, having treated its population as dummies to be led by the hand for many decades of Social-Democrat rule. Indeed, the current government is a Social-Democrat one.

    It might be that attitudes in Sweden and/or the Social-Democrats have changed, it might be that this is some type of vote fishing, it might be incompetence, …

    However, it might also be a sign that attitudes in other countries have degenerated to a Swedish level. For instance, in Germany, even outside of COVID-19, there are currently strong tendencies for the state to “educate” the population into having the right opinions (something thoroughly anti-democratic) or for political parties to put themselves beyond the will of the voters, as with the absurd events in (the state of) Thüringen after AfD successes (while a near third of the vote for an extreme-Left party went without comment) or the repeated “great coalitions” on the federal level, which form a government of two parties that, on paper, should be greater enemies than the U.S. Republican and Democrat parties. (Cf. e.g. [1], [2].)

    This is a threat far worse than COVID-19.

  2. There have been absurd developments around Beate Bahner, a German lawyer specializing in medicine and a vocal critic of the current German COVID-19 measure. The linked to (German) article is a bit on the confused side, and exactly what has happened why seems unclear in other sources too, but to look at a few key points:

    Allegedly, she appeared so confused in the public that the police decided to bring her in for psychiatric treatment/observation/whatnot. She spent several days locked up in a hospital and is now also under investigation for physically resisting the police during the event. If there is any connection between her COVID-19 protests, this would be an absolute horror, an act so inexcusable that the actor must be thrown in jail. I do not, however, believe this to have been the case, based on the limited data* available to me—a more likely scenario is that the police, rightly or wrongly, judged her behavior to be sufficiently erratic as to warrant involuntary measures. However, even then, the situation is quite negative. It implies e.g. that anyone living in Germany could be put into temporary psychiatric custody** on the word of a few policemen, without consultation with a judge. The stay might then be brief, but it could still cause severe problems for the victim. Here we have a somewhat public figure with a potential reputation of “being crazy”, which might damage both her credibility as a debater and her ability to gain new clients as a lawyer. In another scenario, we might have someone miss work or an important appointment and being unable to give a satisfactory explanation without risking a similar reputation. In yet another, we might have young children traumatized because of mysterious events around a parent—and for a single parent, the result might include the children being temporarily confiscated by Social Services, with yet more trauma involved, and possible negative strikes in e.g. a custody hearing. This might be acceptable, if there is some genuine psychiatric issue involved, but the same result would arise even from e.g. poor judgment or malice from the police.***

    *Consider statements apparently made by Bahner that could point to confusion or paranoia, e.g. that the physicians might be receiving instructions from the U.S.; or how the original incident is more parsimoniously explained by not assuming that the police had been deliberately out to get her. Of course, with more information, the picture might change.

    **Take the terminology with some caution. I am uncertain what good English translations of this-and-that would be, and the sources are confused on exactly what German terminology would have applied.

    ***As I keep repeating: The Rechtsstaat can only work if the rules are made in awareness of the possibility of incompetence, abuse, “evil”, whatnot.

    The legal charges for resisting are absurd, even if we assume that the custody was legal and even if we agree that such custody should be a legal option: If she was indeed so confused that she needed psychiatric custody against her own will, then she cannot reasonably be considered accountable for her behavior during the incident. If she was not, then the police was sufficiently out of line that she should not have had to accept their behavior.

    Moreover, it might well be justified to institute some type of exemption to such rules in order to prevent both abuse to silence or harass political (or other*) opponents and the accidental silencing of someone with an unlikely but true story. Consider the Martha Mitchell effect or the case of Gustl Mollath.

    *I note that I once had an, apparently mentally ill, landlord sic the police on me in the middle of the night because I allegedly held a woman captive in my apartment—such abuse of the legal system does happen. (One illegal and warrantless search of my apartment later, I was free of that accusation. However, he also made various other libelous allegations with lesser consequences.)

    Prior to this, she was already in the cross hairs of law enforcement for calling for criminals actions (it self a crime in Germany). What actions? To demonstrate against the COVID-19 measures and their (in her eyes; I have not looked into this, myself) illegality and/or unconstitutionality, including the ban on demonstrations. If this ban on demonstrations is indeed illegal/whatnot, this is, obviously, a gross and dictatorial measure, worthy of the old GDR. However, even if it is not, it would be extremely unfortunate to apply this ban even on demonstrations against the ban, as this would create an Orwellian and Kafkaesque deficit in the Rechtsstaat, where attempts to question the legality of governmental actions becomes illegal, per se. Here some type of exemption must be present to protect the right to demonstrate against, or otherwise protest or criticize, governmental behavior. (Here we have only one special case of protest, but note in parallel the massive drive to e.g. mark unconventional opinions as “fake news” or otherwise silence them. Indeed, Bahner’s own website was apparently offline for hours for just such reasons.) I am reminded of a passage in one of Terry Pratchett’s books, where a religious dictatorship practiced human sacrifice, but was limited to volunteers and those condemned to death—and where not volunteering was a crime punishable by death.

  3. As an excursion to the previous item, the step from branding someone as a spreader of “fake news” (or “racism”, “hate speech”, whatnot) to naming someone insane is not that large. I do not believe that this is what happened above, but I could easily imagine portions of the current U.S. pseudo-academia pushing for “racism” to be classified as a psychiatric condition or for having ideas contrary to what they preach considered signs of impaired judgment or delusion.* The abuse of psychiatry to hamper political opponents is certainly not unheard of in dictatorships.

    *Note that this would a very dangerous road to go down, even if the assessment was broadly correct (while, here, the reverse is more likely to hold—that the pseudo-academians have mental issues). For instance, it might well be that most people who have pet-theories about the JFK assassination are a little off, but if we were to silence them on that charge, there might be false positives among the individuals silenced, there might be a “chilling effect” in other areas of discourse, and we could continue to believe in something false—the chance that they are correct might be quite small, but it is not zero. Of course, if we take sufficiently many highly unlikely hypotheses, some of them will turn out to be true—and we cannot know which in advance, implying that a pre-mature stifling is dangerous. (Note again the cases of Martha Mitchell and Gustl Mollath, as specific examples.)

  4. There is a lot of talk about “corona apps” that would e.g. allow someone on the street to keep a sufficient distance to the infected. This could be extremely problematic, due to obvious future extensions, as with an inclusion of further and/or future diseases, of political support, of sexual orientation, or, obviously, of Jewishness—that little yellow star making a come back.

    Far fetched or impossible, due to laws of data protection? No. Consider e.g. the situation in many U.S. colleges. It would be very easy to imagine someone writing an app that indicates who in a certain college has and has not registered with said app to indicate support for e.g. “diversity” or opposition to e.g. Donald Trump. (Which would be unproblematic from a data protection point of view, because the registration is voluntary.) The app is widely published around the college, might even be pushed by the administrators or recommended by some professors, and soon anyone who has not registered is deemed as a deliberate case of non-registeration, aka a “racist”. Then it spreads to other colleges.

    Those who do not register would stand a non-trivial risk of being avoided or harassed, receiving worse grades, and/or falling victim to some other type of negative treatment.

    (Read Minding the Campus, if you have doubts.)

    Then there is the issue of what happens to those who do not have a smartphone, whose batteries have run out, or similar, …

Written by michaeleriksson

April 18, 2020 at 2:13 pm

The negative effects of staying at home vs. COVID-19

with 3 comments

An interesting aspect of the various stay-at-home orders is the effect on the semi-prisoners, which can conceivably be quite dire.

Until recently, this has not been much of a concern to me, because I (a) am an extreme introvert, (b) was already foregoing the office in order to write my first book—apart from empty shelves in the stores, my life had originally seen a comparatively small practical effect.

Over the last week or so, I have seen a handful of complaints, by more extroverted individuals, along the lines of “if I don’t get out of the house soon, I will snap”* or “I could kill for human company”, and the cause of such complaints is likely to have a damaging effect on the physical and mental health of the complainers, and the more so the longer it continues. This even discounting the possibility that someone actually does snap in manner that results in death or injury.

*I have yet to see a “if I don’t get away from my family soon, I will snap”, but the sentiment is bound to exist; and in light of the known phenomenon of “cabin fever”, it might be quite common in a few weeks time.

To this, factors like lack of sunshine and exercise must be added. Even I have been hit here, as I have cut down on my walking considerably for about two months*, and a weight gain is visually observable (I have no “bathroom scale”). Moreover, I have gotten out of the habit, and know from experience that regaining it can take a while.

*Of which, admittedly, only about half is COVID-19 related: Prior to governmental restrictions, I had a long visit to Sweden, followed by a period of cold symptoms. Also see an excursion below on the COVID-19 portion.

Moreover, the last two-or-so weeks, there has been another period of considerable noise disturbances, comprising hours of poundings of various kinds per day—likely because one or several children who should be in school or in the park are stomping* around in their apartment instead. This also includes several days with loud hammering, which (with an eye on prior issues) makes me suspect that some party in the house is occasionally abusing his apartment for professional carpentry or such like—and that the current situation has moved more of his works from the workshop to the apartment. Not only are these disturbances a considerable annoyance during the day, but it has also very severely impacted my sleep, where I have lost, possibly, an average of two hours a day for at least two weeks. I am at a point, where I have concerns for both my long- and my short-term health. (And, obviously, the work on my book and my quality of life are both negatively affected.)

*Really, stomping.

Now, according to Wikipedia, there are currently 2,673 deaths in Germany attributed to COVID-19 (time of writing: April 12th).* Give these an average of five years of lost life, which seems on the high** side to me, and we have roughly 13 thousand years. Give a low estimate of 80 million people in Germany, and see how much each of these would need to loose to outweigh this time: in hours, we have roughly 13,000 * 365 * 24 / 80,000,000, or a roughly 1.4 hours. Has the negative side-effects of the counter-measures already more than exceeded an average of 1.4 hours of lost life? I would consider this pretty much a given.*** I would, indeed, consider 1.4 hours a ridiculously optimistic number.

*But note complications like under-
and over-reporting and potential delays in reporting.

**Note that deaths disproportionately hit the elderly and the already ill.

***Even when considering some potentially positive effects through less pollution and less commuter stress. Also remember that the overall negative effects will include factors like unnecessary bankruptcies, unemployment, etc., which in turn cause loss of life; as well as e.g. people who die prematurely because they were afraid of COVID-19 and failed to visit a hospital in time.

Of course, if we want to determine what set of counter-measures makes sense, we should not look at the number of deaths that remain but the number that has been, respectively, caused and prevented. Here, I suspect, it would be possible to write a doctoral thesis and still have nothing better than speculation; however, even if we grant that the current counter-measures have saved as much as a hundred thousand lives over a more moderate set of counter-measures, well, look at the numbers. This would be roughly one person in 800. If we apply the same high estimate of five years extra per saved person, this is a little more than two days saved per person of the overall population—but round up and call it three days. Firstly, I very, very strongly suspect that this is more than outweighed by the loss of life caused by the counter-measures; secondly, if there, strictly hypothetically, were no such loss of life at all, would those three days really be enough to justify the bankruptcies, the loss of quality of life, the restrictions in civic rights, etc.? We each have different preferences, but my answer is a resounding no.

Excursion on why I have cut down on walking:
I am not in a panic about catching COVID-19 during a walk or of being dragged into a cell for defying Frau Merkel, but my typical walks are negatively affected in other ways. Notably, I usually have one longer walk (10 km or more) a week, which usually consists of going from Barmen* to Elberfeld*, walking around a while there, having a cup of coffee or a bit to eat somewhere, reading a while in the library, and/or performing a planned purchase, and then walking back. Now, more-or-less everything is closed … Factor in the lower practical gain and the loss of motivation on top of the stay-at-home dictates, and I tend to stay at home.

*Subdivisions of Wuppertal. Elberfeld contains the main city center.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 12, 2020 at 11:25 am

Follow-up: A few observations around COVID-19

with one comment

My previous text on COVID-19, while broadly correct, might need some cautions in detail:

  1. Recently, I have repeatedly heard the claim that the daily increase in cases is mostly a question of an increase in the number of tested individuals, with the proportion of infected changing very little within this group. If so, this could make the numbers and trends I looked at extremely misleading, overstating the current spreading and relative death-toll radically, e.g. in that the virus has mostly done its work already, while we are now only finding out about the results. (Note the parallel to the hypothesis that death rates and whatnots are mostly those of a yearly flu and that this year is unique in that someone is looking into the causes of death—not in that there would be a significant new driving cause.)

    On the other hand, assuming the testing-drives-numbers hypothesis to be true, it is possible that the reason that more are tested is more people being infected, feeling symptoms, going to a physician to have the symptoms checked, and being tested because they went to a physician. Then the numbers could still reflect reality.

    What-is-what will depend on the circumstances of testing, which are not within my knowledge and might vary from area to area or from time to time. Even so, this is yet another reason to keep a cool head, yet another reason why the situation is* or could** be less dangerous than the numbers might seem to imply.

    *Examples include that the number of deaths must not be seen in isolation but be compared to other causes of death and that the deaths largely hit those already in poor health.

    **Examples include potential over-reporting of deaths through mixing “killed by COVID-19” and “died while having COVID-19” in the statistics and unclear/inconsistent use of measures like “case fatality rate”.

  2. From the previous item, it is quite possible that the number of infected is far higher than the “less than 1-in-1000 Germans” that I used as a basis. If so, the relative risk that my own issues are COVID-19 (and not a cold/flu/whatnot) could sky-rocket. However, this does not change the overall reasoning, because as the risk of having COVID-19 would rise, so would the risk of non-trivial complications, given that I had COVID-19, sink.

    At an extreme, some have hypothesized that almost everyone would already be infected (most of them either asymptomatic or already cured).* If so, I would probably be among them, but the danger, based on e.g. proportion of infected who died, would drop to next to nothing and I would have no greater need to worry than before.

    *This hypothesis I encountered for the first time much further back, but I kept it out of the discussion, because it is on the fringes of the spectrum, is more far-fetched, and, per this item, does not really matter in this particular context. The complication in the previous item still does not matter, but is less far-fetched and more mainstream. (More generally, there are a great many claims, arguments, speculations, etc. that I have left out of my own discussions.)

  3. Remark on notation: Below I will use the “^” sign to denote exponentiation (e.g. 2^3 = 2 * 2 * 2). Beware that instances of “*” (for multiplication) might or might not look odd, for technical reasons: I normally use this sign only for footnotes with my current markup, and I have no provisions in place to differ between footnote use and multiplication use typographically. Proof-reading, I also note that “t” (“tee”, used for time below) and “f” (“eff”, used for functions below) look extremely similar in my own browser, possibly, because of an unfortunate default font.

    While I maintain that exponential models become naive very fast, there is a complication of quasi-exponentiality that I overlooked in my last discussion. This also affects the relevance of the greater-than-linear-but-smaller-than-exponential growth mentioned in the German data. (Assuming that the data is usable in the first place. Cf. the first item above.)

    Exponential growth amounts to the increase at time t being proportional to the value at time t.* A typical case of this is a population where each member of the population contributes identically** to the growth, e.g. when each infected infects the same number of new people in each “iteration”.

    *More formally, e.g. by a differential equation like df/dt = k * f or, in a discrete analog or approximation, f(n + 1) = f(n) + k * f(n).

    **This is a common, simplifying, assumption when making models, in the hope that the variations “average out”. I suspect that it is naive more often than not.

    For instance, assume that this number is two and that we start with a population of one at t = 0. At t = 1, we have the original plus the two people infected by him for a total of three. At t = 2, we have the three plus the 2 * 3 = 6 people they infected, or 9 overall, etc. We then have f(t) = 3^t. (Where t is time in some context dependent unit, e.g. hours, days, or years. Below, I will silently assume days, but note that the numbers used are not necessarily realistic. For instance, a tripling of the infected every day would be horrifyingly large.)

    A slightly less naive* model might assume that the increase from t to t + 1 is affected only by the new cases from time t – 1 to t. Running through the same scenario, we still have f(0) = 1 and f(1) = 3, as the sum of the first person and the two he infected. However, at t = 2, we have the previous three and the 2 * 2 = 4 people infected by those infected in the previous iteration, for a total of 7 (not 9), At t = 3, we have the previous 7 plus the 2 * 4 = 8 newly infected, for a total of 15, etc. This amounts to the series 1 + 2 + 4 + … 2^t. By a high-school formula, this sums to (2^(t + 1) – 1) / (2 – 1) = 2^(t + 1) – 1. This is technically not an exponential function; however, 2^(t + 1) is, and the difference of – 1 rarely matters for a large t.**

    *I am not familiar with the models actually used, but a more sophisticated model might work with e.g. variable probabilities for different generations of the infection, where someone in the latest generation has a greater probability of infecting others than those in the second latest, the second latest one greater than the third latest, etc. Different probabilities might apply to e.g. office workers, school children, and house wives. (This classification would have to remain crude, or the complexity would explode with little benefit.) Different probabilities could apply in different areas depending on how long the infection has been present locally. Some mechanism should be in place to consider recoveries and deaths. Etc.

    **For instance, t = 10 gives 2048 in one case and 2047 in the other. But, as a comparison, our original 3^t results in the much larger 59049.

    More generally, there are many “sub-exponential” functions that are still bounded from below by an exponential function and/or might be near indistinguishable from one for large input values. These would then show a less than exponential growth in each iteration of e.g. a model of infections, but would be as bad as an exponential function in the long run. (If often a smaller exponential function than if the growth had not been sub-exponential.) One example is a combination of a larger pre-infected and non-infectious sub-population with an (originally) smaller and highly infectious sub-population, e.g. for f(t) = 10000 + 2^t. For small t, the effects might seem like trivial measurement noise or an extremely slow-moving infection, e.g. in that f(5) – f(4) = 16, a small fraction of the overall; however, a little later, we have e.g. f(20) – f(19) = 524288, which almost doubles the overall at t = 19 and dwarfs the overall at t = 0 (and e.g. t = 5).

    Then again, an exponential function is not automatically a problem, if the growth rate is sufficiently small relative the length of time. For instance, if we know that a cure will be widely available within three months then 1.1^t is much better than (the merely polynomial) 1 + t^2, no matter how much worse it would be after four months.

On a more personal note: By the time of my last text, I had managed to get hold of toilet paper (cf. an earlier text), but I might have failed again, had I arrived ten minutes later—so fast was the product moving. (And not necessarily even through hoarding at this juncture: everyone seemed to be taking one package, implying that it was likely mostly just others who were in a deficit.) However, the scarcity seems to continue and quite a few other items are (still) affected, including canned foods and frozen meals. Considering that the supply chain has had weeks to react, this is a disturbing sign for the future and any non-artificial* crisis.**

*While the supply side might have been hit by various restrictions on work and whatnot, the brunt of the problem is likely still through the unwarranted increase in demand. (And even the supply effect could be seen as artificial …) Now consider a similar situation when the supply side has been severely hit, e.g. in a war.

**Whether any blame, e.g. based on poor planing, should be attached to someone, I leave unstated—there are too many factors that I am unaware of, e.g. how large the storage buffers tend to be and to what degree e.g. farm output can be a limiter. I do note the failure to raise prices as per my earlier text, however.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 3, 2020 at 2:01 pm

A few observations around COVID-19

with one comment

And again, I find myself writing about COVID-19, despite considering the situation extremely overblown—but, in my defense, I write much more about the reactions and indirect consequences than the disease and the epidemic per se.

Some random items:

  1. Since returning from Sweden more than a month ago ([1], [2]), I have had continual bouts of “cold-like symptoms”, culminating in a fever and a somewhat “heavy” chest over the last few days. Even under normal circumstances, I might have taken as much as a week off from work during this more-than-a-month (had I still worked in an office).

    I have still been able to keep from going into a personal panic—apparently, unlike a great many others with similarly moderate symptoms.

    Of course, I have repeatedly considered the possibility that I might be one of the milder cases of COVID-19, especially in the face of this constant news reporting.

    However, this is where the mind of a rational person steps in to push down the almost automatic reaction.

    Firstly, the risk even of infection is comparatively low. Even now, less than 1-in-1000 Germans are considered infected, and the quotient was even smaller in the past. Even assuming a severe underestimation of the number of infected and even allowing for a slight risk increase due to my early air travel, the probability that I would have COVID-19 would be several hundred to one against (without prior knowledge of symptoms). At the same time, I have similar issues due to other diseases every year—and often at roughly this time of year. The current period of continual issues might* be longer than usual, and the worst few days might* be a little (!) beyond the worst of a typical year—but even so, I must consider the risk of some other disease to be above or considerably above 1-in-100 (again, without prior knowledge of symptoms). Given that I do have cold-like symptoms, it is at least several times more likely that I have something other than COVID-19. With less “pro COVID” assumptions, it could easily be several dozen times more likely. (Assuming more than one issue over this more-than-a-month, which seems reasonable, the odds of one of them being COVID-19 are increased, but not enough to change the overall picture.)

    *Or might not: I have not kept notes and my memory is fallible.

    And, obviously, this is without even looking at symptoms. If I did, I might or might not find that the symptoms are incompatible … (There is no particular reason, short of curiosity, for me to look at the symptoms, given that I already see little reason to worry.)

    Secondly, even if it was COVID-19, about* four in five have only very mild symptoms, and the death rate is on the order of one percent—over all infected. For people my age, 45, with no major prior health issues, death is extremely unlikely. Ditto for considerable (but non-lethal) long-term consequences. Moreover, Germany seems to be doing much better in terms of death rate than e.g. Italy.** In other words, the chances are overwhelming that I would be OK, even were it COVID-19.

    *Numbers vary between sources, countries, and whatnots, so take all numbers as very rough approximations.

    **The reason for this is a matter of dispute and that debate could fill several pages—pollution, ACE inhibitors, quality of treatment, stage of epidemic, local age demographics, … One particular important point, however, is whether the reporting focuses on those who died through COVID-19 or those who died through something else while also having a COVID-19. This could have a massive impact on numbers, seeing that the vast majority of deaths have been among the elderly and/or those with dangerous pre-existing medical conditions.

    Thirdly, what I have matters less than how it manifests. There might be some greater room for concern for future developments, if I did have COVID-19, but not by much (cf. above) and my actual symptoms are/were observably what they are/were—I would not magically grow better or worse based on having or not having COVID-19 given this set of symptoms. Whether I have the common cold, influenza, COVID-19, or something else yet, does not change the symptoms. I have certainly felt quite a lot worse on a few occasions, without even visiting a physician—and, no, I never even came close to dying.

    Obviously, I would be much more concerned, if I had more severe symptoms (and I do not suggest that those who do should shrug their shoulders), but even then, there is a considerable chance that it would not be COVID-19, but e.g. a more severe case of flu.

    Fourthly, as a sanity check: Would I even have reflected much over my health, given these symptoms, had it not been for the COVID-19 panic? No.

  2. Looking at e.g. German statistics (cf. Wikipedia), it appears that the percentage increases per day are tendentially dropping, moving us further and further away from the dreaded exponential curve. However, the absolute numbers are still large and might still be increasing.* There definitely were periods when the percentage dropped on the same day as a new record for the absolute increase was set. Correspondingly, we are still not in the clear. This demonstrates how important it is to have different key numbers and to qualify any evaluation of a number with the model used: Someone using a single number would either see the dropping percentage and be optimistic or the rising absolute increase and be pessimistic. Similarly, someone using an exponential** model would be optimistic and someone using a linear model pessimistic.

    *Due to the short data series, complications with inconsistent reporting, etc., little can be said with certainty. Notably, the last two days listed (2020-03-29, 2020-03-30) show lower absolute numbers too.

    **Exponential models are very common when it comes to disease transmission, but are necessarily naive when we move beyond the initial stages, e.g. because the one infected cannot (in most cases) infect the same family member, friend, or colleague twice, or because there will often be an overlap between those potentially threatened by person A with those threatened by person B, when A was originally infected by B (or vice versa). For high numbers of infections, even locally, the model fails among strangers too.

    Then again, when we look at COVID-19 in comparison with other diseases and causes of death, we see that this non-exponential growth could still render it a near triviality, especially when considering how many of the dead belong to the category would-still-have-died-within-a-year. The last (2020-03-30) data for Germany above has 57,298 cases and 455 deaths. The corresponding (yearly) numbers* for influenza regularly go into the millions and the thousands, respectively—in Germany alone. It is not a given that COVID-19 will reach even that level—and it is outright unlikely that the numbers will be an order higher. German Wikipedia on cause of death mentions e.g. 910,902 deaths overall for 2016, by which standard COVID-19 is still just a drop in the ocean. Cancer alone took more than 220 thousand lives (2012), traffic accidents around 4 thousand (2015) and suicide more than 11 thousand (2015), etc.—and this happens year after year after year. What if we met COVID-19 with just influenza-level counter-measures and invested the money saved into cancer research? In terms of saving human lives, this might well be the better decision …

    *Influenza numbers have very similar problems when it comes to registering and estimating cases, and should be taken with a similar grain of salt. A brief search for a good source was not successful for this reason.

  3. The current situation is extremely interesting (“may you live in interesting times”) and could give major opportunities to draw important lessons for e.g. medicine and politics, to perform valuable experiments for the future, etc. Consider e.g. pollution: A recent news item from somewhere* was that pollution was significantly dropping in the wake of the isolation efforts. This, taken by it self, borders on a “duh” observation—what had they expected? However, there is now a chance to actually measure the effect, to compare and contrast with the state before, during, and (later) after the isolation. This could be very valuable to judge the effectiveness of various environmental measures, to improve models, etc. Moreover, it is an almost unique opportunity, because if someone had said “we want to perform an environmental experiment, so no-one is allowed outside for the next month” it would not have gone over well.

    *I did not keep a reference, but the claim is not likely to cause controversy.

    As a particular sub-issue, the situation proves how vulnerable the world currently is. COVID-19 is not the disastrous threat that it is painted as, but such a threat could appear. True threats have been historically rare, but every-now-and-then one has appeared, be it the Spanish flu, the Bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, or (in a different way) AIDS. Barring sufficient medical progress, it is just a matter of time before some such threat does appear. It might be tomorrow, it might be in fifty years time, but sooner or later … The (over-)reactions against COVID-19 can be very valuable in increasing preparedness for true threats, get some idea of what works and does not work, what has what side-effect on the economy, etc.

  4. Overlapping, it is interesting how the world might change due to the current counter-measures. For instance, what if the temporary surge in home-office work pans out sufficiently well that a long-term switch follows, with a corresponding impact on how we work, how commuting affects the environment, how many bother with owning cars, … Or what if businesses find that home-office workers are less productive and the slow (already present) trend towards more home-office work is reversed? What if a mixture of restaurant bankruptcies and new-formed habits permanently changes habits around dating and socializing? What if people get into the permanent habit of keeping a two meter distance? What if handshakes disappear? Etc.

    (Note that much of this could be positive.)

  5. A particular dire topic is that of politicians, the proverbial “man on the street”, and democracy.* What we see here is a sign that the current system does not work, that the influenza, sorry, influence of the dumb masses is dangerously large, that the quality of current politicians is abysmal, etc.

    *I have repeatedly been critical of democracy in its current form, most notably in Democracy lost. At best, it is the lesser evil, but, at times like this, I begin to doubt even that, at least where the currently popular forms are concerned.

    Indeed, quite often politicians do more harm than good, be it out of incompetence or to court voters (or even lobbyists). Consider e.g. the misguided aversion to nuclear power in favour of even fossil fuels, the massive and pointless over-education through inefficient means,* over-large bureaucracies, wasteful and contra-productive pension, social-security, and health-insurance schemes,** etc.

    *I am a great fan of education, but schooling is rarely a good way to get it, and a very sizable proportion of the typical Western population is educated (or, worse, just schooled) well beyond what makes sense in the individual case, both with regard to the interest and wishes of the individual in question and the benefit to society as a whole.

    **The U.S. reader should note that e.g. the German and Swedish are much more far-going than the U.S. (But even e.g. ObamaCare is a good example of how not to do it.)

  6. As an overlapping issue, the credibility of politicians, media, etc., must be questioned even more strongly than before. There has been a lot of poor information over the years, ranging from mere misinformation of the people to outright panic making. More generally, panic making seems to be a great weakness of human nature, and it is currently given free reins by the Internet. Consider, recently, Greta-Thunberg-style climate populism,* the “me too” movement (cf. [3], [4], [5], [6], [7] ), the current German “Rechtsruck” panic (cf. e.g. [8]), or, further back, the alleged college rape-epidemic, the alleged satanist child-abusers, …

    *As opposed to a rational and scientific approach to an import issue.

    People really need to pause, think things through, check plausibilities, understand causalities, consider alternative explanations and actions, be aware of potential side-effects, … This the more for those in a position to make decisions or influence others, notably politicians and journalists. Just like we have evidence-based medicine, we need evidence-based politics.

  7. Two interesting individual news items from Sweden respectively Germany (from among the many, many that can be found in this torrent of insanity):

    In Sweden, the Social-Democrat Minister of Finance (Magdalena Andersson) now suggests that the state should buy up portions of companies in the wake of COVID-19, in lieu of just giving financial support. (Cf. [9] in Swedish.) There is a considerable risk that this is more of an excuse to implement the historical Social-Democrat agenda than a “neutral” suggestion. It would also set a dangerous precedent: the government causes a crisis, steps in to “help”, and takes over partial ownership in return for the “favor”. This is dangerously close to the old Löntagarfonder, which allowed the unions to buy up businesses using their (the businesses’!) own profits.

    Moreover, if this happens on a large scale, it could be damaging even absent a hidden agenda, and even absent a genuine wish to make this temporary*. It will invariably increase the distortion of the markets that already takes place through any governmental intervention, as the difference in situation between those who receive “help” and those who do not is increased, and as there would now be three classes of businesses (instead of two): those unaided, those aided without** ownership changes, and those aided with ownership changes.

    *Even notwithstanding that “temporary” tends to be very long-term in politics, as with “temporary taxes”, e.g. the German “Solidaritätszuschlag”, which should have been a one-year measure for 1991, and is still present at the time of writing, in 2020.

    **According to the source, this measure is aimed mostly at larger companies, being too impractical for smaller.

    In Germany (and internationally*), COVID-19 is hitting advertising revenue. (Cf. [10] in German.) This should be a good thing—the advertising pest is growing worse year for year, and if the current epidemic could put a temporary stop to this by making a few advertising agencies** go bankrupt, a few businesses find that they might get along with less advertising, a few websites move away from ad-based financing to an honest payment-model, whatnot, that would be a very good thing—advertising is a problem much more in need of counter-measures than COVID-19.

    *Indeed, re-skimming after writing from memory, I find that a fair amount of the article deals with the U.S. situation

    **A statement which should be seen in light of the unethical methods used and the underlying shadiness of the business idea—to make people buy things, regardless of the value of the product and its benefit to the buyers. A legitimate advertising industry is by no means inconceivable, but the current certainly is not. I have no sympathies whatsoever for these businesses or the people who voluntarily choose to work for them.

    Unfortunately, the effects will likely be limited, as even advertisers are likely to be bailed out, if worst comes to worst. Right now, we have advertisers pleading to please-keep-advertising-regardless-of-your-own-situation.

    An interesting sub-aspect is the attribution* of this drop in advertising revenue largely to fear of association: Advertisers supposedly fear appearing on pages dealing with COVID-19, because the intended buyers might associate them with COVID-19. This attitude is very unfortunate, because the result might be that e.g. certain news topics are given unduly little reporting or are avoided altogether, thereby distorting the news flow even further. Moreover, there is great room for more specific discrimination against organizations and individuals outside the right opinion corridors. Indeed, the article explicitly mentions that “extremist” content had already been hit in the past. It might make great sense to actively forbid this type of filtering, that e.g. advertising networks must accept everyone as a customer, that all pages must be given equal treatment,** that there must be no*** blacklists for words-that-I-do-not-want-associated-with-my-products, etc.

    *I am skeptical, in light of large production cuts, stores being kept closed, etc., but I lack the knowledge to judge the matter in detail.

    **In that there is no discrimination based on e.g. content and affiliation; however, the use of more neutral and objective criteria, e.g. number of views per day, should still be allowed.

    ***With some reservations for more direct conflicts of interests, e.g. that Coca-Cola should not have an advertising network serving Pepsi ads to its own website. Exactly where to draw borders is a potentially complicated topic, but exceptions should be few and do not include a mere we-do-not-want-be-unconsciously-associated-with-X or we-do-not-like-the-politics-of-Y.

  8. There is a world-wide epidemic of impositions upon the citizens. This is a good reason to point to a central issue with the Rechtsstaat:

    The Rechtsstaat must not be restricted to times of “smooth running”. If it is, it is no true Rechtsstaat, but just an alibi for something far less noble.

    What we see here is a repetition of an ignorant and citizen-despising attitude by governments. Indeed, this attitude is constantly manifested even during periods of smooth running, in that it is often assumed that the government can do no wrong—and will continue to do no wrong for the duration. There is no understanding of the many everyday problems of even a non-dictatorship, e.g. through egoistic or stupid politicians, incompetent civil servants, governmental agencies that prioritize their own goals above every other consideration (the Rechtsstaat and current legislation included), … There is equally no understanding of the risk that the status quo changes, that the “good” government of today might be replaced by an “evil” government tomorrow—or the day after that, or at some more distant time.

    This principle must hold, not to satisfy the paranoid who see every current government as source of pure evil, the Patriarchy, the International Jewish Conspiracy, or whatnot, but as an insurance for the future—just like someone might be insured against burglaries not for the expectation that there will be a break-in today, but in acknowledgment that one quite realistically could take place at some point in the future.

    Other concerns: If governments takes stances like they do today over something as trivial as COVID-19, what will happen when a really dire threat appears? Where is the bar for future excuse* making set? Will all restrictions and incursions be repealed in a timely manner or will some remain indefinitely? Might there be permanent damage caused by some of them?**

    *Which is not automatically to say that governments use COVID-19 as an excuse—they might or might not. However, if and when someone does look for an excuse, the bar will be conveniently low. Moreover, by putting certain measures in place now, some degree of normalization of the rightfully abnormal can take place in the minds of the citizens. (Consider e.g. current attitudes towards absurd tax pressures.)

    **Possibly, relating to privacy and data security through some cell-phone tracking measure or publication of some data that should better have gone unpublished, e.g. concerning who has received hospital treatment due to COVID-19.

    As an aside, this restriction mentality is a further example of exceptions that ruin the whole. Other examples include freedom of speech (if freedom of speech only applies to those with the “right” opinions, it is not freedom of speech) and due process (if due process does not apply to all crimes, what is the point?).

Remark on terminology:
“COVID-19” strictly speaking refers to the disease. For some of the above, and possibly some points of the previous texts, it might be better to speak of the virus causing the disease (apparently, “SARS-CoV-2”), e.g. that someone is infected by a virus and then does or does not develop the disease. With a slightly bad conscience, I still go with “COVID-19” throughout. This partly for own convenience; partly, because I would likely miss some occurrence and might then cause more confusion than the more precise terminology gained elsewhere; partly, because I am still ahead of the game: most others are so sloppy with terminology that they speak of “corona” (or some variation thereof), which leads to highly misleading claims.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 31, 2020 at 12:18 am