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Reflections on the 'Year of Living on the Edge' with COVID-19

By Ramesh Thakur and David Redman - posted Tuesday, 2 March 2021

On 18 February, SKY News UK trumpeted: "Lockdown is working! COVID-19 infection rate plummets in England." Yet, as Figure 1 shows, voluntary social distancing in Sweden resulted in an earlier and faster decline of COVID-19 deaths per capita. Another interesting feature of the chart is how the curves are policy-invariant, mimicking one another regardless of policy interventions between the various countries. The virus infection, hospitalisation, and mortality curves seem to rise and fall by seasons independently of lockdowns.

Figure 1: The UK, EU, and Sweden


Source: Our World in Data.

A year ago, Western countries began adopting lockdown policies. To mark the anniversary, we would like to raise four analytical puzzles. The first is why abstract models have proven so seductive. On 13 February, the sober and responsible Economist magazine said "the pandemic threatened to take more than 150 million lives." It gave no source or explanation for this Spanish Flu-like estimate. Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London (ICL) has a notorious track record of catastrophic predictions out by orders of magnitude on foot and mouth disease, mad cow disease, bird flu, and swine flu. The ICL model of 16 March 2020 on COVID-19 and others copying its methodology too proved wildly inaccurate on both worst and best case estimates of COVID-19 deaths with respect to the UK, US, Sweden, and even Australia. As well, on 19 February, Canadian health officials couldn't explain to a parliamentary health committee the basis for modelling-based forecasts from chief health officer Dr Theresa Tam that showed a rocket lift-off-like vertical trajectory (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Canada's Rocket Model

Source: Toronto Sun, 20 February 2021.

The second is why countries have persisted with a policy whose many harms are far easier to demonstrate than benefits. If lockdowns worked, Sweden would have a higher death rate than the worst-hit European countries, and Florida would be far worse off than locked-down California, New York, and many more states. Data indicates the opposite. On 11 February, Governor Ron DeSantis pointed out that since December, Florida ranked 28th among US states on cases, 38th on hospitalisations, and 42nd on deaths per capita. In an MSNBC interview on 17 February, President Joe Biden's COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt visibly struggled to explain comparable outcomes for lockdown California and no-lockdown Florida, stating "that's just a little beyond our explanation."


Governments are prone to use the worst-performing countries as benchmarks to pat their own backs. Thus, Canada's 570 COVID-19 deaths per million (DPM) compares very favourably to the 1,535 DPM in the US, but Canada is 80 percent above the world average of 317 DPM, and significantly worse than many Asian countries (Figure 3). Australia's 35 DPM is spectacular in comparison to the tolls in Europe and the Americas, but in the mid-range of the Asia-Pacific statistics (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Canada in Global Perspective

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This article was first published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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About the Authors

Ramesh Thakur is a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and a Canadian as well as Australian citizen, is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

David Redman is a retired Canadian Army Lt. Col and a former head of Emergency Management Alberta.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Ramesh Thakur
All articles by David Redman

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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