Friday, March 27, 2020

What Western countries should be doing to control the COVID-19 outbreak

China is almost the only country that has successfully controlled the COVID-19 outbreak (and, to a lesser extent, South Korea). Granted, they had a significant head start on everyone else. But we should still listen very carefully to what George Gao has to say.
Dr. Gao is the director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the point man for the remarkably sucessful Chinese response to the COVID-19 outbreak in China.
When asked what should Western countries do to better deal with the pandemic, he says that the biggest single mistake that North American and European countries are making is that people are not wearing masks. According to Dr. Gao:
"This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others."
Well, that sounds pretty clear. For what it's worth, I remember questioning the current wisdom that masks are useless way back on March 4th.
The other important thing that Dr. Gao mentions that Western countries are not doing is the aggressive use of thermometers at the entrance to all stores, buildings, transportation stations, etc (and making sure that anyone with a fever does not enter).
And finally, people who tested positive but had only mild symptoms, were not just sent home, but were quarantined in large central facilities and not even allowed visits from family.
These are reasonably simple, common-sense measures that we could have (and probably should have) been employing for weeks now. They may be quite intrusive measures and many people may not like them, but I think we are probably past those kinds of considerations now. What we need is something that works.

Can we (and should be) put a value on people's life?

As Donald Trump proposes, in direct contravention of the advice of his health advisors, that American workers should go back to their jobs because the economy is suffering, calculations and models of the value of life come into play.
It's a moral grey area that economists hate to get involved with, but there is in fact something called the "value of statistical life" (VSL), also sometimes referred to as the "value of preventing a fatality" (VPF) or the " implied cost of averting a fatality" (ICAF). While you might think or believe that a human life is priceless and impossible to pin a financial value on, there are some economic, insurance and political decisions where such a price is used, at least in a theoretical way.
Note that this is not the value attributed to a particular individual; it is a statistical tool based on very generalized considerations. The simplest way to think of it is: how much would a person in a population or sample (of, say, 100,000 or 1 million) be willing to pay so that they could expect one fewer death in that population? That amount times the population size is then the value that can be put on a statistical life. There are also various other ways in which the amount can be estimated, such as the present calue of a person's earning potential, but the price people are willing to pay to save a life is the classic model.
It turns out that this comes out to around $9-$10 million in a rich Western country like America, and comparatively less in poorer and less "free" countries. There is also a "senior death discount" as people tend to value an older person's life lower than a younger one's.
Now, I'm sure that Mr. Trump is not using these kinds of models as a guide when he opens his mouth or his Twitter account - he is just not that analytical or logical. But it's interesting that there even exists an economic concept of the value of human life.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Trump is receiving evangelical advice on the COVID-19 pandemic

So, at last we have it, the real reason behind the COVID-19 pandemic. It's all those gay people, environmentalists, and the godless Chinese. Well, of course...
Ralph Drollinger, the evangelical minister and ex-basketball player who - I kid you not! - leads a weekly bible study group for Donald Trump and some of the more wacko members of his cabinet like Mike Pompeo, Ben Carson, Betsy Devos and Alex Azar, has produced a "study guide" on the coronavirus from a biblical perspective. Carson and Azar, remember, are members of the coronavirus task force guiding (or not) the federal government's response to the pandemic.
Drollinger's wisdom on the subject suggests that the pandemic that is currently ravaging the planet is God's wrath upon the world, not an "abandonment wrath" or a "cataclysmic wrath" like the flood or Sodom and Gomorrah, but a milder "sewing and reaping wrath" (this apparently is an important theological distinction). This wrath is a consequence of China's "recklessness and lack of candor and transparency", but also a divine response to the "religion of environmentalism" and those with a "proclivity toward lesbianism and homosexuality".
So, fear not, the American government is receiving good, sound advice from a reputable source, and the pandemic will be over by Easter.
Oh. My. God.

Call for emergency powers a dick move by Trudeau

Justin Trudeau has handled the whole COVID-19 thing reasonably well, I think, certainly compared to some Western leaders (who will remain nameless, but they know who they are, and so do you).
Making earnest pronouncements, in a schoolma'am-ish but entirely necessary way - with just the occasional, finely-controlled temper flare - he has been a pretty steady and reliable presence in a crisis where things could so easily have gone completely off the rails.
But he has blotted his copybook a bit with his latest demand for sweeping unregulated emergency powers. He tried to combine a bill proposing much-needed fiscal relief measures to deal with the economic and social fall-out from the continuing COVID-19 pandemic - which would almost certainly have been passed with a minimum of fuss, especially given the official opposition's pledge to pursue a more conciliatory path in the face of the national crisis - with another which would grant the minority government sweeping powers to spend, borrow and tax without parliamentary oversight until December 2021.
Trudeau insists that the powers are needed in order act quickly and decisively in a crisis situation where speed may be of the essence. But this is disingenuous and unnecessary, and it may, in the process, have just wiped out any opposition goodwill that may have existed.
The Conservative opposition and the NDP are both insisting that the two issues be separated into two separate bills, and to concentrate on the much more important and urgent fiscal rescue package. In the interests of expediency, that is entirely the right thing to do.
There are indications that Trudeau may be walking back the poorly thought-out and badly-timed proposal, with a terse tweet that "The legislation will be tabled without clause 2". But what a dick move at a crucial time!

In my defence, I wrote this before reading almost the exact same words in today's Globe and Mail editorial.

And that is in fact what happened. The bill to approve $82 billion in emergency spending and tax deferrals to deal with the coronavirus chaos was passed in the early hours of the morning. One (unnecessary) crisis averted.

Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore show why we should not let down our guard

I confess to being rather obsessed by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Centre, which seems to be the best and most authoritative guide to the worldwide spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I go there most mornimgs for a daily fix of data and depression.
It's interesting to see how China and South Korea are about the only countries that have been able to really flatten their curve and bring their incidence of new cases right down. Most other countries, including Canada I have to say, are still showing steep graphs and increasing daily cases, in some countries exponentially so.
It's also interesting, and not a little salutary, to look at what is happening recently in some of the poster countries like Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, which used strict quarantine laws and high tech monitoring to jump on the epidemic early, and very successfully kept their case load down. Their totals are still relatively low but, since mid-March, are showing signs of an inexorable increase. This is partly due to the gradual repatriation of citizens living abroad in the last couple of weeks, but one has to wonder whether that explains away all of the sudden increases.
Hong Kong specifically has seen its case load increase dramatically in the last week, almost doubling, albeit from a pretty low base. It seems to be an object lesson in not letting your guard down, as Hong Kong saw fit to relax its early strong anti-virus measures near the beginning of March, allowing people to go to work, use the subway, celebrate weddings, gather in larger groups, etc. This seems to have blown up in their face somewhat, as they now face a second wave of infections, and are having to double down on new, even more draconian, quarantine rules.
The moral of the story? Even if it looks like the coast is clear, don't relax, and don't let down your guard.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Are bearer shares a real thing, and are they legal?

Having just watched The Laundromat - a strange and slightly surreal movie by Steven Soderbergh about tax evasion and money laundering - I now know about something called a "bearer share", which I originally thought was fictional, but which turns out to be all too real.
Bearer shares (and bearer bonds) are financial instruments that show ownership of property, usually a company, but which are entirely unregistered and unrecorded, so that ownership of the property is completely anonymous. As the name suggests, whoever physically holds the piece of paper is assumed to be the owner of the property, along with any bank accounts, dividends, etc, that come with it. I own it, pass it over, now you own it, pass it back, now I own it, etc. It's kind of like a check made out to "cash", but potentially for millions of dollars each.
Sound unlikely? That's what I thought, but apparently it is a real thing. And you can just imagine how well it lends itself to criminal undertakings of all sorts.
And, yes, up until very recently they were in fact legal, at least in some countries. An increasing number of countries have declared them illegal, or at least imposed prohibitive costs or restrictions on them so as to make them impractical or undesirable. It's salutary to consider that several major countries only made them illegal in the last ten or fifteen years, including several states in the USA, Canada, Britain, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
The Marshall Islands was the last country in the world where bearer shares are both legal and can be shared and transferred without any problems or additional costs, but even they caved to international pressure in
2017. You can, however, still legally use "immobilized" bearer shares in places like Bulgaria and in St. Vincent & the Grenadines.

What are Ontario's "essential services"?

It's interesting to see what businesses the Ontario government consider to be "essential services", which will be exempt from the coming lockdown against COVID-19.
Pharmacies and supermarkets, fine, I can see that. But convenience stores and "other similar retailers" could mean almost anything. Liquor stores and beer stores? I can maybe see why you'd want to keep them open, but to call them "essential services" is a bit rich. And cannabis stores? The same but more so.
Newspapers, yes, I get that. Taxis and ride-sharing services, sure. Gas stations, OK. Phone and internet services, banking and financial services. But the essential services start getting less obviously essential as we go through hardware stores, pet stores, laundromats, hotels and motels, dry cleaners, car and bike repair shops, construction workers and real estate agents. Restaurants seem to make the cut as "essential" these days, although I am not sure if this extends to high-end dining establishments, coffee shops, doughnut establishments - I think it probably does, and the further down the list of clearly non-essential and junk food sources you go, the less justifiable it starts to look.
And then there's the inclusion of businesses that "supply other essential businesses with the supports, supplies, systems or services". Which is ... pretty much everything, no?
It may have been easier to specify what should close. Dress shops, maybe. Book shops, galleries, tanning salons, non-essential jewellery stores.
And, perhaps most glaringly, the blanket permission for construction sites to remain open and working during this health crisis, many with hundreds of employees working in close proximity to each other, despite the vociferous condemnation of the main construction unions. Some construction companies are downing tools anyway, in the perfectly reasonable interests of health and safety.
Don't get me wrong: I'd hate to be the one having to come up with the list. But it does focus the mind on what we think of as essential.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Israel joins countries using cellphone tech to manage COVID-19, but does it work?

There have been mixed reactions to Israel's enforced use of cellphone surveillance to trace and manage COVID-19 cases. Netanyahu's cabinet passed the measure in the middle of the night earlier this week, circumventing a parliamentary oversight committee that was still debating the justification of the move. Israelis are split between forgiving the imposition in the interests of strong measures needed in a crisis situation, and a worry about creeping government overreach and invasion of privacy and civil rights.
What's interesting, though, is that it doesn't seem to be particularly effective. As of March 22nd, Israel has 1,071 confirmed cases. For comparison, with approximately 4 times the population, Canada has 1,472 cases on the same date.
Granted the Israeli death rate is much better (1 confirmed death, compared to Canada's 21) but as a method of reducing cases, can Israel's controversial methods be said to be working (and therefore justifiable)? China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have been using similar technology for some time with apparently impressive results, although it is difficult to tease apart the effects of this particular string of their COVID-19 approach from the others. Other countries, including the USA, are considering the idea, although privacy concerns in the West tend to be much stronger.