Archive for October 2020


Masks work well on airplanes

This story caught my eye:

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, air travel looked like a risky endeavor. Some scientists even worried that airplanes could be sites of superspreading events. For example, in March a Vietnamese businesswoman with a sore throat and a cough boarded a flight in London. Ten hours later, she landed in Hanoi, Vietnam; she infected 15 people on the flight, including more than half of the passengers sitting with her in business class.

Then in April, airlines shifted course. Many started requiring passengers to wear masks on planes — and some airlines even enforced the policy. . . .

“Since April, Emirates has had a very rigid masking policy,” Freedman says. Not only does the airline require passengers and crew members to wear masks, but flight attendants also make sure everyone keeps on their masks, as much as possible, throughout the entire flight.

Freedman looked at all Emirates flights from Dubai to Hong Kong between June 16 and July 5. What he found is quite telling. During those three weeks, Emirates had five flights with seven or more infected passengers on each flight, for a total of 58 coronavirus-positive passengers flying on eight-hour trips. And yet, nobody else on the planes — none of the other 1,500 to 2,000 passengers — picked up the virus, Freedman and his colleague report in the Journal of Travel Medicine.

And people wonder how Taiwan was able to control the virus.

Masks work.

PS. And this:

Universal masking in the U.S. could save some 130,000 lives by the end of February, according to projections by some of the nation’s top Covid-19 trackers at the University of Washington.

The analysis, which appeared Friday in the journal Nature Medicine, models the impact of different levels of social distancing on the trajectory of the pandemic from this fall to the end of February 2021. White House officials and public health leaders said they don’t expect a vaccine to be widely available until March or April, which means wearing masks and other non-pharmaceutical measures will likely be the only option to reduce the spread of the virus until the end of February.

Once again, China to the rescue!

In 2009, China was the first to recover. As growth there surged in 2009, it began pulling the rest of the world away from the brink.

Now it seems to be happening again. Here’s the FT:

Factories across Europe are buzzing with activity again, encouraging some industrial bosses to invest in extra production as they shrug off the rise in coronavirus infections that is casting a shadow over the continent’s economic recovery.

Many manufacturers adapted production sites quickly to protect their workers after the pandemic hit, and in recent months they have benefited from rising demand, driven by a rebound in exports, particularly to the resurgent Chinese market. . . .

Ola Kallenius, chief executive of Daimler, said the maker of Mercedes-Benz cars was also enjoying a “remarkable recovery in China” where its sales have grown at double-digit rates for four consecutive months. “It is almost too good to be true,” he said. “They’ve managed a V-shaped recovery in the Chinese economy.”

Companies in other areas are benefiting from rising sales in China such as Gea Group, the German maker of machines that produce half the world’s beer, a quarter of its processed milk and a third of all instant coffee. 

“The strongest recovery now is definitely in China, where the virus has virtually gone and I would say people there are back to normal, so that is driving demand,” said Stefan Klebert, chief executive of Gea, which has five Chinese factories. 

PS. My comment section has recently been overrun by morons. So I need to say it again:

China: A very good country of 1.4 billion people

The CCP: A very evil government

Go China!!!

Utah is not a banana republic

I’ve been pretty hard on the US recently, but there are some slivers of hope. For instance, while the US as a whole is becoming a banana republic, Utah is one exception. In the current campaign for governor, both candidates agreed to run a civil campaign.

Razib Khan had an amusing tweet:

I’m kind of like that. I’m really shocked when I find out that people have lied to my face. Good to know that Mormons have a very high birth rate.

Lots of people are overreacting to the election. If Trump loses they’ll be overjoyed, and if he wins they’ll be on the edge of despair. Not me; I see Trump as a symptom of America’s banana republicization. Even if he loses, it won’t change the fact that our culture is deteriorating.

Look at the hysterical response from leftists when Senator Feinstein hugged Lindsey Graham after the recent Supreme Court hearings. I hate Graham’s personality as much as the next guy, but what kind of sick person criticizes a 87-year old woman for showing basic human decency to a Senate colleague? I mean just because you differ on politics . . .

Trump sees every one who disagrees with him as an evil person, but must we all become like Trump? Apparently so.

So I have little hope for our future, regardless of who’s elected.

Of course I’d much prefer Biden, who is as old school as Feinstein. But if the internet continues to degrade our culture then these polite old dinosaurs will soon pass from the scene. I’m so glad I won’t live to see the 2040s.

Here’s something else good about the US. While hate speech has gotten worse under Trump, I don’t see any big overall rise in racism in recent decades. In contrast, Asia is becoming a horror show. (And most Earthlings are Asian.) There’s a giant battle between a billion plus Muslims, a billion plus Han and a billion plus Hindus. Overt racism is increasing sharply across all of Asia. A WaPo article describes just one tiny example:

Rahul Gandhi, one of the key leaders of the Indian National Congress, recently tweeted that “the shameful truth is many Indians don’t consider Dalits [untouchables], Muslims and Tribals to be human.” The tweet sparked outrage, including from many liberals. The tweet came in the wake of the alleged gang rape and killing of a lower-caste young woman in the state of Uttar Pradesh by upper-caste men. Police officers burned the body of the victim in the hopes of making the story and justice vanish. The young woman’s parents were gagged from speaking to either the media or any political party, and members of the ruling party rallied in support of the accused. Gandhi hit a raw nerve and exposed the systemic hate against religious and caste minorities, whose women are the most vulnerable.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The human rights situation in “democratic” India has always been bad, but under Modi it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to be an outright bigot. Those who publicly support equality are physically attacked. And of course we all know about Uighurs in China and non-Muslims in the Middle East. Asia’s economy may grow, but the near-term future of human rights looks bleak. Hopefully, economic growth will eventually turn things around.

But that damn internet . . .

The West’s embarrassing response to Covid

In the spring, I pushed back at people who claimed it was all China’s fault—the claim that if they’d only warned us a week or two earlier, we could have prevented the epidemic. This argument is wrong on so many levels that it’s almost laughable that anyone still believes it. At this late date, it’s like believing in Santa Claus.

The FT has an excellent report on China’s response to the crisis. At first the report looks like it’s going in an anti-China direction, and there is appropriate criticism of bureaucratic delay in Wuhan. But in the end the Chinese government only delayed a warning to the world by a few days, say from roughly January 16th to January 20th. This sort of unfortunate screw-up is part of the normal “fog of war” problem. But as we’ll see, it’s utterly trivial compared to the massive screw-ups in the West.

Ironically, what the West insists China should have done when they discovered the problem—make a massive effort to stop the spread—is exactly what China did do after a roughly one week delay. And they succeeded. Even though the pandemic had already spread to dozens of Chinese provinces, the national lockdown stopped it in its tracks. By early March it was basically over, and China’s had only very small flare-ups ever since:

We also know that many other developed countries were able to do the same, keep it under firm control. But not the US and most of Europe.

The supreme irony here is that we are blaming China for not taking steps that we were unwilling to take, when in fact China did take those steps, just a week or so too late.

America faced a far easier challenge than China. On January 20th we still had just a few known cases. China was already swamped. And yet for 6 weeks our government sat around twiddling its thumbs. Some will say that at least Trump put a ban on travel from China. But even that’s a lie—there was never a China travel ban. (My wife is flying directly from China to the US in 2 weeks.) And even if there had been a travel ban, it would have been completely pointless—the virus was already here and we were doing nothing to stop it from spreading like wildfire.

“I was in China [in mid-February] and was able to see the extent of the response,” he added. “Unbelievable lockdowns with trains not moving, aeroplanes all with covers on their engines, and absolutely clear blue skies in [often polluted] Beijing. So it did spread across China, but they just shut it down.”

Meanwhile other countries and territories in east Asia — most notably South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — used a more flexible mix of visitor bans, contact tracing and lockdowns milder than China’s to contain community spread of the virus effectively.

But for those countries that were quick to issue travel bans while doing little else in a co-ordinated, nationwide fashion, such as the US, it was too late. 

Australia and New Zealand also had effective responses. And although Melbourne was recently hit by a big second wave, the Aussie government quickly got it under control. So it wasn’t just East Asian countries that knew what to do.

In the spring, people complained when I pointed out that China’s not to blame for our incompetence, but the FT confirms I was right:

Dr Fisher’s view was that “another couple of weeks” of advance notice about the pandemic would not have helped many countries. He pointed out that despite it being confirmed that the virus could be transmitted from person to person on January 20, “it’s not like [everyone] jumped up and sprang into action”.

That’s the understatement of the year!

“Most of Asia really respected this, had systems ready to go, and did a lot of work in January and February for the day that was coming when they were going to get smashed,” said Dr Fisher. “Unfortunately, most of the rest of the world needed to get smashed to have that realisation. As we said in our February [WHO China delegation] report, this virus can have devastating health, social and economic effects but the world is not ready, in capacity or in mindset, to deal with it.”

Prof Wang added that for all of the Chinese system’s shortcomings in the earliest days and weeks of the outbreak, the rest of the world should have been on high alert. As soon as human-to-human transmission was confirmed and Wuhan went into quarantine a few days later, countries could have prepared themselves for its arrival as effectively as Taiwan and South Korea did, among others.

Most did not. In particular the Trump administration’s response will go down as one of the worst national security failures in the history of the US republic, with the virus breaching even the White House and the president himself. As Prof Wang said: “For other countries not to have taken [the virus] seriously, there’s just no excuse.”

Just to be clear, I’m not blaming Trump for all of this. Hillary would have done somewhat better, but the evidence from Western Europe suggests that the failures go much deeper than Trump. Local governments in the northeastern US also screwed up. Instead, my moral outrage is directed at the West’s attempt to blame China for the Covid crisis.

The Western world is like a huge version of Trump. Recall that Trump famously attributes to other people his own faults—corruption, dishonesty, stupidity, nepotism, laziness, etc. The West claims that China didn’t take the problem seriously enough even though China succeeded against a crisis that was objectively far greater than the crisis faced by Europe and America. We were the ones who didn’t take it seriously.

China was the first place that Covid started spreading, so naturally it spread pretty far before they got a grip on the problem. In contrast, America and Europe had plenty of advanced warning. Yet China was able to control the epidemic under difficult circumstances and the West mostly failed under much easier circumstances.

I suppose one could argue that we shouldn’t be blamed because our culture is so undisciplined. Funny to read anti-Chinese white nationalist bigots in my comment section try to excuse our weak response with claims that the Asian culture is just better organized than our culture. So what’s your point? Are you saying that Asian countries should stop accepting immigrants from shithole countries like the US and UK?

Sorry, I’m not that bigoted against the West. Next to Canada, Australia’s the country that is most similar to America. Germany’s also relatively similar, certainly compared to New Guinea or Burundi. I’m not willing to accept the “our culture is different” excuse. Yes, there are cultural/political reasons why certain countries failed. But we need to look in the mirror and admit that we blew it. And fix it.

By the way, this is just the tip of the iceberg. As Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok relentlessly document, our failure to do challenge studies as well as our shameful bureaucratic delays in rolling out everything from testing kits to vaccines to drugs has delayed the reopening of the economy.

And the Asians told us back in February that we should wear masks. But of course we Westerners are so much smarter than them. We knew that masks don’t work. Right?

I’m also outraged by all the people who claimed that China was covering up the problem, that they could not possibly have it under control. My wife’s spent the past 6 weeks in China, including time spent in Chinese hospitals, and I can assure you they are not covering up anything. There is no Covid epidemic in China. Things are back to normal. (Oh wait, our president insists that my wife is probably a Chinese spy, so I can’t trust her report.)

I’m also thinking of the people who told me that it was folly to wait for a vaccine. I had commenters assuring me that it was inevitable that the whole world get it; it can’t be stopped. Only herd immunity would work.

(BTW, this is separate from the question of whether herd immunity was a good idea. Given how badly we screwed up I’m not sure it would have been much worse. But for Taiwan? Herd immunity would have been insane.)

PS. Another FT article contrasts the testing systems of Germany and the UK, and does a nice job of distinguishing between reasons and excuses.

Roughly 90 per cent of testing in the country is done by self-governing private laboratories. That means Germany has consistently had excess capacity of around half a million tests a week, leaving the system well placed to deal with sudden spikes in demand. One outbreak in the Tönnies meat processing plants in North Rhine-Westphalia in June created a need for 50,000 extra weekly tests as the disease was traced in local communities.

This contrasts with the UK’s system, which was heavily centralised from the start. The government overlooked existing labs in favour of creating five so-called “lighthouse laboratories” — outsourced, purpose-built facilities tasked with processing tens of thousands of tests a day. The sites quickly faced setbacks and have become overwhelmed at several points during the pandemic, creating bottlenecks and delays.

Reasons are not excuses!

PS. This Matt Yglesias tweet caught my eye:

If Trump had read my March 1 post he’d be cruising to re-election. And he still has a 35% chance of winning!

When is treason justified?

The answer is obvious—when it boosts aggregate utility.

In the past, I’ve discussed the issue of when is terrorism justified. Today I’ll look at treason.

Start with a couple easy cases. German officers committing treason against their government during WWII was justified, whereas the Rosenbergs passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets was not justified. But what about the more difficult cases? Here are two examples:

Edward Snowden released documents that showed abuses by our intelligence services.

Trump endorsed Putin’s claim that our intelligence services were falsely claiming that Russia had interfered in our election.

Both actions can been seen as aiding our enemies, making our intelligence services look corrupt. (Trump toyed with the idea of pardoning Snowden.)

No surprise, in the end I concluded that Snowden’s treason was justified, whereas Trump’s was not. Is this just TDS on my part? Maybe. You be the judge.

Snowden actually provided evidence to support his claim that our intelligence services were engaging in unscrupulous activities. In that sense, you can argue that he’s a sort of hero, a whistleblower. Even a martyr.

It’s possible that Trump is right about Putin. The problem here is that Trump provided no evidence to support his claim. Even if some of the evidence were classified, he could have at least sketched out what evidence he relied upon looked like. He could have said ; “I looked at the intelligence reports and noticed that 7 agents agreed with the finding, and 3 disagreed. I was more persuaded by the three who disagreed.

In fact, Trump almost never reads government reports of any type. Thus the more likely assumption is that Trump simply didn’t want to believe the intelligence services because it would somehow make his 2016 victory look tainted. That’s my assumption. And that motivation is not sufficient justification for giving aid and comfort to America’s #1 enemy.

Again, I’m not saying I trust our intelligence services (look at the Snowdon evidence), rather I’m saying that Trump never justified his action. Even if Trump were right, he has a moral obligation to explain to Americans why he reached this conclusion. His failure to do so is unjustifiable.

To summarize:

Snowdon: Justifiable treason.
Trump: Unjustifiable treason.

Don’t let emotionally loaded terms do your thinking for you. Calling something treason or terrorism is the beginning of any cost/benefit analysis, not the end.

PS. Hiroshima: justified or unjustified terrorism?