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SECOND GUESSING IS valuable only if it affects future actions. We can hope this occurs following an assessment in Science, May 8, 2020, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Titled “Stringency of U.S. Response Lags,” the Science News in Brief cites work performed by University of Oxford researchers in England. Science writes, “The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker project has charted the ‘stringency’ of governments’ responses to the pandemic since January. The composite score, updated regularly, is based on various social-distancing policies, including closing schools and restricting travel.”

Note how the U.S. (purple) lags beneath the others. Image from Science May 21, 2020; graphic: X. Liu/Science; data: Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker.

Science notes, “As of May 1, no country had satisfied the criteria recommended by the World Health Organization. Only about 20 are close, the researchers said, and that group does not include the United States, where several states last week began to ease their lockdowns.”

The Cost of Lagging. A Columbia University study, as reported in The New York Times, May 21, 2020, said if the U.S. had begun imposing social distancing one week earlier in March, some 36,000 fewer people would have died from the pandemic.

Density diagrams of Covid-19 deaths: On the left, in reality by May 3. On the right, an estimate by May 3 if nationwide social distancing had started a week earlier than it did. Image from The New York Times, May 8, 2020.

In actual numbers, 65,307 Americans had succumbed to the epidemic by May 3, including 17,581 in New York City and 1223 in Los Angeles. Had social distancing been in place one week earlier than it was, the total death toll would have been an estimated 29,410, with 2838 in New York City and 451 in Los Angeles.

Details are given in “Differential Effects of Intervention Timing on COVID-19 Spread in the United States,” by Sen Pei, Sasikiran Kandula, and Jeffery Shaman, Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. The researchers write, “In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, control measures enforcing social distancing and restricting individual contact were implemented across the U.S. beginning in mid-March.” They applied a dynamic metapopulation model to construct what they termed “counterfactual simulations,” models of what might have occurred, had the control measures been implemented earlier.

The researchers looked at two cases: intervention a week prior to actuality and intervention two weeks prior to actuality. The one-week estimate is shown above, a potential savings of 35,897 lives. Had what researchers termed NPIs (“non-pharmaceutical interventions,” i.e., social ones) been adopted two weeks earlier, that is, on March 1, the results would have been even more profound: Researchers estimate that more than 54,000 Americans would not have succumbed to the pandemic.

The New York Times article notes that “On March 16, President Trump urged Americans to limit travel, avoid groups, and stay home from school.” I note that at a February 28, 2020, campaign rally in Charleston, South Carolina, Trump said that Democrats’ criticism of administration Covid-19 inaction was “their new hoax.” At the same rally, he said, “… the press is in hysteria mode.”

Some Perspective. In the same May 8, 2020, Science, Stepan Jerabek reviews Oxford University philosopher Toby Ord’s book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity.

Ord is at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, and his book focuses on man-made weaponry of the nuclear, biological, and artificial-intelligence types. Reviewer Jerabek cites a telling Ord observation: “… humanity spends more on ice cream every year than on ensuring that the technologies we develop do not destroy us.”

And, on policy and research, Jerabek recommends: “… to increase the annual budget for the Biological Weapons Convention ($1.4 million in 2019, less than the average McDonald’s restaurant).”

Timing and priorities, and science…. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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