Whataboutery and the pandemic

by John Q on May 15, 2020

Among the many consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the measures taken to control it, there has been an epidemic of whataboutery. The starting point is the claim “we have locked down the entire economy to reduce the number of deaths from Covid-19, but we tolerate comparably large numbers of deaths from X”. Popular candidates for X include smoking, road crashes and influenza. In most, though not all, cases, the inference is that we should accept more deaths from the pandemic. Indeed, the majority of those using this argument are also opposed to any proposal to do more about the various examples of X they cite

I’m going to take the contrapositive, and argue that the inconsistency pointed out here should be resolved by taking stronger action to reduce avoidable deaths from a wide range of causes, with the primary examples being road deaths and smoking.

While whataboutery on these topics typically suggests that society has made a decision to tolerate deaths from these causes, the reality is that there have been increasingly stringent measures to reduce them, adopted over many years, and that in both cases, the ultimate objective (explicit in some jurisdictions, implicit in others) is to reduce deaths to zero. In the case of roads, this aim is expressed in Vision Zero, adopted initially in Sweden and subsequently in a variety of other places. The UK government aims to end smoking by 2030, and most governments have interim targets which imply ultimate elimination of smoking.

With or without explicit targets, the policy approach everywhere has been much the same. Restrictions aimed at reducing the risk in question have been introduced gradually over many years, with each new restriction providing a starting point for the next. In Australia’, for example, partial bans on tobacco advertising were introduced in the late 1980s. These were followed by complete ad bans, then by compulsory health warnings in small print, and finally by a requirement that cigarette packets should display gruesome photos of the consequences of smoking. At the same time, from an initial situation where smoking was universal, it has been progressively restricted in all public spaces, and where children may be exposed (as in private cars).

There is indeed an inconsistency here. If the restrictions in place now are justified in terms of a balance between health costs, damage to non-smokers and the restrictions on the rights of smokers, they would have been even more justifed 30 or 50 years ago, when the damage done by smoking was much greater. Coming back to Covid whataboutery, the inconsistency is not between accepting deaths from one source and not another, it’s between the urgent action necessitated by the pandemic and the slow pace adopted in other cases.

The slowness with which policies aimed at ending smoking, or road deaths, is easily explained. Governments have introduced them at a pace that avoids substantial political costs, and the risk of sustained non-compliance. In the case of smoking, for example, it is necessary to deal both with powerful and unscrupulous tobacco companies, using every available tool[1] to resist controls, and with a large addicted population, some (though not all) of whom have no desire to quit.

The success (so far) of lockdowns in controlling Covid, and their general acceptance outside the US, suggests that we should move more rapidly to eliminate public health risks, even where this involves coercive measures to stop people endangering others, and to prevent young people from endangering themselves. For example, partial bans on smoking in public places, or in the presence of children, should be made total. A more ambitious proposal of this kind would be to raise the smoking age, one year at a time, so that young people currently under the legal age would not be allowed to smoke until they were, say, 25 (hardly anyone begins smoking as a mature age adult, which is in itself an indication that it is not a choice open to a rational defence).

In the case of road deaths, the most obvious measures are lower speed limits in urban ares, and a greater willingness to take dangerous drivers off the road permanently. These measures will be adopted eventually – the only question is how many innocent lives will be lost before they are.

fn1. The tobacco companies not only lobbied directly, and funded a variety of front groups (astroturf smokers rights groups and free-market think tanks), but fought Australia’s packaging laws through international trade actions, ginned up by bribing governments or exploiting the Investor-State Dispute Settlement clauses of trade agreements. They were defeated, but almost certainly succeeded in deterring poorer countries, which could not afford such fights, from following Australia’s lead.



Jim Norris 05.15.20 at 3:30 am

The nice thing is that all the isolation and social distancing measures we’re taking for Covid-19 are also reducing deaths from influenza and car crashes (no clue about smoking).


hix 05.15.20 at 4:10 am

Yes, definitly. Wundering how the covid lockdowns play out regarding addictions. The first assumption would be that it makes things worse. Maybe that is not true since there is a lot of mutual reinforcement going on among addicts. Alcohol purchases seem to have gone up in most place, but it is not obvious if that it is a sign of an absolute increase or just a shift in consumption to home. With some luck (if smokers don´t start smokeing at home next to their children) the covid measures should have a major positive impact on second hand smoke death – which are also still a non trivial number.


BruceJ 05.15.20 at 4:27 am

We have a large, multinational, annual process at no considerable expense to create the annual influenza vaccine, large, and expensive public health campaigns to encourage people to get their ‘flu shots’.

With automobiles we’ve undertaken enormous technological and social efforts, including coercive legal measures, to reduce road accident deaths: seatbelts, airbags, large engineering efforts to redesign automobiles to make them more survivable in crashes. You can now be fined for using your cellphone while driving, let alone not using a seatbelt.


Alan White 05.15.20 at 4:33 am

Excellent post–I just wish there were enough in real power to realize the urgency of your point. Here in the US the death toll is now over 85k in not 4 months (and probably undercounted), as against the worst flu deaths in bad years of around 60k. We don’t need relative annual morbidity at this point to tell us this is horrible, and preventable. My state of Wisconsin just shed its stay-safer-at-home order by one vote out of 7 in the Supreme Court case, and bars flooded instantly just last night. What’s stunned me is the embrace of utilitarian the-costs-of economic-closure arguments by otherwise every-even-embryo-life-is-sacred right-wingers to justify massive and avoidable deaths by claiming that the loss from C19 is eclipsed by the deaths from crime, depression, suicide, drug abuse and the like by not opening up, as if they cared about such issues during “normal” life. This is all about prioritizing those who cannot be touched by this pandemic because of privilege, like the Agent Orange face of such power. Why his so-called base can’t see this, given the fact he brazenly refuses to wear a mask to proclaim his immunity by privilege, just shows the irrational emotive basis of his popularity.


faustusnotes 05.15.20 at 5:44 am

No one who makes these claims understands any of the numbers involved. They don’t know a) how many deaths their country sees in a year b) how many deaths their country sees in a week c) what proportion of those are due to driving/smoking/whatever d) how many COVID-19 deaths their country is seeing per week and e) how much the mortality figures have changed since COVID-19 happened.

A classic example of this is Dipper from a different thread, saying we tolerate 1900 road accidents in the UK a year, so why don’t we just ban cars if we’re so worry about deaths. He’s comparing 50 deaths a week due to road accidents with 11,000 deaths a week due to COVID-19. When this is pointed out to him, he just keeps on going with the whataboutery.

This isn’t actually whataboutery: it’s just ignorance. These people want us to listen to their risk assessment, but they don’t have the slightest idea what the risks are.


Grahame Grieve 05.15.20 at 6:15 am

Awesome that you got through the entire post once without mentioning the actual difference: the potential for contagion and exponential growth into a substantial portion of the population. I cannot imagine that lockdowns would be justified if the growth was linear and projections were only even 10x the deaths associated with these whatabouts.


Chris Bertram 05.15.20 at 8:21 am

The claim of inconsistency is really beside the point. If we are already accepting a level of risk from activities A-C and someone proposes that we now do D, then, since the risks of A-C aren’t going away, the issue is whether we accept an additional level of risk given the ones we’re already running.


rogergathmann 05.15.20 at 8:31 am

JQ: Right on! Funny that the stats brandished by rightwing idjits seem to show the state of normal is fucked so badly you could compare it to a horrendous epidemic. So that after lockdown, we should all go after those mortality makers with all the powers of the state – making sure that the population is guaranteed medical care being the number one priority.

Although – the rightwing idjits that are all about more death are of the LOLright that Fintan O’Toole identified in his brilliant book on Brexit. Looking back, we can see that the neoliberal “left” has to bear a heavy burden for this disaster. Take France. Sarkozy, a very rightwing President, actually stocked up and readied France for pandemics under his health minister, Roselyne Bachelot , while the awful, awful Hollande not only destroyed Bachelot’s policy but, under the banner of “deficit reduction”, cut or restrained the growth of France’s healthcare system that led to France’s almost criminal record of infections and deaths. Out of Hollande grew Macron, an even worse neoliberal with an even worse agenda of privatization. I’m sure that looking around Europe, we could find plenty of countries where a supposed leftist party, cutting itself off from the working class and appealing to the new class of symbol pushers, supported the same group of “reforms” – from Blairist Labour to Renzi’s Olive Tree party. After the epoch in which the opposition to the right dissolved itself, it is little wonder that the LOLright, however idiotic, is dominant.


Hidari 05.15.20 at 8:52 am

The whataboutery is ridiculous given that lockdowns, whatever else one thinks about them also have knock on effects on other aspects of the economy, and, therefore, on how people live their lives.

So in Australia, the Covid-19 ‘lockdowns’ (and the rest…the washing hands etc.) has led to not just a reduction in the number of Covid-19 deaths, but, also (and for the same reasons) led to a reduction of deaths by flu.

Arguments about these issues from the political right are pointless and useless. The left believes that the purpose of the democratic State is to help and protect the populace.

The right believes that the purpose of the state is to protect Capital from the workers, to create a legal framework such that businesses can function, and to surveil and control the working class via putatively independent and neutral agencies like the police force. These aims are orthogonal at best, flatly opposed at worst.

Likewise, I have seen ignorant comments that lockdowns will cause a great recession/depression (which is probably true) which will lead to lots and lots of deaths from suicides etc. But again this is false. The number of deaths from car accidents goes down during a recession and especially during a lockdown recession like the one we are having. In fact the number of deaths from almost everything goes down (e.g. workplace accidents….when no one is at work….no work place accidents/deaths).

So the whataboutery argument is ridiculous. Because we are doing something about these ‘other’ things, albeit inadvertently.


Stewart H 05.15.20 at 9:17 am

Had to look up astroturfing. I like the idea of gradually raising the smoking age, but I don’t know if Australia’s quite collectively conscious enough to take it on – the nanny state and all. I know of a 17-year-old smoker I’d like to try this idea on, but being 17 she wouldn’t listen to my nannying.


oldster 05.15.20 at 9:28 am

The same people somehow never cited our acceptance of deaths from smoking, traffic, etc in order to argue for our acceptance of deaths from terrorism.


Matt 05.15.20 at 10:17 am

The problem I’ve had with the “vision zero” people in Australia (or, at least, Victoria) and some of their fans in the US is that they don’t seem to accept the “benefit” side of cost-benefit analysis, and so don’t seem to bother to try to show that the changes they propose will make things, over all, better. They tend to just assume that “zero” is the optimum number of traffic deaths, given a certain background, while that’s not obvious. Given plausible background assumptions, it also seems that “zero” isn’t the optimum number of deaths from Covid 19 either. This doesn’t help the whataboutists, though. They’d have to do that actual difficult work, and haven’t.


Dipper 05.15.20 at 10:17 am

The Covid crisis is forcing us to make decisions that balance lives and freedoms, and make decisions about incurring costs now to prevent deaths now with those costs having to be paid for later and those costs themselves having consequences in terms of preventable deaths.

The whataboutery is simply pointing out that these decisions are not new, and that as society we have an existing body of experience about how we manage these discussions. It is a fairly obvious starting point in any discussion – what have you done previously?

No-one is claiming that because the UK has 1700 deaths a year on roads we should just let rip have hundreds of thousands of deaths from Covid. No-one has suggested that we shouldn’t try and manage the number of road deaths down. But is is clearly the case that if we banned all road travel there would be no deaths on the roads. And we don’t do that. I think that is a piece of reference data that is worth noting in a discussion.

It is classic Faustusnotes to get completely steamed up about an issue that he has literally invented for the sole purpose of getting annoyed. Quality entertainment at its finest.


carl d 05.15.20 at 10:22 am

I think a difference between 1) smoking and driving and 2) the Covid virus, is that we know a lot about risks and effects of interventions for the former, and very little on the latter. It is very likely that extended lockdowns are good for older people, but may end up being very bad for the health of children . And now a lot of old people start to report feelings of loneliness and emptiness.


tm 05.15.20 at 10:26 am

If there is a justified form of Whataboutery, it’s climate change: suddenly governments are capable of taking unprecedented measures in response to a pandemic while the same governments have spent years doing next to nothing to fight climate change. Suddenly the whole aviation industry can be grounded when before, even a tiny tax on flight tickets was politically unpalatable. (And now of course we are going to bail out the aviation industry).

It is beside to want to compare quantitatively the risk from climate change with that of a pandemic. The point is that in principle, all responsible actors agree that climate change is a huge threat that warrants drastic action, yet it’s near impossible to actually get anything done.


reason 05.15.20 at 12:10 pm

Whataboutery is all they have. I know that normally in a university tutorial. Why isn’t this more widely clear that it shouldn’t be acceptable. STOP CHANGING THE SUBJECT surely is an automatic response. Is there a smiley for it?


Hidari 05.15.20 at 12:18 pm

@15 absolutely. Things are impossible, until they are done, at which point they become inevitable.

And in terms of climate change we are going to have to do a lot of things that are currently considered to be impossible. For example, Dipper @13 ‘But it is clearly the case that if we banned all road travel there would be no deaths on the roads. And we don’t do that.’

But that is clearly what is going to have to happen, albeit with the words ‘by petrol fuelled cars’ after the words ‘all road travel’.

CF also air travel. ‘We’ can’t simply ban air flight. Unless it’s after 9/11, when that’s precisely what we did. Or it’s a foreign country, perhaps run by Arabs, in which case a ‘no fly zone’ is frequently called for by liberals. In these situations, suddenly, banning all flights are a positive boon.

In the absence of an environmentally safe form of air travel, we are in fact, in the short term, going to have to ban all air travel, except for essential flights. That’s just the way it’s going to have to be (or else we won’t, and climate change wrecks the planet).

So it’s worthwhile pondering that the small scale carnage caused to our way of life by Covid-19 is going to be dwarfed by the apocalypse that is going to be caused by

a: climate change and
b: what we are going to have to do to deal with climate change.

This is tough, but we have screwed up so badly that, now, all our options are bad ones.


Cian O'Connor 05.15.20 at 12:20 pm

Just as an aside, whenever sensible measures to reduce road deaths are suggested (pedestrian only streets, lower speed limits, harsher crackdowns on dangerous drivers) – these are the people who argue against them. “We” don’t tolerate road deaths – “They”, the same dickheads who are currently trying to raise the Covid death rate, are the ones who tolerate road deaths.

See also the ‘freedom’ arguments, which are actually about their selfishness.


Zamfir 05.15.20 at 12:22 pm

I work in emissions control, where you get a lot of these discussions obviously, in good faith and in bad faith.

In my personal expeirence, “Vision Zero” approaches are very effective in the long run. They create a constant ratchet of improvement, both in expectations and in capabilities to improve. Time and again, those improvements were easier and cheaper in hindsight.

But in the short run, a strongly expressed goal of Zero is often counterproductive. Once it becomes accepted that zero is not achievable in the forseeable future, everything becomes fluid. If the current situation is 10, and everything above zero is bad, should the next step be 0.5? or 2.0? Or 5.0? 8.0? The outcome is often to aim for 9.0, plus uplifting powerpoints about Moving Towards Zero.

My impression is that the corona-virus is getting stuck in a similar trap. Some places believe that zero is still a realistic target for them, but other places have lost that belief in absense of a vaccine. Those later places now lack a new anchoring goal for the short run.

“Don’t collapse the health system” became a new non-arbitrary target, even though it is a rather high target. But I fear that it becomes the permanent target, because there is no other anchoring value besides zero.


David J. Littleboy 05.15.20 at 3:02 pm

““Don’t collapse the health system” became a new non-arbitrary target, even though it is a rather high target.”

It’s a target that varies widely by country, even among industrialized countries. Japan, with an amazingly low numbers of Covid-19 cases, came close to collapsing it’s health system. Four states other than Tokyo were at over 80% capacity recently, and at that time the newspaper failed to report the situation in Tokyo (claiming not to have the data). Now, (10 days later) Tokyo’s at 79% and all other states quite a bit better. The last I heard, Texas, with over 10 times the number of new cases per day as all of Japan, was gung-ho to reopen. I guess they have a lot of hospital beds…

But there’s really nothing wrong with bailing out the aviation industry. As long as they don’t fly their planes. (Hidari is, of course, exactly right about climate change. And it’s going to be a disaster way sooner than anyone thinks.)


Faustusnotes 05.15.20 at 3:19 pm

Dipper raised traffic deaths and gave the 1900 number; I pointed out to him that covid kills 10000 a week; and here he is claiming I made the whole thing up so I can have something to be mad about. It really is incredible how dishonest these people are.


Markir 05.15.20 at 3:25 pm

I’ve been isolated in this pandemic. I have no sympathy for the the right wing folks protesting. On the other hand, my political jurisdiction has had ZERO cases of COVID-19 in the past 3 weeks, yet we’re still on lockdown. “Flattening the curve” went to zero new cases, yet now we are closed because if we open folks from areas with infections are going to overwhelm our borders.

No, I’m not voting for Trump as a result, but I am frustrated that so many of my political friends don’t have much sympathy for cases like this, where I see NO benefit for the strict lockdowns in my community.

My hope is we learn from HIV and realize that harm reduction is a perfectly appropriate response to this , and not zero/abstinence that is viewed as the “liberal” response for COVID, but the conservative response to HIV.


bianca steele 05.15.20 at 4:24 pm

We are not going to ban air travel. We are going to ban most people from traveling by air, at most, while stating the policy as “banning air travel”. (Every person who is not banned is a potential carrier of the virus.) Gradually the number of people not banned from air travel will be increased. This process will continue for as long as people exist who are currently banned but still able to argue “don’t you know who I am and how essential I am.” Then it will stop. The policy will still be called “air travel is banned” but it will be an open secret that anyone who really cares to make the effort can get a ticket.

Interestingly, in Massachusetts, the first month of lockdown saw a halving of highway miles traveled and no reduction in deaths from highway accidents. Of course, this was totally unpredictable. The reason is that people saw the roads were clear and then drove faster.

The problem with absolutist arguments is that they present a sorites problem. It’s not possible to predict when “Americans get too worried about epidemics like SARS” will be the stopped clock that’s no longer right, and people who still know nothing about the issues will switch to “Americans don’t care enough about the common good in the form of public health.” Most Americans feel absolute statements are only statements of tendencies anyway, and that it’s a sign of bad manners to hold them to “logic.” In this case, though, it will work out for the best, because that goes in many cases with an intense desire to be good.


PatinIowa 05.15.20 at 5:00 pm

In the US Bob Dole, running for president in 1996, said he doubted that cigarettes were addictive.

We should have stopped listening to the Right then. Or even earlier, say when Ronald Reagan blamed trees for air pollution and named a Secretary of the Interior who said the rapture would arrive before environmental damage threatened human existence.



Hidari 05.15.20 at 5:13 pm

It’s worth remembering that, generally speaking, the people who argue that the (very real) threats from Covid-19 are overhyped, and that businesses should be able to open (and make profits), are also the same people who argued that we should all have been terrified by Saddam Hussein’s (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction, which could, if they existed, which they didn’t, strike the West ‘in 45 minutes’, as well as the mainly non-existent threat of ‘Islamic terrorism’ more generally.

In the same way, those who argue that nowadays we ‘overstate the sanctity of life’ are, generally speaking, the people who give de facto support to picketing (and worse) abortion clinics because, er, our society doesn’t value the ‘sanctity of life’ enough.

And it is literally and precisely the same people who argue that we shouldn’t be frightened of Covid-19, who argue that we should be terrified of the non-existent ‘threat’ of China to our precious bodily fluids.

These are not arguments, because the real goals of those who propose them are not their stated goals, and there is no point in engaging with these people, as they are not arguing in good faith.


tm 05.15.20 at 5:15 pm

hix: “Alcohol purchases seem to have gone up in most places”

At least for beer, that isn’t true. (e. g. https://www.dw.com/de/coronavirus-sorgt-f%C3%BCr-katerstimmung-bei-bierbrauern/a-53133899)

The lockdown in itself has positive as well as negative effects. It will be very interesting when we have more data to look at about how people actually behave under these circumstances, how they spend their time, what they consume, whether they are more or less healthy, more or less happy, what the environmental effects are. As long as there is a safety net that prevents drastic economic damage (which I’m aware is missing or insufficient in many places), it is by no means clear whether the lockdown is really a net negative from the point of view of most people.


Kenny Easwaran 05.15.20 at 5:31 pm

I just want to repeat what Graham Grieve is saying at #6, which seems like the most important point to me. Every car crash prevented prevents one car crash. But every covid infection prevented prevents many future covid infections. So even if it took as much social effort to directly prevent one fatal covid infection as it takes to directly prevent one fatal car crash, we would be justified in spending a lot more effort preventing covid infections.


Kenny Easwaran 05.15.20 at 5:36 pm

And on the car fatality point, I think that lowering speed limits in urban areas is not likely to save as many lives as just changing the design standards. Most people don’t calibrate the speed of their vehicle very closely to legally posted limits – instead, they calibrate the speed of their vehicle to how things look around them. When there are many other vehicles, trees right next to the edge of the road, narrow lanes, bends, or other obstructions, people tend to drive more slowly, but when there is a very straight road with very wide lanes and low traffic and no visual distractions, people tend to drive more quickly. Obviously, the things that people tend to slow down for are themselves hazards of some sort, but one way that roundabouts reduce collisions and fatalities is by increasing the feel of danger much more than actual danger, so that people slow down more appropriately. (This also appears to be a reason why alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana for drivers – alcohol seems to inhibit people’s awareness of danger, while marijuana makes some people more paranoid, so that even if both make reaction times worse, people on marijuana tend to drive more carefully to avoid situations where reaction times are important, while people on alcohol are more likely to overestimate their abilities.)


Anarcissie 05.15.20 at 5:56 pm

Actually, Vision Zero for the virus seems not only reasonable but inevitable. Eventually, either herd immunity will develop, and/or vaccines will be developed, and/or everyone will be infected and either die or recover with a certain degree of immunity. There will be a long, fat tail because many people will not take protective measures, but that’s what will happen. In the case of Spanish flu, it took about two years. In this it is much different from climate change, which, if it proceeds as predicted, will kill almost everybody, and does not appear to have any self-extinction function other than a very long-term one. (Almost everyone dies; greenhouse gas emissions greatly reduced.)

It is the economic damage which is mystical and unpredictable. I suppose this is because so much of the economy is a kind of fable.


Dwight L. Cramer 05.15.20 at 6:13 pm

Isn’t the real problem with the ‘whatabouters’ is that in offering the observation they are offering the success of the economic-shutdown as an argument that it wasn’t necessary in the first place? The success of social distancing in getting the Covid death levels down to the ‘socially tolerable’ death levels associated with highway fatalities, tobacco deaths, gun violence, a bad flu season, is twisted into an argument against the policy itself.

Adults who make that argument, or who buy it, should be ruled, not reasoned with. Nice people shy away from that observation, or approach it with diffidence, which creates the precondition for the current situation.


Zamfir 05.15.20 at 8:18 pm

@Dwight, what do we do you noe? There will by discussions on aspects of the new reality. In those discussions, the rapid disaster path is not on the table, it’s about relatively smaller stakes. Which is still about a lot of death or ill people.

I don’t think that whatsboutery can be so easily dismissed in that context.


notGoodenough 05.15.20 at 9:34 pm

To borrow from Tom Lehrer:

“It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee-house or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on.”

In that spirit, I too will take a courageous stand and say I am generally opposed to avoidable deaths.

More seriously, John Quiggin makes the same point I wished to on a different thread – only he’s done so more eloquently and with greater aplomb. A key point is, of course, we don’t just shrug our shoulders over these things – we actively work to mitigate the harm.


Barry 05.15.20 at 10:16 pm

Alan White: ” Here in the US the death toll is now over 85k in not 4 months (and probably undercounted), as against the worst flu deaths in bad years of around 60k.”

And was climbing like a jet (doubling time for deaths in the USA at one point was less than 4 days).

I’d also add that the flu death rate was flu + likely deaths caused by the flu. The right has used that figure while trying to undercount COVID deaths as much as possible.

I haven’t encountered too many people who were not just right-winger denialists playing the same game with a search-and-replace on the words.

Dipper – thank you for providing a conveniently timed example!


Omega Centauri 05.16.20 at 2:40 am

What Kenny said at 27. In the case of an epidemic it can rapidly grow from almost trivially small impact to horrific impact. Perhaps the greatest challenge for public health is during the early phase, when hardly anyone has seen a case, and you need the public to take it very very seriously. And all sorts of people are susceptible to whataboutism.

Now, we have a time where the epidemic is getting slightly less intense, and the news isn’t telling us how much worse it is than a few days ago. We’ve hit compassion fatigue, we got used to 2000 deaths per day, now we don’t bat an eyelash at 1500. Everyone and his brother are instead concentrating on their personal cost of compliance, and all sorts are trying to force the issue. (If I illegally open up now, and call in the news crews, the state will be forced to compromise with me). Soon copycat behavior is becoming widespread, and control over the health response has been lost by the public health community).


heckblazer 05.16.20 at 2:40 am

I would note that as typically done comparisons between influenza deaths and COVID-19 deaths are not using equivalent numbers. Yes, the CDC says that 61,000 Americans died from the flu in the unusually bad 2017-18 season, but that is an estimate based on statistical models. The 85,990 COVID-19 deaths in the US reported as of today is based directly on either lab tests or clinical diagnosis; the equivalent confirmed flu deaths for the 2017-18 season was 7,172.


John Quiggin 05.16.20 at 3:16 am

Omega Centauri and others. This seems to me to miss the point completely. I didn’t say anything about comparing the cost of individual life-saving actions. The comparison in each case is between doing nothing, and taking coercive actions to reduce deaths as close as possible to zero.

In this context, the fact that coronavirus is contagious is irrelevant. Left unchecked, it would kill a large number of people (best estimate, about one per cent of the population). Smoking and car crashes also kill large numbers, even with the existing limited controls, and killed far more before those controls were imposed. The question is whether we have a consistent basis for deciding whether to impose controls, or accept large numbers of deaths.


Collin Street 05.16.20 at 4:07 am

deleted – JQ


Chetan Murthy 05.16.20 at 5:35 am

Collin Street : Ha! Too funny. I fear, though, that Labor wouldn’t have done much of a better job (oat least, early-on — by now, they’d probably be doing beetter). Why do I say this? It seems that the UK was working from a “plan” that was devised to address a new influenza epidemic, and that called for not trying to contain but merely to mitigate it (with, e.g. antivirals) until a vaccine arrived. Nevermind that this isn’t influenza. Nevermind that there aren’t any antivirals. Nevermind that it’s got a different contagion and symptom onset profile. and on and on and on. That was the plan. It called for (for instance) doing surveillance testing until community spread was proven, and then stopping surveillance testing (b/c what would be the point, if you’re not going to try to suppress it, riiiiight?) And (shocker!) that is exactly what the government did.

Richard North (eureferendum.com) wrote a series of articles detailing the various plans over the years since 2005 (New Labour) that all were like the above. And he makes a pretty decent case that the blame can be shared between Labour and the Tories. Though, the gutting of the NHS, that can probably be laid at the Tories’ feet.

All that said, yeah, I think that by -now- Labour would have wised-up and started addressing this thing with real vigor. I mean, they’re not BoJo, after all.


Chetan Murthy 05.16.20 at 5:37 am

Can I just say that I appreciate how nobody’s engaged with Dipper, and hence, this comment-thread has stayed really readable? So, y’know, thank you all. I was able to read the whole thing, and it was even educational!


hix 05.16.20 at 12:40 pm

Quarterly gdp numbers for the EU are out. So far the gdp effect has been ridiculously low.
Maybe there is just not that much money in restaurants, hotels or theme parks after all. Worst one was France with -5,8%, some eastern europeans had positive growth. -0,3 in Sweden and -2,2 in Germany.


Tim Worstall 05.16.20 at 2:26 pm

@17 “In the absence of an environmentally safe form of air travel, we are in fact, in the short term, going to have to ban all air travel, except for essential flights. ”

Why? Air travel produces, what is it, 2% of global emissions? It’s entirely possible, given that actions with negative emissions are indeed possible, to beat any prediction of climate change without banning air travel. Assuming that that is desired of course, which might not be the case.

This before we get to that thorny question of who gets to define “essential”. Emma Thompson flying LA to London to attend an Extinction Rebellion demo is essential or not? Purely hypothetically, an Englishman flying from Portugal to England to visit his lonely widowed mother after the lockdown ends is essential or not? And who gets to decide?

@36 ” Smoking and car crashes also kill large numbers, even with the existing limited controls, and killed far more before those controls were imposed. The question is whether we have a consistent basis for deciding whether to impose controls, or accept large numbers of deaths.”

There are consistent bases for deciding such. Consistent that is, not necessarily ones all agree with. For example, someone smoking themselves to death – as do some goodly portion of smokers in the end – is their choice. Just as someone crashing the car they’re racing on a track. Crashing on a road involves third party harm, as doesn’t smoking in an enclosed space with others present. The presence or not of that third party harm is consistent….


Dipper 05.16.20 at 7:41 pm

@ Chetan Murthy – I’d like to thank you for your insightful comments. But you haven’t made any. So I can’t.


Stephen 05.16.20 at 8:20 pm

Collin Street @ 37 : “if half the members of the UK conservative party had been sent to gulags in 2015 we’d probably be net ahead today in terms of lives saved from coronavirus alone.”

On first reading this, I thought: this is a joke, right? But hard socialists making jokes about their opponents being sent to gulags and dying there is about as amusing as Nazis making jokes about their opponents being sent to concentration camps or gas chambers, or white supremacists making jokes about black slavery. Not that I’ve ever heard or seen either.

But you go on to say: No joke!

Well, overcoming my natural humane revulsion, I have tried to take your disgusting statement seriously. (I suspect that you will reply: you can’t do that, it was only a joke. If so, deeply contemptible.)

Your numbers are fairly accurate, close enough for Government work. Looking at recent data, UK deaths are 510/million, Irish Republic 310/million. That would give excess deaths in the UK of 13,300 compared to the Irish Republic. Your proposed sending of half the membership of the Conservative party to gulags, with a 10% death rate, would kill only 9,950. Ahead, as you say, in terms of lives saved.

But there are some problems. One, if I may quote a seriously non-conservative source (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/13/experts-divided-comparison-uk-ireland-coronavirus-record) you are not comparing like with like. Ireland has a lower population density which protects against Covid-19, a larger proportion of people in Covid-19-free rural areas, a much lower proportion of more vulnerable older people and BAME people. If it were possible to allow for that, what would become of your saving of lives?

Another is more serious (I am still swallowing my disgust and trying to suppose you are not joking). To send half the members of the Conservative Party to gulags, you would need either the Collin Street Revolutionary Party to win a democratic election (and I think we can forget about that, even if the electorate were restricted to CT contributors: please correct me if, God forbid, I am wrong). Or a revolutionary war won by the CSRP: with a death toll of, I would suggest, a few orders of magnitude greater than your hypothetical numbers.

Equally serious from your point of view: once you have a CSRP government in power happy to kill even a proportion of its opponents, where if anywhere will it stop? Bearing in mind that over 13 million people voted Conservative in the last UK election, with others voting Liberal Democrat (surely opposed in principle to sending opponents to gulags); how many of those do you need to kill?

And even more serious from your point of view: from painful experience of homicidal revolutionary governments, once they are in power but the promised land has not been attained, the apparent failure will be found to be due to traitors within the party who must be eliminated. Ask Brissot, Danton, Trotsky, Bukharin for their posthumous opinions. Beware, Comrade Collin Street!

Unless, of course, you were merely but despicably joking.


Howard Frant 05.16.20 at 9:36 pm

I think lockdowns were pretty generally accepted in the US too. A lot of noise was made in opposition, and unfortunately some of that came from the President.


sr20de 05.17.20 at 1:46 am


John Quiggin 05.17.20 at 2:38 am

Collin Street. I wasn’t paying attention when I approved this comment. I’ve deleted it now. Please nothing more from you on this thread, and nothing more like this ever.


bad Jim 05.17.20 at 6:20 am

There is a lot of power to the obverse view. CoViD mortality is highest among those with the least access to health care, whose lives we already know would be longer and happier with the sort of interventions taken for granted by fortunate Americans and average Europeans.

Maternal mortality is an interesting issue, generally neglected, but remediable with surprisingly little effort, or so I’ve read. Just a little attention to warning signs during pregnancy and preparation for hemorrhage during delivery saves a lot of lives. I think California recently went from poor to good on this measure, and Alabama stands out in this respect from its miserable neighbors.


novakant 05.17.20 at 7:47 am

Why is everybody always gung ho about smoking, but nobody ever mentions the terrible and arguably much more damaging effects of alcohol and industrial food production?


Hidari 05.17.20 at 8:24 am


Oh don’t worry Tim. I am only sketching out what we would do about global warming if we were, in fact, serious about the problem (in the same that some, not all, governments have indicated that they are serious about Covid-19).

But as our total and complete lack of progress over the last 2 centuries have indicated (remember we have known about climate change since the mid 19th century, from which point we have done literally nothing about this problem except make it worse) ….we ain’t gonna do shit. Or at least nothing that will seriously deal with the problem.

So don’t worry! You will still be able to get ultra cheap carbon fuelled flights to almost every place on Earth throughout the entirety of the 21st century.

Whether or not there will actually be any ‘nice’ places worth travelling to by the end of the century is rather more of a moot point, though. And that will be even more of a problem in the 22nd century.


John Quiggin 05.17.20 at 11:33 am

Novakant @48 Alcohol is a big deal, and many of the same points could be made, particularly in relation to drink driving and alcohol-related violence.

OTOH, I don’t know what “industrial food production” means. All food production in an industrial society is industrial, one way or another. And reducing food production doesn’t seem like a very good idea.


Hugo 05.17.20 at 12:11 pm


Why is everybody always gung ho about smoking, but nobody ever mentions the terrible and arguably much more damaging effects of alcohol and industrial food production?

You might want to look up feudal food production. It wasn’t as great as you may have been led to believe. After that feel free to google the three trillion papers, articles, comments etc on the damaging effects of alcohol that you think don’t exist.


novakant 05.17.20 at 12:57 pm

I meant the production of food on an industrial scale that contributes to 70% / 65% of US/UK citizens being obese or overweight.


faustusnotes 05.17.20 at 2:09 pm

Novakant, alcohol doesn’t kill half of everyone who uses it. It is not “arguably more damaging than tobacco” and you shouldn’t say such completely unscientific things.


Barry 05.17.20 at 3:10 pm

Chetan Murphy:

“Ha! Too funny. I fear, though, that Labor wouldn’t have done much of a better job (oat least, early-on — by now, they’d probably be doing beetter). Why do I say this? It seems that the UK was working from a “plan” that was devised to address a new influenza epidemic, and that called for not trying to contain but merely to mitigate it (with, e.g. antivirals) until a vaccine arrived. Nevermind that this isn’t influenza. Nevermind that there aren’t any antivirals. Nevermind that it’s go”

‘Plans are useless, planning is vital’ – Ike

The surprising thing would have been if the plan could be rolled out with few changes, and no need to adapt.


Chetan Murthy 05.18.20 at 4:16 am

novakant: “the production of food on an industrial scale”

Any system that did not industrialize food production would necessarily use much more labor. That labor would not be able to do other things — things we all value (and sure, also things that maybe you and I don’t value, but others -do- value). Also, any system that didn’t industrialize food production would necessarily impose more of a burden on women than on men; I think it’s fair to argue that the demographic transition (and with it, the improvement in women’s lives) in the West would not be possible if food acquisition had not become almost a matter of course.

Now OTOH, I do agree with you, that the -way- we use our industrial food system — to produce mountains of rubbish instead of decent food — is insane and unhealthy. But I’d argue that that’s more the fault of predatory capitalism (gee, I wonder who it was, who figured out that adding salt/fat/sugar to foods made them sell better?) than it is the fault of industrialized food production.


faustusnotes 05.18.20 at 10:46 am

Also Novakant it’s not the industrial food production system that is making us fat but the way we eat. Rice is industrially produced but it only makes you fat if you eat too much. In fact Japanese women have been getting thinner for the past 40 years even as their diets westernize and the food they eat becomes ever more industrialized. British people have been eating way too many calories for the last 60 years. Everyone in rich countries has access to plentiful industrialized food, but local food environments determine how fat they get.


Saurs 05.18.20 at 12:18 pm

The new line in the US executive office and its lackeys is that covid-19 is most serious and dangerous amongst the sickest. That’s not how they’re spinning this rather obvious revelation—theirs combines scientific racism, passive eugenics, and broad libertarian destruction of public health programs—but that’s the takeaway for normal people. Those deprived of clean air, water, and soil, deprived of access to preventative medicine and affordable, nutritious food, deprived of living wages and affordable housing, deprived of a safe workplace and safe working conditions, are as likely to die or suffer serious debilitations as the elderly and infirm, by necessity stuck interminably in tight spaces where such a virus flourishes.

More comfortable classes can isolate (at home and at work), consume and buy virtually, limit themselves to rubbing shoulders with their own kind (at play), and enjoy unlimited testing, not to mention capitalize on a lifetime’s worth of fairly world-class to middle-shelf medicine and physio. The most reckless can benefit from the caution of others to limit spread.

The only bright spot to the observer, discomfited by this obvious disparity, is that the asymptomatic appear to number amongst the most contagious. So while the very upper crust, informed by personal doctors, likely enjoy a cushion of firm separation, more’s the pity, the loud upper-middlings, cosplaying as working class but hankering for full service aspirational fare (somebody to wait on them, cut their hair, mow their mcmansion lawns, polish their their pristine “pick-ups,” pluck and bleach their poultry, bag their purchases, pull their overpriced tapped cider), are still vulnerable to the chains of reality. Not washing your soft, doughy hands to own the libs, in other words, the natural progression of Preferring Affordable Care Act to Obamacare. We’re now the people tied to the trolley problem tracks, at mercy of the reactionary whims of dunderheaded villains.


steven t johnson 05.18.20 at 1:18 pm

Those who don’t already know it is the bad will of sinful souls (specifically of the seven, gluttony) will not be provoked to thought by such as this https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5082693/

The guilty stand condemned.


Jacob Steel 05.18.20 at 9:39 pm

I think there’s an obvious distinction between risks to self (smoking, eating large amounts of ultraprocessed food) and risks to others (driving, a bunch of potentially-Covid-related behaviours); I think it’s reasonable to impose tighter restrictions and higher costs on people to mitigate the latter than the former.


casmilus 05.19.20 at 5:10 am

“In most, though not all, cases, the inference is that we should accept more deaths from the pandemic.”

Inference or implication? Anyway….

What seems to be the biggest discovery in all this is that quite a few conservatives don’t seem to be able to reason very well about causation and counterfactuals. It all started with the fair pointed that there is a difference between dying from and dying with a condition. This is fair, given the simple example of a cancer patient dying in a road accident, but irrelevant since testing was only being done on cases that pretty well would be dying from, if anything we would have been underreporting.

However we then got the full-blown obsession with the idea that “underlying conditions” render “deaths from” void. This is of course a reversal of the example used to illustrate the from/with distinction: if we take it seriously, then the cancer patient run over by a bus had an underlying condition that would have killed them anyway. So… do they not count in road death stats? I think they would do. I thought that was the whole point of the from/with thing.

Getting in to the metaphysics of causation, if A->B but only under prior conditions C, we still assign A as the cause of B. It’s a breach with ordinary language to start using “underlying conditions” as some sort of defeater for causal attributions.

I’ve had chicken pox twice in my life. I had it when I was 8, and I spent 3 weeks off school being itchy and spotty. I had it when I was 36, and I had to go in hospital in agonising pain and be pumped with anti-virals and go on an oxygen mask at one point. The difference in the two cases – and the reason the second one happened at all – is that when I was 35 I had leukaemia and then a bone marrow transplant and thus had a very weak immune system for a year or so afterwards. But if I had died of chicken pox, I would have died of the chicken pox. The nearest possible world is the one where I had the transplant but not the virus, not the one where I had no blood cancer. The death certificate would have reflected that, and anyone making a point about “underlying conditions” is demanding a change of practice.

I see a post by Collin Street has been removed. Is he the guy who keeps doing the “right-wing people have cognitive deficits” comments? I used to skip over those, but in the last 2 months I’m starting to wonder if he had a point.


J-D 05.19.20 at 7:10 am

I see a post by Collin Street has been removed. Is he the guy who keeps doing the “right-wing people have cognitive deficits” comments?

Yes, but the particular comment removed went well beyond that.


faustusnotes 05.19.20 at 8:03 am

I don’t know if the people commenting on “dying OF not WITH”, or indeed the right-wing nutjobs who raised this shibboleth, are aware of it, but actually the epidemiological community have been dealing with this issue for a while now. Actually, we’re up to the 11th revision of a standardized way of handling this problem, which is meant to (and mostly does) make death data comparable between countries. It would be better if instead of trying to second guess the exact nature of what % of the reported deaths are “really” due to covid 19 you took the epi world’s word for it.

Trust me, once this is all done and dusted, the current numbers are going to look unfortunately small. There is no overcounting going on, quite the opposite, so forget the of/with distinction and ask yourself which deaths haven’t even been recorded yet, and when they will be.

The UK was seeing an extra 11,000 deaths a week in April – that’s 100% more than usual – and it doesn’t really matter exactly whether they were withs, ofs, or near-tos, they were all because of this epidemic one way or another.


roger gathmann 05.19.20 at 10:12 am

61., you are right. Moreover, diseases often mission – creep – they don’t stay in neat little categories. This is the reason that measles vaccines not only protect against measles, but they lower mortality from other diseases and conditions, like diarrhea and oedema. https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/32/1/106/642823 It turns out that the body operates as a whole – removing the stress of measles obviously removes cascade effects.

Which is the whole fucking point. If there was a vaccine for coronavirus, we would no doubt see a lessening in mortality from cascade or related effects. And in the real absence of that vaccine, we will consequently see an uptick in those cascade effects. This is known to any mother or father, and it is known to the zombie rightwingers. They don’t care. Which is why arguing with them about these things is an infinite and ultimately futile task.


Trader Joe 05.19.20 at 2:44 pm

I think this is a good piece, but one of the points it fails to make between auto deaths, alcohol, smoking etc. is that these are all matters of choice whereas contracting Covid in general is not (though spreading it is).

In general people determined to do so will find a way to kill themselves whether driving fast, smoking, eating, opiods what have you. As a society we impose system costs to make it a) harder for those bad decisions to directly impact others (drunk driving) and b) optimize costs in general (better health is a win for all).

Some element of things such as cancer and heart health is genetic and cannot readily be reduced to zero, or at least not easily. The portion which is lifestyle can and could be ‘zeroed’.

There’s not a lot of choice in contracting a virus – there’s only choice is spreading it, accordingly the latter is the thing which can be addressed by ‘zerio’ oriented policies (which in turn solves for the former).


SusanC 05.19.20 at 5:13 pm

I think it is legit to compare a new risk to existing risks, but I broadly agree with the line of the OP:

The projected mortality from covid19 in the hypothetical case that the government does nothing is much bigger than most existing risks, presumably justifying more government action
smoking and road traffic accidents are already the subject of substantial government intervention aimed at reducing risk (bans on cigarette advertising, bans on smoking in most public places, mandatory health warnings on cigarette packets; mandatory licensing before you can drive a car, mandatory speed limits, significant attempts at enforcing speed limits, mandatory tests of vehicle roadworthiness…)
and re. Alcohol. Part of my family is Methodist by religion; there is a a long tradition of arguing against alcohol on the grounds that it is very bad for a substantial minority of those who consume it (temperance movement, etc.) there are regulations against the supply of alcohol to minors, etc.


John Quiggin 05.19.20 at 10:04 pm

@64 and others: The virus is exactly similar to car crashes – risky behavior endangers yourself and others. Same true of alcohol, with drunk driving, violence etc

On tobacco smoking, I mentioned above that almost no adults who aren’t already addicted choose to take it up. And of course there is second-hand smoking. Restricting it to people over 25, in private allows people to kill themselves that way if they want to (about 60 per cent effective, from what I’ve seen).


Trader Joe 05.20.20 at 11:32 am

I think I take exception if I follow your point.

The vast majority of people who contract Covid-19 did not engage in risky behavior. They were in a nursing home, they were caring for others who had it, they were working their job etc. They didn’t light up a smoke or drive recklessly, they were going about the business of living, some of which involved no choice at all, and found themselves infected – increasingly without obvious knowledge about how it occurred. I think that’s a bright line difference between the behaviors you view as being ‘zero-able.’

By contrast – those who choose not to distance, not to wear masks etc. and become spreaders, those behaviors are 100% akin to what you describe. If I didn’t make that clear the error is mine.


reason 05.20.20 at 3:10 pm

J-D @61
I often wonder if it is worse to say (a) xxxx is being stupid than to say (b) xxxx is arguing in bad faith. It seems to me that (a) is generally regarded as beyond the pail, but (b) is not. But in my case I would regard (b) as worse, because I sometimes think I am being stupid. But I definitely try to avoid (b). Almost everyone is stupid at some time.


hix 05.20.20 at 8:42 pm

Used to spend quite a lot time at a meating point for people with mental illnesses before the covid outbreak. It did help my mental health a lot for the most part. Most other visitors there don´t fulfill many of the negative stereotyps one might have. Alcoholics, both the current and the ones that did not dring for a long time in large parts unfortunatly do. Cigarets are an issue both with staff and visitors. Basically i got the choice when i risk getting a major depressive epiode to sit at home and wait till it happens, or i go to that meating spot where im walking through a big dustball of second hand smoke when entering or make the mistake to sit on the fresh air as non smoker. Then i´m confronted with two or three alcoholics which every two or three weaks will start to yell violent threats for 10 minutes as load as they can, threatening to beat someone up. Note they are typically not even drunk when they do that! Far to liberal policy there to let them stay if you ask me thats the “for the most part of it”. So far it stopped short of the real physical violence in that very controlled environment and it is still horrible. Dont want to know what happens in families and the like.


hix 05.20.20 at 9:21 pm

Come to think of it, there is even more about my anecdote. The meating spot is open again already, with mandatory masks everywhere including the outside area, technically. Now you may guess which subgroup does not care about the mask mandate at all. Both nicotin and alcohol are horrors on their own way for both the addicts and his surrounding. Cigaret addicts tend to be largely functional and non damaging to others as long as they get their fix. They “just” die of cancer/get copd etc. or get aggressive when one proibits them from getting their drug, which they will take with zero regard for how many people in their way will die from second hand smoke – a number that is higher than the one dying from drunk drivers or murderers. The no behavioural issues as long as they get their fix part is unfortunatly usually an excuse to ignore the issue in a psychiatric setting. Alcohol on the other hand – sure many people drink without every getting over the edge. But the ones that do they might die, or they might get sober again. Either way, they will often act destructive, causing lots of suffering in their surrounding, even indirect death no one can really pinpoint back to the alcohol in ways smokers and ex smokers in particular do not. Both drugs are pretty ugly for others as well as the addict in their own way.


nastywoman 05.21.20 at 6:34 am

AND (finally?) this:

”Modelers find that tens of thousands of U.S. deaths could have been prevented.

If the United States had begun imposing social-distancing measures one week earlier in March, about 36,000 fewer people would have died in the pandemic, according to new estimates from Columbia University disease modelers.
And if the country had begun locking down cities and limiting social contact on March 1, two weeks earlier than when most people started staying home, a vast majority of the nation’s deaths — about 83 percent — would have been avoided, the researchers estimated.
The enormous cost of waiting to take action reflects the unforgiving dynamics of the outbreak that swept through American cities in early March. Even small differences in timing would have prevented the worst exponential growth, which by April had subsumed New York City, New Orleans and other major cities, the researchers found”.


J-D 05.21.20 at 7:13 am

J-D @61
I often wonder if it is worse to say (a) xxxx is being stupid than to say (b) xxxx is arguing in bad faith. It seems to me that (a) is generally regarded as beyond the pail, but (b) is not. But in my case I would regard (b) as worse, because I sometimes think I am being stupid. But I definitely try to avoid (b). Almost everyone is stupid at some time.

When I wrote that the comment under discussion ‘went well beyond that’, I wasn’t referring to any comparison between allegations of stupidity and allegations of bad faith. The issues raised were different; but I don’t want to go into details about that comment.

However, treating the issue which you’ve raised as a new one, I think it’s not only fairly obvious but also fairly natural that people frequently react negatively to being told ‘You’re stupid’; even though my experience, like yours, is that of having done plenty of stupid things in my time. I’m not sure that it’s true, though, that people typically react more negatively to being told ‘You’re a liar’ than they do to being told ‘You’re stupid’, so I’m not sure what you mean by ‘regarded as beyond the pail’ (or ‘regarded as beyond the pale’, if that’s different).

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