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This week: how to make tough decisions under pressure, reasons to be cheerful, and what the hell is Sweden is up to?
NEW FROM ME
I've done a couple of articles for the BBC's WorkLife website, both tangentially related to Covid-19 (isn't everything?). One is about how to take decisions under pressure, the other on why leaders flout their own guidelines. Right now I'm drafting a column for next week's New Statesman on the role of experts in formulating policy. I don't think the UK government has done particularly badly compared to other European governments, and I note that we seem to have passed peak without getting close to NHS capacity, but if the government was slow to treat this as an emergency it's interesting this happened not despite expert advice but because of it. The point at which lockdown was declared was really the point at which the politicians took back control. Downing Street seems to have been a little too reliant on epidemiologists in particular, who model society as if it's subject to the laws of physics, neglecting feedback effects and real world messiness. (Not that we should be assigning blame but if ever there was a Cummings-shaped error it's that one.)
THE SWEDISH EXCEPTION
I tend to agree we moved too late to lockdown, but given that all opinions on this unprecedented event should be held weakly, we ought to at least entertain another hypothesis: that the move to lockdown was a mistake. That's the argument made by Professor Johan Giesecke in this absolutely fascinating video interview. Giesecke used to be Sweden's chief medical adviser, and is close to the scientist who currently holds that position. He gives a plausible defence of Sweden's liberal policy (he is mildly annoyed by Johnson's "U-turn" because until then the UK was giving the Swedish government political cover). According to Giesecke, the UK and other European governments have set a trap for themselves. It will be very hard, politically speaking, for them to lift their strict measures, because when they do it's quite possible that deaths will go up again ("You'll be having the deaths that we had earlier on"). Giesecke argues that people in democracies simply won't and can't put up with lockdown until a vaccine is available, a year or more from now. Essentially, he puts the same case that Britain's chief scientific adviser was making pre-lockdown. (Giesecke also says it's too early to say which country is doing well or badly and that in a year's time we'll see that there has actually been very little difference between the advanced countries - I'm attracted to this view because it accords with one of my fundamental rules of thumb: in the short run we magnify differences which in the long run turn out to be insignificant). Remember, you don't have to agree or disagree with him; in fact taking a strong position on this pandemic is a hindrance to understanding. I'd add that the data on Covid-19 is so noisy and limited that expert hunches are as or more valuable than the models. More on Sweden: this is a very good backgrounder on the Swedish response. Here's a group of Swedish academics explaining why Sweden's permissive regime is culturally and politically possible and basically why Sweden is so great. People criticise British "exceptionalism" but you'd never read a piece like this by British academics.
THE MAD MEN RULE
One of the many ways in which the government's communication has been poor is how it talks about C-19 tests. First, it didn't explain well why we didn't prioritise them. Then when it u-turned it set a random target without saying why we do need them. Don't just ramble on about numbers and kits, tell us what we as a nation gain from mass testing, plainly and simply. As Laura says, anyone who watched Mad Men would know you need to sell the benefits, not the product. (One reason Mad Men was so good was that it did very well at capturing basic truths of mass persuasion).
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
There is bad news everywhere, excuse me if I keep a list of the less-than-terrible news.
For More Or Less on BBC R4 Tim Harford interviewed a public health statistician who has been studying the data on deaths in the UK. The figures for deaths on a particular day don't necessarily reflect deaths on that day; reported deaths may have happened as long as a month before. This statistician has been working to take that noise out of the data so that we can see when the deaths actually occurred. His conclusion is that the virus has peaked in the UK and that it did so earlier than most people assume - on April 8th, to be exact. So we're already some way down the other side. He also says that infections probably peaked about three weeks before - in other words before the full lockdown on March 23.
Awful as this virus is, in one way we got lucky with it. One consistent finding is that children don't suffer symptoms. What we don't know for sure is whether they catch and carry it asymptomatically. So far we've been acting as though they are spreaders - that was one major reason to close schools. But as more evidence comes in, it looks like very few children even get infected by it. If true then this will make it easier to re-open schools and for children to see their grandparents.
A vaccine is probably 12-18 months away but a treatment may come sooner. It's all about the monoclonals, innit.
London's homelessness problem has been allowed to grow worse in recent years. The crisis has forced government action on it - and it turns out that this action may have significant long-term benefits.
In the early years of this century I lived in New York, and like everyone else in that city, I spent a lot of time on roofs. Space is tight, gardens are rare, and rooftops see a lot of action. You go up to the roof of your building, you go to rooftop parties, and you frequently find yourself looking at other people on other roofs. All of which is to say that this made me feel happy and also nostalgic.
Isn't this beautiful? A ballet for hands and light.
REASONS TO BE LAZY
I loved this piece on writing that celebrates idleness, by Dwight Garner, which contains many choice quotes.
A while back, a couple of friends recommended Gitta Sereny's Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, so I bought it. It's a very big book. It sat around my house, mildly reproaching me, for ages. At the start of lockdown, I finally picked it up - and after that I could barely put it down. It's one of the most riveting and penetrating books I've ever read, a unique combination of big history and intimate observation, symphony and chamber music. I have so much to say about it, but really all I want to say is read it. I'd forgotten the pleasures of a really long book, the way you can just swim around in it for weeks.
Author interviews in the Paris Review are always interesting and sometimes beautiful but Ray Bradbury's answer to a question about one of his characters constitutes a perfect work of art in itself.
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