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.

The true number of cases will be much higher for most countries, depending on level of testing and availability/access to testing. And data for countries is being updated daily but at different times of day for various countries. The numbers on are quite similar to those on theJohns Hopkins website but seem to be updated slightly earlier and so are usually a little higher.

There is also a nice new site that plots time trends in cases and deaths, total numbers and rates per million population. The time axis is days since 100+ cases/deaths or days since 1 case/death per million population. I’ve included screenshots below of cases/million and deaths/million with Switzerland highlighted. The dotted straight line on the log scale represents a daily growth rate of 1.35 (35% more cases than day before). That corresponds to a doubling time of 2.31 days. Fortunately, most curves are showing some flattening after the first 10 days. Australia has a curve that corresponds to a daily growth rate of 1.2. That difference is huge. At a daily growth rate of 1.35, the first case becomes 3.2 million after 50 days, whereas at 1.2 it becomes 9,100.

The USA is on day 20 since 100 confirmed cases (or day 18 since 1 case/million) and is following the 1.35x line very closely so far. Unlike most other countries this far into the epidemic, it is not yet showing signs of slowing down. US total confirmed cases will likely overtake those of Italy and China by tomorrow or day after.

If you hover over a point on one of the country curves in the graphs on this site, you get growth rates for last day, week, 16 days. You can convert growth rate g (eg. 1.35) to doubling time in days by calculating log(2)/log(g) and the increase in total cases over d days as g to the power d.  Of course, these growth rates cannot continue unchanged. Either people will change their behaviour to socially isolate and more, if the bodies start piling up as happened in Italy, or the level of herd immunity will rise to the extent that the number of new infections caused by an infected person will drop lower. And that latter scenario will come with lots of deaths as well, particularly when health systems become overwhelmed.

Here in Geneva, we are on day 10 of social isolation. Staying home unless necessary to   work, or buy food, or other essential activities. No gathering of more than 5 people. Borders are now closed to all except cross-border workers and essential trips. Most border crossings are completely shut, and the three that are open are checking papers for every person and there are waits of hours to get across. All shops, gyms, restaurants, entertainment, ski resorts closed with the exception of food stores, petrol and pharmacies. Hairdressers are closed, unlike in Australia where they are considered essential for morale. I am also on day 7 of doing Wim Hof breathing. Who knows, it might even pep up my immune system.

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

The report’s methodology is derived in large measure from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The index is based on the premise that these standards apply to all countries and territories, and operates from the assumption that freedom for all people is best achieved in liberal democratic societies. The Freedom Index is an average of the scores for Political Rights and Civil Liberties and ranges from 1 (Free) to 7 (Not free). Three broad categories are defined as follows, and I’ve broken each into two subcategories for displaying trends in graphs here.

     Freedom Index       Category                Upper subgroup     Lower subgroup

            1.0 to 2.5            Free                         1.0                              1.5 – 2.5

            3.0 to 5.0            Partly Free            3.0 – 3.5                   4.0  – 5.0

            5.5 to 7.0            Not Free                 5.5 – 6.0                  6.5 – 7.0

The graph above shows numbers of countries by these three categories (and also distinguishing two levels within each category defined as show in the third column above. The following graph shows the proportion of the global population in each category, by weighting each country score by its total population.

Trends in proportions of global population by freedom category

Over the last 14 years, 25 of the 41 established democracies have experienced declines in their freedom indices. This can be see in the diminishing width of the green zone from around 2006. Though there is a long-term trend of increasing global freedom until around 2005-2010, this trend has ceased and there are declining levels of freedom in the last decade. Comparing changes in the freedom index between 2015 and 2020, the gap between setbacks and gains widened compared with 2018, as individuals in 44 countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties while those in just 24 experienced improvements. The negative pattern affected all regime types, but the impact was more visible near the top and the bottom of the freedom scale.

At the bottom of the scale, large countries like Russia and China are intensifying their suppression of domestic dissent and at the top of the scale many freely elected leaders are also taking steps to reduce existing human or political rughts. The Global Freedom Report notes that “such leaders—including the chief executives of the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies—are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas.”- The Freedom House Report goes into more detail about the trends and changes for individual countries in each region.

In the following graphs, I have plotted trends in the proportions of regional populations falling into each of the freedom categories. Because large populations dominate, and crossing one of the freedom thresholds will shift that entire population to another area, these graphs are more spikey than if I had plotted numbers of countries rather than people. For example, the large discontinuity in the purple sub-areas for East Asia and Pacific from 1977 to 1988 reflects the freedom score for China decreasing from 6.5 to 6 in that period. Similarly, the graph for North America shows the decrease in freedom from 2016 onwards in the USA with the index increasing one step from 1 to 1.5.

Finally, I also calculated a population-weighted average freedom score for regions and the world, shown in the following graph.  This also highlights the recent declines in freedom in most regions in recent years, but perhaps in a more comparative way than the regional plots above (where the population proportions relate only to the categories relevant to each region).

Is Pinker right that freedom is increasing and will continue to increase?  Maybe, he is taking a longer view than the last decade, and in the big picture there has been an overall increase in global freedom. But the reversal is worrying and may continue if populist responses continue to attack political and human rights, and humans increasingly turn away from evidence-based approaches to global issues such as pandemics, refugees, overpopulation, and the climate crisis.

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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The Manson murders and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

After watching Tarantino’s latest film, which I reviewed in my last post (once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood), I got out Helter-Skelter to read again. This is the absolutely riveting story of the Manson murders in Hollywood in 1969, the police investigation that followed, the trial and outcomes, written by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who meticulously investigated and prosecuted Manson and three female followers.

Warning: this post contains spoilers about the movieOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood”.Don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to.

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Myers-Briggs Personality Types

The US housewife and writer Katharine Cook Briggs with her daughter Isabel, the eventual creator of the test, c1905

I first came across the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) around 30 years ago. The MBTI was developed by Isabel Myers, a layman, and her mother Katherine Briggs, around the middle of the twentieth century.  They developed a questionnaire  that classified people into 16 types based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types, along with their own considerable experience of observing people in action, and some inspirational speculation. Jung’s theory was based on differences in the way that we prefer to use our mental capacities to function in the world – and Myers and Briggs simplified this to identify four dimensions of functioning preferences.  Their questionnaire and most others classify people’s preferences on these four dimensions and assign a letter based to each dimension based on which side of the middle-point you fall. The combinations of these letters result in 16 so-called “personality types”.

The Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) has become extremely popular and is a very widely used tool in management training. There are many variants of the questionnaire and of the type classification available for free online, as well as copyrighted versions used by management training companies and others.  It is estimated that since the 1960s, when the test began to be rolled out across the corporate world, more than 50 million people around the world are estimated to have taken it (A).

There are many free online variants of the MBTI, of varying quality. I give links to several that I have found useful.

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Skiing from Switzerland to France and back

I have recently been cleaning up old external drives that I’ve used over the years for backups and found a folder of photographs from a 2003 ski trip to Champèry. Champéry lies in a side valley of the Rhone valley under the Dents du Midi (“Teeth of Midday”) mountain range. Some of the photos really capture the beauty of skiing in this region, which is part of the Portes du Soleil (The Doors of the Sun). So I decided to put them up in this post. The Portes du Soleil is one of Europe’s two largest ski areas, around 1000 square kilometres, with 13 interconnected ski resorts and around 650 km of marked pistes, and includes Les Gets where we skied in February this year.

Looking down towards Champéry lying under the Dents du Midi on the other side of the valley

Continuing to head upwards from where the above photo was taken will bring you to the ridgeline which marks the Swiss border with France. Later in the day I skied down the other side into France and ended up in the Morzine valley, where I caught a chairlift back up to the top.

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Méribel mountain views

Some photos of the French Alps from the Saulire on the mountain ridge between Méribel and Courcheval. The Saulire is at 2738m and has spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, including Mont Blanc in the distance 63 km away. And then a thousand metre descent which made for great skiiing.

Looking west over the Méribel valley towards Val Torens

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