A tale of few cities
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
A handful of newspapers and other journals around the world are starting to pick up on a theme I tried to give voice to in my last blog entry on 30 May. Here's some reinforcement.
Most countries around the world are now counting the wrong numbers when evaluating their progress against the Covid-19 pandemic. If you read in your local newspaper or hear on the radio or television that infections are down along with deaths and hospitalisations where you live, take no comfort whatsoever and turn the page or change the channel. These good numbers will be the result of another even more vital set of statistics. From now on, what will matter is not infection rates or even death rates but vaccination rates.
Let's start by saying that effective weapons to fight the pandemic have been available from Day One. Lockdown, wearing a mask and social distancing in combination with a quarantine programme driven by wide-ranging test and trace could have been put in place throughout the developed world more than a year ago: the effect would have been the defeat of the virus and the saving of at least a million lives. The problem with all this was that people wouldn't do it! Who needs a mask? Or a test? Or a closed school or bar?
A few countries did the right thing, and it worked: they included South Korea (the picture at the top of this blog entry shows military trucks in South Korea spraying streets with disinfectant), Singapore and Vietnam. Singapore is a special case, because they could have taken the easy option and pulled up the drawbridge and left their crowded island isolated from the world. Instead they chose the bumpier road of test and trace, and it has worked.
Now at this point you might be thinking: what about Australia? Isn't it supposed to be doing well, too? Hear me out.
If you look at what is happening in the world around you, then it is clear that the pandemic is in retreat in all countries where there is a widespread and effective vaccination programme. It's the vaccine that's doing it, particularly the expensive and hard-to-manage two-shot vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna. In France I've had my two shots of Pfizer and I even have a certificate in my iPhone to prove it. Here some 12.9 million people, or about 19% of the entire French population, have been fully vaccinated. The result: yesterday there were 4,475 new cases reported in the whole of France, and 62 deaths - still too high, but a leap and a bound better than the 6,000 new cases and around 400 deaths a day we were seeing a couple of months ago. It's the same story in the USA, where the full vaccination rate is even more impressive at 43%. According to the New York Times, yesterday there were some 11,882 new Covid-19 cases reported throughout the US, with 412 deaths. That's down from around 100,000 new cases a day, and as many as 3,000 daily deaths, a few months ago. Vaccination works, okay?
France is now well and truly into ending the lockdown, as is much of Europe. In France bars and restaurants are fully open, indoors and outdoors, schools are back, sporting events have resumed, the curfew ends at 11:00 pm instead of 7:00 pm, and we can now play tennis indoors as well as outdoors. If you have a vaccine certificate, you can travel freely throughout the European Union's 27 countries, as well as moving freely within France. For internal French travel we are off to Paris in early July for the first time in 18 months, and off to Marciac Jazz Festival in southern France in early August. For international travel we are off to the Spanish Balearic Islands of Majorca and Formentera in September. Meanwhile I have just cancelled, for the sixth time, a trip to the UK, and for the second year running I have no tickets to go to Australia.
Which brings me to Australia, where there is much smugness and self-congratulation over their low Covid-19 infection and death rates. It all reminds me of the same smugness that was evident when I was a kid in Australia. In the 50s and 60s there were race riots and disturbances in the UK and USA. Australians congratulated themselves on staying out of the fray. Australia's borders were a fortress enforcing the so-called White Australia Policy, designed to keep out the darkies and keep Australia's population homogenous, European and trouble free. In other words, no coloured folks here , thank you very much, you'll start riots. Australians told each other as they watched Selma or Notting Hill Gate: weren't we wise to stop that happening here.
There's similar hubris in evidence in Australia's reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. Today's official Australian government web site trumpets the fact that there were only 17 new cases of Covid-19 reported in Australia in the last 24 hours, with 11 of the 17 infections acquired overseas. Phew! Lucky us!
If you search diligently on the same web-site you can find some (very dodgy) statistics about vaccination rates in Australia. The site will tell you that 2,177,923 doses of vaccine had been administered in Australia up to close of play on 10 June. Australia is using the Pfizer vaccine and the AstraZeneca vaccine, both of which require two doses. So the number of people fully vaccinated will be much less than the number of people who have received a dose of the vaccine, fewer than half of the quoted number. (The official web site is mysteriously silent on the exact numbers.) It means that no more than 5% of the Australian population has been fully vaccinated. Compare that with France and the US.
What does this mean? Well, the first thing to say is that Scott Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister, told nothing less than the truth when he said he did not expect international travel to Australia to resume until the middle of 2022 (hence my two trips cancelled). He's right, of course. If Australia throws its doors open to international travel, then wicked foreigners will get to work infecting the hard-working and clean-living Australian population with Covid-19. Infections will spike, and that melancholy fact will be splashed all over the media. As a result, Scott Morrison stands to lose the Australian federal election due next year.
So it won't happen, and I won't get to Australia until either late next year or early in 2023, when the election is safely out of the way. And hundreds of thousands of Australians will have to cancel their international travel plans, lest they can't get back home thanks to the quarantine rules. Your reaction to my plight might well be: too bad for you! If that's your view, I invite you to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me what I should say to my two daughters, both of whom were born in Australia, neither of whom has been there for at least 10 years, and both of whom were expecting to come with me.
June 26 update
The proportion of people fully vaccinated in France stood at 26% a couple of days ago, with a further 22% partially vaccinated. The comparable numbers in Australia were 4.4% fully vaccinated and 12% partially vaccinated. Yesterday France had 1986 new cases of Covid-19 and no deaths. Two months ago exactly, on 26 April, the numbers were three times that, with 5952 new cases and 398 deaths.
For maths and statistics nerds like your humble scribe, the 'R' number is an even more important statistic. The 'R' stands for re-infection rate and it is a measure of how many people are infected by a single person with the disease. So if the 'R' number is one, the statistics stay as they are. The disease's numbers won't get better, but they won't get worse. If it is significantly more than one, for instance two or even three, then you've got a pandemic on your hands. An 'R' number like three means that for everyone who catches the disease, there will be three new cases. If it's less than one, you're on your way to beating the pandemic. For France, 'R' is now well below the magic 'one' and currently stands at 0.54. So France is winning the battle, thanks to vaccination. Anti-vaxxers take note!
June 26 post script
It's only fair to add that the splash headline on the front page of today's Le Monde is: Le vaccination ralentit, le variant Delta inquiète (" Vaccination has slowed down, the Delta variant remains a worry"). So maybe I've been too kind to France. As we say around here: on verra ("we shall see"). In the light of Le Monde's reporting, I haven't rewritten or withdrawn a word from the blog entry above.
July 6 update
These are the latest figures in the four countries I'm watching. Bear in mind that only those 'fully' vaccinated (i.e. those who have had two jabs of the two-dose vaccines like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca) have shown any real ability to withstand the new Delta variant of Covid-19:
UK: 50.5% of the population fully vaccinated. Numbers of cases rising sharply and currently averaging 27,334 new cases a day, of which the overwhelming bulk are the highly contagious Delta variant.
USA: 47% of the population fully vaccinated, including 58% of over-18s. Overall situation fairly stable, though the statistics are stark enough. In the month of June some 99.2% of deaths from Covid-19 in the US were of unvaccinated people. And yet there are still some 30+% of Americans resisting the vaccine. The states worst affected are those who voted for Donald Trump in November 2020. Resistance to the vaccine is high amongst Donald Trump's "base", clearly a coalition of the ignorant. Vote Donald and die.
France: 36.4% fully vaccinated. Covid-19 infection numbers have stopped falling and are up a tiny bit. However the government has warned of a new wave of Covid-19 "from the end of July", driven by the arrival in France of the Delta variant (which seems to be strongest in our region of New Aquitaine ... yikes!!). Yesterday there were 3,033 new cases, not calamitous ... yet.
Australia: during the worst days of the Vietnam war it used to be said: the situation in Laos is disastrous, but not serious. The same might easily be said of Australia's performance with Covid-19. The Australian government is anxious to let it be known that 8,402,191 doses of vaccine are now out of their bottles and in peoples' arms, though Scott Morrison and his merry men are a bit coy when it comes to telling us how many of those jabs are second shots of the two-shot Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines accepted in Australia. I couldn't find the fully vaccinated numbers anywhere on the official Australian government web site. However simple arithmetic leads us to the conclusion that the biggest possible number of Australians fully vaccinated is 4,201,096, or some 16% of the population maximum. If the statistics from other countries are anything to go by, the real numbers are more likely around 10-12%. Disgraceful.