Welcome to the first article of Uncharted Territories! In the next few ones, we’re going to draw lessons from the last year of the pandemic while I start introducing new topics I’m very excited about! For example, there’s an in-depth look at remote work, and another one about how everything you’ve ever been told about History is false. Through the regular articles, I’ll make sure you get a good sense for the premium ones. And, as always, all articles related to the management of COVID will be free.
For today, we’re going to expose the failures, expose the excuses, expose the lies, expose what we knew one year ago that we didn’t learn fast enough, and the true reasons why the West failed. If you are receiving this from a friend, feel free to subscribe!
Soon, over 1.5 million people will have died of COVID in Western countries.
1.5 million futile, needless deaths. 1.5 million wasted lives.
Meanwhile, in a block of Asia-Pacific countries with a population over twice as big, they lost 18,000 people.
By the way, that death count in the West is an understatement. Counting excess deaths, you get 735,000 COVID deaths in the US. That’s more than all combat deaths the US has ever had (~660k) in all wars.
There's a strain of thinking in the West that likes to blame everything on anything but ourselves. They might say:
“The West didn’t have islands! It had high population density! It’s not authoritarian like China! It’s colder! It’s population is unhealthy! It didn’t have experience with pandemics like SARS or MERS!”
How to read this table, aside from with glasses? Blue means good, red means bad.
The top regions succeeded. You can see that in the two columns on the left, which are mostly blue (fewer deaths, more open economy). The bottom, redder regions failed1.
The rest of columns show how different regions benefited from different advantages, such as being an island or being authoritarian. As you can see, it’s not clear what’s going on. Successful countries are slightly bluer, but not by much, and there are always exceptions.
Islands had it easy? Ireland, UK, Philippines are islands, but look at them.
Asia-Pacific countries? Shouldn’t Indonesia and the Philippines have been successful
Authoritarian? What about Iceland, Taiwan or South Korea?
Warm? What about the Atlantic Provinces, Iceland, or Mongolia?
Young? What about Japan? And shouldn’t Indonesia and the Philippines be successful?
Perhaps this comparison becomes even crisper when pairing countries.
These five countries have very similar COVID advantages and disadvantages. You can see very similar colors. If anything, the successful ones—Vietnam, Thailand, Mongolia—had fewer advantages than the others (Philippines, Indonesia): None of the successful ones were islands, they were farther from the Asia-Pacific center2, and, in the case of Mongolia, it’s super cold. If these were key COVID success factors, Philippines and Indonesia should have been best.
And if we compare island countries like the UK or Ireland to Japan or South Korea, the Western ones lack blatant disadvantages (Islands! Rich! Younger people! Not too urbanized!), and yet their outcomes have been worlds apart from those of Japan and South Korea.
Of course, some lucky advantages helped. But they didn’t determine the outcome. What did?
What really made a difference is simply good management.
The countries that did well locked down early on, if and when there were too many cases to handle in any other way. Once case numbers were under control, they kept them low or at zero with a good test-trace-isolate program that included a good border fence.
The European Union started really well, applying a Hammer to reduce cases to a manageable level. By June 30th they were so close!
But then they opened borders and never set up proper test-trace-isolate programs. The rest was written on the wall.
The US, meanwhile, never even tried. There, nearly 80% of COVID deaths happened after June 30th 2020, by which time they should have already known how to manage the pandemic properly.
Why didn’t the West implement proper test-trace-isolate and border fence programs? I have an article coming next week diving deep into the top mistakes they made.
But in the meantime, we can say it’s a combination of hesitations and simply poor management. If you live in the West and know somebody who got infected with COVID, ask them about their experience:
Did they immediately receive a call from a contact tracer?
Did they collaborate with the contact tracer?
Did they exhaustively go through all their contacts?
Did the tracers contact all their contacts within 24 hours?
Were they successful getting cooperation from the contacts they called?
Did they get a mandate to stay home?
Were they taken to an isolation facility?
Did an app, the police, or someone else check with them to make sure that they respected the isolation?
Were there mechanisms to penalize those who didn’t respect the isolations?
Was there a similar process for contacts, whereby these were mandated to stay home and their quarantine was monitored, enforced, and penalized if not respected?
Were COVID tests required 24h before a trip? (not 72h)
Were all travelers required to quarantine on arrival?
Was that traveler quarantine monitored and enforced?
Was there a new negative test after 4 or more days required to leave the quarantine?
Every country that has been successful has done some variant of these bullet points. For the countries that failed, they failed at doing most of these points.
For example, most Western governments didn’t get contact tracers’ powers to get cooperation from the people. As a result, many people didn’t want to cooperate, which made tracing contacts extremely difficult.
To take another example, most Western countries still only require a negative COVID test from 72h before arrival. That is an ample window for them to catch the virus and export it.
Western governments were happy fining people who didn’t respect lockdowns—Spain and France had each at least 1 million fines for that—but didn’t fine anybody who skipped isolations and quarantines.
Similarly, most Western governments didn’t set up proper isolation facilities, or didn’t give people money, drugs or food during quarantines.
The worst part is we knew what to do very early on. The evidence is simply that a normal guy like me could call all of these things out:
We knew growth was exponential.
We knew we weren’t catching most infections.
We knew the fatality rate was around 1% in developed economies.
We knew this was at least 10x worse than the flu.
We knew this impacted the elderly much worse than the young.
We knew high temperature and humidity reduced the impact of the virus.
We knew that ~20% cases would be severe, 5% critical, and 2.5% would require things like ventilators and ECMOs.
We knew countries hit hard would suffer global shortages of things like ECMOs, PPE or ventilators.
We knew fast action could reduce fatalities by 10x.
We knew relaxing measures too early would bring a 2nd wave.
We knew a large share of infections happened before people developed symptoms.
Before March 18th 2020:
We knew we needed mass testing.
We knew test-trace-isolate was crucial to keep cases down, and we knew the details of how to implement them well.
We knew masks worked. We just had to keep them for health workers early on.
We knew locking down would buy time to figure out the situation of tests, ventilators, PPE, and even discover treatments.
We knew that leaving the virus to spread would likely result in new variants.
We knew a successful first Hammer would last closer to 7 weeks than 5 months.
We knew vaccines would arrive in months, not years.
We knew that low population density helped.
We knew we had to avoid big gatherings to prevent them from becoming superspreader events.
We knew taking the temperature was mostly useless.
Before April 2nd 2020:
We knew the economy of places that had a heavy lockdown followed by good measures would fare better than those that let the virus grow.
We knew the economy would rebound once the virus was behind us.
We knew rural areas would eventually be affected.
We knew Republicans would be more hesitant to fight it and would die in bigger numbers.
We knew federal governments had to coordinate the action.
Before April 23rd 2020, we knew the virus spread through aerosols and that travel bans were necessary.
Before April 28th 2020, we knew contact tracing apps were worthless unless mandated by the government.
Within 1-2 months, we knew most of the crucial knowledge needed to control the epidemic. Governments must reckon with their incapacity to apply these learnings.
Instead, what they did was get things wrong and then lie.
They missed the exponential growth of the virus.
They missed that it was a pandemic, and declared its existence so late.
They thought the population wouldn’t respect a lockdown.
They toyed with natural herd immunity. Some, like Sweden and Brazil, embraced it.
They lied, saying masks were unnecessary.
They missed that the transmission was through aerosols, and took months to apply that learning.
They didn’t dare to empower contact tracers.
They didn’t dare to enforce isolations and quarantines.
They didn’t dare to even propose using available data to help in contact tracing.
They missed building proper fences.They missed learning how to dance, and kept applying the hammerAnd so much more.
Do you think they will look back at their mistakes? Do you think they will create independent investigative commissions? Do you think they will make sure this never happens again and governments run smoothly in the future?
They won’t, so the responsibility is on us. We must detail the mistakes. We must propose alternatives. We must keep them accountable. And if they don’t change, we must vote with our feet and leave.
What did you think about the article? Drop me a line for your feedback!
The next article will detail the top mistakes that governments have made managing COVID, as well as what to do instead. Next week, I’ll also send my first post on a completely different topic, how everything you’ve been told about History is wrong.
As for voting with our feet and leaving, that will be an ongoing theme of this newsletter!
This comes from Oxford’s Blavatnik’s School of Management, which has the best data, but sometimes it’s hard to parse cleanly. For example, China appears to have a very closed economy, which is not truly the case. When looking into what actually happened in all these successful countries, most of their economies were open most of the time.
I have a hard time putting Asia-Pacific in there as an advantage with a straight face, but some magical-thinking people do use that as an argument so… 🤷♂️
This links to a commented version of Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now, read by 40 million people, posted on March 10th 2020. The bullet points come from assertions I made on that post, so if I knew by then, others should have known. I do the same thing below with The Hammer and the Dance. The rest of the articles aren’t commented, but the originals are linked so you can read them to confirm my assertions.