WHO’s on first?

The NYT has a story discussing how the WHO has had to backtrack on a variety of claims. They initially underestimated the danger from China. Then they discouraged mask wearing. Then they reported that asymptomatic carriers of the Covid-19 virus very rarely infected others.

At one point they tried to draw a useless distinction:

A key point of confusion is the difference between people who are “pre-symptomatic” and will go on to develop symptoms, and those who are “asymptomatic” and never feel sick. Dr. Van Kerkhove suggested that her comments were about people who are truly asymptomatic.

Back in the comment section, I pointed out that people were mixing up those two concepts. People are highly infectious for a couple of days before symptoms first appear.

I say the WHO distinction is useless because there’s no way to tell if an asymptomatic person is pre-symptomatic or permanently asymptomatic. People read the earlier WHO comments and assumed that someone who doesn’t show symptoms is not a problem. That’s why masks are so important. Today, Tyler Cowen linked to another study showing that masks reduce the severity of the epidemic.

In April, I suggested that the world was dividing up into safe and unsafe regions. In May I suggested that safe areas would link up, allowing travel. Now that’s happening:

Now he has joined hundreds of tourism operators in an appeal for Pacific island nations to be included in an Australia and New Zealand “travel bubble” that could rescue their businesses and some of the most tourist-dependent economies in the world.

“This virus is literally a dagger right through our hearts,” said Mr Whitton, who owns Rosie Group, a family business established in 1974.

“We have had no new cases in Fiji for a month and we are moving towards eradication. I view this travel bubble as our only hope during hopeless times.”

Here’s another example:

Like Vietnam, Thailand is planning to allow international travel, probably initially with other countries with low current levels of Covid-19 infection through designated travel corridors or “bubbles”.

Vietnam is a country of 98 million that has experienced zero deaths from Covid-19. Its economy is set to grow 3% to 5% this year. Thailand has also done well, with almost no community transmission in recent weeks:

The beaches nearest to Bangkok are heaving with visitors. Vietnam’s schools, restaurants, cinemas and nightclubs are open again, while football matches at stadiums packed with cheering spectators have been allowed to resume. Most Vietnamese have stopped wearing masks. 

While a second wave of infections is a risk here, as everywhere, the authorities in both countries have been encouraged by a drop in new local Covid-19 infections to zero in recent weeks. 

However Thailand’s economy is depressed by the collapse in global tourism.

I like this picture from Bangkok:

Unfortunately, America won’t be in any of these bubbles. China will.



7 Responses to “WHO’s on first?”

  1. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    10. June 2020 at 18:00

    These travel restrictions are mostly based on politics rather than public health, and the travel bubbles will be too. Restoring travel rights will be as much a matter of how powerful your country is as it is of how well your country has the virus under control. For example, Canada’s travel ban specifically exempts Americans. That’s not because America has controlled the virus, but rather because of the very strong level of influence that America has over Canada. That’s good news for Americans, as we have the most powerful country. According to this map, in addition to Canada, some other countries like South Korea, Bangladesh, and Turkey also exempt Americans from their travel bans, even as citizens of many less-infected countries are banned, whereas there are no countries that have a travel ban specifically targeted at Americans: https://www.iatatravelcentre.com/international-travel-document-news/1580226297.htm.

  2. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    10. June 2020 at 18:07


    re: travel bubbles, yep, China is negotiating their bubbles already, most recently with Singapore. This one is not completely open, though, because recent negative test results are required for travel. But no quarantine, which is the key here.

  3. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    10. June 2020 at 18:46


    It is shocking to reflect on the discrepancy between the trustworthiness and effectiveness of America’s health authorities in prior crises and the current one. I have so little faith in this administration’s ability to tell the truth, or even discern what is true, that I find myself trusting friends’ opinions more than the official line. The president has squandered months hyping snake oil cures, hypothesizing that we should inject bleach, peddling conspiracy theories, and peddling magical thinking that the virus will miraculously go away. Not to mention, he has also found time to accuse a former Congressman of murder, threaten to murder protestors, order the military to attack and disperse peaceful protestors, etc. Can we trust anything that comes out of this administration?

    How should we think about the failures of the WHO and the CDC in this crisis? Throw in the disgusting behavior of American police forces over the past few weeks and the Covid profiteering of US Senators, and it seems like we’re trapped in a time with leadership at all levels that is incompetent, duplicitous, or corrupt.

    This brings a few questions to mind:

    – Is this all a symptom of Trump’s unparalleled corruption? Presidential corruption seems likely to enable Senatorial corruption. And considering Trump’s dismissal of Azar’s concerns in January, the CDC could be politically infected in such a way that they wouldn’t tell the public the truth. After all, it might look bad for dear leader if the CDC came out and told Americans to wear masks. But even Trump’s venality and incompetence seems unlikely to have infected the WHO.

    – Misunderstanding and misinformation was rampant in 1918 too, maybe it’s just an unavoidable feature of pandemics? The disease spreads too fast and too widely, and since the virus doesn’t show up to any press events, it’s easy to just point the finger at someone else.

    – Has the internet just made good governance and international cooperation impossible? Seems like a few decades ago you’d get a few smart people in a room and put out a press release once you’d figured everything out. But today, a misstatement during a Q&A turns into a global scandal within seconds, no time to catch up with the reporters to correct the record. Add to this the proliferation of inane conspiracy theories and political culture warring.

  4. Gravatar of Mark Z Mark Z
    10. June 2020 at 18:59

    Mark, is it not just that rich countries that supply most of the world’s tourists are most likely to suffer restrictions?

  5. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    11. June 2020 at 08:31

    It was months ago that Scott said about the Covid numbers “they look weird” or something to that effect. Well, I still think they look weird. We also still do not speak enough about age. re: age. NYC—-as of 6/9 92% of deaths were people over age 65.

    Re:geography. NY, NJ, PA, CT, RI, MA represent 16% of the country in population but 61% of deaths. These states are a contiguous block. The estimate of deaths for people under 65 outside of these 6 states is about 3-5k

    This is a disease of the old and maybe certain regions. We need to focus on that. Everything else seems like a waste of time.

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    11. June 2020 at 08:41

    Everyone, Good points.

    Michael, Keep in mind that the new deaths occurring now are much more widely spread throughout the US.

  7. Gravatar of South African Fan South African Fan
    12. June 2020 at 16:28

    Michael Rulle:
    Yes, those regions that were not caught by surprise protected their care homes and cut the number of fatalities by more than 80%.

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