“How many lives will be lost due to our attempts to prevent loss of lives”

Those making decisions about how to combat Covid-19 have an unenviable job with lives and deaths at stake. Not only do they have to try and limit deaths from the virus, they also need to prevent deaths from increasing due to related effects, in particular re-prioritising of health care.

And important question raised is “How many lives will be lost due to our attempts to prevent loss of lives” but it  doesn’t come close to being answered here.

Ananish Chaudhuri, Professor of Experimental Economics at the University of Auckland has A different perspective on Covid-19 (but I think while some of his arguments are valid he goes off the rails a bit).

In his book “Risk Savvy”, the behavioural scientist Gerg Gigerenzer notes that, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, many Americans decided that flying was too risky. Instead, they chose to drive. In the 12 months following the attacks, an additional 1,500 people lost their lives on the road while trying to avoid the risk of flying. This is more than the total number of passengers in the planes used in the attack.

A similar phenomenon is playing out right now as the world essentially comes to a standstill to prevent deaths from Covid-19. But in doing so, we are focusing on what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “identified lives”; the loss of lives that are right in front of us. Gigerenzer calls this the “fear of dread risk”: the apprehension about losing a lot of lives within a short time.

In focusing on identified lives, we ignore the loss of “statistical” lives. It is likely that the total impact of that loss will be greater than any loss of lives due to Covid-19. But those deaths will register less on our collective psyche since they will be diffused, scattered all over the world and will not be reported on in the same manner.

Like it or not, there is a trade-off here: how many lives will be taken by Covid-19 (identified lives) and how many lives will be lost due to our attempts to prevent loss of lives from Covid-19 (statistical lives).

In fact, at the time of writing, hospitals in Washington State, which has been hard hit by the virus, are engaged in a bleak triaging of which patients should receive treatment and which should not, since providing everyone with adequate treatment is no longer an option.

This is a real dilemma for hospitals and doctors. They have to make life and death decisions all the time, but with the huge added pressure and workload due to Covid-19 these decisions become more complicated and perhaps more critical.

Already, we are seeing a spike in unemployment claims and business insolvencies. We know that unemployment results in significantly lower life expectancy.

But does that apply to short tern unemployment, or long term unemployment. I expect that the shorter the time unemployed the lower the lowering of life expectancy, so you can’t just look at a snapshot and say that doubling unemployment will have drastic impact on life expectancy. If unemployment as a result of Covid-19 has a significant long term impact then reduced life expectancy becomes an issue.

The human cost of job losses and bankruptcies will be massive. Much of the pain of this shut-down will be borne by the socio-economically disadvantaged.

I don’t know how that “will be massive” can be confidently claimed at this stage. We don’t know yet how much extended unemployment there will be, nor what the impact on people’s lives that will have statistically.

Does the Government (or Treasury) have realistic estimates of how much the economy will shrink, how many jobs will be lost, how many businesses will go bankrupt? How large is the relief package required to prevent an economic catastrophe if the lockdown ends after four weeks or if it continues beyond that? Surely, this calculation should play a role and dictate how long a shut-down we can survive.

The Government should certainly be considering all this and they should be weighing up various risk factors, but claiming adverse effects “will be massive” is a bit like warnings of massive deaths from Covid, but based on virtually no data.

It is clear a crucial factor is population density. So a lockdown in places like Auckland or Wellington may make sense. It is not clear to me that large parts of the South Island, with low population density, need to be locked down.

What’s not clear about this – the Southern District (Otago and Southland) is one of the most sparsely populated parts of New Zealand yet it has the has the highest number of cases of any region, and by far the highest cases per head of population.

For much of the country outside the large metropolitan areas, we should be able to do what we were doing before. Avoid large gatherings and implement self-isolation as needed.

Let people decide their risk-tolerances. Offer all those above 60, those with a history of respiratory problems or ones with compromised immunity the opportunity to work from home, should they choose to do so.

Giving everyone choice seems misguided. This doesn’t just involve personal risk, community risk is a key reason for community restrictions and safeguards. Chaudhuri does acknowledge this to an extent.

What we face right now is a social dilemma; those who have been infected need to make sure that they do not spread the infection. But, evidence suggests Kiwis were and are doing a pretty good job with self-isolation.

Evidence suggests that until we went into lockdown the virus was spreading, with major clusters that began before the lockdown being a school, two weddings, a bar event and a farm conference. So self-isolation by choice only was not working.

My research suggests people can be quite good at solving such collective action problems; that exhortative public messages asking people to choose cooperative actions can succeed. It may need to be backed up with sanctions for hard-core violators.

The problem with a virus is that it only takes a few risk takers and violators to increase transmissions, and that can easily impact on those who don’t want to take risks. If someone went to a risky wedding, contracted the virus, and then chose to visit someone in a rest home it could create a serious problem.

At the very least, the Government should track the path of the infection and selectively loosen restrictions in different parts of the country as and when appropriate.

That’s what is being considered and planned.

Ideally, much of the country should be restriction-free before four weeks have passed.

There’s no chance of that withing the first 4 weeks of the lockdown. And it is very unlikely much of the country will be restriction-free for months at least. The best we can hope for is some areas to be dropped to level 3 after 4 weeks, but that will have to be carefully managed and monitored. Coming back to level 2 looks some time away in the best of scenarios.

I started this post thinking the article was exploring “How many lives will be lost due to our attempts to prevent loss of lives”, an important thing to consider, but it paid scant notice of that and switched to nothing more than promoting a big and rapid relaxation of restrictions with very questionable and in some cases straight out uninformed reasoning.

National leadership – safe option or risk?

National support stayed remarkably high throughout their three terms in government, barely changing when John Key stood down and Bill English took over. This was partly due to the performance of National – voters tend to prefer steady, sound and predictable governance – and partly due to the weakness of the Opposition, especially Labour’s failure to find a leader who appealed, until Jacinda Ardern took over.

Labour chose steady but uninspiring Phil Goff after Helen Clark lost in 2008 and resigned, and made no real progress for three years. They then flirted with more radical options, David Shearer then David Cunliffe, but the former failed to rise to the occasion and the latter was too flawed (and disliked). They went back to steady but uninspiring with Andrew Little and were tanking leading into last year’s election, until Ardern took over and turned things around dramatically.

Now National is in Opposition ‘steady as she goes’ may not be such a good option.

They may feel that ‘same old’ will maintain their support and get them back into government in 2020, but Ardern has changed to whole political vibe. Unless Ardern and Labour stuff up badly National with ‘same old’ may find it very difficult to appeal sufficiently.

Running a ‘same old’ style leader and party against a first term government is high risk for National. The last time a government only lasted one term was 1972-75, when Labour failed to survive after Norm Kirk died in office.

Steven Joyce hasn’t put his hat in the leadership ring yet, but as he worked closely alongside Key and English, he would be seen as ‘same old’. He is reasonable competent but is unlikely to inspire, so I think he would be a high risk option.

There are a couple of ‘change a bit’ options standing, Amy Adams and Simon Bridges. Both promise to be a change, Bridges claiming to be a generational change to try to compete head to head with Ardern. Both would probably be safe-ish choices for National, but safe is going to struggle to compete. Neither looks likely to wow the voters, and that would be a problem for a first term Opposition struggling for attention.

As big a risk as Joyce, but for a very different reason, is Judith Collins. She would be likely to change the look of National significantly, and she would get much more media attention, both positive and negative. She has already got much more media attention than Bridges and Adams, and on top of that seemed to be prepared and is running with a social media campaign as well.

Collins promises to shake up Ardern and the Government, and she would probably succeed to an extent. However she would also shake up the National caucus and party, something they may be reluctant to allow. It is reported that Collins isn’t in favour with senior National MPs, still. It has also been reported that she has been working the back benches, but may not have swung many of them yet. There are also a big unknown, the allegiances of their new MPs.

Collins is in the category of high risk and possible high reward or crash and burn. I’d be tempted to give her a crack to break to first term opposition hoodoo, but the National caucus that chooses a new leader may be too cautious and too timid.

Labour took risks with each of their five leaders in Opposition, and finally hit the jackpot with Ardern in a high risk leadership switch just before the election (albeit aided in a significant way by Winston Peters and NZ First).

Any new choice of leader is a risk. As always the actual leadership qualities of each of the candidates is unknown until one of them takes over.

It is also unknown in advance how united or factionalised the caucus will be under a new leader. Successful leaders minimise factional friction by looking decisive, by being successful in scoring hits against the Government, and scoring good poll results.

National MPs have to make a choice on the level of risk they are prepared to take. Being too conservative is probably as big a risk as being too radical, if not more, because conservative Oppositions tend to be ignored by voters in first term.

Muslim ban askew


Trump world risk: moderate probability, high impact

The Economist Intelligence Unit has rated the risk Donald Trump poses to the world as ‘high impact’ but only ‘moderate probability’ of it eventuating as they expect him to lose to Hillary Clinton.

Their Global Forecasting Service analysis:

Donald Trump wins the US presidential election

Moderate probability, High impact; Risk intensity =


The businessman and political novice, Donald Trump, has built a strong lead in the Republican party primary, and looks the firm favourite to be the party’s candidate in the US presidential election in November.


Thus far Mr Trump has given very few details of his policies – and these tend to be prone to constant revision – but a few themes have become apparent.

First, he has been exceptionally hostile towards free trade, including notably NAFTA, and has repeatedly labelled China as a “currency manipulator”.

He has also taken an exceptionally right-wing stance on the Middle East and jiadhi terrorism, including, among other things, advocating the killing of families of terrorists and launching a land incursion into Syria to wipe out IS (and acquire its oil).

In the event of a Trump victory, his hostile attitude to free trade, and alienation of Mexico and China in particular, could escalate rapidly into a trade war – and at the least scupper the Trans-Pacific Partnership between the US and 11 other American and Asian states signed in February 2016.

His militaristic tendencies towards the Middle East (and ban on all Muslim travel to the US) would be a potent recruitment tool for jihadi groups, increasing their threat both within the region and beyond.

ConclusionAlthough we do not expect Mr Trump to defeat his most likely Democratic contender, Hillary Clinton, there are risks to this forecast, especially in the event of a terrorist attack on US soil or a sudden economic downturn.

It is worth noting that the innate hostility within the Republican hierarchy towards Mr Trump, combined with the inevitable virulent Democratic opposition, will see many of his more radical policies blocked in Congress – albeit such internal bickering will also undermine the coherence of domestic and foreign policymaking.

Radio NZ compares the risk in Trump presidency rated among top 10 global risks

He is rated as riskier than Britain leaving the European Union or an armed clash in the South China Sea.

China encountering a “hard landing” or sharp economic slowdown and Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria preceding a new “cold war” are among the events seen as more dangerous.

“Thus far Mr Trump has given very few details of his policies – and these tend to be prone to constant revision,” the EIU said in its global risk assessment, which looks at impact and probability.

The EIU ranking uses a scale of one to 25, with Mr Trump garnering a rating of 12, the same level of risk as “the rising threat of jihadi terrorism destabilising the global economy”.

Will Clinton save the world from Trump? It doesn’t look like the Republican can, they will have enough trouble saving themselves from the turmoil he has caused the Grand Old Party that may be ripped asunder.

Air travel – no perfect protection against calculated malice

It’s shocking when there’s a major air disaster, despite air travel being one of the safest modes of travel for the majority of us.

It’s especially shocking when one nutter can deliberately cause the deaths of 150 innocent travellers as seems to have happened in the French Alps. It’s been reported that the co-pilot locked the pilot out of the cockpit and then aimed a Germanwings Airbus at the ground.

It’s now also being reported that the co-pilot failed to reveal a sick note to the airline: Co-pilot Lubitz ‘hid illness’

The co-pilot suspected of deliberately crashing a Germanwings airliner into the French Alps hid details of an illness, German prosecutors say.

Torn-up sick notes were found in the homes of Andreas Lubitz, they say, including one for the day of the crash, which killed 150 passengers and crew.

A German hospital confirmed he had been a patient recently but denied reports he had been treated for depression.

And in BBC’s Investigation Latest:

Markus Wahl from the German Pilots Association has been reacting to the news that Mr Lubitz had been issued with a medical note by doctors, but chose not to share it with his employers.

He said: “If a colleague was signed off sick then I have to be very clear, someone with a sick note has no business being in a cockpit. He should have stayed home. I cannot comprehend that.”

Preventing pilots from ignoring regulations and protocols is very difficult, pretty much impossible.

The same report asks “Could the Germanwings crash have been avoided? James Fallows, at The Atlantic, says probably not”.

He reflects on the problem of cockpits that have to be impregnable yet accessible in emergencies – an “unavoidable dilemma” – and he questions whether better screening is necessarily the answer.

“This is a terrible episode, all the worse-seeming because it was intentional. But even as we absorb its horror and extend deep sympathies, it is worth resisting the temptation to think that some new regulation or device can offer perfect protection against calculated malice. Unfortunately, none can.”

There will always be risks with flying – small risks, but unavoidable risks. Checking the mental state of every pilot before every flight would be totally impractical, and not infallible.

Flying is a risk that most of us will survive.

Living is a risk that eventually none of us will survive. It’s sad when lives end ‘prematurely’ but unfortunately shit happens.

There’s no perfect protection against calculated malice.

There’s no perfect protection.

Journalist risk has just increased

The Charlie Hebdo massacre has again highlighted that being a journalist can be a vrry risk occupation. Washington Post looks at this in Charlie Hebdo killings highlight the increasing targeting of journalists.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the slayings of 10 journalists in Paris on Wednesday was that they occurred in Paris. Journalists are hunted and attacked regularly, though almost never in cosmopolitan Western capitals where free speech is a given.

Being a reporter may not be as dangerous as being a soldier, police officer, firefighter or coal miner — although it’s hard to know for sure, given uncertainty over how many people actually are journalists. But in many places, even outside war zones, carrying a notebook or a camera is a life-threatening proposition.

Journalists are killed for myriad reasons: for reporting about official corruption or organized crime, or simply for saying something unpopular. Sometimes, merely associating with the wrong sources can get a reporter killed

Charlie Hebdo journalists and cartoonists were provocative over a number of years and knew they were taking risks. Many other journalists at risk are just trying to inform the public.

In all, some 60 journalists were killed on the job worldwide in 2014, and 70 in 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international organization based in New York. The group says the past three years have been the worst since it began compiling figures on journalists’ deaths in 1992.

Even that grim tally might understate the problem: The organization is still investigating 18 reporters’ deaths in 2014 to determine whether they were work-related.

Being killed is obviously a major issue but the threat of being killed can have a major effect on what journalists may risk investigating.

The striking thing about these fatalities is that they mostly were not the result of accidents or falling bombs and errant crossfire in war zones. In two-thirds of the cases, journalists died the way those killed at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo did Wednesday: They were targeted because they were journalists.

That is something that has changed.

Several observers suggest that the death rate for journalists has been rising as the tools to bypass the traditional media have developed apace. In short, journalists are more expendable.

“People in conflict zones used to consider reporters as something like the Red Cross or Red Crescent Society — neutral noncombatants,” said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, the educational arm of the Newseum in Washington.

Warring factions “needed reporters to get their story out,” he said. “If no one reported their side of the story, it didn’t get out.”

No longer, he said. Militant and terrorist groups are as adept at using social media as the savviest teenager. Rather than conduits for spreading the word, he said, reporters have become mere bargaining chips to be ransomed for cash — or worse. “Now,” Policinski said, “having a journalist [around] is intrusive.”

Journalist casualties are not just colateral damage, they are expendable tools being used in wars and in terrorism.

“These are murders, not accidents,” Joel Simon, the CPJ’s executive director, said in an interview. “Journalists die because they wrote or broadcast something that offended powerful figures in a particular society.”

And they often don’t get much protection from states.

The CPJ maintains an “impunity index” of how often journalists’ deaths go unpunished. Although the figures vary by nation, about 90 percent of journalist deaths are never prosecuted. Iraq has been the worst offender for six years running, with a 100 percent impunity rate.

The Charlie Hebdo killings will just add to the pressures on journalists in trying to keep the public informed.

It’s essential that the free democratic world maintains an effective press. THis has just become harder.