Natural coronavirus experiments in Trump country

I wrote before about how the coronavirus pandemic is creating the conditions for many natural experiments to be conducted. One is the question of how effective the various countermeasures being taken are. We have seen that in Trumpland, those parts of the country where his followers are dominant, the social distancing guidelines are being ignored or relaxed early, despite warnings by public health experts that this could lead to a resurgence in the number of infected cases. These people, especially in rural areas, seem to think that they are relatively immune from the pandemic because the absolute numbers in their areas so far have been relatively few, though on a per capita basis that may not be the case.

One of the natural experiments that we will be seeing is the differential effect of relaxing the guidelines in different parts of the country. In other words, the people in Trumpland are effectively volunteering (even if not consciously) to be the test subjects for the effect of relaxing the rules.

Even as Trump’s most ardent supporters crush themselves together to protest necessary coronavirus restraints, COVID hotspots have begun to bloom in regions that have been, to date, the geographic core of his support.

Nebraska, Idaho, South Dakota and other rural farm belt states are experiencing spikes in confirmed COVID cases. In Nebraska alone, the state’s health department reports a 30 percent increase in cases over the last three days. That is the accelerating curve New York, Massachusetts and Washington State can tell Nebraska all about.

The so-called “curve” of cases does appear to be flattening nationally because a majority of people, especially in urban areas, are devoutly complying with the strictures of social distancing. There are about 30,000 new cases every day right now; the number is no longer accelerating, but is still horrifying to contemplate.

What happens when this thing really and truly burns through rural America? It has already begun, and because of all those Trump supporters standing shoulder to shoulder at capitols and churches to shout their defiance of science and the “Deep State” into the virus-polluted air, it will get worse.

There are hot spots emerging in the farm belt as well.

Trump and red state governors for weeks have fairly bragged about how large parts of the farm belt have escaped the ravages of the virus without the enforced shelter-in-place policies common on both coasts. It’s still unclear whether the states actually “flattened the curve,” or if the virus just reached there later. But now, cases are erupting, threatening a local population that doesn’t always have easy access to the same health care as more urban areas. And the outbreaks are striking the heart of the nation’s farming and meatpacking industry, potentially disrupting the national distribution of food as meat processing plants close down and truckers who move food across the country are sidelined by illness.

Over the last five days, confirmed cases have increased more than 30 percent in North Dakota, 22 percent in Arkansas, 26 percent in Oklahoma, and 260 percent in South Dakota. That compares to roughly 26 percent over the same period in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic.

Epidemiologists are going to be busy for years to come analyzing all the data that emerges in order to be able to construct better models and thus be more effective in dealing with the inevitable future pandemics. Of course, that assumes that future leaders will use the expertise that is thus developed. But in the US where science and expertise are viewed with suspicion by many political leaders as somehow having an ulterior agenda against them, and it is not just Trump, this expertise might well go to waste, though it may well prove useful for other countries.

I remember how when Finland dramatically improved its education system within a short space of time, educators from the US went there to find out their secret. The leader of the Finnish reform project told them that they just took the best research studies and put them into practice. When the US educators asked who had done the research, he replied that all the research came from the US. In other words, it was a familiar pattern. The US has excellent researchers who produce important research results that are ignored by its own leaders who substitute their own judgment, their ‘gut feelings’, or their political biases in place of the research results, while other countries are the beneficiaries of the research.


  1. flex says

    Heh. That reminds me of Deming’s experience with helping to rebuild Japanese industry after WWII.

  2. machintelligence says

    The education business has always been rife with fads. I remember the push for “open classrooms” which led to new buildings being constructed that proved to be almost unusable because of the distractions drawing children’s attention from the lesson. There was also a corporate based push to show they knew how to educate children — also a massive failure.
    My favorite complaint is the almost total disregard for the window of language acquisition in the pre-teen years. Foreign languages are almost exclusively taught in high school, where it is much more difficult for the students.

  3. says

    Another natural experiment: does the TV broadcast you watch affect the death rate around you? Survey says? Yes.

    Vox has more on the study for those of us less fluent in economistese.

    Need more but not read-a-whole-paper more? When Hannity was taking the pandemic less seriously than Tucker Carlson, areas with higher Hannity viewership paid a price in infections and deaths.

    Sounds like a good case for negligent contribution to death could be made.

  4. mnb0 says

    “I remember how when Finland dramatically improved …..”
    Do you have a source? Especially when it comes to education Dutch leaders have been messing around as well (austerity being the main motivation).

  5. says

    … leaders who substitute their own judgment, their ‘gut feelings’…

    Whenever someone says to “think with your gut” or to “trust your gut”, I tell them “I have a brain for that. The gut’s job is to digest the chocolate, thank you very much”.

  6. Jenora Feuer says

    My mother (a primary school teacher) used to talk about a new ‘open plan’ school built in B.C. by some architects from California, where the school was built in a square surrounding the courtyard where the playground was. Every classroom had windows!

    Problem was, there’s a difference between California and northern B.C.: B.C. gets snow. After the first winter in the new school where they had to open up both the inside and outside doors of the gymnasium to truck all the snow from the courtyard playground outside, people started asking ‘whose dumb idea was this, anyway?’

    My mother also decided to finish her four-year B.Ed. degree later on (she’d been teaching on a two-year college certificate previously) and I remember her coming home once and commenting that ‘if one more professor starts his lecture by talking about Piaget, I will scream.’ (This was at the end of the 1970s, when Piaget’s work was reshaping a good chunk of early childhood education.)

    My grandfather, a high school teacher and later principal, once brought a school board meeting to a screeching halt when they were discussing whether or not the recent shift between ‘phonics’ and ‘whole-word’ teaching in the primary school had been a success, just by asking if they had ever defined what success was in the first place or how to measure it. (Which, of course, they hadn’t. That particular set of fads seems to flip back and forth at least once or twice a generation; I don’t even remember which direction it was in this case.)

    So, yeah, education has long been rife with fads, and I have direct experience with several.

    (As for language acquisition, in Canada at least it is common to start lessons in the other official language pre-teen. Even for those who don’t go the whole ‘French Immersion’ route, I started getting basic introduction to French at 10 and by 12 was getting ‘the teacher tells you a simple story in French and then asks questions about it’, even if the formal grammar didn’t come until later. Of course, here we have two official languages and it’s at least somewhat expected that you know enough of the other language to obey warning signs if nothing else.)

  7. says

    My mother (a primary school teacher) used to talk about a new ‘open plan’ school built in B.C. by some architects from California, where the school was built in a square surrounding the courtyard where the playground was. Every classroom had windows!

    My Oregon high school was like that, mostly, except it didn’t entirely enclose a central courtyard. Rather, it had many separate buildings with open, grassy walkways between them, encouraging fresh air and exercise. It was a great idea, really. So much to recommend it. And yet it was in an allergen- and rain-heavy area completely different from southern California where the architects who planned it lived and did their original work. Less than a year later they paved all the walkways with concrete and erected covers over them. Our books still got wet walking through the gap between covered walkway and building door, which was typically about six feet.

  8. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 Cryp Dyke

    I managed to skim the first 15 pages of that tome. There are a few assumptions that make me wonder but the area is well outside my expertise. I’d like to see it fisked by a couple of good survey statisticians. And it would be nice to see some raw data.

    I can believe the effect may be there but ….

  9. ColeYote says

    I saw a graph earlier today explaining why people are saying the second wave might be worse by showing what the second wave of the Spanish Flu was like. And, uh… there were nearly five times as many deaths as the first wave.

    I think we should probably try to avoid that.

  10. Mano Singham says

    mnbo @#4,

    The Finnish program has been widely studied and documented. Check Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg.

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