Heiner Flassbeck – Statistics during the Time of Corona

Numbers are important. But which numbers? Politicians, economists, virologists and the layman are mostly looking at the wrong ones.

Heiner Flassbeck is an economist, as well as publisher and editor of “flassbeck economics international

Cross-posted from Makroskop

Translated and edited by BRAVE NEW EUROPE

Statistics have never been more valuable than today! But numbers without explanations are a real danger. Politicians are in danger of losing all credibility in the matter of corona because they do not deal with the available figures adequately.

Many believe that producing particularly large numbers of figures is a merit in itself. Others seem to be firmly convinced that a number is a number and that it is therefore pointless to waste any further thought on the meaning of the number. Both are fundamentally wrong.

The point is to work out which number has what meaning, taking into account all the circumstances we are aware of. And for those who put numbers into the world with a great media roar, it is a matter of making every effort to distill simple and particularly meaningful numbers from the large jumble of numbers facing the audience. In the times of corona, this applies both to events in the field of human health and to the economic consequences of the corona shock.

Let us start with the latter. The need for a new lockdown is again being talked about with great levity, without it even being clear what the first lockdown brought in terms of health policy and, above all, how expensive it was in economic terms. It was incredibly expensive, and if that were common knowledge, people would not talk about a new lockdown as if politics could put the economy into a deep sleep every few months.

The decisive figure for Germany is 2.2 million. That is the number of people who have become unemployed as a result of the lockdown. In the summer of 2020 there were 5.2 million underemployed people in Germany (according to the definition of underemployment by the Federal Employment Agency, which includes counting the hours worked by people on short-time work and to calculate a full-time equivalent on the basis of these hours). A year ago the figure was three million. If this figure is taken as a yardstick, the effective unemployment rate is over 10 per cent.

This means that the successes achieved over the past ten years in the fight against unemployment – of which Germany is so immensely proud – have evaporated within a few months. If we add to this what every sensible person has to add, namely that in the rest of Europe – at whose expense Germany achieved its “successes” – unemployment has hardly fallen at all in these ten years, corona may well have brought about an economic shock wave which in many countries dramatically reduces the chance for an entire generation to participate in working life in a sensible way.

A repeat of this would call into question the very foundations of our social system, with all the consequences that may entail. Nor must we forget how dramatic the situation is in many developing countries. If you do, you cannot help but conclude that rich countries must do everything, really everything, to prevent a new economic shock.

Panic about the number of cases

There is no doubt that the brutality of the economic shock has also deeply affected politics, which is why panic reactions towards new lockdowns and European border closures (and similar dangerous nonsense) have so far failed to materialise. Nevertheless, it is extremely difficult for politicians to change the course they have taken despite new developments. From the outset, the case numbers, however calculated, have been the focus of attention, implying that there is a close correlation between case numbers, hospital admissions and deaths, and that it is therefore essential to flatten the curve of case numbers. For March and April this was true in many countries.

However, this idea is now completely unusable as a policy model, at least in Europe, because it has long been refuted by reality. As I pointed out at the beginning of September, the number of cases in France at that time (about 5,000 a day) was exactly the same as in spring, but the number of hospital admissions and deaths was much lower. In the meantime, France has no less than four times the number of cases (also four times that of Germany), i.e. around 20,000 per day, but still only a slightly higher number of deaths (see the two latest figures from worldometer) than in spring. And hospital admissions are still easily manageable. For Italy, the current situation is similar to that in France in September: the same high case numbers as in spring, but very few deaths.

Figure 1

The differences between spring and autumn are so striking that no one who deals with the subject matter can get past them. But most German virologists (a certain exception being Hendrik Streeck) seem to stare only at their own country and warn of the second wave as if there had been no opportunity to learn anything from the first.

Figure 2

The mortality rate, i.e. the number of deaths of one day, which had clearly increased in France in spring and clearly exceeded the level of previous years, is now exactly at the level of previous years (as can be read in Le Monde without further ado), namely around 1,500. This would have to lead any reasonable observer, even in Germany, to conclude that there is currently no question of a dangerous disease “raging” in France (as it is often called in the German media). Conversely, those who rightly warned in spring of the danger of an uncontrollable situation must now correct themselves. Obviously, even (in our “spring eyes”) extremely high case numbers in the autumn are no catastrophe.

Now one may puzzle for a long time about the reasons. But in the end it is not conclusive what the reasons are. What is decisive is that even case numbers, as can currently be observed in France, are obviously manageable under the changed conditions.

In Germany, there are some politicians and some media who have noticed that the constant repetition of case numbers is not conducive to achieving the desired results. But no one at the top of politics in Germany makes the absolutely obvious comparison with France and urges us to remain calm. Instead, even with figures such as those France had in September, people fall into a purely national panic and pretend that today’s French figures (Angela Merkel’s warning of 19,200 cases in December) are the downfall of mankind.

The risk and the territory

Nowhere is the helplessness of German politics better demonstrated than in the “Risikogebiet” (“risk area”).  With this beautiful neologism we have managed to squeeze two things into one word that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. For an “area” is not risky. There is no doubt that there is risky human behaviour. But this has nothing to do with the area where the risky behaviour takes place. Anyone who today goes to an area that is a “risk area” by the German definition and goes hiking there, is behaving a thousand times less riskily than someone who goes to a different party every night in a non-risk area. To declare all people living in a certain circle to be risk areas and to cover them with sanctions because – possibly far away from their hometown – some irresponsible parties have taken place is presumptuous and exactly the means to generate disenchantment with politics or even hatred of “those up there”.

The absurd concept of the risk area has reached the height of absurdity in the “prohibitions on accommodation”. Anyone who wants to stay in a hotel in a non-risk area and comes from a risk area will be turned away if he cannot prove by a test that he is not infected at that very moment. Nobody cares what he does the next evening before the next overnight stay. However, it seems that, according to this logic, anyone travelling from one risk area to another can stay overnight without any problems, because they could only increase the number of infections in a region already recognised as a risk area, but not create a new “risk area”. 

The warning about risk areas, which the German Foreign Office has issued in a highly official manner, was already an affront to other Europeans; one could also call it stupidity. With the ban on accommodation within Germany, Germany has now shown, thank God, that this absurd practice does not mean discrimination against foreigners or even open travel protectionism, but is merely the result of the complete helplessness of German health policy.

Politics does what it always does

Policy-makers are taking action against the pandemic. As in other areas, the simple question of whether the measures are really effective is only of marginal interest to policy-makers in Corona. It is no different from climate change or the European crisis. Measures are taken because then you can say that you have taken action. We will now see new measures rolled out every week, with no hope that these measures will be more effective than the previous ones.

So far, the mask has seemed to be the universal remedy, which can still be used a little more widely. This has the invaluable advantage for politicians that, to quote Angela Merkel, you can “tighten the reins” whenever it seems necessary. The stupid thing is that the second wave of infections is coming despite widespread masking. It should also be remembered that the mask is used by humans and not by robots or horses – to stick with Merkel’s rein metaphor.

And even if it can be proven that a mouth and nose protector is effective in the laboratory, that does not mean anything, because the crucial question is whether the mask changes people’s behaviour. If the mask tempts people to be more careless and to be more likely to get into crowds than would be the case without the mask, the mask might even be counterproductive. In addition, the way many people carry the mask around (on their arm, under their nose, around their neck or in their trouser pocket) makes it probably the most unhygienic piece of cloth they have about their person.

Even the restriction of freedom of assembly does not do what it should. While many events are cancelled in the cultural and educational sector that could have been held in a responsible manner, nobody can prevent the fun society from living up to its name. For decades, advertising has been used to tell young people that fun is the be-all-and-end-all of human endeavour. It is hardly surprising then that the killjoy measures demanded by politicians do not work, because people get used to Corona and always find a corner where they can let off steam.

The more politics stumbles around, the greater the frustration even among those who have shown  good will and have put up with everything so far. The more politicians warn every day in a many-voiced and excited manner about developments that, on closer inspection, turn out to be mirages, the less they will achieve. The more citizens are held accountable for developments for which they are not responsible, the stronger the reflex action to condemn politics across the board. It would be a good thing if Chancellor Merkel, after the next meeting with other top politicians, emerged without any new measures and simply appealed to all sides to stay calm.

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