COVID-19: light at the end of the tunnel for some countries

Tomorrow, Switzerland will relax its social distancing regime. Classroom teaching at primary and lower secondary schools will again be permitted. Shops, markets, museums, libraries, gyms and restaurants will be able to reopen under strict compliance with precautionary measures. Switzerland has had the 10th highest death rate per million people but has been one of the few high death rate countries to successfully control the epidemic. See the plot for Switzerland below.

I just watched the UK’s Churchill tribute act, aka Boris, give a speech to the nation on the phased easing of restrictions, which is conditional on the reproduction rate R remaining below 1. It apparently is somewhere between 0.5 and 0.9, and even partial easing could easily kick it over 1 (restarting exponential growth). Apart from England, the other three governments are all maintaining current social isolation rules. From tomorrow, workers who cannot work from home should return to work, but try not to use public transport to get there. Primary schools won’t open until at least the beginning of June, and restaurants etc not till July. From the UK plot above, its clear that a much more cautious and conditional easing is definitely desirable.

I have to say that Boris, with his hair neatly combed (!!), actually made what I thought was a quite good speech, with strong emphasis that the government would be guided by data feedback and by the science, by a reasonably sincere expression of empathy for the sacrifices and difficulties of many, and by strong expression of the need for community solidarity. The contrast with the clown show across the Atlantic was quite marked.

The plots above separate New York and the rest of the USA. The timing and size of the epidemic is different in these, but more importantly, it shows the very different time trends. New York is past its (current) peak and on the way to controlling the epidemic. The rest of the USA has not peaked, and cases and deaths continue to rise. Absolutely not the time to start relaxing social distancing in New York, let alone the rest of the country.

Australia (and New Zealand) acted early to implement social distancing, and have done as well as China and South Korea in controlling their epidemics. And they are now relaxing social distancing rules as well.

My professional blog has a post with plots for more countries, and some further explanation of the plots and data.

COVID-19 short-run projections

Its now one month since my earlier post on the coronavirus pandemic    A lot has changed since then. We have gone from 24,392 deaths globally on March 26 to 206,915 on April 26th. And recent analysis of total registered deaths by week in February and March, compared to the same periods in the previous year, suggest that the reported deaths (mostly hospital deaths) are only about 70% of the actual deaths. The proportion of deaths reported in developing countries without good death registration (including most of Africa, and much of Asia) will be even lower.

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Buddhism without beliefs

My son has been reading the existentialists, starting with Camus (of course, The Plague is quite relevant for more than one reason now). He recently moved on to Kierkegaard, who took a form of Christianity as a solution to existential angst. I was reminded of a book I read probably 15 years ago, by Stephen Batchelor: Buddhism Without Beliefs (London: Bloomsbury 1997) which argued that the Buddha was concerned with addressing the existential issue of suffering not with metaphysics and beliefs.  I couldn’t find my copy of this, and bought another, which I enjoyed reading even more than the first time.

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COVID-19: the big picture

Today Switzerland became the country with the highest rate of confirmed cases of corona virus per million population. Well, that is if you ignore some micro-populations such as the Vatican City, San Marino, Andorra and Faeroe Islands. Why?  It is landlocked with Italy, France and Germany around it. It did not close the border between Ticino and Italy for cross-border workers and many live in Italy were the virus spread rapidly. Also, it was the height of the ski season and alpine resorts were crowded with skiers from all over Europe, Britain and beyond. Here is a graph I did yesterday comparing confirmed cases per million population  for the thirty leading countries (excluding small countries with population less than one million. Data are from at 13.11 GMT on March 24. A this point Switzerland had not yet overtaken Italy.

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Becoming Human Part 1

Our understanding of the evolution of us modern humans has changed dramatically in the last few years as ancient genomes are decoded and we discover that humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans interbred, and also in the remote past interbred with previously unknown “superarchaic” human groups.  Scientists are also discovering new species of extinct hominids, and no doubt will continue to shed further light on our origins. Just to try to sort out the big picture in my own mind and to put these various discoveries in context, I’ve tried to summarize what we think we know, or at least what the evidence available to date suggests. This will no doubt continue to change.

This is the first of two posts and summarizes the evolution of pre-human species from the first monkeys around 35 million years ago (Mya) to the appearance of the first human species around 2 Mya. A following post will summarize the evolution of humans from the appearance of the first human species Homo habilis 2 Mya to the appearance of anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens around 250 thousand years ago and  mitochondrial Eve, who lived around 178,000 years ago.

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Is freedom increasing or decreasing?

Last week, Freedom House released its 2020 annual report on global freedom. The report documents trends in every region of the world of declining political and civil freedom: “In every region of the world, democracy is under attack by populist leaders and groups that reject pluralism and demand unchecked power to advance the particular interests of their supporters, usually at the expense of minorities and other perceived foes.”

The report compiles a freedom index for countries based on an average of two indices for political rights and civil liberties, composed of numerical ratings and descriptive texts for each country. The 2020 index adds to a time series for countries that extends back to 1972.  I’m interested to see to what extent the time series upholds the view of Stephen Pinker that there has been sustained long-term improvement in both political rights and human rights globally and this will continue (Enlightenment Now, Chapters 13 and 14).

The graph below shows time trends for the number of countries falling into three broad categories of the freedom index, labelled as Free (green shades), Partly free (orange shades) and Not free (purple shades). The graph includes 185 countries. 11 very small countries with populations less than 90,000 in 2015 are not included.

Trends in numbers of countries by broad freedom category

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Australia appears to be committing climate suicide

Media across the world have been publishing articles and photos on the catastrophic bushfires in Australia. Richard Flanagan, a well-known Australian author, published an opinion piece in the New York Times two days ago, which fairly accurately summarized the impact of the fires and the complete inadequacy of the government and political response (Australia Is Committing Climate Suicide).

Mogo, a town on the NSW south coast has been devastated by bushfires. One Mogo resident watched his 92 year old father’s house burning next door. At the time of taking this photo, he wasn’t sure where his father was. Credit: James Brickwood

Here are some quotes from the article:

“Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world-heritage rain forests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen.       …….

“The fires have already burned about 14.5 million acres — an area almost as large as West Virginia, more than triple the area destroyed by the 2018 fires in California and six times the size of the 2019 fires in Amazonia. Canberra’s air on New Year’s Day was the most polluted in the world partly because of a plume of fire smoke as wide as Europe.

“Scientists estimate that close to half a billion native animals have been killed and fear that some species of animals and plants may have been wiped out completely. Surviving animals are abandoning their young in what is described as mass “starvation events.” At least 18 people are dead and grave fears are held about many more. …..”

A deceased horse on a property on the outskirts of Cobargo, a town on the NSW south coast that was devastated by bushfires at New Year. Credit: James Brickwood

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Ad Astra

Having just seen a standout performance by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I was keen to see his latest film Ad Astra.  I saw some rave reviews by film critics that perhaps raised my expectations a little too much, because while I enjoyed the film I had some problems with it also. Here is a quote from one review: “In a mesmerizing, minimalist performance, Pitt forms the gravitational center of a film that takes its place in the firmament of science fiction films by fearlessly quoting classics of the genre (as well as those outside it)”.

It pays homage to many classic science fiction and other films, and the central journey to Uranus is very reminiscent of 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Brad does give a great “minimalist” performance as the icily competent, pathologically controlled astronaut, Roy McBride, whose heart rate never rises above 80 beats per minute, even in the opening sequence when he is falling from near space out of control, after an accident on the world’s tallest antenna.

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