Denying science can kill you

The US has long had a strain of anti-intellectualism, with some viewing science and expertise with suspicion and as somehow of less value than ‘common sense’ or folklore or one’s own intuition or what your friends tell you or what you read on social media. That attitude can kill as Derek Thompson writes in his examination about why some countries have managed to keep death rates from covid-19 low.

Countries with fewer than 50 coronavirus deaths per 1 million residents include Indonesia (40), Australia (35), Japan (13), South Korea (8), and Vietnam and Taiwan (both under 0.5). This “under-50” group notably includes almost no large countries in Europe or the Americas, whose most populous nations have suffered far more fatalities as a share of residents. In the U.S., the U.K., Spain, Italy, Mexico, and Brazil, deaths per million sit roughly between 600 and 700.

An exhaustive analysis of why some countries fared better than others will have to be done at a later time when the dust has settled and we return to some kind of normalcy but at the moment we can point to some tentative conclusions. Basically those countries adopted straightforward measures based on empirical evidence and where clear messages were conveyed to their people.

South Korea had an extremely successful COVID-19 response, and it never adopted widespread lockdowns. Rather, it used a combination of universal mask wearing, limits on crowds, contact tracing to quickly identify potentially infected individuals, and quarantine or isolation guidance to keep the sick and potentially sick away from healthy people.

“We were never on lockdown,” Paul Choi, a consultant who lives in Seoul, told me. Instead, South Korea focused its closures on places like bars and nightclubs, where crowding was inevitable, and encouraged universal mask wearing. “Almost everybody is wearing masks,” Choi said. “If you don’t wear masks, you get looks on the street.”

Vietnam offers a particularly vivid example of what candid public-health communication might look like. Its Ministry of Health first alerted citizens to the threat of an outbreak during the second week of January. In February, its National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health released a song—“Ghen Co Vy,” meaning “Jealous Coronavirus”—that advocated for social distancing and hand-washing. In April, the country imposed a fine on people who posted “false, untruthful, or distorted” information on social media. “This messaging engendered a community spirit in which every citizen felt inspired to do their part, whether that was wearing a mask in public or enduring weeks of quarantine,” a team of health and economic researchers from Vietnam and Oxford wrote in an essay summarizing the country’s response to the virus. To date, the nation of 95 million has an official COVID-19 death count of 35, which is roughly the number of Americans who die of this disease every hour and a half.

Got that? The total number of deaths in Vietnam, a country of 95 million people, is just 35, the same as the number of Americans who die of the disease every hour and a half!

Many people in the US, and even its leaders don’t seem to realize that with diseases, you are never dealing with certainties, you are always playing the odds. While working towards a vaccine or a cure is necessary, there are simple measures that can be taken right now that can greatly reduce the odds of you getting those disease.

A new research preprint estimates that when an infected person and a non-infected person both wear masks, that can reduce the chance of transmission by up to 80 percent compared with a scenario where neither is masked. Joshua T. Schiffer, an infectious-disease researcher at the University of Washington who co-wrote the study, found that if the healthy masked individual is infected, her viral dosage is slashed by a factor of 10. This reduces the likelihood that she develops a severe case of COVID-19. A larger body of research finds that masks reduce the spread of aerosolized diseases like COVID-19.

But what do we see here? Not only that Trump and his administration and the Republicans ignore these safety recommendations, now he is actively waging war on his own scientific advisors like Anthony Fauci calling him a ‘disaster’ and other scientists ‘idiots’, and mocking Joe Biden for saying that he would listen to scientists. He blasts news organizations that report on the disease, calling CNN ‘dumb bastards’. And the people at his rallies cheer. And they even spread patently false information that mask wearing increases your chances of getting the virus.

I will never, ever, understand the thinking behind the refusal to wear masks and even organizing protests against it. It seems like such a trivial thing to be asked to do, a cheap and simple precaution that causes minimal discomfort. To deliberately not do it is the equivalent of having a death wish.


  1. lanir says

    I will never, ever, understand the thinking behind the refusal to wear masks and even organizing protests against it.

    They are ideological zealots. It’s pretty much like any other terrorist murder suicide. They don’t really care if their ideas are wrong as long as they get to make you acknowledge them. And if you don’t, they pretty much don’t care if you die or not.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    “The total number of deaths in Vietnam, a country of 95 million people, is just 35,”

    The official number. Is like to see the context before bowing down before their free-speech-suppressing genius.

    Which is not to say I’m anti -- science :I wear a mask every day. That’s just a VERY low figure, which makes me suspicious, and fining people for posting what they decide is “distorted” should ring alarms.

  3. says

    While there are many issues, I wonder if part of the reduced death rate (Indonesia, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam and Taiwan) is seen in countries in SE Asia/Oceania, where many of these viruses recombining and disseminating. There may be some background protection from these infections, reducing impact of COVID-19. Similar to the lack of exposure/immunity of Native Americans made smallpox incredibly deadly.

  4. jrkrideau says

    # 5 Lorax
    There may be some background protection from these infections,

    Always possible but probably not. Apparently, it in not called “novel” for nothing.

    It looks more like the countries that have done well so far had well developed public health infrastructures, pandemic plans in place, the political will to react almost instantaneously, and populations that trusted their governments.

    Read some of Intransitive’s posts here or on her own blog on the reactions of the government and people in Taiwan. If I understood her correctly, China notified WHO about SARS-CoV-2 on Dec 31 or Jan 01—dates seem to depend on what time zone the reporter was in—and the Taiwan authorities were screening people on flights from Wuhan the same or next day. And they followed this up with very aggressive contact tracing and quarantining.

    Countries from South Korea to Mongolia did similarly.

    Here in Canada we did not even activate our emergency centre, or whatever it is called, until Jan 15.

  5. Who Cares says

    Got that? The total number of deaths in Vietnam, a country of 95 million people, is just 35, the same as the number of Americans who die of the disease every hour and a half!

    I have one quibble with this. Absolute numbers instead of per million.
    Still it only increases the time period to 5 hours.

    And the best response so far to Trump flipping out about Biden listening to scientists came from the official Biden twitter account: … Yes

  6. johnson catman says

    re Who Cares @7: So let’s see, 35/95,000,000 = .000000368; 215,000/325,000,000 = .000661; .000661/.000000368 = 1796.
    So, on a “per million” basis, the US has had almost 1800 times the number of deaths as Vietnam. Not quite so bad is it?

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