Covid and the lessons of the Dreyfus affair

One can tell many stories of how current times resemble some earlier historical period. The conflict between nationalism and internationalism, as personified by the controversies surrounding Brexit and Trump, has been seen as somewhat of a re-run of the conflict between fascism and socialism in the 1930s. The conflict between the West and radical Islam made many think of the crusades. The covid pandemic and its effects has been likened to the Plague, the Spanish Flu and the Asian Flu.

Though they are never perfect, I like looking for such analogies because they give some idea as to the outcomes and the dynamics that are possible. They tell us what humans have been capable of believing and of doing in similar situations as we have now. So I have looked for the historical analogy that best fits the “narrative” aspect of the current covid controversies.

Ask yourself: which historical event had the same combination of an official narrative that had great popular support but was just an ossified mistake versus a small minority narrative that gradually became more and more dominant? The clearest case I can think of is the Dreyfus Affair from 1894-1906. If we are witnessing a repeat of the dynamics of the Dreyfus Affair, there are sobering lessons for both sides of the covid debate. Consider the parallels from my point of view, ie as an avowed “lockdown skeptic”.

Albert Dreyfus was a proud captain in the French army at a time when France was very divided and its army command was very worried about German spies, still smarting from the German invasion of 1871. When it was discovered in 1894 that details of French armament were sold to the Germans, the secret police more or less randomly arrested Dreyfus who was promptly convicted by a tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment on “Devil’s Island”, a notorious prison camp with conditions few survived for long.

Albert’s brother Matthieu was a man with very powerful connections and could call upon Jewish solidarity with an accused member. For instance, the Rothschild’s of London took up Dreyfus’ case. So a lot of money lined up to fight Albert’s cause. The evidence in the case was so pitiful that intellectuals with all kinds of ideologies (socialist, anarchist, pacifist, etc.) got organised as ‘Dreyfusards’. They wrote petitions, held rallies, lobbied politicians, encouraged high-ranking officials to start new investigations, etc.

Initially, the Dreyfusards got nowhere. Over 99% of the politicians (but not all!) affirmed the conviction in a parliamentary vote. Books were written on the evil influence of Jews in France. Newspapers were full of disinformation. Officialdom celebrated Albert’s conviction. The population was totally on the side of the army. It was a time of hysteria.

In 1896 there was a breakthrough in that a new investigation actually found the culprit who even confessed to selling secrets to the Germans. How did the French army react? They posted the investigating officer (the head of the secret service no less!) somewhere far away, took no notice of the confession and even paid the culprit to stay away and keep quiet. In a new trial, they simply convicted Dreyfus again, dismissing the new evidence. Once more, the majority of the population rejoiced.

Now the Dreyfusards really got going, buoyed by their belief that they were onto a winner and that the case was all they hoped for: evidence of all the ills of authority and whatever else they thought was wrong with France at that time. They managed to improve the actual conditions of Dreyfus stuck on his island so that at least he’d survive, basically by bribing and threatening the key authorities involved. They organised more rallies, petitions, etc., the most famous of which was the “J’accuse” letter by Emile Zola, who was then the eminence grise of French literature. In that famous letter he accused the entire elite of France of all manner of evils, a libelous accusation he knew they would put him into jail for. Which they did.

The force of the argument, as well as that of the international press and the money on the side of the Dreyfusards built up the pressure, such that in 1899 there was another high-profile trial in which the commanders of the French army stood accused of stupidity, cover-ups, and all the other things they had actually done. The jury consisted of junior French army officers who exonerated their own army commanders and duly convicted Dreyfus again, despite the international media mocking their convoluted arguments. Mainly to get rid of the pressure, the French president then offered Dreyfus a presidential pardon, which he took, much to the chagrin of the Dreyfusards who wanted him to refuse out of principle and keep going with court cases.

The Dreyfusards fell apart a bit after that, particularly because it turned out Albert Dreyfus had no interest in being a rebel or to blame those who had him imprisoned unfairly for 5 years. All he wanted was to get back into the army and fight wars for France. He got that wish in 1906 when a 6th and last trial finally exonerated him, after which he promptly reapplied to the French army, which took him and gave him a promotion. Later on he got wounded by a fervent nationalist still smarting about the case, but he survived and fought in the first world war, getting all sorts of medals. He died in 1935. The anti-antisemitism that was fanned by officialdom during the 1894-1906 period has been seen as a factor in the vicious behaviour of the Vichy-regime of 1940-1944.

Now, I see many parallels between the narrative dynamics of the Dreyfus Affair and the covid debates now increasingly raging.

The modern Dreyfusards are all those railing against the imprisonment of the population (lock downs and social distancing), starting with very few initially but gradually growing in strength. They are a motley crew from all kinds of persuasions with totally different hopes for what happens once they are seen to be right. They have all kinds of beliefs as to what lead to the initial hysteria and the imprisonments, most of which are absurd conspiracy stories. They have some money and power behind them, namely from the business community and parts of the artistic and intellectual elites. They can all see the suffering of the population and the absurdity of the arguments concocted to keep the hysteria and imprisonment going, but they hit a solid wall of authority, the popular appeal of the hysteria, and legions of intellectual enablers.

The modern opponents of the Dreyfusards are authority, institutionalised health advisers, most of politics, and the institutionalised arbiters of truth. Whilst the French courts in 1894-1905 made absurd ruling after absurd ruling, today’s regulators, Lancet editors, and many ‘scientists’ equally contort themselves into bizarre twists to rationalise previous decisions and the instincts of the public. At least, from my perspective!

The discovery in April-June 2020 that covid was nowhere near as lethal as previously said, whilst the effects of the imprisonment were just as bad as foretold, is like the confession of the actual culprit in the Dreyfus case in 1896. And, like then, the revelation that the entire basis of all the previous decisions was completely wrong, something already known by a handful at the start, has made little difference to authority or the arbiters of truth. At least, not in the short run. Authority doubles down and uses covid for an increasingly destructive agenda, aided by the majority of the population who doesn’t want to believe they have been fooled.

Like then, the modern Dreyfusards initially have had to operate on the fringes of the media but are gradually becoming more mainstream. Like then, the early Dreyfusards  dreamed truth would prevail in a matter of months, disappointed at every turn at how long it takes and how intransigent authority and its intellectual enablers can be if their own honour is at stake.

I think this last element is what draws me most to the Dreyfus analogy: the involvement of a sense of honour on the side of those who insist the right choices have been made. It is not so much that they truly think they are doing the right thing right now, but more that they are incensed by the open suggestion that they f*cked up big time initially and have been covering up every subsequent step of the way. They feel their honour is at stake and they extend that personal indignation: to question them is to question authority, the nation, science, and reason itself. As with the Dreyfus affair, this time round a growing group inside authority know exactly what is happening, but at the same time a large group has convinced itself and will probably never recant.

The analogy contains a very sobering thought for the modern Dreyfusards, which of course includes me. If the same pattern holds now as then, the population will not be grateful for being saved from the follies of authority and the absurdity of their intellectual enablers, but will flock back to authority immediately after being released. The vast majority of authority and enablers will then survive in their position, wreaking more havoc at some later point. The hopes of the modern Dreyfusards will largely be proven vain, and the origins of the most memorable slogans of the fight (“J’accuse”) will be forgotten.

So I really do hope the analogy is less than perfect.

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94 Responses to Covid and the lessons of the Dreyfus affair

  1. John Wormald says:

    This is loony. Exactly the wrong way round. The Dreyfussards were protesting against a monstrous injustice, which was finally righted. The anti-lockdown brigade are completely flying in the face of all the rational evidence. There is a real global epidemics going on. Lockdowns are an essential instrument for trying to control it. Governments have to act. In wartime, civil liberties have to be suspended. This situation is close to that.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Paul,

    I didn’t know Dreyfus was convicted quite so many times!

    Your basic case may be proven right – we shall see. But important differences are that there’s something much more objective about the Dreyfus. The idea of not framing people and not convicting innocent people is pretty core to our culture – even if people deployed the ‘look over there’ defence to prevent themselves from being bound by it.

    Here lots of people promoting strong policy are doing so from genuinely good motives. People like Bill Bowtell are well-motivated people and people who do not lack integrity or moral courage. I don’t think you do yourself any favour by tarring them all with the brush of hysterics and defenders of power.

    As I understand it Gigi and I presume you are strict consequentialist. It’s deaths and QALYs on one side versus another. Personally I’m much less cut and dried about it. I know that much too much is spent on the aged and the dying and that it blows all those QALY and value of life calculations out of the water. I might be persuaded by some case to reallocate spending to a higher QALY use, but I might not.

    • paul frijters says:

      Hi Nick,

      thanks. Yes, the analogy is obviously not perfect even if one is of “my” persuasion (and I indeed am strictly consequentialist to the degree that’s possible. So is Gigi). Apart from what you say, there is also not much underlying ethnic and religious overtones to the covid controversy, and the injustice against one man is not the same as the (alleged) injustice to a population and that of other countries.
      Its the dynamics of the narratives involving whole populations and authorities that drew me to it, particularly the honour bit as well as the sheer length of the controversy.

      Did you know the Dreyfus affair gave rise to the word “intellectual” in this sense of a thinker separate from the majority and critical of authority?

      Yes, what is at stake is not the same, but both are in a way “cases” on which one can take sides. Evidence, beliefs, etc., are the game both sides played then and now.

      And of course lots of people are convicted who should not be, with court cases that will never be appealed. Its unfortunate but mistakes will be made for the simple fact that proof is never 100%, so there are always difficult issues and judgment calls. Honest and dishonest mistakes then get made, some of which are challenged later. To accept some mistakes and move on too is a utilitarian calculus. The inherent ambiguities open up a lot of possibility to see what one wants to see (just think of the Pell case!). Yet, there is a kind of ‘long-distance historical point of view’ in which its pretty clear whether something is reasonably true or not. But while everyone claims to have that view, lots of local and temporal pressures interfere.

      Then, as now, there is no complete certainty. Who could be completely sure in 1895 that Dreyfus was innocent?

      So I do like that part of the analogy (from within my point of view, of course), ie how there are ambiguities and how initial choices interfere with the ability to see things clearly.

      In that sense the Dreyfus affair is also a textbook case of how convoluted and yet seemingly reasonable an absurd case can be presented.

      Take the point of view of those convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt. Sure, the Dreyfusards came up with additional elements, but supporters of a spy would be pretty good at coming up with falsified evidence, wouldn’t they? Of course they would drag out an alternative suspect, a notoriously shady character who might have debts they promised to pay off. The Dreyfusards’ open disdain of a trusted institution, the defenders of the country no less (the army), make them close-to traitors already, doesn’t it? Why can’t they trust the verdict of the court martials? And the clear hand of money associated with the Dreyfusards makes the case and its allies suspicious anyway, doesnt it? Why worry so much about one man when thousands of French patriots are starving unless they have bad intentions? Plus there are a million and one circumstantial elements (where Albert had been before, the potential access to documents, his interest in armaments, etc.) which could also be dragged out. The books “for the prosecution and against the dreyfusards” practically write themselves with lots of little details to get stuck into and to “demand” that the Dreyfusards “answer”.

      So I can see the logic of the anti-Dreyfusards and why many would have been bitter about it long afterwards, something I fear for now too.

      I did wonder whether the Iraq war wouldnt make a better analogy, but I dont think so. The Iraq war was done using a deliberate lie made up by officialdom in order to convince a population. That’s not how it started now. More the other way round. Governments got dragged in because populations wanted something to be done. But also, the population was not all that into the Iraq war and was happy to go kill some Iraqis to please the Americans, whatever the truth. So the case was never as emotional and divisive in the West (which of course makes it something to be distinctly non-proud of).

      Anyhow, the piece is somewhat meant playfully, as an illustration of the uses and limitations of historical analogies. I use them a lot in trying to get perspective on things. They dont prove anything about today, of course, but help me map out possible scenarios. This one helps me understand the emotional reaction of the many intellectuals genuinely angry at the anti-lock down crowd. And it tempers my expectations.

  3. Nicholas Gruen says:

    And it’s not hard working out what the counterfactual in the Dreyfus case would have been. No Dreyfus case! No conviction of an innocent man. Pretty simple really!

    • oh really. Let me muddle it up then and make the counter-argument: “but there was anti-semitism and there were German spies. There were underlying tensions (involving catholics, industrialists, the landed aristocracy, etc.) that was inevitably going to come to a head in some way. Something had to be done to appease the fear that the French republic was being sold to the enemy. Tell me how that was going to be resolved and prove to me that would have been any better!”
      Sound familiar?

    • paul frijters says:

      oh, and btw, I did not have you in mind with the honour bit. You’re not invested enough in “your side” of the argument as it were. You think you’re right and I am wrong (which is fine), but its not life or death for you. At least, doesn’t seem that way!

      I had particular economists, health advisers and journalists in mind whom I normally respect but are now clearly incensed with people like Gigi and myself. Its clearly an affront to them that there are those from within their own circle who disagree with them over this.

      • Chris Lloyd says:

        Has Gigi been in the MSM recently? She was on Q&A a few months ago and was pilloried far and wide. I have not heard her again (though I guess she is still doing the podcast with Peter).

        • paul frijters says:

          where have you been hiding? Gigi has been in the news almost every day since. 60 minutes, channel 7, the Australian, the AFR, the Conversation. I think she’s been on Sky News 3 times by now. She made a televised appearance in the Victorian parliamentary inquiry with evidence debated on this site. She has been tireless in reminding people of those hurt by the covid-policies. The abused women, the children, the locked-away elderly, the destroyed businesses, etc.

          I think its fair to say she is by far the most visible Australian academic economist in this debate. The fact that so many tried to bully her out of the limelight only makes her willingness to keep fighting for the vulnerable and voiceless in Australia so much more impressive. Those who tried to bully her have a lot to answer for.

  4. Chris Lloyd says:

    I reckon Nick was being sardonic.

  5. Dugald says:

    I’m hoping that many of the lockdown measures will in time be ruled illegal or unconstitutional:
    – prohibitions against carrying on a business
    – national lockdowns
    – anti-social distancing rules
    – border closures
    so that when the hysteria flares up again in the future (as you predict Paul) we will be legally protected from a lot of this madness. A review of government emergency powers would be nice too.

    • Hi Dugald,

      many measures probably are illegal and unconstitutional and I too hope for a reckoning.

      I dont think the answer to too much bureaucracy is more bureaucracy. Citizens need to take some responsibility too. It is clear the system around governments are not fit for purpose and that the relation between politicians and the population is a very unhealthy one. How do we get a better political ecology is the question.

      Take academia. Academics were not forced to go along with the hysteria, but the majority of academics did go along with it and many fanned it. How can the academic community regain its reputation from this disaster? Not via laws, that is clear. But some kind of reckoning is important.

  6. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    for petes sake.
    The Fritjers/Foster case has been well publicised

    It has simply been found wanting.

    Please document ONE example of how anyone has been bullied for broadcasting these views.
    This sounds a variation of the Davidson argument. Those who criticise me hate me. In this case remove the word hate and insert bully.

    • Saupreiss says:

      Has it?

      As to abuse and adhominems, where to start?

      “This is nonsense from Foster. An embarrassment of my profession.”
      ” … her fringe views … ”
      “Every person on this panel is so sensible … except the economist. As an economist, I am deeply embarrassed.”
      “I’m an economics professor, and Foster does not speak for me.”
      “This people tend to be quite provincial. Not sure they spend much time reading the ‘world news’ section of the newspaper.”

      As one observer noted, “Other economists have similar opinions to Gigi yet don’t seem to attract the type of vitriol she is receiving right now.”
      And as another observer noted, “What debate? The boys are attempting to impose consensus through vitriol.”

      You asked for ONE example …

      • Sauprieess

        Early on in this on the Drum there was an ex ADF guy who likened the choices as to the choices in a war .
        He gave an example, he was with some US drone operators who were closing in on a man carrying a large bomb ,they were about to pull the trigger when a group of children wandered into the area so they aborted the mission.
        The bomb carrier went on to plant that bomb at a mosque and later that day about 160 people died when it exploded.

        • Saupreiss says:

          Not sure what you are getting at …

          • In these kinds of situations ethical questions are not easy or simple to answer. At the time they couldn’t know whether the bomb carrier would succeed in his mission ,some fail they blowup prematurely or are intercepted by others.

            To my mind the unknown that troubles is: how many healthy people will after Covid19,be left with serious long term problems?

            If it is basically about ‘death at 78 instead of 82 ‘ then the real long term health costs to the general population caused by lockdowns are too great.
            However if significant numbers of recovered younger people face a significant rise in the risk of conditions like Parkinson’s syndrome etc then doing the plus minus equation gets harder.

            As far as I know in Sweden there is so far little sign of long term problems . Do you have any intelligence re France?

            • Saupreiss says:

              A recent article in nature puts some interesting numbers on it (the scope of the LT health problem):

              “Given that there are now 28.2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, this *could* imply that between 10,000 and 50,000 people have experienced neurological complications.”

              Reality check: Total of COVID-19 deaths approaches 1,000,000. (Just to keep some perspective in the ongoing hysteria.)

              Agree, Sweden looks better with the day. France not so much. Expect thousands dying there within weeks. (Yes, I have intelligence on the ground there but right now prefer to rely on stats that are widely published and on my knowledge of how the virus proceeds.) See worldometer for country breakdowns; it’s trivial to see what’s going to unfold there in the next few weeks.

              • indeed, the long-covid problem should not be exaggerated.
                Funny to hear you quote Rabee Tourky on this blog. Doesn’t happen often :-) But he was quite right. Some male economic professors in Australia, and particularly in Melbourne, have behaved disgracefully towards Gigi. I have been surprised that prominent female economics professors like Alison Booth have not spoken out against it.

              • I suspect that post viral conditions in general are a bit more common than its generally thought.
                For example we now know that most cervical cancers are a post viral condition.

      • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

        that is not bullying.

        Mate these criticism do not even approach abuse.

        If Paul was on Q&A do you really think the criticism would be any different

        • Saupreiss says:

          Let me repeat:

          As one observer noted, “Other economists have similar opinions to Gigi yet don’t seem to attract the type of vitriol she is receiving right now.”
          And as another observer noted, “What debate? The boys are attempting to impose consensus through vitriol.”

          Yes, it is bullying. And the torrent of abuse directed at Foster was extraordinary.

          I can provide dozens of additional examples of that kind, some worse, … I frankly do not care what you consider abuse – it’s irrelevant what some troll on CT thinks.

          Those observers got it right; you, not so much.

          • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

            complete and utter bollocks.
            Why do you think show was on Q&A. She has strong opinions and rarelyy if ever admits mistakes as we all saw.

            Mind you you think saying addressing a woman as Ms in insulting.

            • Saupreiss says:

              I let others decide what who is the bullshitter here. You certainly are not the one in a position to judge.

              • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

                Of course I am but then you would say that is bullying.

                you have yet to admit the term M/s is not insulating or anything like that.

                you can do that now however I am not holding my breath.

  7. Sebastian Rushworth M.D. works in the emergency room of one of Stockholms Hospitals . His front-line view is that Sweden has achieved herd immunity.

    …Well, as things stand now, I haven’t seen a single covid patient in the Emergency Room in over two and a half months. People have continued to become ever more relaxed in their behaviour, which is noticeable in increasing volumes in the Emergency Room. At the peak of the pandemic in April, I was seeing about half as many patients per shift as usual, probably because lots of people were afraid to go the ER for fear of catching covid. Now volumes are back to normal.

    When I sit in the tube on the way to and from work, it is packed with people. Maybe one in a hundred people is choosing to wear a face mask in public. In Stockholm, life is largely back to normal. If you look at the front pages of the tabloids, on many days there isn’t a single mention of covid anywhere. As I write this (19th September 2020) the front pages of the two main tabloids have big spreads about arthritis and pensions. Apparently arthritis and pensions are currently more exciting than covid-19 in Sweden.

    In spite of this relaxed attitude, the death rate has continued to drop. When I wrote the first article, I wrote that covid had killed under 6,000 people. How many people have died now, six weeks later? Actually, we’re still at under 6,000 deaths. On average, one to two people per day are dying of covid in Sweden at present, and that number continues to drop.

    In the hospital where I work, there isn’t a single person currently being treated for covid. In fact, in the whole of Stockholm, a county with 2,4 million inhabitants, there are currently only 28 people being treated for covid in all the hospitals combined. At the peak, in April, that number was over 1,000. If 28 people are currently in hospital, out of 2,4 million who live in Stockholm, that means the odds of having a case of covid so severe that it requires in-hospital treatment are at the moment about one in 86,000…

    Full article :

  8. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    Sweden does not come close to herd immunity which most specialists put at at least 70% of the population.

    Sweden might be more relaxed but google stats on what people are doing do not show that.

  9. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    Should have added this on Herd Immunity.

    Oh and as Nick has pointed out the counterfactual to Dreyfus is very easy.

    On the other hand the counterfactual to the lockdowns is all over the place.

    Remembering of course the allegation is recessions mean this.
    When they are wrong such as on suicides they never correct themselves.
    Moreover a lot of the time a number of measures are not this recession compared to the last two recessions.

  10. Victoria’s most powerful bureaucrat has admitted he does not know why private guards were used as security in hotel quarantine, as a string of officials continue to claim ignorance on the issue.
    Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles was personally offered ADF support in April, but he cannot remember if he told those in charge of the bungled program.
    A second wave of COVID-19 and a six month time frame has not jogged anyone’s memory on who made the decision to use private security guards.

    Victoria the state with Australia’s most centralised and most chaotic management has system has had the worst outcomes , by miles. That is no accident.

  11. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    John it would pay you to actually read what I said.

    If you had you would acknowledge he did not address the two crucial questions he is writing about.

  12. Chris Lloyd says:

    Sweden’s outcome is clearly evidence that stage 4 lockdown is not the only way to keep deaths to an acceptable level. The reason is less clear.

    I am fascinated by Spain, France and the UK at the moment. Their infections have steadily increased by an order of magnitude of the past month, without any real increase in deaths. France are having 14000 infections per day and around 20 deaths. Victoria got up to 700 infections per day with a similar number of deaths. One recent article suggested that Europe now has a less virulent strain. If they do, and if it confers immunity other strains, it might be worth opening our borders to French tourists! ;)

    • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

      what is an acceptable level?

      • Chris Lloyd says:

        I was obviously referring to their recent death rates, rather than the initial wave. But your question deserved an answer.

        First, you have to define what a Covid death is. Dying with covid (in which case car accidents with infected individuals would count) or dying from Covid. This last is hard to estimate. Then you have the idea of excess deaths. I would say an acceptable number of excess deaths is a modest number, certainly greater than zero, because there is a cost in freedom and livelihood to the community. What number is where you get the economists to calculate QALYs.

        But you have to take into account death rates in previous years as well. It it now clear (from peer reviewed research by David Speiglehalter) that those countries with higher excess deaths had lower than expected death rates the previous year – the so-called “dry tinder” effect.

        So what is your acceptable number? I really hope your comment was not rhetorically suggesting zero lives lost because all human life is sacrosanct. In this case, you are duty bound to impose a 5km statewide speed limit on all vehicles. But I think you were probably referring to Sweden’s total death rate being high.

    • Saupreiss says:

      I remain intrigued by Sweden.

      They now have negative excess deaths:

      I talked earlier today with a colleague in Paris who said the situation was fairly normal; he also suggested that the current strain is milder than initial ones. We’ll see number of death clearly increase (as it should 3 – 4 weeks after cases started to increase exponentially … the second wave is much stronger and I fear France will add thousands of deaths to their toll.

      The UK is just fucked up – populist leaders that deny science make that happen.

      Other interesting cases to watch are Germany, Austria, Czechia and Slovakia.

      • Saupreiss

        Another intriguing thing is the huge difference between Milan and Rome, same country ,both fairly densely populated and not that far apart yet they could have been on different planets.

        The UKs unbelievable decision to effectively force aged care facilities to accept transfers from hospitals of untested patients played a big part in their outcomes.

        • Saupreiss says:

          Agree about Milan and Rome – interesting divergence.

          I think what is clear is that what happened in Lombardy broke out in the open after it was allowed to circulate for weeks in the community (including that ill-fated Atalanta – Valencia Champion league game.) Rome was pre-warned quite effectively by horrifying pix from Bergamo and surroundings …

  13. Dugald says:

    How much of the population of Sweden was infected to achieve herd immunity. That’s the big question. The total infection fatality rate of 0.25% seems to have support in the epidemiology community, and seems fairly stable across countries. If we divide 6000 deaths in Sweden by 0.25% we get 2.4m people infected. And dividing by 10.2m population suggests a herd immunity threshold of 24%.

    • Gather that the thinking is that Resistance to infection comes from more things than just antibodies and that effective herd immunity doesn’t necessarily need 60 percent or more of the population.

      Its an open question. The Swedes view seems to has always been that this is a long term thing so measures need to be sustainable long term .

      Point is there is no evidence that severe long term lockdowns have actually produced better outcomes.
      Rather it seems that countries that had not forgotten about infectious diseases I.e. east Asia and therefore were better prepared did better.
      And in the west particularly bad outcomes seem to relate to how centralised and chaotic their government systems were I.e. the UK and in Australia, Victoria ,have had particularly bad times

    • Dugald
      I think the swedes (like everyone) believed that the more widely socially active you are, the more likely you are to contract and spread the virus.
      However the Swedes then thought widely socially active maps strongly to being young and in reasonably good health: at low risk of serious outcomes from infection. Therefore if the people who are most likely to contract the virus and spread it – they probably are about 20 percent of the total population- get infected and develop resistance then that should effectively give us herd immunity. ( The swedes also openly acknowledge that in hindsight they didn’t pay nearly enough attention to barrier nursing in aged care facilities)

      To use my terms a landscape where the very flammable trees are spaced widely apart and most of the vegetation- fuel loads, between those scattered very flammable trees is not very flammable, is a landscape where fire regimes will be quite mild easy to live with. ( And that as a result of indigenous management practices, was the condition of bulk of the SE Australian landmass in 1788)

    • Sounds about right to me. The important addition is that many Swedes (maybe 20% or so) had some prior immunity (those famous T-cells) such that they would have shrugged off the virus much quicker than others. Populations that have a lower or higher proportion with prior immunity will have a different herd immunity threshold. Japan/China/Taiwan probably have a lot more with prior immunity (since these viruses often come from that part of the world), Latin America a lot less. That insight is yet to be confirmed with studies, but I am willing to bet that’s what we’ll be saying a few months from now.

      The issue of prior immunity also means one might want to count some of those as having been “infected” too, but then not in a way that is noticeable ex-post because they got rid of the virus so quickly. Yet many will have been exposed.
      So the definition of “infected” is not streightforward.

  14. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    as small as possible.
    Your analogy is poor. People get the virus through people who are usually unaware they have the virus.
    I have the choice of reducing risk by avoiding people who may have it.
    This appears to be occurring now where those who are susceptible to the virus are trying to avoid and those who are not appear not to care.
    This is a natural reaction and another reason why Herd immunity is only ever a bad theory.

    • Chris Lloyd says:

      “As small as possible.” That means zero. Feel free to engage with the points people are making.

      BTW: Herd immunity is not a theory. It is a fact. We will ultimately get herd immunity to this and all diseases, whether by vaccine or not. You apparently mean “a policy whereby we aim for herd immunity” but it seems that you cannot be bothered writing complete and coherent sentences, or even beginning them with capitals. And before you respond in outrage, my mentioning herd immunity does not imply any recommendation.

      • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

        As small as possible means just that.

        Sorry but no fact.

        Legal obligations and peoples behaviour would stop it occurring.

        no country has tried it and no country is likely to.

        In sweden it never came close to 70% and they were also taking measures to protect themselves as well

  15. This from the Economist seems on the money:
    “.. Yet, in the best of all possible worlds, the pandemic will remain a part of daily life well into 2021. Even if a vaccine emerges, nobody expects it to be 100% effective. Protection may be temporary or weak in the elderly, whose immune systems are less responsive. Making and administering billions of doses will take much of next year. Early vaccines may well need two shots, and complex “cold chains” to keep fresh. Medical glass could run short. There may be fights over who gets supplies first, leaving pools of infection among those who cannot elbow their way to the front of the queue. Multi-country polls suggest that a quarter of adults (including half of Russians) would refuse vaccination—another reason why the disease may persist.

    Hence for the foreseeable future the first line of defence against covid-19 will remain testing and tracing, social distancing and clear government communication. There is no mystery about what this involves. And yet countries like America, Britain, Israel and Spain persist in getting it disastrously wrong.

    One problem is the desire to escape a trade-off between shutting down to keep people alive and staying open so that life goes on. The right lauds Sweden for supposedly letting the virus rip while it makes a priority of the economy and liberty. But Sweden has a fatality rate of 58.1 per 100,000 and saw gdp fall by 8.3% in the second quarter alone, worse on both counts than Denmark, Finland and Norway. The left lauds New Zealand, which has shut down to save lives. It has suffered only 0.5 deaths per 100,000, but in the second quarter its economy shrank by 12.2%. By contrast, Taiwan remained more open but has seen 0.03 deaths per 100,000 and a 1.4% fall in gdp.

    Blanket lockdowns like the new one in Israel are a sign that policy has failed. They are costly and unsustainable. Countries like Germany, South Korea and Taiwan have used fine-grained testing and tracing to spot individual super-spreading venues and slow the spread using quarantines. Germany identified abattoirs; South Korea contained outbreaks in a bar and churches. If testing is slow, as in France, it will fail. If contact-tracing is not trusted, as in Israel, where the job fell to the intelligence services, people will evade detection.

    Governments must identify the trade-offs that make most economic and social sense. Masks are cheap and convenient and they work. Opening schools, as in Denmark and Germany, should be a priority; opening noisy, uninhibited places like bars should not. Governments, like Britain’s, that bark out a series of ever-changing orders which are broken with impunity by their own officials will find that compliance is low. Those, like British Columbia’s, that set principles and invite individuals, schools and workplaces to devise their own plans for realising them, will be able to sustain the effort in the months ahead.

    When covid-19 struck, governments were taken by surprise and pulled the emergency brake. Today they have no such excuse. In the rush to normality, Spain let down its guard. Britain’s testing is not working, though cases have been climbing since July. America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, once the world’s most respected public-health body, has been plagued by errors, poor leadership and presidential denigration. Israel’s leaders fell victim to hubris and infighting. The pandemic is far from over. It will abate, but governments must get a grip. ”

    • Saupreiss says:

      Much right here but too early in my view to compare for example Sweden and Denmark. Some of the original posterkids of how to handle the pandemic are now smack in the middle of a second wave (Germany has only a couple of days ago added Denmark to its list of hotspots).

      Agree that Germany seems to do ok in finding some balance … notwithstanding the fact that its close neighbor, France, is spinning completely out of control.

      • Dugald says:

        Total (all cause) mortality in France is 1650 deaths per day. And currently covid represents around 50 of them.

      • Saupreiss at some risk of stereotyping, the Germans are famously experienced ,good at designing, engineering and manufacturing complex machines. Could it be that nations-cultures that are particularly experienced in building and operating complex systems of that kind (i.e. ones where failure is ,mostly, too obvious to ignore ) are the ones that have handled this whole biz better?

        • Saupreiss says:

          Fair enuff, JRW. There is that although they did lose a couple world wars, didn’t they? I vaguely remember that from high school.

          I think the more important thing is that the German public discourse was not hi-jacked by a vitriolic cabal of shouters that temporartily lost their trade-off marbles.

          And it really came in handy that Merkel was at the helm and that there were some public-health types like Drosten providing a lot of calm and competent guidance and also that the health system is decentralized with many sites for example doing the testing and processing tests. So, a number of things came together favorably – it was not just Germany’s design and manufacturing prowess.

    • so basically still sitting on the sidelines. They were among the panicking I recall.

    A very centralised ,micro managing system where ,nobody in particular is responsible for anything in particular. Contracts worth about $80 million were issued and nobody knows who did it.

  17. Open letter from medical doctors and health professionals to all belgian authorities and all belgian media.

    September 5th 2020

    We, Belgian doctors and health professionals, wish to express our serious concern about the evolution of the situation in the recent months surrounding the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We call on politicians to be independently and critically informed in the decision-making process and in the compulsory implementation of corona-measures. We ask for an open debate, where all experts are represented without any form of censorship. After the initial panic surrounding covid-19, the objective facts now show a completely different picture – there is no medical justification for any emergency policy anymore.
    The current crisis management has become totally disproportionate and causes more damage than it does any good.
    We call for an end to all measures and ask for an immediate restoration of our normal democratic governance and legal structures and of all our civil liberties.

    • Chris Lloyd says:

      Hi John, I started reading the Belgian Doctor’s letter and got to the part about lockdown. I simply do not buy the suggestion that lockdown does not work. of course it works. Less contacts means less spread. You can argue that the costs are too high and you can argue that it just delays the inevitable. But don’t tell me that it does not work. So I am unmotivated to read the rest of what they have to say. I was trying to recall when the Melbourne restrictions were brought in and what the rates were. Rather then rely on my memory I downloaded the daily infections and added in the dates. HERE is the graph I produced. You should probably look ahead two weeks to see the effect. This suggests that the first lockdown was failing and the second one was successful. Though which elements of the second one are responsibility is anyone’s guess.

      • Hi Chris
        Obviously massively restricting movements will have an effect, however this virus is likely to be with us for a long time to come so unless we lockdown for possibly more than a year, lockdowns are not a viable solution to : how to live with it.

        My impression was that those Belgium Mds were not talking about the ‘one size fits all’ policies that were adopted early on when we knew a lot less than we do now, rather they were protesting about continuing crude inefficient and inhumane policies

      • Nicholas Gruen says:


        For someone like me, trying to get my bearings from people who’ve spent more time looking at the data and the debate than me, I tune out when I get to claims like that. They’re ridiculous. Like arguing that we’re not sure if parachutes work because there’s been no credible RCT.

        Paul dragged up a wing-nut from the US early on in this process who cited ‘studies’ from the Wall St Journal that weren’t written up anywhere and parroted the stuff about lockdowns not working.

        Imposed rigorously enough, of course they work – as parachutes and speed limits do. The only question is at what cost.

        Here’s another of the world’s best applied economists contributing to the panic.

        Trying to keep the economy humming while the virus runs rampant is a “short-term-ist perspective” with long-term costs, he says.

        A scenario in which Covid is never corralled the way it has been in some countries in Europe and Asia haunts Chetty. “It’s not going to be a sustained recovery. There’s just no way,” he says. “We’re going to be stuck trying to go along and accept a fair number of Covid infections and deaths and muddle our way through until finally there’s a vaccine.”

        Time for the ‘sceptics’ to brush up on their counterfactuals.

        • Wheres the evidence , globally, that shows that the more severe and prolonged the lockdowns, the better the outcomes? ( and please no special pleading that ‘the Japanese etc’ are ‘cleaner’ ).

          The virus isn’t going away anytime soon .
          So its; what and how you handle things after, lockdown(s) ends that matters, unless your happy with being in a state of ‘more lock-down than not’ for god knows how long to come.

        • BTW if ‘works’ is all that matters, then eliminating all cellular life also definitely works.

        • paul frijters says:

          I think both you and Chris are being childish about this and unwilling to engage with where the Belgian doctors are coming from.

          Belgium has had one of the longest and harshest lockdowns in Europe, and its highest covid deathtoll per million. Clearly the kind of lockdown they had in the situation they had didnt work. That’s a big thing you cant just shrug your shoulders about. Can you understand that from what they have experienced your instant dismissal of their assertion is just silly? Do you think it fair they should put caveats in place for the sensitivities of a foreign audience in a letter that calls on the Belgian population?

          You have a different type of lockdown in mind in a different situation. Maybe the one you have in mind would have at least reduced the covid death toll in Belgium too.

          What types of lockdowns are there and what circumstances matter? When they are imposed, how many are already infected, the prior immunity in the population, what arrangements there are for hospitals and care homes. Etc. The lockdown regime in the UK was probably worse than no lockdown at all because the UK variety meant covid patients were sent back to the carehomes where they infected everyone else there. The loss from just that avenue alone is probably more than simply not doing anything. If you lockdown in a situation where you have no cases in hospitals that same lockdown would not have had that effect. Etc.

          Just blandly setting aside the letter of the Belgian doctors who have seen tens of thousands of patients suffer from the lock downs because they use the word lockdown in a way you dont like is not conducive to understanding what is going on.

          Time to brush up on your counterfactual of their lockdown!

        • Re parachutes sure the work better than jumping without one , if bailing out is your only option. Insider a more nuanced question:
          your on a plane at 30 thousand feet somewhere over the Pacific and you have a parachute .
          The planes got an engine problem ,things are a bit dodgy but it’s still flying the airframe is holding together and it probably can get to a island airfield with emergency services standing by the runway.

          If you decide to bailout you will definitely safely parachute down but then be floating around in a tiny inflatable in the middle of a vast ocean . If you stay on the plane it probably ( no certainty)will make it. What would you choose to do?

        • Saupreiss says:

          “Last month, a couple days after former Vice President Joe Biden selected California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, Chetty briefed the pair over video, presenting data that demonstrated lower-income workers were bearing the brunt of the Covid recession.
          His chart showed that by April, the bottom quarter of wage earners, those making less than $27,000 a year, had lost almost 11 million jobs, more than three times the number lost by the top quarter, which earn more than $60,000 annually.

          By late June the gap had widened further, even though many businesses had reopened. In fact, the segment of Americans who are paid best had recovered almost all the jobs lost since the start of the pandemic. “The recession has essentially ended for high-income individuals,” Chetty told Biden and Harris. Meanwhile, the bottom half of American workers represented almost 80% of the jobs still missing.

          Even as the better-off watched employment rebound and the stock market surge, the virus’s economic devastation was all around them, in shuttered restaurants, hair salons, and gyms. It was no longer possible to ignore the economic chasms that separated people who used to live and work alongside one another. “That creates this very local feel to the recession,” Chetty says.”

          That’s pretty much what Paul predicted in March, no?

          • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

            well no,
            He was talking about Australia and the government support measures nullified that criticism.
            Mind you that is what occurs in most recessions.

            It would happen under the Fritjers/Foster scenario where the economy slows for various reasons but there is no government support, rent and mortgage ‘relief’ either.

            As john Quiggin has said, there is not a lot of difference with the economy slowing but with no massive Government.

            In a very ironic twist the very things they say would occur under the present recession would possibly be worse under their vague scenario
            so yes no is correct

      • “first lockdown was failing and the second one was successful.”
        Though which elements of the second one are responsibility is anyone’s guess.”
        Chris we know that 99 percent of the second wave came from the quarantine management failures and the subsequent failure to get track test and tracing going quickly enough when the ‘leak’ into the wider community was still fairly small.

        Who was responsible for that interests me not.

        Rather its the mounting evidence that Victoria’s systems are just so good at forgetting, that they therefore intrinsically have little chance of learning how to get better at what they are supposed to do, that’s what causes lack of sleep.

        • Chris Lloyd says:

          You seem to have misread my post because of slight typo. “First lockdown was failing and the second one was successful. Though which elements of the second lockdown are responsible for the reduced infections is anyone’s guess.”

          It looks like stage 3 was not working. They added all sorts of things in stage 4. Which of these additions were successful? Dan supporters claim that the reduced infection rates justify everything in stage 4 – including his choice of tie.

  18. Dugald says:

    Were any of the pro-lockdown folks here arguing for lockdowns in 2017 when the flu season in Australia killed 6 times as many people as covid ?

    • Chris Lloyd says:

      You are making a valid point about consistency of policy with respect to different health threats. However, you are comparing Covid WITH lockdown with flu WITHOUT lockdown. So your comparison of stats is meaningless. If we had had a very poor response as in the US then we could have had about 15,000 deaths. With no lockdown at all, way more. The fatality rate and infection rate of Covid is much higher than flu. And it also causes heart problems in younger folks.

      There are no binary choices here. It is all trade-offs. I think Dan has got the balance wrong and is wrong right now in the conservative relaxation.

      One good outcome of this year is that we might think more carefully about public health in the future.

      • “ One good outcome of this year is that we might think more carefully about public health in the future.”
        Amen to that.

        • Saupreiss says:

          Yes, Amen to that.
          But fat chance that. As it is, one would have hoped that there would have been some preparedness for some such virus … Clearly, countries such as Taiwan or South Korea were better prepared.

          • Probably sadly true.

            For example, the royal commission into the fires has been almost completely forgotten and I expect that its recommendations will be largely forgotten ignored within a year or two – just like every royal commission since Leonard Stretton’s royal commission into the 1939 black Friday disaster.

            And ditto for things like this NSW auditor-generals report :

            The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has not effectively supported or overseen town water infrastructure planning in regional NSW since at least 2014. It has also lacked a strategic, evidence-based approach to target investments in town water infrastructure


  19. The reason for Victoria’s second lockdown is the mismanagement of the hotel quarantine.
    From the leader of Victoria’s opposition:

    “ From lunchtime Friday afternoon, when Andrews specifically acknowledged the national cabinet agreement that the ADF would be engaged, until 0001 hours Sunday, 29 March – someone with the delegated authority to commit the state of Victoria to a $30M commitment approved a non-contestable, non-tendered contract with an unknown, untested and frankly dodgy company.

    Sound like fertile ground for a motivated corruption commission?”

  20. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    Most of the deaths in both Aged Care and hospitals can be put down to incorrect use of PPE.
    Not just here but O/S as well

  21. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    Lockdowns do not work.
    Victoria is showing that in spades

    • The Economist is correct: “Blanket lockdowns like the new one in Israel are a sign that policy has failed. They are costly and unsustainable.”

      During all this NSW got on top of it and has driven community cases down to virtually zero because its systems-policy are fit for purpose, not because it put most of the population under house arrest or by handcuffing pregnant women in their own hands.

      BTW In the case of snakebite is true that prompt amputation of the bitten limb also ‘works’ as a treatment.

    • Saupreiss says:

      “Stage 3 restrictions and masks ‘enough’, expert says
      Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, said stage 3 restrictions plus the use of masks should be enough to stem the spread of the virus.
      ‘Our data showed us that we started not only flattening the curve but started to push it down with stage 3 [restrictions] plus masks before we even saw the effects of stage 4,’ she said.
      She said there was a risk people would disengage if they were stuck in stage 4 longer, especially if the Government could not give data-driven explanations for decisions such as hairdressers being allowed to stay open but gyms being forced to stay closed.
      ‘I think we only had to go through stage 4 this time because people weren’t fully engaged with stage 3,’ she said.
      ‘And so they brought in stage 4, which was really getting us to a similar level of compliance as we had with stage 3 in April.
      ‘It worries me that stage 4 will start to look like stage 3 again in terms of the effectiveness of it.
      ‘But we still will have businesses that are closed, that are hurting, and we’ve now got stage 4 in place for an even longer period.’
      Professor Bennett said she was disappointed by the roadmap.
      She said if two thirds of Victoria’s cases were still coming from aged care and health care, ‘we’re basically holding all of Melbourne in lockdown’ in order to close those cases down and stop the infections spreading into the wider community.
      ‘It strikes me that they weren’t basing these decisions on classic public health risk assessment,’ she said.”…/covid19-roadmap…/12634942

      • Chris Lloyd says:

        Here is a graph I produced. It looks nothing like the commentary Bennet makes. I added the lockdown dates and labels myself. Perhaps I got it wrong. Certainly, one of us is.

        • Chris Ive seen a lot of these kinds of graphs . More often than not the drop in cases happens too quickly after the introduction of stage 4.
          John Snow the founding father of epidemiology is famous for correctly realising that typhoid was down to contaminated water. However the drop in cases after he famously removed the handle from the Broad Street pump happened too quickly for his action to have been the reason that particular typhoid epidemic ended.

          • Chris Lloyd says:

            Do you think stage 3 was working based on my graph? I have another version where I move the dates 2 weeks later. It was not working. Probably because people were not complying.

  22. Chris Nicholas
    Those Belgian medicos that you disparage are on the frontline.
    When reports from the frontline repeatedly contradict the theory’s of experts , i assume until evidence convincing to the contrary, that the experts are no more a club for the right kind of chap.

  23. From the AFR
    “Despite the low and declining case numbers, Mr Andrews instead talks alarmingly of how the virus “will run wild if we just let this go”. This suggests that six months after the onset of the pandemic, the Victorian health department’s contact testing and tracing system is still not up to the task of emulating NSW’s successful suppression strategy of keeping on top of hotspots so that the economy can safely stay open, without the need for a return to severe and damaging lockdowns.”

    That systemic inability to learn ,get better at doing what must be done very well is the real problem.

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