9 February 2021

Enough of the ‘coronfirmation bias’, the pandemic has not vindicated anyone


Last Spring, my colleague Chris Snowdon compiled an amusing Twitter thread, highlighting examples of commentators and activists who were using the Covid pandemic as a new excuse to peddle their old pet causes. The format was always the same: someone would make up some spurious reason why the pandemic has supposedly “vindicated” the case for X, or rendered it “more urgent than ever”. “X” always happened to be a cause which the respective commentator had already been advocating for years anyway, and which they would have advocated under any other circumstances as well.

It is fascinating how people with completely different, and sometimes mutually exclusive agendas all managed to see the same event as “proof” that they had been right all along. We can find Remainers who believe that Covid highlights the need for European integration, and Brexiteers who believe that Covid highlights the need for national independence. We can find nanny statists who believe that Covid has vindicated the case for nanny statism, industrial policy enthusiasts who believe that Covid has vindicated the case for industrial policy, environmentalists who believe that Covid has vindicated the case for environmentalism, Corbynistas who believe that Covid has vindicated Jeremy Corbyn… the list is endless.

Much of this is harmless agenda-peddling. But it becomes a problem when such contrived, Confirmation Bias-driven pseudo-explanations become part of the conventional wisdom. And as I show in my latest report Viral Myths: Why we risk learning the wrong lessons from the pandemic (published by the Institute of Economic Affairs), this is already happening in some cases.

For example, various commentators on the left have claimed that the reason why Britain was particularly badly affected by Covid is that a decade of ‘austerity’ had hollowed out the British state, leaving it without the capacity to act. Yet as I show in my report, there is no correlation either way between public spending levels, and how well a country has been coping with the pandemic.

In Italy, (pre-Covid) public spending accounts for as much as 48% of GDP, which is as high as in a typical Scandinavian country. The Belgian state spends a whopping 52% of GDP, and the French state spends a record level of 56%. Nobody could accuse those countries of being wedded to small-state libertarianism.

But if we look at their Covid death rates, their excess death rates, or their economic outcomes, Italy and Belgium fared just as badly as Britain, and France did not do massively better either.

In contrast, in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, which had some of the best outcomes in the world, public spending only accounts for around 20% of GDP. If you want to be well prepared for a pandemic, a large state is neither necessary, nor sufficient.

Meanwhile on the right, communitarians and economic nationalists have claimed that Britain was badly hit because we have become too reliant on foreign trade, and on China in particular. But again, as I show in the report, trading arrangements did not make a difference either way either. China accounts for less than one tenth of the total imports of the UK, Italy, Spain or Belgium, the European countries that suffered most during Covid. Taiwan and South Korea (another Covid success story), in contrast, receive about one fifth of their imports from China, and Hong Kong almost half. For reasons of geography and language alone, the Asian Tiger economies have far greater economic and personal ties to China than the UK ever had. It did not seem to do them any harm.

The most widespread Covid myth has to be the idea that the NHS has been the star performer of the pandemic. In an international survey in which participants rate the performance of various institutions in their respective countries during the pandemic, the NHS regularly receives net approval ratings of over 80%. In no other country does the healthcare system receive comparable approval ratings; in fact, in no other country does any institution receive comparable approval ratings.

It is not clear what the NHS has done to deserve this near unanimous adulation. Sure: the fact that we have one of the highest excess mortality rates in the developed world cannot be specifically blamed on the NHS. But neither does it provide a basis for the belief that NHS performance has been particularly glorious. At the same time, Italy and Spain, which also have state-run health services, have been struggling just as badly as the UK, while Germany, where the excess mortality rate is less than half of the British rate, has a healthcare system that is nothing like the NHS. Nor are the healthcare systems of Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea or Israel very NHS-like.

Does any of this mean that my own ideological preference for a small state, an open economy, and a market-oriented healthcare system has been vindicated? Absolutely not. What I’m saying is that neither the size of the state, nor the degree of economic openness, nor the type of healthcare system, made any detectable difference either way.

The only people who can plausibly claim vindication are those who have argued for specific pandemic containment measures that we now know to be effective early on.

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Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.