A specter is haunting Europe.
Europe in meltdown as Covid death tolls soar and progress unravels, Emma Reynolds, CNN.com, 11 Dec
Europe’s Deadly Second Wave: How Did It Happen Again?, Josh Holder, Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Allison McCann, New York Times, 4 Dec
…it’s not the specter of covid, but the specter of broken journalism.
From the outset of the pandemic until very, very recently, establishment journalism had a very simple template to work with: Europe’s response to the pandemic has largely been thoughtful and successful, America’s has been chaotic and disastrous.
The explanation was as easy as it was satisfying: the bad orange man was responsible for the American disaster, period. Were the United States under the same kind of competent leadership enjoyed in Europe, things never would have gotten so out of hand over there.
The establishment American media were all too happy to feed this narrative because blaming every Covid death on Donald Trump would obviously work to Democrats’ advantage come the election: there is no higher calling in establishment American journalism than promoting and defending the interests of the Democrat party.
And there is no higher calling in establishment European journalism than parroting their peers across the Atlantic.
The narrative was clear and obvious, and everyone piled on.
The narrative was also wildly inaccurate.
America has a strong federal government but the states wield most of the power on domestic matters. President Trump certainly has more actual power than do EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen or European Council President Charles Michel, and American governors have less sovereignty than do the heads of state of the EU’s twenty-seven member countries (or the forty-four countries of the continent as a whole), but generally speaking European countries should be compared to American states and the American nation should be compared to Europe or the EU.
I did this for about two months last spring on Facebook, using publicly available data to track selected U.S. states and EU countries. I tracked New York, California, Texas, Florida, and Massachusetts alongside Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. I also tracked the U.S. as a whole. (I tracked other states and countries, but only charted those eight.) I did this out of genuine curiosity, and also as a badly needed diversion.
What the data showed then, as they show today, was that whatever metric you sort on, American states and European countries are all mixed up in the stats.
Comparisons are further complicated by the fact that although American states are similar to European nations in terms of size and population, there are obvious limits. A “national lockdown” in Denmark, for example, means that we seal our borders with Sweden and Germany. A “national lockdown” in America means the borders are sealed with Canada and Mexico: at no point this year were any individual American states “sealed off” from their neighbors. New Yorkers were never really sealed off from New Jersey or Connecticut. This allowed the virus to travel across American state lines much easier than it could across national boundaries in Europe.
I tried to make allowances for things like that whenever I ventured to interpret the data I was sharing, which meant that most of my interpretations were vague to the point of meaninglessness.
The strangest observation for me wasn’t anything revealed by the numbers, however: it was the intensity of partisan feeling among my Facebook friends. My leftist friends (by far the majority) wanted things to look bad for Trump and the “red” states, and several were prodding me constantly to “show” how the lockdown protests were “super-spreader” events. A friend with a strong family connection to Sweden wanted to make the case that Sweden’s novel approach amounted to genocide against its elderly population. A couple of conservative Danes and one or two Americans wanted the data to show that lockdowns weren’t proving effective enough to justify the real economic and social harm they were doing. I would have liked to show that, because I suspected it was true, but it was and remains apples and oranges: there’s no way to measure how many lives have been saved by a lockdown, or how much human misery (physical, economic, social, and psychological) is being caused by a lockdown. And even if there were, what are the terms of comparison? For every life saved by a lockdown, assuming such a number could even be established, how many business and personal bankruptcies are justified? How many home foreclosures? How many divorces? How many suicide attempts? Does anyone dare play with such ugly algebra? And yet… mustn’t we?
A family friend urged me to become Facebook friends with an acquaintance of hers who was “also interested in numbers and also a writer.” I befriended him only to find he was an activist scouring the numbers in service of a larger mission to prove the conservative bias of the American media. I didn’t find that very useful, so I unfriended him—and was immediately chastised by the family friend for apparently being interested only in numbers that supported my own beliefs.
I had no beliefs, really, beyond trying to be open to anything. But already in late April it was apparently too late to be open to anything that hadn’t been endorsed by the establishment media. To merely question lockdowns—not oppose them but to question them—was for most of my leftist friends already a bridge too far.
At one point I noted that although our initial lockdown had been pretty severe here in Denmark, Danes had never been asked to refrain from outdoor activity. On the contrary, I said, Danes seemed to be spending more time than ever outdoors during the lockdown, without masks, and this struck me as a positive thing given the importance of fresh air and sunshine. I wondered why so many American states were urging their citizens to remain indoors.
Several friends, and even a couple of strangers, considered it monstrous of me to have suggested that fresh air and sunshine were beneficial. Where was my data? How could I make such irresponsible claims?
I wrote something vague about my belief that vitamin D and air circulation had always been widely understood as being good for the human organism, but confessed I had no data to back me up and had simply assumed this was something that medical science had established long, long ago.
In my own opinion at the time I thought there were arguments to be made for and against pretty much everything that was being tried everywhere. Several times I noted that we were in uncharted territory and that mistakes would surely be made by everyone involved, and that the most important thing we would have to do “when all this is behind us” would be to forgive those mistakes. I thought I was being magnanimous, but apparently I was just being naïve: most of my “friends” interpreted my calls for forgiveness as pre-emptive apologetics for Trump, even though I was thinking more of Sweden (no lockdown) and the UK (no lockdown, then a pivot to lockdown).
It got so intense I stopped posting charts and eventually stopped using Facebook altogether. I mean, honestly, if you can’t say something as innocuous as “fresh air and sunshine are probably good for us” without being asked to show your source, while the data you do show are challenged with personal anecdotes (“but my cousin lives there and he says…”) , what else can you do but shrug and walk away?
The narrative was by then set in stone anyway: America’s Democratic governors and mayors were heroes and the American president had blood on his hands. Northern and western Europe were exemplary. Every covid death in America was Trump’s fault, while American governors whose own specific policies could be tied directly to calamitous fatalities were hailed as heroes—sometimes by their own brothers on CNN, which apparently didn’t seem weird to anyone. European deaths were regrettable tragedies, but the heads of state were doing the best they could and at least we were doing better here on the continent than those poor Americans being killed off by the Orange Man’s incompetence.
Then BLM blew up, and the establishment media finished off what was left of their already damaged credibility by suggesting that the public demonstrations in support of BLM and against American law enforcement were actually more important for public health than any pandemic restrictions. This after having spent most of the late spring condemning anti-lockdown protests as super-spreader events. And despite the fact that a total of 19 unarmed black men had been killed in police custody in all of 2019, while hundreds of thousands of American deaths had been attributed to Covid by the time the protests began.
So strong was the narrative. So strong and so foolish.
And now here we are: the Bad Orange Man is on his way out, vaccines are on the way, and cases are surging in Europe beyond anything we saw last spring.
We need a new narrative, and journalism is in disarray.
How can things have gotten this bad in Denmark unless Mette Frederiksen has achieved Trumpian levels of incompetence? Journalists will either have to throw her under the proverbial bus or thread the needle of making allowances for her that can’t be retroactively applied to Donald Trump.
I can’t really imagine the establishment Danish media going to such an extreme, but maybe—
“No, Mette Frederiksen isn’t at all like Trump,” tweets David Trads pre-emptively.
And it gets better:
“The Danish course against corona has obviously been better than most. In Europe, for example, we’re number 3 on the list of fewest deaths. Now we need to stay the course.”
Well, we’re actually number six: this was brought to Trads’s attention in the comments, and he acknowledged the error but blamed it on having viewed the stats on his phone. And really, sixth out of 31 isn’t so bad. Denmark’s only doing a little worse than Vermont, which is America’s state with the lowest mortality rate. (Not sure why Trump let the Green Mountain State slip through his murderous fingers, but he’s got a month left.)
New Jersey is basically a deathtrap, worst among U.S. states and European countries with 198 deaths per 100,000. The heroic Andrew Cuomo’s New York is not far behind at 181, followed by Massachusetts (163), Connecticut (149), North Dakota (146), Louisiana (145), and Rhode Island (141).
The worst mortality rate in Europe belongs to Beligum (154). No other European country is above 104.
A sober, fair-minded person might note that the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut actually has something in common with Belgium: an extremely dense population with an enormous amount of international travel into and out of the area.
But sober, fair-minded people are surely scratching their heads along with me at North Dakota, a massive expanse of real estate (more than four times the size of Denmark) with a smaller population than Copenhagen’s (762,000 to 794,000).
Meanwhile, Florida (91) is only doing a little worse than France (85), and Texas (82) is actually doing better. Governor Abbott for President of France, anyone? California (52) is doing better than 16 European countries… and Governor Newsom may be facing a recall election.
And all of this ignores the fact not every country, or even every region in every country, is counting covid deaths with the same rigor: are we counting deaths from covid-19, deaths with covid-19, deaths with assumed covid-19? It ignores the fact that trends may be on their way up in a state or country with hitherto low mortality, or on their way down in a state or country whose numbers have until now been very high.
There are no easy conclusions to be drawn between red states and blue states or between Europe and America. I still believe that, for the most part, what we’re all going to need is a lot of forgiveness for mistakes made in good faith by leaders of the left and right. I also believe not all mistakes were made in good faith, but I’m not sure it’ll ever be possible to determine which were which.
That much said, we’ve been horribly served by the establishment media, who have sought at every turn to politicize every development in the spread of this virus except the very obvious one: it came from China and the CCP bungled things so badly in the early days that containment became impossible. If we’re going to point fingers, there’s one very deserving target.
But you can’t blame China because ohmygod you racist!
And it’s hard to blame Trump for things happening in Europe… although perhaps that won’t matter if the chattering class follows the lead of David Trads and simply declares that things are just fine.
I wonder which way it’ll go from here.
Europe is starting to beat the pandemic’s surge. The U.S. is not., Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, 7 Dec
Just kidding. I think we know exactly which way it’ll go.