The COVID World Cup of Hot Takes

Country and regional comparisons are much less informative than we want them to be

Shany Mor
Shany Mor
Nov 25, 2020 · 5 min read

This year’s pandemic has been an opportunity for us to learn a few things so thoroughly that we’ve forgotten we ever didn’t know them. Everyone can bake bread now. Everyone’s an amateur expert on contagion. And each of us, it seems, knows how to analyze data on caseloads and mortality.

The data we encounter is almost always presented by country, and the whole thing has become a kind of lower respiratory World Cup. You don’t need to care a lot about soccer to have strong preferences in the World Cup. Obviously you’re going to feel strongly about your own country (if it’s even in the running) and passionately want it to win — or, depending on your feelings about it, to lose. As for the rest, well, there’s the country whose cuisine you’ve always liked, the country with the pop star you admire, the country in which you spent that awesome semester abroad way back during your college days, and the country your horrible ex came from. The stakes are low, and it’s a diverting way to watch the matches unfold.

In the absence of sports, or at least before they’ve truly revved up again, we seem to have adopted a similar attitude to the country-by-country figures on coronavirus infections, but with an earnestness and political stridency entirely lacking in self-awareness.

Some readers will no doubt be sympathetic to the view that Trump’s America has fared particularly poorly in the COVID epidemic. The virus has exposed so many of America’s underlying social ills and weaknesses: a society with no guaranteed universal access to basic medical care, with no social protections for workers needing time off for sick leave, with broad sectors of society in open hostility to basic science, and a right-wing media machine peddling conspiracy theories that are then echoed by the president himself. It won’t surprise any of us that coronavirus cases and fatalities have spiked in the U.S.

What might surprise us is that the caseload and mortality figures in the E.U. aren’t terribly different and are in fact now spiking just as menacingly as in the U.S., despite robust welfare systems in most European countries and no Fox News and no heads of state mad-tweeting on dexamethasone highs.

Part of the problem here is that looking at a chunk of territory as large as the U.S. or E.U. doesn’t tell you very much about different viral outbreaks. U.S. figures seem to show three “waves” of coronavirus infections, but it makes more sense, probably, to think of three “first waves” in three distinct regions of the country (Northeast in the spring, Sunbelt in the summer, Upper Midwest in autumn) with distinct climates and distinct economic and social conditions.

In Europe the picture is a bit murkier. The summer has been much more merciful there than in the U.S. — probably because few places are hot enough that people had to spend a great deal of time in closed air conditioned spaces as in the American South, where most U.S. cases were concentrated in the summer months. But now countries that experienced dramatic spikes in the late winter are seeing new waves of infection as cooler air drives more people indoors for longer periods. And, more interestingly, countries that avoided dramatic first waves in the spring are in for the ride this time around.

No one ever adequately explained why Central and Eastern European countries managed to fare so well earlier this year. Was it cultural? A question of astute leadership? Explainable by less travel and immigration? Docile populations willing to do what authorities told them? Or were they just lucky not have enough of the virus seeded there before the summer came?

Few answers were mooted, and the question was rarely asked. Explaining the apparent “success” of Eastern Europe early on was less a concern of commentary, because it fit into so few preconceived political agendas. That was not the case for other rapid and enduring conclusions from ubiquitous infection graphs on the websites of the Financial Times or World in Data. Like hand sanitizer dispensers at crowded gyms, such hot takes sprout and spread to make us feel better about things we think we know, and then they hang on to life long after the data has shown them to be useless.

Everyone in international coverage loves praising New Zealand’s expert handling of the coronavirus outbreak, and in particular, the quick, tough response of its cool, young, hip, funny, and female liberal prime minister. But next door Australia, with its stodgy, white, and slightly oafish conservative prime minster has done remarkably well too. Maybe the policy that should be emulated is being a South Pacific island?

Countries with “populist” governments (whatever that means) were supposed to be doing much worse than their counterparts, but Poland and Hungary clearly didn’t get the memo.

And in a way that now seems so natural and inevitable but which I never could have imagined in any other year, Sweden has become a byword for libertarian utopia among Anglophone conservatives.

It’s hard to recall now that early on in the crisis we were fed a bunch of dated stereotypes about Italian family structure that were supposed to explain why Italy was so hard hit at the end of last winter. But then Italy’s neighbors suffered similar epidemics without the hordes of adult children still living with their parents. (It’s jarring to remember that during the global financial crisis we were subjected to serious policy discussions that were often predicated on little more than a few intra-European cultural stereotypes that often bore little resemblance to actual data.)

The COVID discussion has become a hypochondriac’s championship, except with no clear scoring mechanism for matches and no method of putting together playoffs. Should we be comparing confirmed cases or confirmed fatalities? Per capita or not? Maybe just excess fatalities?

Of course, if we are rating different countries’ responses we would want to compare our metric with some baseline. If, for example, the coronavirus hits cold countries harder, it seems a bit bizarre to be praising the measured public policy of a lucky warm country.

If it’s a World Cup, then it’s a World Cup where each nation scores itself on a self-assessment rather than actually playing any matches against its neighbors. But of course what matters in the whole discussion is not the winning or the losing, but all the flag waving and projection of narratives and stereotypes. It’s a nice distraction, to be sure, but much less informative than we want it to be — and much less morally satisfying too.

We know that some countries were really unlucky in the timing of their initial encounters with the virus (Italy, Iran). We know that a few places performed slightly better than comparable countries if they had had previous recent experience with viral epidemics (the West African countries that dealt with Ebola in 2014 outperformed their neighbors, as did the Southeast Asian countries which dealt with SARS in 2002–3; Ontario’s experience with SARS also left it better prepared than neighboring Canadian provinces).

And more than anything else, we know that countries that pursued policies roughly aligned with my personal political preferences, and especially those countries whose folkloric behavior coheres with my out-of-date stereotypes, did especially well. Go team!

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