Archive for May, 2020

Why is the Cummings situation so troubling?

May 25, 2020

For the last few days there has been little in the media other than Dominic Cummings. This is troubling for a number of reasons. On the one hand, Downing Street is briefing a story about a concerned parent behaving in a ‘reasonable’ (a bit word in the press conference today) way. Dominic Cummings drove his family from London to Durham because he was concerned, should his wife and he both fall ill simultaneously, that they would not be able to look after his four year old child. Cummings took a decision that his family were better placed to cope with this, and they were in Durham. So he drove his wife and child there. While he was there, but after 14 days, he took his family on a drive to check that he was well enough to drive back to London the next day, and that was when they were all seen in Barnard Castle.

I think there are at least three issues here.

First, why are we talking about this? The argument here is that, because an important advisor to Downing Street didn’t stay at home (the basic message which he may have been central to devising), this undermines the public health message which is central to government policy. We might say that in another era the media wouldn’t have reported any of this story, and advisors and politicians in the past got away with far worse. Or we might say there is a difference between the character and behaviour of an advisor and this value of this advice he or she is able to offer. However, there is a danger that Cummings’ actions being so widely known, and so widely debated, will undermine the public health message. That suggests it would be better if he were no longer advising the government.

Second, there are concerns that the story presented by Cummings’ still doesn’t hang together. I’m not sure I buy the Barnard Castle part of the story. What happened there seems at best misguided and at worst a basic breach of the guidance. It seems to me he made an error here, and should apologise. Maybe things wouldn’t have been so awful today had he admitted that. Others have pointed out other holes in the story.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Cummings’ situation makes clear the differences in options that different people have in a time of crisis. I am fortunate enough to live in a big enough house to have space for my wife and I to be able to work separately from home. I have a garden, which means I can have a dog (or two). All of this helps with my mental health. Perhaps what grates with so many people is that Cummings was able to go and live on his father’s estate to isolate, still be separate from the rest of his family, and walk in the woods on the estate. He was able to up sticks and drive to that situation, away from his and his wife’s work without fear of them losing their jobs. He had options that most people lack. Cummings had a wider range of possibilities than most people, and decided to make use of them. In doing so I believe he made some errors along the way.

What I take from all of this is that it has made so clear that, even if you believe or not that Cummings’ broke the letter of the rules about COVID, he certainly had a range of options for coping with the virus that most people lack, and the confidence and ability to make use of them. My own view is that this whole mess makes clear that this virus impacts those with resources, and those without, in very different ways. Is that fair? I’ll leave that up to you.


Comparing COVID mortality rates: What do governmental and behavioural factors tell us?

May 23, 2020

Comparing international death rates from COVID is difficult because of different counting methods. However, we need to make some progress here, and work out why some countries have done better (and worse) than others. We are in the first draft of history, and what follows is an attempt to begin to start a debate about how politics has functioned. There are more detailed methods below, but given that most people will want to see results, we’ll start with them.

All the calculations below are based on COVID deaths per million of population as of the morning of 23/5/2020 (UK time).

Countries that have done comparatively poorly in terms of COVID deaths

Of the countries included in the sample here, three patterns of causal factors appear important, with the first two being more important than the last one.

First, where countries have high levels of smoking and drinking, and low levels of government executive power, they are 0.84 (out of 1) consistent with a higher COVID death rate. 10 countries are included in this solution.

Second, where countries have high levels of smoking and drinking, and low levels of unitary government, they are 0.79 consistent with a higher COVID death rate. 8 countries are included in this solution.

Finally, where countries have high levels of social expenditure combined with high executive power and low of unitary, they are 0.85 consistent with a higher COVID death rate. However, this solution covers two countries only, and one of the countries actually achieves a low COVID death rate – it is an inconsistent case (Australia). This sounds a bit confusing (how can one county out of two have a consistency of 0.85?), but it is based on looking at patterns of these two factors across all the 25 countries in the sample, and so the 0.85 consistency occurs across them.

The overall solution is 0.8 consistent and covers 0.71 of the cases (out of 1).

The countries included in these three solutions, along with their political mapping (executive power and federal unity) is presented blow. Empty dots are other countries that are not included here:

In this we can also see three countries which have done relatively well in terms of COVID mortality – Australia, Austria and Japan. They appear because they have the same pattern of causal factors as countries which have done poorly, and so their success clearly depends on other elements. Australia, for example, may be related to strong border controls and early-lock-down, as well as relative geographic remoteness. We are never going to be able to account for something as complex as COVID with only four causal factors.

We can also see we are missing some countries which have done relatively poorly from the list above – including Great Britain. More on them below.

What do successful countries look like?

There are three solution terms for relatively successful countries.

The first combines high executive power with high unitary government, and covers 5 countries with a consistency of 0.69.

The second combines low social expenditure with low smoking and drinking and high executive power, and covers two countries only with a consistency of 0.84.

The third combines low social expenditure with low smoking and drinking and high unitary government. Again, it covers only two countries with a consistency of 0.81.

The overall solution has a consistency of 0.7 and covers 0.634 (out of 1) of the cases.

Again, we can produce a graph of the countries covered:

We can see there are fewer countries included in this solution than that for the high mortality graph – that is because the countries which have done well, in terms of the four causal factors included here, have less in common.

We can also see the appearance of ‘GBR’ at the top right of the graph – but also ‘CAN’ (Canada) at the bottom right – both of which have a pattern of causal factors which suggest they ought to have low rates of mortality – but empirically don’t. In other words, they are doing worse than we might expect.

What does all this mean?

This is an early analysis of an evolving situation, with relatively few causal factors. However, there are some conclusions we can draw.

First, the countries which appear to have the higher rates of COVID mortality also have higher rates of existing smoking and drinking. This goes against work done by Ben Goldacre and others and which is based on analysis of individual patients. This is an interesting tension – at a societal level, higher rates of smoking and drinking appear to be linked to higher rates of COVID death, but at individual levels, smoking appears to act in a small way as a protective factor. This is clearly a factor which is worth investigating further.

Second, lower levels of unitary government appear in two of the three solutions for higher rates of COVID mortality. This appears to point to the need for co-ordinated governmental action, and the weakness in some countries not to able to achieve this.

Third, countries with higher levels of unitary government appear to do well in terms of achieving low COVID mortality, with that factor appearing in two of the three solutions.

Fourth, countries with lower levels of smoking and drinking also appear to do better in terms of overall COVID mortality, again in combination with other factors, but with that factor appearing in two of the three solution terms.

Finally, we have Great Britain, which has governmental factors (high unitary government) associated with good COVID mortality, but has clearly done worse than it ought to have done. This is because of other factors which have offset this advantage. Although the GBR is graded as having high federal unity, it is perhaps open to question whether it has displayed this in its COVID response – with government struggling to achieve a coherent approach to testing, and to tracking and tracing those infected by the virus – especially in care homes. Perhaps this points to a lack of governmental capability in the face of a crisis, as well as to an implementation gap once the approach had been decided.

What did you do?

The above is the result of combining OECD data on smoking and drinking, along with Lijphart’s ‘Patterns of Democracy’ measures for unitary government and executive power, for 25 countries (which had data for both the behavioural and governmental factors), combined with data for COVID mortality per £1M people at 23/5/2020, using the data from as a starting point, and checked against other sources.

Once this data had been compiled, it was analysed using Qualitative Comparative Analysis using the ‘QCA’ package in R by Adrian Dusa. Data was calibrated both graphically and through cluster analysis to establish crossover points, and then calibrated using the direct method. Necessary conditions were looked for, truth tables constructed looking for both consistency and PRI consistency, and sufficient conditions calculated. The intermediate solutions are presented above, but conservative and parsimonious solutions were also calculated, based on assumptions from OECD work that lower mortality rates from higher rates of social expenditure and lower rates of smoking and drinking. Even when these assumptions were relaxed (conservative and parsimonious solutions), they produced solutions very much in line with those presented above.

The case for investing in Higher Education in 2020/21

May 9, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis, according to the Bank of England, is leading to the biggest decline in economic output in modern times. In such a situation, just about every group in society will be calling to the government for help. The early signs are that the UK government is not especially receptive to calls from the HE sector for support. Here are some reasons why that might be a mistake.

First, Higher Education has a clear economic multiplier. Estimations of the size of this vary, but there seems to be a general consensus that every job in HE creates another job somewhere else in the economy, and that every pound spent on HE generates an additional £1.50 in output. So irrespective of your feelings about HE, it’s a good investment to spend money on it.

Second, it seems inevitable that such a decline in economic output is going to lead to a loss in jobs in the economy as a whole. In such a time, we have a choice of paying people unemployment benefit before they have had a chance to start their careers, or asking whether we would be better served by giving them better access to Higher Education instead. The second option means a more highly-educated workforce, as well as shielding people from events that were entirely outside of their control.

Third, if there is one thing COVID-19 has revealed to us, it is the importance of having highly-skilled and trained people in our public life. Although as a society we have lost a lot of the faith in experts we once had, we need them. We need them to be engaged in research to confront the global challenges we face. We need them to organise the delivery of protective equipment for our NHS. But we also need an informed citizenry which is able to engage with public debate and hold our governments to account. The quality of public debate around COVID-19 has not been all should have been. If our public leaders have fallen short, so often has our media’s response. Democratic life depends on strong engagement, a free and ethical press, and our political representatives being held to account. I fear we have not really seen this.

So there are good reasons for investing in Higher Education, even, and perhaps especially, at a time of crisis. However, HE needs to do some hard thinking as well.

It’s clear that many sections of our society don’t regard much of HE in strong regard. Some prominent commentators, via social media, have been highlighting examples of what they regard as academic irresponsibility and waste during the crisis. It’s clear to me that HE has to make a case for investment and relevance, but also that it might have to undergo significant change.

We need to do better in terms of making our teaching more accessible and more flexible. The full-time, students-attend-in-person model is still our default position as a continuity of school and college, but we need to show we can do more in other forms and formats. COVID has seen a significant expansion of online delivery (which raises its own problems in terms of what we are now calling digital inclusion), but has shown we can do things differently. We need to look at what we can learn from the last weeks, from more flexible programmes we already have, as well as what institutions such as the Open University can teach us. We need to offer our students more flexible and more accessible learning.

It is also clear that, because of the hostility shown to HE, it still has a case to make about its relevance and importance. In the UK, the ‘impact’ agenda has forced HE to think about how it can demonstrate relevance, and I’m proud that my own institution is well inside the top 100 of Universities worldwide in generating such impact. However, we need to make doubly sure that everything we do can find relevance in the world we work live in. The impact agenda is only one part of this – we all need to do more in engaging in the democratic process and showing the relevance of our work.

In sum then, investing in Universities is good for the economy, crucial in terms of investing in people at a time of economic and social crisis, and central to improving the functioning of our democracy. Universities have shown they can change already, but need to do more in terms of making our teaching more flexible and accessible, as well as showing the social good they generate. They are a central part of dealing not only with COVID-19 now, but also the social and economic consequences that are still to come.

COVID-19’s reminder of our fragility

May 8, 2020

As I write this (May 8th, 2020), in the UK there are VE celebrations and commemorations going on, and we remind ourselves the debt we owe to the generation that fought in the Second World War. We hope we will never again have to engage in whole-society warfare against others again.

VE day is occurring this year in the context of COVID-19, with the UK still in lock-down and with 30,615 deaths we can directly attribute to the virus, but with the number of people who have died probably in the range of 10,000 higher if we look at excess mortality during the period since March. Those numbers are both numbing and terrifying.

What the virus reminds of us is our fragility. Scientists are working flat-out to understand the virus, but we are still some distance from understanding the risks that involves, or why it affects particular groups as it seems to.

However, I think there is a bigger point about our fragility here as well. With all our ingenuity, our ability to make and remake our environment, and our advances in scientific understanding, we might sometimes believe we have reached a point where we can control our world and bend it to our will. The virus reminds us that is not the case. No matter how far our scientific understanding advanced, the world will always elude us to at least some extent. To quote Boltanksi, ‘while we can construct the project of knowing and representing reality, the design of describing the world, in what would be its entirety, is not within anyone’s grasp’ (On Critique, pp. 57-58).

We construct realities based on our knowledge of the world and through our powers to intervene in it. We can impose our will to some extent, through advancing scientific understandings and technologies that would have appeared miraculous to those who fought in World War 2. But the realities that we can create can never fully capture and control the world.

COVID-19 is so threatening because it is eluding us. We cannot yet create a reality that holds it sufficiently in place for us to impose our will upon it. We don’t know if it is safe to leave lock-down, or when it will be. We don’t know if there will be a vaccine. We don’t know for sure, if we fall ill with the virus, whether we will be able to generate antibodies which will make us immune in the future. We are fragile before the virus.

But in reminding us of our fragility, it reminds us that, for all we have achieved, the reality that we have created does not capture or control the world. And the world offers other challenges. In imposing our will upon nature, the risk of weather and tidal patterns changing and overwhelming us grows more prescient as the years go by. Similarly to the scientists who warned the UK government that we were not ready for a pandemic, we are not ready for climate change, and seem to still be doing little to try and prevent it. We can never control or fully understand the world, but we can do more to try and mitigate against the loss of human life that we now see so clearly can result from our own limitations.