COVID-19 Magical Thinking, US Style: Contact-Tracing Versus Masks

Monday, May 11, 2020
By Paul Martin

by Yves Smith via,
Mon, 05/11/2020

Since the US is a federal system with an Administration that refused to take coronavirus seriously early enough, and now seems determined to validate its original decision by doubling down on it, it is a bit simplistic to speak of a “coronavirus response,” since cities and states have been taking the lead and they’ve gone down different paths.

Nevertheless, due to the decision by many governments, particularly in the South, to start relaxing restrictions, I’m coming across way too many rationalizations. And one of them is that officials can make things safe enough with approaches like contact tracing. Mind you, as you will see, the point is that contact tracing, or any information gathering, practiced on an insufficient scale and without programs to take disease containment steps using that data, is at best misguided, and at worst, intended to build false confidence.

Put it another way: the enthusiasm for a gee-whiz, tech based approach with no real world back end doesn’t merely reflect a lack of operational capacity, a key point Lambert made yesterday. It reflects a grave decline in basic problem-solving and planning skills, as in how do you get from A to B. And there bizarrely is limited interest in the one thing that could be done easily and cheaply, which is getting tough about mask-wearing.

On top of that, one measure that really could make a difference, mandatory mask wearing, isn’t required many places, and even in those locales, not in a sufficiently bloody-minded manner.

The first biggie is that it had to be this way. No, it didn’t. Note that Slovenia, which borders Italy, has the disease pretty well contained. From

Even countries that had very bad outbreaks like Italy and Iran have considerably reduced infection levels:

Countries that are nearly there

Countries that need to Do Something
The US is not in good company. Note how Singapore is now sitting at the “bad performance” table due to outbreaks among its migrant worker community…which is now quarantined in housing that makes social distancing pretty much impossible.

It turns out that big contagion vector was air travel. Epidemiologist Ignacio had this intuition a few weeks ago. Via e-mail:

Prompted by discussions on epidemics management (or lack thereoff) and cummulative casualties in various countries I have compared the “air connectivity” of various European countries with cummulative casualties with a lag corresponding to the clinical lag between contagions and casualties. Air connectivity is measured by daily flight departures for each country the week ending the 13th of March. And cummulative casualties up to April 7th.

When I plot both variables using logarithmic scale for both, I obtain a fine visual correlation:

Reader David sent along this pre-print (as in not-yet-peer-reviewed) article at MedRxiv that comes to similar conclusions. Its abstract:

The pandemic state of COVID-19 caused by the SARS CoV-2 put the world in quarantine, led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and is causing an unprecedented economic crisis. However, COVID-19 is spreading in different rates at different countries. Here, we tested the effect of three classes of predictors, i.e., socioeconomic, climatic and transport, on the rate of daily increase of COVID-19. We found that global connections, represented by countries importance in the global air transportation network, is the main explanation for the growth rate of COVID-19 in different countries. Climate, geographic distance and socioeconomics had a milder effect in this big picture analysis. Geographic distance and climate were significant barriers in the past but were surpassed by the human engine that allowed us to colonize most of our planet land surface. Our results indicate that the current claims that the growth rate of COVID-19 may be lower in warmer and humid tropical countries should be taken very carefully, at risk to disturb well-established and effective policy of social isolation that may help to avoid higher mortality rates due to the collapse of national health systems.

I know a cool network chart does not make the authors right, but nevertheless:

As PlutoniumKun added:

I still scratch my head at the insistence of WHO (and other authorities) at the beginning of this that airline travel was not a particular problem. I scanned the studies they used to support this conclusion and none seemed very convincing to me. I think its hard to avoid the conclusion that WHO simply shied away from the implications. The thing is, a lot of public authorities were relying on WHO’s recommendations on this – it took a brave politician/official to shut down airports in the face of this.

You can go back to 1895 and the Russian flu to see this – it was clearly (and rapidly) spread across the northern hemisphere along the main railway routes.

The Rest…HERE

One Response to “COVID-19 Magical Thinking, US Style: Contact-Tracing Versus Masks”

  1. SF Mo

    If we don’t get this thing running again, soon, your worst nightmares will come true.

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