Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Articles published in 2020

We’re actually decent people in a crisis – and stories claiming otherwise do harm

First there was the panic buying. Then came the selfish, reckless refusal to maintain physical distance: the beach parties in Florida and the house parties in Manchester; the 500-mile round trip to admire the Lake District and the mass sun-worshipping in London parks. And there’s worse: the scam artists; the people who use coughing as an assault; the thieves who loot medical supplies from hospitals.

These coronavirus stories perpetuate a grim view of human nature. That grim view is mistaken, a persistent and counterproductive myth. There are some terrible people in the world, and some ordinary people behaving in a terrible way, but they make headlines precisely because they are rare. Look more closely and the evidence for mass selfishness is extremely thin.

Start with the reports of panic buying, which for many people were the first glimmers of the trouble that lay in store. By the middle of March in the UK, the newspapers were full of stories about shortages of toilet paper, flour and pasta. The natural assumption was that we were a nation of locusts, stripping the supermarkets as we selfishly piled shopping carts high with produce.

But Kantar, a consultancy, told me that a mere 3 per cent of shoppers had bought “extraordinary amounts” of pasta. Most of us were merely adjusting our habits to life spent away from restaurants, sandwich bars and offices with their own loo paper. We all went shopping a bit more often, and when we did, spent a little more. No cause for collective shame, but it was enough to strain supermarket supply chains.

What about those who ignore pleas to keep their distance? Again, the misdeeds are exaggerated. Lambeth council grumpily closed Brockwell Park in south London, complaining of 3,000 visitors in a single day — not mentioning that the park might easily see 10 times that number on a normal sunny Saturday, nor that taking exercise in a park is perfectly permissible.

Exaggerating problems might drive web traffic or make zealous officials feel important, but these tales of misbehaviour are likely to be counterproductive. If we are told that others are acting selfishly, we feel inclined to be selfish, too. As Yossarian of Catch-22 put it, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”

The psychologist Robert Cialdini has, with colleagues, studied this insight in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. When visitors were told that the forest was being endangered because others were stealing petrified wood, they stole too. When tourists were told — truthfully — that the vast majority of visitors were leaving the wood untouched, they did likewise I would not be at all shocked to learn that scolding reports of sunbathing only encourage more of us to sunbathe.

The surprising truth is that people tend to be­have decently in a crisis. To the British, the all-too-familiar example is the cheerful demeanour of Londoners during the Blitz. In hindsight that seems natural. But Rutger Bregman’s forthcoming book Humankind points out that in the 1930s Winston Churchill and others feared pandemonium if London was attacked from the air. Britons failed to take this lesson to heart: they assumed that when German cities were bombed, German civilians would crack. They didn’t. These myths have fatal consequences.

Nor is calm co-operativeness restricted to times of war. In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake in Turkey in 1999, the emergency relief expert Claude de Ville de Goyet berated media organisations for propagating what he called “disaster myths”. “While isolated cases of antisocial behavior exist,” he wrote, “the majority of people respond spontaneously and generously.”

The writer Dan Gardner, who punctured the disaster myth in a series of viral tweets, was repeatedly rebutted by people who regarded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a potent counter-example.

That only underlines the malevolence of the myth. At the time, rumours ran wild about the murder and rape of children inside the Louisiana Superdome; but when the national guard showed up, armed and prepared for pitched battle, they were met instead by a nurse asking for medical supplies. Fear of civil disorder may well have caused more harm than the civil disorder itself — as when people trying to walk out of New Orleans across the bridge to nearby Gretna were turned back by armed police.

This pandemic has no exact precedents, but the evidence from past disasters suggests that we should expect more of each other. Many people and businesses took voluntary action on social distancing while both the British and US governments dithered; the UK administration was also surprised by how many people quickly volunteered to help with transport and supplies for vulnerable people.

We can be both nimble and altruistic, and perhaps the authorities should start taking that into account in their future policies. Given clear guidance as to the best thing to do, most of us try to do it.

Rebecca Solnit wrote in A Paradise Made In Hell: “What you believe shapes how you act.” Let’s start by believing in each other; kind acts will follow.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 17 April 2020.

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For peace of mind in the pandemic, let go of impossible To Do lists

Nearly a century ago there was a grand café near the University of Berlin. Academic psychologists who took lunch there marvelled at the memory of one of the waiters: no matter how large the group and how complex the order, he could keep it all in his head. Then one day, or so the story goes, someone left a coat behind. He hurried back into the café, only to find that the waiter didn’t remember him. This feat of amnesia seemed almost as remarkable as the feat of recollection that had preceded it. But the waiter had no trouble explaining the discrepancy: “When the order has been completed, then I can forget it.”

Two of the psychologists in the group, Kurt Lewin and Bluma Zeigarnik, decided to investigate. In 1927, Zeigarnik published research demonstrating that people had a much greater recall of uncompleted tasks than completed ones — a finding that became known at the Zeigarnik effect. Do you lie awake at night churning through everything you’ve promised yourself you’ll do? That’s the Zeigarnik effect tormenting you. The blessed release of forgetting comes only when you, like the waiter, know the task is complete.

That brings me to the pandemic, which has done nothing to reduce the number of our sleepless nights. Some of us have children to homeschool. Some of us have elderly relatives to worry about; some of us are the elderly relatives in question. Some of us have never been busier; others have already lost their jobs. One experience is common, however: wherever the virus has started to spread, life is being turned upside down.

It’s a strange time, but some of the anxiety can be soothed by harnessing the Zeigarnik effect. Our stress levels are rising in part because that long list of things to do that we all carry around — on paper, digitally, or in our heads — has been radically rearranged. It’s as though the Berlin waiter had, mid-order, been asked also to chop onions, answer the phone and draft a shopping list.

Simple jobs such as getting a haircut or buying toilet paper now require planning. Paperwork has multiplied, from claiming refunds on cancelled holidays to writing letters of condolence. Many of us have intimidating new responsibilities, notably the guilt-inducing task of organising our children’s home schooling. In many cases, the old tasks haven’t even been cancelled, merely postponed, with delivery dates to be confirmed. Our subconscious keeps interrupting with reminders of incomplete — sometimes incompletable — tasks. No wonder we feel anxious.

Fortunately, the psychologists E J Masicampo and Roy Baumeister have found that a task doesn’t have to have been completed to trigger that pleasant slate-wiping forgetfulness. Making a clear plan for what to do next will also work. That Berlin waiter could have saved some of his mental energy if he had decided to write everything down. So, to harness the Zeigarnik effect to keep your sanity in a lockdown, get your to-do list in order.

Start with a piece of paper. Make a list of all the projects that are on your mind. David Allen, author of the cult productivity manual Getting Things Done, defines a project as “any multistep outcome that can be completed within a year” — anything from trying to source weekly groceries to finding a new job.

That list should have three kinds of projects on it. First, there are the old projects that make no sense in the new world. Write down the mothballed tasks and file them away; you’ll see them on the other side. Other tasks will disappear forever. Say your goodbyes. Ten seconds of marking the fact that the project has been obliterated may banish a vague sense of unease in the long run.

Then there are the existing projects, some of which have become more complicated — like that haircut. Again, a few moments with a pen and paper will often tell you all you need to know: What’s changed? What do I now need to do? What, specifically, is the next step? Write all that down.

Third, there are brand new projects: set up a home office; keep the children busy and entertained; help out vulnerable neighbours. In each case, the drill is the same: sketch out the project, ask yourself what is the very next action that needs taking, and write it down.

Occasionally, you may encounter something that’s on your mind that has no feasible next step. Some people fret about the fate of western civilisation. I worry about an elderly relative, suffering dementia in a locked-down nursing home and unable to comprehend a video chat. If there is literally nothing to be done except to wait and hope, acknowledging that can itself be a useful step.

I won’t pretend that in this frightening time all anxiety will be banished by clarifying a to-do list. It won’t. But you may be surprised at how much mental energy the process saves. There will be no convivial meals at any grand cafés for a while; the sooner we can acknowledge that, the sooner we can mentally unclench our grip on that half-completed order for lunch.

 

 Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 10 April 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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Book of the Week 16: The Ostrich Paradox

A brief shout-out this week for a brief-but-good book, The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare For Disasters by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther. Meyer and Kunreuther combine a nice dose of behavioural science with some striking examples: Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 1935 Labor Day storm, the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, and many others. They explore the cognitive biases that lead us to underprepare, or to abandon protection after a while. Clear writing, good stories, lots of solid academic references.

UK: AmazonBlackwells

US: Amazon – Powells

 

 

 
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20th of April, 2020MarginaliaResourcesComments off

How do we value a statistical life?

The coronavirus lockdown is saving lives but destroying livelihoods. Is it worth it? I’ve been accused of ignoring its costs. For an economist, this is fighting talk. Love us or hate us, thinking about uncomfortable trade-offs is what we economists do.

Three points should be obvious. First, we need an exit strategy from the lockdowns — a better strategy than President Donald Trump’s, “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Expanding emergency capacity, discovering better treatments, testing for infection and testing for antibodies could all be part of the solution, along with a vaccine in the longer term.

Second, the economic costs of any lockdown need to be compared with the costs of alternative policies, rather than the unachievable benchmark of a world in which the virus had never existed.

Third, the worth of a human life is not up for discussion. The man who persuaded me not to quit economics, Peter Sinclair, died on 31 March after contracting Covid-19. He was a man of unlimited kindness, and I shall miss him very much. His life, like the life of any named individual, was priceless.

Yet no matter how much we want to turn our gaze away from the question, it hangs there insistently: is this all worth it?

We spend money to save lives all the time — by building fire stations, imposing safety regulations and subsidising medical research. There is always a point at which we decide we have spent enough. We don’t like to think about that, but better to think than to act thoughtlessly. So what are we willing to sacrifice, economically, to save a life?

A 1950 study for the US Air Force ducked this question, recommending a suicidal military strategy that valued pilots’ lives at precisely zero. Other early attempts valued lives by the loss of earnings that an early death would cause — effectively making retired people worthless, and the death of a child costly only if the child could not be replaced by a new baby.

The late Thomas Schelling, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, mocked these errors as he imagined the death of a family breadwinner like himself: “His family will miss him, and it will miss his earnings. We do not know which of the two in the end it will miss most, and if he died recently this is a disagreeable time to inquire.”

There must be a better way to weigh the choices that must be weighed. But how? Schelling suggested focusing not on the value of life, but on the value of averting deaths — of reducing risks. A life may be priceless, but our actions tell us that a statistical life is not. The engineer Ronald Howard has proposed a convenient unit, the “micromort” — a one-in-a-million risk of death.

Implicitly, we constantly weigh up small risks of death and decide if they are worth it. Despite inconsistencies and blind spots in our behaviour, we value reducing risks to our own lives very highly, but not infinitely so. We vote for governments that hold our lives in similarly high regard. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency values a statistical life at nearly $10m in today’s money, or $10 per micromort averted. I have seen lower numbers, and higher.

I am giving most of my figures as conveniently round numbers — there is too much uncertainty about Covid-19 to be more precise. But if we presume that 1 per cent of infections are fatal, then it is a 10,000 micromort condition. Being infected is 100 times more dangerous than giving birth, or as perilous as travelling two and a half times around the world on a motorbike. For an elderly or vulnerable person, it is much more risky than that. At the EPA’s $10 per micromort, it would be worth spending $100,000 to prevent a single infection with Covid-19.

You don’t need a complex epidemiological model to predict that if we take no serious steps to halt the spread of the virus, more than half the world is likely to contract it. That suggests 2m US deaths and 500,000 in Britain — assuming, again, a 1 per cent fatality rate. If an economic lockdown in the US saves most of these lives, and costs less than $20tn, then it would seem to be value for money. (By way of comparison, each 20 per cent loss of gross domestic product for a quarter represents a cost of about $1tn.)

One could quibble with every step of this calculation. Perhaps some of those who die were so ill that they would have died of other causes within days. Perhaps Covid-19 is not quite so dangerous. Yet it is clear that with so many lives at stake, we should be willing to pay huge costs to protect them.

We must remember something else: the risk of being wrong. We will inevitably make mistakes. The measures we take to contain coronavirus might do more damage to people’s livelihoods than necessary. Or we might allow the virus too much leeway, needlessly ending lives. In a spreading pandemic, the second mistake is much harder to repair than the first.

Fighting this virus demands economic sacrifices: not without limit; and not without end. But if not now, then when?

 

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 03 April 2020.

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Book of the Week 15: The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin

earthsea

A change of pace this week for Easter: Ursula K. le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. Last weekend I watched the Studio Ghibli Tales of Earthsea – which has its moments but is not up to the usual stratospheric Ghibli standards. (Le Guin agreed.)

It did, however, prompt me to turn to the trilogy once again. I read it as a teenager, and again on a  long holiday in China in 2003, alongside the fourth book, Tehanu. I picked it up with hazy memories about certain plot points, and was not disappointed by any part of it.

The writing is superbly poetic, the plots are fast-paced and unusual, and the world-building is deft and convincing. A Wizard of Earthsea was originally commissioned as a ‘young adult’ novel, and each of the three novels is told from the point of view of a teenage protagonist, but the themes are mature: ambition and envy, evil done in the name of religion, fear of aging and death, restraint in the use of power.

So many ideas here have been copied – a young boy going to a school for wizards; a wise and powerful order striving to keep the balance against the dark side – but the books still feel fresh and original fifty years on. Yes, there are wizards and dragons, princes destined to be kings and even a damsel needing to be rescued, but Le Guin transcends or subtly subverts each cliché.

Meanwhile I’ve been trying to figure out how to turn Earthsea into a role-playing game. An interesting challenge. An accomplished wizard seems to be able to attempt almost anything, if he is strong enough and is willing to accept the consequences, so part of the fun would be dealing with those consequences. Each success produces the seeds of later trouble. (There is an Earthsea-inspired game, Archipelago, but I have not yet looked at it.)

I know that Le Guin later revisited Earthsea decades later. Tehanu is the fourth book and there are others I’ve not yet read. I found it unsettling to read Tehanu immediately after the original trilogy; not only is it extremely dark, Le Guin so sharply questions some of the implicit perspectives of the previous books that she implicitly criticises herself for having written them, and the reader for having enjoyed them.

Nothing wrong with that – but perhaps leave a breathing space between finishing book three, The Farthest Shore, and picking up the fourth book, Tehanu.

Earthsea: Amazon UKBlackwellsAmazon US – Powell’s

 

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14th of April, 2020MarginaliaComments off

Can we contain viral misinformation about coronavirus?

Is there anything we can do to contain the spread? I’m not talking about coronavirus. I’m talking about the misinformation.

The UK’s Daily Express has suggested that the World Health Organization has long known about the disease known as Covid-19. (It hasn’t: it just talked about a hypothetical pandemic scenario involving an equally hypothetical Disease X.) Other newspapers asked if satellite images showed mass cremations of Covid-19 victims. (No.)

In Kenya, audio from a training exercise was widely shared on WhatsApp, leading people to confuse the simulation with reality. Everywhere, social media posts peddle snake oil and trade in conspiracy theories.

A popular Facebook image shows that Dettol’s label claims to kill coronavirus and asks, were they forewarned? Maybe — although it would be quite the bioweapon conspiracy if a bunch of incompetent label designers were in the loop. A more plausible explanation is that “coronavirus” also applies to the viruses that cause Mers, Sars and indeed some varieties of the common cold.

It is important not to exaggerate the reach of such stories but they are too popular for comfort. They are smeared around the information ecosystem by a combination of fear, a mistaken desire to help, the gossip instinct and, perhaps most important, a belief that official sources aren’t telling us the truth.

A few weeks ago, for example, a reader wrote to me: “Whilst the ‘official’ death rate for the coronavirus is repeatedly stated in the media as being 2 per cent, I believe this is a false statistic . . . the real death rate is somewhere between 6 per cent and 18 per cent. IT IS CERTAINLY NOT 2 per cent!” He even added a spreadsheet.

My instinctive reaction was the opposite of those spreading the misinformation: that if the death rate was that high, we’d know about it. And indeed, when I spoke to epidemiologist Nathalie MacDermott of King’s College London, she reassured me that my reader’s otherwise-rigorous spreadsheet had missed a detail which explained his alarming conclusion: some cases are so mild that they never reach the notice of medical professionals.

What stuck with me was an intelligent reader’s mistrust of the “official” number. The Chinese authorities may well have reasons to fear the truth, but there is no reason to believe international experts are engaged in a cover-up. Experts can be corrupt or mistaken, and sometimes one must look behind a curtain of official denial. Yet in technical matters such as the danger of Covid-19, an epidemiologist is far more likely to be right than our untutored intuitions.

There are plenty of paranoid conspiracies about Covid-19 circulating on social media — check the website of Full Fact, a UK-based fact-checking organisation, for a selection. They are just a small sample of the falsehoods circulating on all topics. Sometimes they are an attempt to get clicks and thus revenue; sometimes it is deliberate disinformation designed to skew political debate or drown out the truth; sometimes untrue ideas are just catchy. Can we contain all this misinformation any more than we are containing the new coronavirus?

The theory that ideas spread, mutate and evolve much like a living organism — or a virus — was popularised by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who in 1976 coined the word “meme” as an analogue to “gene”. The possibility of ideas “going viral” was radical in the 1970s. Now it is a cliché — but it is still instructive.

The sudden interest in the disease, for example, has given new life to dormant posts promoting herbal cures for coronaviruses. Strange ideas mutate and multiply in their own niches, such as social media groups favouring vaccine conspiracies or the idea that mobile phones make you sick. Such groups are inclined to disbelieve the official version of anything.

It is tempting to dream that a grand plan can contain both problems. We hope a new law, or a change in Facebook’s algorithm, will dispel lies — just as we hope that Covid-19 can be foiled by quarantine (ideally of other people) or by the miraculous appearance of a working vaccine.

Such top-down moves can help. A society with strong health services is in a better position to face a pandemic; similarly we can strengthen our institutions against misinformation. Facebook announced this week that it will be “removing false claims and conspiracy theories” — late in the day. But the company has long worked with fact-checkers such as Full Fact to flag false stories.

Yet ultimately, a resilient society needs to practice some bottom-up hygiene, if that is not an unfortunate phrase. To deal with a virus, we should wash our hands and try not to touch our faces. Similarly, the strongest defences against misinformation are people less given to paranoia and to sharing ideas without thinking. We should all stop and reflect before circulating alarming claims. Count to 10, and ask yourself whether this is really the best thing to amplify. Whether fighting a virus, or a viral scare story, each one of us needs to erect small barriers to slow the contagion. Alone, those barriers may seem trivial. Collectively, they work.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 06 March 2020.

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Book of the week 14: The Weather Machine by Andrew Blum

I was intrigued by news reports that the Met Office was planning to drop more than a billion pounds on a new supercomputer, and wondered what it was that these clever weather forecasters did with all that silicon. So I picked up Andrew Blum’s recent book, The Weather Machine.
Blum starts with the weather map – and John Ruskin’s metaphor of the “weather machine”, transcending the local observations of an individual forecaster and linking together what James Gleick calls “local surprises” into a larger map. After all, one part of the weather forecasting game is straightforward: if it’s raining to the west of you and the wind is blowing from the west, you can expect rain soon. Weather forecasts begin with weather observations: the more observations, the better.
In the 1850s, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC used reports from telegraph operators to patch together those “local surprises” into a national weather map. This map was based purely on observations, but it was still a useful starting point before we had either the scientific understanding or the computational power necessary to make a reliable forecast.
The scientific understanding began to dawn in 1904, when Norwegian mathematician Vilhelm Bjerknes published “The problem of weather prediction”, an academic paper describing the circulation of masses of air. If you knew the density, pressure, temperature, humidity and the velocity of the air in three dimensions, and plugged the results into Bjerknes’s formulas, you would be on the way to a respectable weather forecast – if only you could solve those computationally-demanding equations.
The British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson attempted just that, attempting to predict the weather of 20th May 1910 given the starting conditions. Alas, it was 1922 before he finished the sums – despite continuing to calculate in the evenings after long days as an ambulance driver during the war. Nor did the equations accurately describe the weather that day, 12 years earlier. Still: one must start somewhere.
Fry Richardson dreamed of a forecasting factory, a stadium filled with 64,000 human computers, conducted by lights and other signals as they furiously calculated the weather equations faster than the weather itself could evolve. It was a remarkable vision: modern weather forecasting works much as Fry anticipated, except that there is no need to perform the calculations by hand – or 128,000 hands. The Met Office’s billion-and-a-half dollars of silicon will do the job nicely.
Blum’s narrative ranges widely and finishes at the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts HQ in Reading. (My understanding is that this arrangement will survive Brexit, partly because the EMRWF is a separate organisation from the EU. But don’t quote me on that.) The EMRWF, says Blum, are the elite among meteorologists, and he spends some time exploring why they are so admired. Part of the secret is a way of working that can be split into modules and relentlessly tested, experimented with, and improved.
I strongly recommend the book, which is a fascinating glimpse of a mysterious world.

UK: Blackwell’sAmazon

US: Powell’sAmazon

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6th of April, 2020MarginaliaComments off

Why it’s too tempting to believe good news about the coronavirus

Wishful thinking is a powerful thing. When I read about a new disease-modelling study from the University of Oxford, I desperately wanted to believe. It is the most prominent exploration of the “tip-of-the-iceberg hypothesis”, which suggests that the majority of coronavirus infections are so mild as to have passed unrecorded by the authorities and perhaps even un­noticed by the people infected.

If true, many of us — perhaps most of us in Europe — have already had the virus and probably developed some degree of immunity. If true, the lockdowns have served a valuable purpose in easing an overwhelming strain on intensive care units, but they will soon become unnecessary. If true.

But is it true? If it is, it stands in stark contrast to the far grimmer modelling from a group at Imperial College London, which concluded that if the epidemic was not aggressively contained, half a million people would die in the UK — and more than 2m in the US. Models such as this one helped to persuade the British government to follow much of continental Europe in putting the economy into a coma.

The differing perspectives are made possible by the fact that the data we have so far are not very good. Testing has been sporadic — in some places, shambolic — and everyone agrees that large numbers of cases never reach official notice. We do have solid statistics about deaths, and as the epidemiologist Adam Kucharski, author of The Rules of Contagion, observes, a wide variety of scenarios are consistent with the deaths we’ve seen so far. Perhaps Covid-19 is uncommon and deadly; perhaps it is ubiquitous and kills only a tiny proportion of those it affects. Deaths alone cannot tell us.

This uncertainty is unnerving. John Ioannidis, an iconoclastic epidemiologist, wrote on March 17 that Covid-19 “might be a one-in-a-century evidence fiasco”. Prof Ioannidis’s argument is that some infections are being missed, and we have little idea how many. Therefore we have little idea how deadly Covid-19 really is.

He speculates that the fatality rate could plausibly lie between one in 100 and one in 2,000 cases. Either way, it is dangerous; but the difference is vast. And if the scale of our ignorance about coronavirus may seem hard to swallow, bear in mind that the fatality rate for the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009 was still being debated years later.

Prof Ioannidis has form: 15 years ago he published a study with the title “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”. That claim seemed outrageous at the time, but subsequent efforts to reproduce famous experiments in psychology have revealed that he was on to something important. We know less than we think.

But we are not completely ignorant. Alongside the death total, there are other clues to the truth. For example, thousands of people were evacuated from Wuhan city in late January and February and most of them were tested. A few tested positive and several were indeed symptom-free, but not the large majority that the Oxford version of the tip-of-the-iceberg hypothesis would imply.

The entire population of the town of Vò in Italy was repeatedly tested and, while half of the positive cases were asymptomatic, that is still much less than the Oxford model might lead us to expect.

So while it is possible that most of us could have been infected without ever knowing — and that herd immunity is within easy reach — it is not likely. That may explain why neutral experts have responded to the Oxford study with caution, and some concern that it might provoke a reckless response from individuals or policymakers.

So, what now? First: stay indoors if you want to save many lives and prevent health systems from being overwhelmed. The bitter experience of Italy and Spain demonstrates the importance of flattening the peak of the epidemic. That remains true even if, as we might hope, the epidemic is much milder and more widespread than we currently believe. It might have been tempting to wait and gather more evidence — but faced with an exponentially rising pile of corpses, “wait and see” is not an option.

Second: health systems should expand capacity, buying more ventilators and more protective equipment for doctors and nurses. In all but the most optimistic scenarios we will need them now, we will need them later in the year and we will need them from time to time in the future. This crisis is teaching us that we should have had more spare capacity all along, despite the cost.

Third: test, test, test — and not only using the current tests to detect infection, but new ones for antibodies that should show whether people have already had the virus and have developed some degree of immunity. Sunetra Gupta, a professor on the Oxford team, says that such tests may start to produce results in a matter of days.

The epidemiologists are doing their best, but they are not omniscient. They need facts with which to work. Gathering those facts systematically is one of many urgent tasks ahead of us.

 

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 27 March 2020.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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Remembering Peter Sinclair

Peter Sinclair died yesterday, after many days in hospital with covid-19. It’s a heavy blow. Peter was an inspirational economics teacher and a wonderfully kind man. Peter inspired a generation of great economists and economics journalists, including Dave Ramdsen (long time head of the Government Economic Service), Camilla Cavendish, Tim Leunig, Evan Davis, and Diane Coyle, who posts her own memories. He also taught David Cameron. I’m envious of all of them because Peter left for the University of Birmingham before I had the chance to have the full benefit of his teaching. My loss, Birmingham students’ gain.

But even in a few short months he had a profound influence on me. When I was floundering in my Oxford entrance interviews – I hadn’t got a clue what was going on as I was being grilled by the formidable philosophy tutor – Peter was the one beaming and nodding and encouraging, as though everything was going brilliantly. And when I decided to drop economics and specialise in philosophy, Peter took the trouble to send a long, handwritten letter, full of encouragement, gently suggesting that I reconsider. I remember it vividly. I took his advice. It changed my life.

Peter had many friends, and went to great lengths to keep in touch with and support his former students. They will all be grieving today. My thoughts are very much with his wife Jayne, his family, and his close friends.

I bumped into him on the street a couple of years ago. He was smiling, bobbing around, waving enthusiastically, behaving as though there was nobody in the world he’d rather see. That extravagant friendliness was so very like him. It is how I’ll remember him.

1st of April, 2020Other WritingComments off

How not to lose your mind in the Covid-19 age

here are as many responses to the Covid-19 pandemic as there are people to respond. Some have of us have children to home-school. Some of us have elderly relatives to worry about; some of us are the elderly relatives in question. Some of us have never been busier; others have already lost their jobs.

One experience is common, however: wherever the virus has started to spread, life is changing radically for almost everyone. It’s a strange and anxious time, and some of the anxiety is inevitable. For many people, however, much of the stress can be soothed with – if you will pardon the phrase – one weird trick.

First, a diagnosis. Most of us, consciously or not, have a long list of things to do. As the virus and the lockdowns have spread, many of the items on the to-do list have simply evaporated. At the same time, a swarm of new tasks have appeared, multiplying by the day: everything from the small-yet-unfamiliar (“get toilet paper” and “claim refund on cancelled holiday”) to the huge-and-intimidating (“organise an inspiring home-school curriculum” or “find a new job”).

The change is so fast and comprehensive that for most of us it is unprecedented. Even a divorce or an international relocation is more gradual. The death of a spouse might be the only experience that comes close. No wonder that even those of us who are safe and well and feel loved and financially secure find ourselves reeling at the scale of it all.

To the extent that the problem is that the to-do list is unrecognisable, the solution is oddly simple: get the to-list back in order. Here’s how.

Get a piece of paper. Make a list of all the projects that are on your mind. David Allen, author of the cult productivity manual Getting Things Done, defines a project as “any multistep outcome that can be completed within a year”. So, yes: anything from trying to source your weekly groceries to publishing a book.

That list should have three kinds of projects on it.

First, there are the old projects that make no sense in the new world. For those that can be mothballed until next year, write them down and file them away. Others will disappear forever. Say your goodbyes. Some part of your subconscious may have been clinging on, and I’m going to guess that ten seconds of acknowledging that the project has been obliterated will save on a vague sense of unease in the long run.

Second, there are the existing projects, some of which have become more complicated in the mid-pandemic world. Things that you might previously have done on automatic may now require a little thought. Again, a few moments with a pen and paper will often tell you all you need to know: what’s changed? What do I now need to do? What, specifically, is my next action? Write it down.

Third, there are brand new projects. For me, for example, I need to rewrite the introduction to my forthcoming book (‘How To Make The World Add Up, since you were wondering). It’s going to seem mighty strange without coronavirus references in it. Many of us need to devote more than a little attention to the sudden appearance of our children at home. Some of us need to hunt for new work; others, for a better home-office set-up. Many of us are now volunteering to look after vulnerable neighbours.  In each case, the drill is the same: sketch out the project, ask yourself what the very next step is, and write it down.

Occasionally, you may encounter something that’s on your mind – the fate of western civilisation, for example, or the fact that the health service desperately needs more ventilators and more protective equipment. For my family, it’s an elderly relative, suffering from dementia, in a locked-down nursing home. We can’t visit him. He can’t communicate on the phone or comprehend a video chat. There is, for now, literally nothing we can do but wait and hope. Acknowledging that fact – that there is no action to be taken – is itself a useful step.

I won’t pretend that in this frightening time, working through your to do list in a systematic way will resolve all anxieties. It won’t. But you may be surprised at how much mental energy it saves – and at the feeling of relief as all these confusing and barely-acknowledged new responsibilities take shape and feel more under your control.

Or so it seems to me. Good luck, and keep safe.

 

Oh – and in case it wasn’t obvious, this week’s Book of the Week is David Allen’s superb Getting Things Done.

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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29th of March, 2020MarginaliaOther WritingResourcesComments off
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