Climate change mitigation: a solution in search of a problem

The new IPCC report is out this week and the Secretary of the United Nations has issued stern warnings and rebukes. The report’s co-chair James Skea of Imperial College London cautions that “If we continue acting as we are now, we’re not even going to limit warming to 2 degrees, never mind 1.5 degrees.” The authors of the new report argue that we need to halt all fossil fuel developments, and radically change our lifestyles including our diets to save the planet.

I accept the science. More precisely, I embrace the range of possibilities that the IPCC publishes based on the amount of global CO2 emissions and the likely effect on the atmosphere. But embracing atmospheric science is only a small part of the issue. What all the reports and commentary leave out are realistic cost-benefit analyses and the likely economic outcomes even in the upper range of warming forecasts. Of course the media does a poor job of highlighting the likely outcomes or placing them in proper context. Once we think about the outcomes it becomes clear that climate change is a solution in search of a problem.

Global GDP growth: the surest way to smash global poverty.

So, how can I believe the science but not the climate change mitigation story? First we need to be precise in our questions and goals. Clarity matters. Stripping away all the romance, the real question is:

If we want to spend tens of trillions of dollars today to make the world a better place in 2100, what is the most efficient way to proceed?

An answer to this question centers on three lines of reasoning:

1) Lifting worldwide GDP growth.
2) Avoiding a rare but potentially catastrophic possibility.
3) Protecting the planet’s biodiversity.

Implicit in the climate change narrative is the statement that climate change mitigation tops the list for addressing all three points. Let’s address each.

Lifting worldwide GDP

To begin we need a measure and a sense of scale. When comparing economic well-being, economists use GDP – the value created through production of goods and services. Of course GDP is an imperfect measure, but GDP and GDP growth correlate strongly with all the aspects of life that we consider important. We do not see a rush of immigration from countries or regions with high GDP to lower ones; it’s always the other way around. Since 1950, the planet’s GDP has grown by over a factor of 12. As a percentage of the population, fewer people live in abject poverty, lifespans are longer, health care is more readily available, infant and maternal mortality has plummeted. We are better connected, better educated, more fulfilled, more peaceful, and we are more productive than ever before. In short, the world has gotten an awful lot better for so much of the world’s population. Economic growth has been the key feature for shattering poverty. Nothing else comes close. Unfortunately we have a long way to go. There are many parts of the world where GDP growth has been tepid to say the least. On growth considerations, the germane question is:

If we want to spend tens of trillions of dollars today to increase the world’s GDP to the greatest extent possible by 2100, what is the most efficient way to proceed?

Not all countries have seen the same growth prospects and some countries switched paths over time. A great example of a path change occurred with China in the late 1970s. As China opened up and started to move to a more market based economic orientation, GDP per capita exploded. From 1990 to today, China’s GDP per capita has grown by more than 1,000%. When we think about poor countries and the lessons around economic growth, it’s hard to think about anything else! With China, we have a direct example from the last 30 years which shows what is possible by adopting at least some level of a market based economy. Going back to the end of WWII we have examples at least as impressive as modern day China such as South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. If Africa took a similar trajectory to any of these examples, 1,000+% GDP per capita growth over the next 30 years is not only completely within the realm of possibility but could even be the most likely outcome. Think of a world in which another 2 billion people experience such economic growth.

Now let’s compare 1,000% GDP growth over 30 years to anything that climate change has in store. The best economic estimates suggest that at 6C of warming by the end of the century – the very upper end of the climate models – the world economy will be about 10% smaller than it otherwise would have been without climate change in 2100. Even if the estimate is wrong by a factor of 2, and the actual effect is 20%, the effect size of climate change is about 0.25% of GDP loss per annum! Climate change is peanuts compared to the variation in growth we see between countries which organize around markets and those which do not. So if we want to spend tens of trillions of dollars today with the goal of making the world a better place in 2100, would it not make more sense to use those resources to persuade as much of the world as possible to follow the success path of well known examples? It’s hard to believe that chasing 0.25% per annum growth level effects come out at the top of the list. Such small effects in our own GDP growth sit at the level of the inefficiencies in the Canadian tax code.

Avoiding Catastrophe

It’s pretty clear that if the path to a better world in 2100 is GDP growth, climate change is one of the last places to start – 0.25% per annum growth effects just don’t make the leap for us. But there are other concerns. Suppose that climate change triggers some presently poorly understood tipping point which catastrophically ruins the environment and makes the miracles of economic growth impossible. In that case, spending tens of trillions of dollars today on climate change mitigation might make a lot of sense. But now the question changes:

If we want to spend tens of trillions of dollars today to make the world safer by avoiding a potential yet poorly understood catastrophe by 2100, what is the most efficient way to proceed?

In other words, we seek to spend a lot of money today in a precautionary sense – buying insurance – so we can have a future with economic growth. To answer this question, we need to think about how climate change compares to other potential catastrophes. We are just coming out of a pandemic that in 2020 shrunk the world economy by an effect greater than 10 years worth of expected climate change damage. Now, imagine a pandemic much worse than Covid, or even much worse than the flu of 1919. A severe global pandemic could erase decades of economic growth almost overnight. But it’s not just pandemics. There are only seven principal cereal crops in the world of which just two, wheat and corn, make up over 60% of global production. Suppose that a serious blight or virus destroys much of the world’s grain output, something like the Irish potato famine but on a global scale. Global debt runs could ruin our economies and throw us into a worldwide great depression that lasts decades. And of course nuclear war always hangs over us like the Sword of Damocles, not to mention a comet or asteroid impact, a major volcanic eruption, the collapse of the Earth’s magnetic field…you get the point. There are many, many, low probable highly catastrophic possibilities to worry about all of which could in part be mitigated right now by tens of trillions of dollars worth of spending today. Where do we start? We can’t insure against all possibilities. To make the case that climate change is special, we have to show that somehow, of all the unlikely but horrible possibilities that exist, climate change makes the top of the list on a cost-benefit insurance basis. It’s hard to make that argument, but I have some limited sympathy for it. But to put catastrophic events in perspective, for at least the last decade governments have told banks and corporations to plan carefully around climate change exposure. Now imagine if a decade ago governments instead suggested that financial institutions and businesses put a potential pandemic at the top of their mitigation priorities. Perhaps Covid would have been handled much better. Stuff that really threatens us are events like Covid on steroids; real catastrophes come out of the blue, not something that gives a century of notice with gradual change.

Protecting biodiversity

Climate change mitigation seems like a weird place to start if we want greater economic growth or mitigation against rare but potentially catastrophic outcomes. But climate change might be special when it comes to biodiversity. Perhaps climate change will be so awful for the planet’s plants and animals that, while GDP will hum along, we will irreparably harm the biodiversity of the planet and eventually poison long term growth prospects. Again we need to think in terms of cost-benefit. The question now becomes:

If we want to spend tens of trillions of dollars today to ensure the biodiversity of the planet through 2100, what is the most efficient way to proceed?

The biggest problems around biodiversity are habitat loss and destruction by direct human intervention. The large mammals of Africa and Asia have nearly been hunted to extinction. Ocean life suffers from over-fishing. Direct human effects on the environment have so far proved far more destructive than the indirect effects caused by climate change. Even if we manage to get all of the Western world on electric cars by 2050, rhinoceroses and elephants will hover near extinction, if not already extinct by then, and another 30 years of over-fishing risks colossal implications for sea life regardless of a slightly cooler climate. I doubt our green infrastructure renewal will save even one giraffe or increase the length of single tuna fish. It’s not clear that climate change is the place to start if we want to protect the environment and biodiversity. Perhaps sectioning off large parts of the Earth as no-go zones for humans might lead to better outcomes. Returning to economic growth, it’s countries with high GDPs per capita that treat their environments the best. Thus a virtuous cycle of higher economic growth with increasingly cleaner environments may end up being the best way to protect the natural world. In that case, the pathway to rapid GDP growth could be the saviour of biodiversity.

Squaring the climate change agenda

Somehow the public has become captivated by an arbitrary, almost magical, threshold of 1.5C of warming with an implicit belief that the world will end at the 2C mark within a hundred years or less. Climate models make no such predictions. Worse, when experts do offer preliminary cost-benefit analyses, they often leave out the effects of human adaptation. Rising sea levels do not mean 187 million people will be displaced over the next century. Urbanization saw billions migrate to cities over the last 100 years. Patterns of human habitation will continue to change over the coming century. Humans live in extreme climates and elevations already, from the Sahara desert to nearly the north pole, from the Tibetan and Andes plateau to The Netherlands and the Mekong Delta. We have lived across this enormous variation for millennia. There is no model of climate change, even with 6C of warming by 2100, that has a level effect larger than the variation that already exists.

The more I think about it, the more I see climate change as a solution in search of a problem. Every time we rephrase the question to precisely address what we hope to achieve in the far off future, climate change does not seem to offer the leading solution. It’s hard to imagine how climate change tops the list for increasing economic growth, protecting us from a potential catastrophe, or sustaining biodiversity. Yes, climate change contributes in some way to all three of these lines, but it’s not leading order. It’s true that climate change is a classic example of an externality in which an unregulated market is unlikely to generate the optimal amount of global warming given the benefits from carbon intensive production that humanity receives. Spending something to mitigate climate change makes sense, but it’s not an all-hands-on-deck-or-it’s-the-end-of-the-world kind of problem and it certainly does not warrant anything close to the attention it receives. And if ultimately the political will is insufficient to address climate change in any substantive way, it’s not a big issue – we’ve learned to live with all kinds of externalities that are just too costly to address. We know how to adapt.

So if climate change represents a rather small or moderate externality, why does it attract so much attention? I am sure there are true believers who claim to “believe the science” and yet focus all their concern on highly improbable catastrophic climate change events as though those outcomes are the most likely to occur. But for others, I think climate change offers a seductive channel for capturing government power. Under the climate change lens, CO2 emissions are a form of pollution, creating an externality for government action to solve. But we have to remember that heavy direct government regulation of pollution is the backdoor to the government marshaling production. After all, pollution is a byproduct of production; you can’t touch one without touching the other. That’s why in industrial settings, economists argue for narrowly targeted pollution mitigation, often emphasizing indirect government involvement that relies on some form of market or price mechanism, tied to carefully delineated property rights and the rule of law. A government that shepherds a sea change of the entire economy through direct action and direct government participation – whether justified or not – ends up in the driver’s seat of the economy, deciding on what gets produced and who produces what. Regardless of intent, as President Eisenhower recognized over 60 years ago, that centralization of power is a danger to democracy and liberty. We face enormous institutional and political risks from the clarion call to centralize power to save the planet from what all reasonable estimates tell us is a rather small problem. But maybe that’s the point…

The fog of the right side of history

Now that the convoy protest has largely ended and my street is clear of vehicles, I am filled with a confusing mix of sadness, relief, and disappointment.

This protest has centered almost exclusively on the Covid vaccine mandates. The media and some politicians have ascribed all kinds of other goals to the protesters, including overthrowing the government, but over the three weeks in my conversations with the protesters, reading hundreds of signs on their trucks and their handheld placards, nothing suggested a goal other than the end of the vaccine mandates. I am sure some people in the protest had zany demands, apparently even some of the higher profile figures, but I didn’t meet any myself. This protest was grassroots. No manifesto bound them; their opposition to the mandates forged their solidarity.

Polite society spilled a lot of ink (flipped bits?) telling Canadians that an unruly seditious mob inhabited my street and that nothing short of invoking the most extraordinary powers in the country could contain it. They told us the convoy represented an unprecedented threat to our nation. Whatever polite society has become, they are not students of Canadian history and it would serve us all well if we better understood the origins of modern Canada. What happened this month in Ottawa echoes two major disruptions from Canadian history: The Winnipeg General Strike, and the On-to-Ottawa Trek. While the parallels only go so far, they are worth exploring. Both involved working class people and both had a profound influence on the shape of our society.

In 1919, veterans returning from the front and working class people suffered from high unemployment and poor working conditions across Canada. Many workers demanded collective bargaining rights and better wages. The spring of 1919 saw Canada’s third largest city, Winnipeg, erupt into a full scale general strike triggered by failed labour negotiations in the metal and building trades. Virtually the entire city stopped working with 30,000 workers taking to the streets. As the strike continued to build, acting Minister of Justice Arthur Meighen and the Minister of Labour Gideon Robertson travelled to Winnipeg in an attempt to learn the facts on the ground. Both men refused to meet with the Strike Committee, and instead issued inflammatory statements portraying the strike as “a cloak for something far deeper—an effort to overturn the proper authority”, and “the motive behind this strike undoubtedly was the overthrow of Constitutional Government”. The conflict lasted six weeks, reaching its climax with violence on Bloody Saturday (June 21, 1919) in which government forces fired into the crowd. Strike leaders were brought up on seditious conspiracy charges, others were blacklisted, and some were even deported as foreign agitators. While the strike failed to achieve its immediate goals, it had a lasting influence on the labour movement in Canada. Some the strike leaders went on to form the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the progenitor of Canada’s New Democratic Party. Today, we celebrate the Winnipeg strikers and their “seditious” leaders in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

The Winnipeg General Strike (1919).

During the height of the Depression, the Canadian government built a system of nationwide camps to provide work for single unemployed and often homeless men. Suffering under poor working conditions and low wages, resentment boiled over in 1935 when over a thousand men from camps in British Columbia went on strike and started the On-to-Ottawa Trek in the hopes of confronting the government. Hopping the rails – even commandeering freight trains – while adding to their ranks as they went, the men made it as far as Regina where they halted for initial negotiations. With the strikers moored at the Regina Exhibition Grounds, eight leaders continued on to Ottawa for further negotiations with Prime Minister Bennett. Nothing came of the talks, which quickly broke down, and upon the return of the strike leaders to Regina, Bennett decided to arrest them, even as the Trekkers were dispersing. A riot ensued and two people were killed. The ugliness of the incidence led in part to Bennett’s decline and a recognition that our approach to the Depression needed better efforts. Today, the location of the Regina Riot is a National Historic Site.

The On-to-Ottawa Trek – riding the rails (1935).

While these incidents from Canadian history have some similarities and stark differences from the events in Ottawa over the last three weeks, they share the common root of marginalization. The vaccine mandates cut people off from their livelihoods and prevent them from full participation in society, putting them on the fringes and making them desperate. These tactics have limited public health benefits – even UN vaccination initiatives in the developing world avoid them. If vaccinating the last 10% of Canada is of such paramount importance, culturally sensitive outreach is the only way to proceed with a recognition that no matter what we do, there will always be vaccine refusals. Insults and mandates not only fail to achieve public health goals, but they serve to divide us and erode trust.

A popular trope in the media today is “being on the right side of history”. If being on the right side of history was so easy, we wouldn’t have witnessed the near 40-year parade of Canadian prime ministers apologizing for historical state action which was propelled at the time by popular support. Reflecting on our history, I would not be surprised if the men and women on my street these last three weeks eventually end up in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. History is not obvious as it’s being made.

On Saturday I watched from my living room as the convoy slowly collected themselves for departure, piling leftover supplies for donation at the local church, and all of them moving with a deliberate intent that suggested a quiet resignation to the fate that awaits them. As the last truck exited from view with a low winter sun hanging over an empty Kent Street, I felt the whisper of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,

To stand up for truth is nothing. For truth, you must sit in jail.

A night with the untouchables

I live in downtown Ottawa, right in the middle of the trucker convoy protest. They are literally camped out below my bedroom window. My new neighbours moved in on Friday and they seem determined to stay. I have read a lot about what my new neighbours are supposedly like, mostly from reporters and columnists who write from distant vantage points somewhere in the media heartland of Canada. Apparently the people who inhabit the patch of asphalt next to my bedroom are white supremacists, racists, hatemongers, pseudo-Trumpian grifters, and even QAnon-style nutters. I have a perfect view down Kent Street – the absolute ground zero of the convoy. In the morning, I see some protesters emerge from their trucks to stretch their legs, but mostly throughout the day they remain in their cabs honking their horns. At night I see small groups huddled in quiet conversations in their new found companionship. There is no honking at night. What I haven’t noticed, not even once, are reporters from any of Canada’s news agencies walking among the trucks to find out who these people are. So last night, I decided to do just that – I introduced myself to my new neighbours.

The Convoy on Kent Street. February 2, 2022.

At 10pm I started my walk along – and in – Kent Street. I felt nervous. Would these people shout at me? My clothes, my demeanour, even the way I walk screamed that I’m an outsider. All the trucks were aglow in the late evening mist, idling to maintain warmth, but all with ominously dark interiors. Standing in the middle of the convoy, I felt completely alone as though these giant monsters weren’t piloted by people but were instead autonomous transformer robots from some science fiction universe that had gone into recharging mode for the night. As I moved along I started to notice smatterings of people grouped together between the cabs sharing cigarettes or enjoying light laughs. I kept quiet and moved on. Nearby, I spotted a heavy duty pickup truck, and seeing the silhouette of a person in the driver’s seat, I waved. A young man, probably in his mid 20s, rolled down the window, said hello and I introduced myself. His girlfriend was reclined against the passenger side door with a pillow to prop her up as she watched a movie on her phone. I could easily tell it’s been an uncomfortable few nights. I asked how they felt and I told them I lived across the street. Immediate surprise washed over the young man’s face. He said, “You must hate us. But no one honks past 6pm!” That’s true. As someone who lives right on top of the convoy, there is no noise at night. I said, “No, I don’t hate anyone, but I wanted to find out about you.” The two were from Sudbury Ontario, having arrived on Friday with the bulk of the truckers. I ask what they hoped to achieve, and what they wanted. The young woman in the passenger seat moved forward, excited to share. They said that they didn’t want a country that forced people to get medical treatments such as vaccines. There was no hint of conspiracy theories in their conversation with me, not a hint of racist overtones or hateful demagoguery. I didn’t ask them if they had taken the vaccine, but they were adamant that they were not anti-vaxers.

The next man I ran into was standing in front of the big trucks at the head of the intersection. Past middle age and slightly rotund, he had a face that suggests a lifetime of working outdoors. I introduced myself and he told me he was from Cochrane, Ontario. He also proudly pointed out that he was the block captain who helped maintain order. I thought, oh no, he might be the one person keeping a lid on things; is it all that precarious? I delicately asked how hard his job was to keep the peace but I quickly learned that’s not really what he did. He organized the garbage collection among the cabs, put together snow removal crews to shovel the sidewalks and clear the snow that accumulates on the road. He even has a salting crew for the sidewalks. He proudly bellowed in an irrepressible laugh “We’re taking care of the roads and sidewalks better than the city.” I waved goodbye and continued to the next block.

My next encounter was with a man dressed in dark blue shop-floor coveralls. A wiry man of upper middle age, he seemed taciturn and stood a bit separated from the small crowd that formed behind his cab for a late night smoke. He hailed from the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. He owned his own rig, but he only drove truck occasionally, his main job being a self-employed heavy duty mechanic. He closed his shop to drive to Ottawa, because he said, “I don’t want my new granddaughter to live in a country that would strip the livelihood from someone for not getting vaccinated.” He introduced me to the group beside us. A younger crowd, I can remember their bearded faces, from Athabasca, Alberta, and Swift Current Saskatchewan. The weather had warmed, and it began to rain slightly, but they too were excited to tell me why they came to Ottawa. They felt that they needed to stand up to a government that doesn’t understand what their lives are like. To be honest, I don’t know what their lives are like either – a group of young men who work outside all day with tools that they don’t even own. Vaccine mandates are a bridge too far for them. But again, not a hint of anti-vax conspiracy theories or deranged ideology.

I made my way back through the trucks, my next stop leading me to a man of East Indian descent in conversation with a young man from Sylvan Lake, Alberta. They told me how they were following the news of O’Toole’s departure from the Conservative leadership and that they didn’t like how in government so much power has pooled into so few hands.

The rain began to get harder; I moved quickly through the intersection to the next block. This time I waved at a driver in one of the big rigs. Through the rain it was hard to see him, but he introduced himself, an older man, he had driven up from New Brunswick to lend his support. Just behind him some young men from Gaspésie, Quebec introduced themselves to me in their best English. At that time people started to notice me – this man from Ottawa who lives across the street – just having honest conversations with the convoy. Many felt a deep sense of abuse by a powerful government and that no one thinks they matter.

Behind the crowd from Gaspésie sat a stretch van, the kind you often see associated with industrial cleaners. I could see the shadow of a man leaning out from the back as he placed a small charcoal BBQ on the sidewalk next to his vehicle. He introduced himself and told me he was from one of the reservations on Manitoulin Island. Here I was in conversation with an Indigenous man who was fiercely proud to be part of the convoy. He showed me his medicine wheel and he pointed to its colours, red, black, white, and yellow. He said there is a message of healing in there for all the human races, that we can come together because we are all human. He said, “If you ever find yourself on Manitoulin Island, come to my reserve, I would love to show you my community.” I realized that I was witnessing something profound; I don’t know how to fully express it.

As the night wore on and the rain turned to snow, those conversations repeated themselves. The man from Newfoundland with his bullmastiff, a young couple from British Columbia, the group from Winnipeg that together form what they call “Manitoba Corner ” all of them with similar stories. At Manitoba Corner a boisterous heavily tattooed man spoke to me from the cab of his dually pickup truck – a man who had a look that would have fit right in on the set of some motorcycle movie – pointed out that there are no symbols of hate in the convoy. He said, “Yes there was some clown with a Nazi flag on the weekend, and we don’t know where he’s from, but I’ll tell you what, if we see anyone with a Nazi flag or a Confederate flag, we’ll kick his fucking teeth in. No one’s a Nazi here.” Manitoba Corner all gave a shout out to that.

As I finally made my way back home, after talking to dozens of truckers into the night, I realized I met someone from every province except PEI. They all have a deep love for this country. They believe in it. They believe in Canadians. These are the people that Canada relies on to build its infrastructure, deliver its goods, and fill the ranks of its military in times of war. The overwhelming concern they have is that the vaccine mandates are creating an untouchable class of Canadians. They didn’t make high-falutin arguments from Plato’s Republic, Locke’s treatises, or Bagehot’s interpretation of Westminster parliamentary systems. Instead, they see their government willing to push a class of people outside the boundaries of society, deny them a livelihood, and deny them full membership in the most welcoming country in the world; and they said enough. Last night I learned my new neighbours are not a monstrous faceless occupying mob. They are our moral conscience reminding us – with every blow of their horns – what we should have never forgotten: We are not a country that makes an untouchable class out of our citizens.

A pound of flesh nearest the heart

As we enter what are likely the end stages of the Covid-19 pandemic with the virus transitioning to an endemic state, our society has become angry and self-righteous, egged on by our political and chattering class. Pandemics at some point in their trajectory often find someone to blame. During the Black Death, the Jews made for an easy scapegoat, and in more modern times homosexuals served as the perfect minority to hate and blame during the beginning of AIDS pandemic. The pattern is always the same – find a group that nobody likes, claim that they are the party most responsible for the on-going disease, and then pour all of our hate and derision on them. Use political power to punish them and satiate the mob’s need for retribution. Today, with Covid-19, society’s scapegoat is the unvaccinated. Yes, people should get the vaccine; yes, they are safe and effective at preventing serious complications, especially for high risk populations, but a near religious fervor has gripped Canada in blaming the unvaccinated for our current woes with a near insatiable appetite to punish.

American political cartoon by Thomas Nast titled “The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things”, published in Harper’s Weekly, 2 September 1871. Anti-Irish sentiment ran deep in corners of North America during the late 19th century, fed and maintained by the chattering class. The ugliness of the mob.

The story sells itself. Unvaccinated people are much more likely to experience severe illness, hospitalization, or death, especially if they have comorbidities. Currently in Ontario about half of the Covid-19 ICU patients and one quarter of all Covid-19 hospital patients are unvaccinated even though they only represent about 10% of vaccine eligible citizens. Clearly the unvaccinated are highly disproportionate in their need for health care services should they contract Covid-19. Yet the unvaccinated are in fact scapegoats for much larger problems.

The vaccines are not particularly effective in controlling the spread of Covid-19. With the rise of the Omicron variant, Covid-19 is so transmissible that the argument for externalities completely falls apart. The Covid-19 vaccines almost exclusively provide their protection to the person receiving the vaccine, conferring negligible spillover effects in the form of transmission interruption in the wider community. Thus, the refusal to take the vaccine, however misguided, only hurts the unvaccinated person. Most professionals recognize the ineffectiveness of the vaccines to control transmission. Hence, even with 90% of eligible Ontarians vaccinated, we see tens of thousands of new cases per day leading to explosive exponential growth in the vaccinated population. However, politicians and the chattering class argue that the unvaccinated play a special role because they disproportionately place demand on the health care system.

To get a sense of our problems, we can look to our health professionals on the ground. An emergency room physician, Dr. Brett Belchetz, told Global News “We are looking at hospitals that are struggling to keep up and now you add in all of those extra patients…we are in a dangerous situation here. You see patients being treated in the hallway with regularity and often that is just a choice we have to make — provide no care or provide hallway care.” An anonymous nurse added, “the volume of patients is insane. We are so overcapacity.” Dr. Belchetz continued, “It doesn’t take a mathematical genius or an expert in health care to understand that having more people in the province, especially people that are older, that are sicker, with fewer hospital beds, is a recipe for hospitals to operate overcapacity. And not just overcapacity — dangerously overcapacity.” It gets worse, Michael Garron Hospital, formerly Toronto East General Hospital, has postponed seven cancer surgeries as a result of a shortage of beds in the ICU since December. Carmine Stumpo, vice-president of programs at Michael Garron Hospital, says it’s been a juggling act for surgeons, “So we work with our hospitals to ensure that sort of situation hopefully is completely avoided, but if it’s necessary it’s minimized.” Serious issues for sure but these are not stories from this winter or even last winter; they are from the flu season of 2017-18! Ontario hospitals have been in an overcapacity crisis long before Covid-19.

If all the unvaccinated had been vaccinated, Covid-19 would still be over-running Ontario’s health care capacity. Data on the comorbidity status of the unvaccinated is not readily available, but at least some of them would have still ended up in the hospital and the ICU vaccinated or not. Eliminating a quarter of the Covid-19 hospital cases in Ontario still leaves us terribly strained. Canada has one of the worst health care capacities in the developed world and vaccinating the last 10% of our population is not nearly enough to hold the ground against the Omicron wave. The unvaccinated are not the cause of hospital overcapacity but they allow our governments to distract us from their failure to build a robust health care system, and their additional failure to build adequate Covid-19 specific health care treatment capacity. Even though we have been trudging along with a broken health care system for decades, which Covid-19 has exposed for all to see, our political class can now just blame the Covid-19 unvaccinated. It’s an easy way out.

Blaming the unvaccinated is bad enough, but the Ontario government’s lockdown policies create a super regressive health care tax. The argument for lockdowns is that, at this point, they are the only way to protect our health care system. I doubt that the lockdown approach is correct, but even if it is, the people who pay for that protection are the working class who can’t find timely daycare for their children and who find themselves locked out of work. They pay the “health care tax” in-kind today, protecting the health care system, to make up for what wasn’t paid earlier. And all the while the laptop class enjoys full salary and the opportunity to work in their pajamas. We’re all in this together….yeah right we are.

How did we get here? Canada has large structural issues that are undermining our democracy and harming our institutions. These problems go well beyond Left vs Right or any political stripe. Our country has not properly addressed its regional composition either in the BNA of 1867 or the Constitution Act, 1982. Instead of a properly constituted federation in which representation by population is tempered by strong regional power, we have quasi-federalism or some kind of hyphenated federalism (executive-federalism, collaborative-federalism, shared-cost-federalism, fiscal-federalism, etc.) and in that regard governments responsible for delivering programs become increasingly divorced from the government that raises the revenue. By constitutional necessity, Canada leans on Ottawa’s spending power to address regional needs which has had the perverse effect of turning health care funding into a circus of side deals between the provinces and the federal government, not to mention the complexities of indigenous health care delivery. The locus of decision-making shifts like sand dunes across the political landscape, making it difficult for the public — and at times even Parliament itself — to hold the appropriate government and decision-making body to account. We have deep structural institutional and democratic problems in Canada which Covid-19 has laid bare through our health care systems. Blaming the unvaccinated for our difficulties in the current Covid-19 Omicron wave distracts us from the important work that lies ahead of us not only for our health care systems but for the health of Confederation itself.

Our experiment in national cruelty

As we approach the nearly two year mark since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I am shocked by my fellow citizen’s zeal in pouring cruelty, contempt, and derision on others. Perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked. Cruelty after all is the merging of joy and anger and its expression gives a deep sense of satisfaction to so many, especially when there is political hay to make.

Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya

The Covid vaccines are amazing. People should get them. The evidence shows overwhelmingly that they prevent serious illness and death, especially among the vulnerable. What the evidence also shows is that the vaccines are not particularly effective at preventing transmission. After a relatively short period of time, measured in months after full vaccination, waning immunity allows for substantial transmission even though the vaccines remain highly effective at preventing serious illness. In short, the vaccines work amazingly well on the most important dimension.

The logic behind vaccine mandates rests on the idea of spillover effects. For vaccines that interrupt transmission, known as sterilizing, your vaccinated neighbours confer protection on you. Vaccines with a sterilizing property create what economists call an externality – the problem that gains based on private decision making alone do not capture the full benefit to society. In such circumstances there is a compelling argument for some level of state coercion to force people to adjust their behaviour. It’s ugly but sometimes necessary. For me to be on board, I have to see that violence or the threat of violence is absolutely necessary to achieve actual consequences which pass a cost benefit test with flying colours. Solzhenitsyn warned us that unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.

Across Canada people who choose not to get vaccinated stand in front of the pointy end of the state’s monopoly on violence. Some are losing their livelihoods, and all are restricted from full participation in society. Perhaps that level of violence could easily be justified if the vaccines were sufficiently sterilizing, but we know they are not. The vast majority of the benefit from receiving the vaccine accrues to the person who receives it. It’s hard to make the case for coercion in these circumstances.

Whatever one might think of the vaccine hesitant or resistant, these people have the courage of their convictions. I think they are mistaken, but they are clearly not cowards, they are not hypocrites or virtue signallers. Is there any principle in your own life that you believe in so strongly that you would be willing to sacrifice your livelihood, your career, and your social standing? If I’m honest with myself, I don’t know if I’m that brave. Few are.

Even if you come down on the side of vaccine mandates, that despite the small and diminishing spillover effect that the vaccines confer, you still believe that coercion is worth it, we should all show more compassion and understanding with the vaccine hesitant and resistant. We should use our monopoly on violence with great reluctance, with great sadness, and with as much empathy as we can give. I don’t see compassion in my fellow citizen or in the approach used by our politicians and leaders. I see contempt and cruelty applied with alacrity to those who won’t get vaccinated. It makes me sad to see how ugly we are. I guess Solzhenitsyn was right, evil really does pass through every human heart.

Update: January 1, 2022

Contempt and cruelty applied with alacrity.

AWS EC2 with RStudio login through a browser

Over the course of the last few years, I have become reliant on AWS for running large jobs. The COVID-19 modelling work I was involved with required some high performance computing and AWS is an excellent solution.

There are some great resources for getting started with AWS EC2. I highly recommend the site, Running R on AWS EC2 and Logging into RStudio from Anywhere, for details on how to get an instance with R and RStudio up and running in a step-by-step fashion.

I have created a Bash script (see below) that you can scp to your instance and run. It will set up an instance with R, RStudio IDE that you can log into through a browser, and a Shiny server. Make sure to open port 80 (HTTP) and add custom TCP rules for ports 8787 and 3838 in the security configuration details through your EC2 dashboard. RStudio will run through port 8787 and Shiny through 3838. Also, ensure that you make the script executable with the command: chmod +x aws_R_setup.sh (or whatever you choose to call the bash script).

Once you have run the script, add a user (e.g. sudo adduser rstudiouser) and then add the new user to the sudo group. The commands are at the bottom of the script commented out.

After you have set the user, login to RStudio through your browser using your ec2 address with port 8787 (e.g., ec2-35-183-78-154.ca-central-1.compute.amazonaws.com:8787). And volia! You will have the RStudio IDE running through your browser that you login to using the username and password you created. For the Shiny server, access using port 3838 (e.g., ec2-35-183-78-154.ca-central-1.compute.amazonaws.com:3838).

Of course it is always possible to use an existing AMI on EC2, but having the flexibility to create your own system can sometimes be useful.

#EC2 script for setting up an R instance on AWS
totalmem=$(free -g | grep -oP '\d+' | head -n 1)
if [ "$totalmem" -lt "2" ]; then
	sudo /bin/dd if=/dev/zero of=/var/swap.1 bs=1M count=2048
	sudo /sbin/mkswap /var/swap.1
	sudo /sbin/swapon /var/swap.1
	sudo sh -c 'echo "/var/swap.1 swap swap defaults 0 0 " >> /etc/fstab'
	sudo echo "created swap file memory to avoid using bigger instance"
fi

sudo apt-key adv --keyserver keyserver.ubuntu.com --recv-keys E298A3A825C0D65DFD57CBB651716619E084DAB9

sudo add-apt-repository 'deb https://cloud.r-project.org/bin/linux/ubuntu focal-cran40/'

# Update ubuntu package repo, to get latest R
sudo apt -y update
sudo apt -y upgrade

# Install R
sudo apt -y install r-base r-base-dev

# Install shiny before shiny-server
sudo R -e "install.packages('shiny')"

# Install debian package manager, gdebi
sudo apt install gdebi-core


# Install Shiny Server 
wget https://download3.rstudio.org/ubuntu-14.04/x86_64/shiny-server-1.5.16.958-amd64.deb
sudo gdebi shiny-server-1.5.16.958-amd64.deb
sudo rm shiny-server-1.5.16.958-amd64.deb

sudo apt -y install libcurl4-openssl-dev 

sudo apt -y install libssl-dev libxml2-dev libmariadbclient-dev build-essential libcurl4-gnutls-dev


# Install RStudio

wget https://download2.rstudio.org/server/bionic/amd64/rstudio-server-1.4.1717-amd64.deb
sudo gdebi rstudio-server-1.4.1717-amd64.deb
sudo rm rstudio-server-1.4.1717-amd64.deb


sudo R -e "install.packages('RCurl', repos='http://cran.rstudio.com')"
sudo R -e "install.packages('devtools', repos='http://cran.rstudio.com')"
sudo R -e "install.packages('tidyverse')"

sudo apt -y install default-jdk
sudo R CMD javareconf


# Change permissions for R library
sudo chmod 777 -R /usr/local/lib/R/site-library

#Now add user info to login RStudio for example:
#sudo adduser rstudiouser

#Then add rstudiouser to sudo group:
#sudo usermod -aG sudo rstudiouser


COVID-19 spring redux: more cowbell

Although we’re more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, our ability to protect vulnerable people hasn’t improved much. On a medical front, we’ve advanced with better triage, better treatments, and now a vaccination program – but our public policy looks pretty much the same as it did last spring, expect in Ontario, this time with enhanced police powers.

Ontario is seeing a tidal wave of new infections. While new variants apparently increase risk among younger demographics, the 60+ age group and those with comorbidities experience the majority of the severe illnesses and deaths. Earlier this month, Dr. Micheal Warner pointed out that a person under 50 dies from COVID-19 in Ontario ICUs every 2.8 days. That rate among the young is higher than in the past, but with a current Ontario COVID-19 death rate of about 20 per day, that means about 60 old people are dying for every person under 50, who almost certainly has comorbidities. It’s pretty clear that COVID-19 and its variants are vastly riskier for the elderly and those with comorbidities. Unfortunately, our vaccination program has a long way to go to protect the vulnerable.

Since this pandemic began, our governments at all levels have focused on lockdowns, school closures, travel restrictions, and curfews as the primary mechanism to control COVID-19 community spread. For the last year these policies have shifted most of the suffering onto the poorest people in our society – our essential workers – who are employed in everything from meat-packing plants to supermarkets. Even the homeless haven’t escaped. In January, Ottawa homeless shelters paused intake due to an outbreak among residents and staff. Not only have the poorest faced the brunt of COVID-19, but the vaccination programs have had the greatest penetration with the well-off. For all the rhetoric and all the treasure we’ve spent, we have not protected the vulnerable.

Is this the best we can do?

Last spring, our governments implemented emergency measures in a state of overwhelming panic. This time around, we appear to be recycling the same emergency policy playbook, and in the process, discarding a year’s worth of hard won knowledge about COVID-19. Public Health Ontario has publicly stated that focused measures to protect the vulnerable are not possible:

While age may be the major driver of differential mortality risk, there are important equity-based considerations in understanding risk of dying from COVID-19 in non-elderly populations if public health measures were to focus on the risk to the elderly only….Public health agencies globally have supported the use of physical distancing measures and lockdowns to control community transmission of COVID-19, recognizing that high community transmission renders protection or shielding of higher-risk populations virtually impossible due to the connections within the broader community in which they live. Further, an approach to strict isolation of at-risk populations can also be considered inhumane and unethical.

I am not sure how Public Health Ontario comes to the conclusion that shielding higher-risk populations is virtually impossible, but it certainly points to a lack of creativity and no sense of resolve. The situation reminds me of the Berlin Airlift.

In 1948, as the Cold War was getting started, the Soviet Union prevented all surface traffic from non-Soviet zones from entering West Berlin. Stalin hoped to drive the Western allies out of Berlin, undermine the Marshall Plan for rebuilding the German economy, and place the Soviet Union as the dominant power in Europe. At the time of the blockade, West Berlin had about a month’s worth of food and fuel. The Soviets figured it was impossible to keep West Berlin supplied and the West would quickly capitulate. We didn’t. We organized an airlift that kept West Berlin provisioned for 15 months. In the end it was the Soviet Union that relented. At its peak, the airlift had a plane landing in Berlin every 30 seconds, planes filled with everything the city needed from coal to potatoes. Our response to COVID-19 looks nothing like this.

Constructing an optimal policy should use all available information. We know who the most vulnerable are: the elderly and those with comorbidities such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. We must use all we know about COVID-19, pandemics, and public health more generally. Two points stand out:

1) We now know that, for those over age 70, the survival rate from COVID-19 is approximately 95%. That is a terrible problem. For the vast majority of us who are at little risk, the survival rate is at least 99.95% and most likely higher. Comorbidities also increase risk. Healthy people under age 25 have a survival rate of effectively 100%. That is, the high risk group is thousands of times more likely to suffer a severe outcome. Given the extreme differences in survival rates between different population subgroups, it would be surprising if the optimal policy did not include that information.

2) As a biological fact, all pandemics end by herd immunity either by natural infection, vaccination, or some combination of both. The optimal policy that ends the pandemic gets us to herd immunity with the least total harm. Covid-zero is not possible with such a widespread pathogen and the social determinants of health stretch well beyond modern medicine.

Implicitly, our governments are telling us that the first point is irrelevant. They are saying that the optimal policy that offers the best protection to the vulnerable from COVID-19 is to treat the disease as though the risk of severe illness or death is exactly the same for all people in society. Our governments have said that for all the money we’ve spent and for all the economic burden that we have placed on our children and the least financially well-off in our society, there is little that we can do differently. In their view, our polices are close to optimal, and that our knowledge of who is most affected by the virus is of no practical significance for public health policy development. Is it really true that no other policy which uses this information is feasible, politically or otherwise?

The second point has become hopelessly and needlessly politicized. Herd immunity has somehow been equated to a political statement. It is not; it’s biology. As the Harvard epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff says, “it’s weird and stunning to have this discussion about herd immunity—flockimmunitet in Swedish. You wouldn’t have physicists talking about whether we believe in gravity or not. Or two airline pilots saying, ‘Should we use the gravity strategy to get the airplane down on the ground?’ Whatever way they fly that plane—or not fly it—gravity will ensure eventually that the plane is going to hit the ground.” However we get there, herd immunity is the only thing that will end the pandemic.

So what would an optimal policy look like?

First, anyone who is at high risk and who has to work in settings ripe for spread should immediately be put on long term disability that replaces their wage. We should not be sending pre-diabetic, hypertensive, heavy-set 50+ year-olds to essential workplaces. We need legions of young healthy people to step up, train quickly, and fill in. If 20 year-olds with minimal training – often less than a few hours in a Spitfire or a Hurricane – won the Battle of Britain, we can find a way to use our young healthy population to replace high risk workers in everything from meat-packing plants to hospitals. Second, for those in the high risk group who cannot self-isolate, such as poor elderly immigrants in multi-generational homes, re-purpose our hotels. Again, have legions of young and low risk people isolate with them, on rotation, to run operations. Ensure high levels of testing. For those who can self-isolate, our army of young people can still help by delivering groceries, medications, and other necessities. Third, let everyone else go about their normal lives to the greatest extent possible – especially children in schools. As we vaccinate our high risk population with an ever expanding vaccination program, and as the virus spreads among the low risk group, we will reach herd immunity and the pandemic will end. The current policy looks very much like let it rip in slow motion.

Perhaps these ideas are infeasible; perhaps our current policies of lockdowns and curfews are the best we can do. Maybe ideas like mobilizing our young is impossible. Maybe it’s too late. But I challenge anyone to rigorously show that we could not have done better or that we can’t do better now.

With bold leadership and a call to civic duty, our accomplishments during WWII and at the beginning of the Cold War showed how we can do great things under enormous stress, against terrible odds, at extremely high stakes. From the Dunkirk Evacuation to the Berlin Airlift, we never accepted the answer “it’s virtually impossible”.

We’ve been told that our civic duty is to stay home, wear a mask during essential trips, and wait for a vaccine all the while we push Covid-19 onto vulnerable essential workers and their relatives.

I bet we can do better. Let’s focus our protection.

Ontario ICU arrivals and departures as a Skellam process

Figure 1: Net daily change in the Ontario ICU census with Skellam inferred rates. The red lollipop points are days of net inflow and blue lollipop points are days of net outflow. The red ribbon and blue ribbons are the inferred daily ICU arrival and departure rates from the Skellam process. Lockdown imposition and lifting dates indicated.

As Ontario enters a new lockdown, the main concern is a potential overrun of our ICU capacity. A year ago, the Ontario government announced a planned major expansion of provincial ICU capacity, but, given our current limits, it appears that either the plan never came to fruition or that the efforts woefully underestimated possible COVID-19 ICU demand. The Ontario COVID-19 data portal gives the daily ICU COVID-19 census from which we can compute daily changes. As of April 4, Ontario has 451 ICU patients associated with COVID-19. The daily changes give us the net flow but the counting does not tell us how many people actually arrived or departed each day. When we see a daily uptick of 25 people, is that 25 arrivals with no departures or is it 50 arrivals with 25 departures? Both scenarios give the same net change.

Even though the COVID-19 data shows only the net change, we can infer the arrival and departure rates using the Skellam distribution. The Skellam distribution is the difference of two Poisson distributions, k = n_1 - n_2, given by the convolution with a negative sum, namely,

(1)   \begin{equation*} s(k; \mu_1,\mu_2) = \sum_{n=-\infty}^\infty\, p(k+n; \mu_1) p(n; \mu_2),\end{equation*}

where s(k; \mu_1, \mu_2) has support on \{\ldots, -2,-1,0,1,2,\dots\}, and p(k;\mu) = \frac{\mu^k}{k!}e^{-\mu} is the Poisson. The resulting distribution can be expressed in terms of the modified Bessel function,

(2)   \begin{equation*}s(k; \mu_1, \mu_2) = e^{-(\mu_1 + \mu_2)}\left(\frac{\mu_1}{\mu_2}\right)^{k/2} I_{|k|}(2\sqrt{\mu_1\mu_2}) .\end{equation*}

I take the daily difference in the Ontario ICU census data and estimate the Skellam distribution over a 21 day sliding window. The Skellam parameters are the ribbons in figure 1, smoothed with cubic splines with cross validation, and superimposed on the daily net flow. The red ribbon is the arrival process and the blue ribbon is the departure process. Each lollipop point is the net change in the ICU occupation on that day. In figure 2 I show a Q-Q plot of the Pearson residuals from the Skellam model – the model is a reasonably good description of the data generating process. In my analysis I use the R packages Skellam and mgcv (for spline estimation). For clarity, I indicate the lockdown imposition and lockdown lift dates. As of early April 2021, it looks like we are approaching an average of 50 admissions to the ICU every day with an average departure of about 40.

Figure 2: Regression diagnostics

Causation is hard to determine in regressions such as this model, but we see that after the lockdown date on December 26, 2020, the arrival rate quickly plateaued only to begin rising again near the end of the lockdown period. It appears that the lockdown this winter had the effect of tempering arrivals into the ICU. But as always with statistics, we need to be cautious about making causal statements. The arrivals in the ICU are from people who were infected at an earlier date, probably in the neighbourhood of one week earlier. Thus, we see that the arrival rate remains high from the beginning of the lockdown on December 26 through the end of December and early January. We should expect this inertia from infections that occurred near or before the imposition of the lockdown, although there is a distinct possibility that people started to change their behaviour before the lockdown date. But notice that the arrival rate begins to rise sharply almost exactly coincidental with the end of the lockdown on February 16, 2021. This observation suggests that infections were beginning to accelerate at least a week, maybe two, prior to the end of the lockdown. It appears that we would have seen a surge at some level in Ontario’s ICUs even if the lockdown had been maintained through the end of February or longer. Of course it’s quite probable that the resulting surge would have been smaller than the one we are currently witnessing, but to gain insight into such a counterfactual we need to know what caused the acceleration in infections prior to the end of the lockdown. If infections started to rise before the end of the lockdown, is it the result of the new more contagious variants? Is it lockdown fatigue? Is it spread among essential workers? Maybe it’s a combination of effects; I don’t know. Lockdown efficacy rests on that understanding.

Notice that the arrival process turned downward, or at least plateaued, about two weeks after the lockdown date of December 26, 2020, but also notice that the daily number of departures has been steadily increasing throughout the entire winter. Of course we expect that as arrivals increase, departures will eventually increase as well – everyone who enters the ICU eventually leaves. In a steady-state queue, the average departure rate will equal the average arrival rate. With time variation in the arrival process the departure rate will lag as the arrival rate waxes and wanes. It might be instructive to think about the average server load (ICU occupation) of an M/M/c queue (exponentially distributed arrival time, exponentially distributed server times, with c servers) as an approximation to the ICU dynamics. In an M/M/c queue the average number of busy servers (ICU bed occupation) is,

(3)   \begin{equation*} \bar c = \frac{\mu}{\tau}, \end{equation*}

where \mu is the arrival rate and \tau is the average service rate. For example, given an arrival rate of 50 people per day and an average length of stay of 14 days in the ICU, the steady-state average number of people in the ICU would be 700 patients, provided the number of beds (servers) is larger than 700. I don’t know if the length of stay has been varying over time. It would be great to do a full time dependent competing risk survival analysis on that data, but the steady rise in the departure rate that we see over the winter might indicate that the length of stay in the ICU has also been changing with the arrival rate. I don’t know.

There are a number of ways to extend this work. The estimator is crude – instead of a naive 21 day sliding window, it could be built with a Bayesian filter. The Q-Q plot in figure 2 shows that the naive sliding window generates a good fit to the data but if we want to back-out robust estimates of the timing of the infections associated with the arrivals, it might be worth exploring filtering. Second, it is possible to promote the parameters of the Skellam process to functions of other observables such as positive test rates, lagged test rates, time, or any other appropriate regressor and then estimate the model through non-linear minimization. In fact, initially I approached the problem using a polynomial basis over time with regression coefficients, but the sliding window generates a better fit.

Where does this leave us? The precipitous drop in ICU arrivals throughout the summer of 2020 with low social distancing stringency and no lockdowns, along with the steady rise in arrivals beginning in the fall, suggest that Covid-19 will become part of the panoply of seasonal respiratory viruses that appear each year. Hopefully with the vaccines and natural exposure, future seasonal case loads will occur with muted numbers relative to our current experience. Given that the largest mitigating effect, next to vaccines, seems to be the arrival of spring and summer, lockdown or not, the warming weather accompanied by greater opportunities to be outdoors should have a positive effect. Covid-19 cases are plummeting across the southern US states like Texas and Alabama, yet cases are rising in colder northern states like New York and New Jersey. While increased herd immunity in the US from higher levels of vaccination and higher levels of natural exposure must be having an effect on reducing spread, it really does seem like Covid-19 behaves as a seasonal respiratory illness. Hopefully we can expect better days ahead, but, in the end, it is very hard to maintain a large susceptible population in the face of a highly contagious virus that has already become widespread. Perhaps we should have been looking for better public health policies all along.

COVID-19 death count conspiracy theories don’t add up, but won’t someone think of the children?

The Canadian media reminds us daily of the COVID-19 death count. They never fail to mention each time we reach a grim milestone. But I got to thinking, how are COVID-19 deaths really counted? What is the effect size on mortality? In some cases it might be obvious, but I am sure there are many medical cases which are difficult to label, especially since severe illness from COVID-19 strongly tracks the febrile, people with comorbidities, and people of advanced age. Are we under-counting or over-counting COVID-19 deaths? Conspiracy theories abound with wild claims about COVID-19 inflated death counts.

One way we might be able to help calibrate our counting is looking into changes in the Canadian mortality rate. Sure, labelling a COVID-19 death might be difficult, but counting deaths themselves should be much easier. Statistics Canada has several weekly mortality time series for the Canadian population. Using the website https://www.mortality.org/, I download the Statistics Canada mortality data. I have no way of determining the data accuracy, but I will assume that the data are complete enough for my modelling purposes. As always, conclusions are only as good as the data we have.

The first plot shows the raw Statistics Canada mortality rate data. The data are split across cohorts along with the total population. We see some interesting patterns. First, the mortality rate in Canada has been increasing over the last ten years. This increase is not surprising as Canada’s median age is increasing – the effect is probably due to our aging population. Second, the death rate in our oldest cohorts is decreasing. We are probably seeing healthier people reaching these cohorts each year given that smoking rates decreased over the last 30 years and we are probably also seeing the effect of better medicine. That we see declines in the mortality rate of the oldest cohorts but an increasing rate for the entire population is an example of Simpson’s Paradox. The fraction of the Canadian population entering the oldest cohorts is increasing, but we all die at some point!

Annualized Canadian mortality rates by cohort with weekly observations.

A casual glance at the plot doesn’t seem to scream a large COVID-19 effect in 2020, but we have to be careful – looks can be deceiving. We have a long term trend superimposed on a noisy periodic time series and we are trying to detect changes at the tail end of the process. A nice way to proceed is to use generalized additive models (GAM). I will be using Simon Wood’s mgcv R package.

The model I have in mind is a GAM with a cyclic cubic spline with a 52 week period, s_1, and a trend spline, s_2,

(1)   \begin{equation*}\text{rate}_i = s_1(\text{week.number}_i) + s_2(\text{time}_i) + \epsilon_i.\end{equation*}

It’s a simple model, but it should be able to pull out a signal or trend, if one exists.

Given that COVID-19 has proven more dangerous to the 75-84 year old cohort, I will start there. The second plot shows the results of the model normalized to the downward linear drift in the data. My model does well fitting the data – well enough to understand the broad features – but an examination of the residuals, while normal in their distribution, exhibit some autocorrelation. There is subtle time series structure that my model misses but for the purposes of detecting the long term trend, this model does reasonably well. We see that the cyclic part peaks during the fall/winter, and the spline trend term sharply moves up through 2020, the effect from COVID-19. The trend component also shows the years with a particularly strong flu season.

GAM: Cyclic and trend components with normalized mortality data for 75-84 year old cohort.

In the next figure I show the long term trend in the mortality rate for the 75-84 year old cohort relative to the background. We see that COVID-19 has lifted the mortality rate for this group by about 4.5%, about 4 times the effect of a bad flu year. The final figure shows the long term trend with the original data. Repeating this analysis for the entire population, we see that the over all effect of COVID-19 on the Canadian population is to lift the mortality rate by about 5% above background. We can see the effect in the next two figures.

GAM trend component relative to the background mortality rate in the 75-84 year old cohort.

This helps us answer the question about over counting. If the effect is about 5% and if it sustains for all of 2020, given that about 280,000 Canadians died in 2019, the results suggest that the annual total COVID-19 effect is 15,000 excess in Canada. While it looks like the current official number of 21,000 COVID-19 deaths might be a little bit high, we need to caution that conclusion based on substitution effects. People travelled less in 2020, so some types of accidents are probably down with deaths from COVID-19 making up part of the difference. Those types of substitution effects would mask the severity of COVID-19 in the mortality rate data. On the other hand, there are other substitution effects, such as self-harm, that have probably increased over 2020, which push up the overall mortality rate from non-COVID-19 (or at least indirect) causes. A much more detailed analysis of all the substitution effects would be required to really know just how much over or under counting is present in the COVID-19 death totals. The official count broadly concords with my simple GAM analysis on the mortality rate. My guess is that if there is bias in the official tally, it would probably lean a touch in the over counting direction, but nothing like the crazy conspiracy theories.

GAM: inferred trend in the mortality rate for the 75-84 year old cohort.
GAM: inferred trend in the mortality rate for all Canadians.

The shocking part of what the data teach us is in the 0-14 year old cohort. I repeat the same analysis and show the long term trend in the figures below. We see that in 2020, the mortality rate for children under 15 years old is up over 20%! That equates to approximately an extra 10 childhood deaths each week across Canada. We know that COVID-19 has a very low mortality rate with children, lower in fact than the seasonal flu, and yet we see a dramatic rise in childhood mortality in the data. This analysis is not causal, but if COVID-19 is an unlikely culprit, it must be some other environmental factor. We know that child abuse and domestic violence has increased as the result of stay-at-home orders. Teachers and school staff have a difficult time detecting abuse and neglect in online classes. When this pandemic ends, it will be very much worth while combing through the 0-14 year old cohort data and unpacking the effects of COVID-19 mitigation efforts on childhood well-being.

GAM trend component relative to the background mortality rate in the 0-14 year old cohort.
GAM: inferred trend in the mortality rate for children under 15 years old.

The CBC and the chattering class

A few months ago I wrote a blog post about the limits of science in forming public policy. Since then the chattering class has only gotten worse and the CBC cheerleads it all the way.

On Thursday November 26, the CBC ran an article Secret recordings reveal political directives over Alberta’s pandemic response in what can only be described as form of gutter-level journalism that will serve to damage the working relationships between Alberta’s scientific advisors, specifically Dr. Deena Hinshaw, and government decision makers in the response to COVID-19. The CBC provides a platform to University of Alberta associate law professor Ubaka Ogbogu who, quoted in the article, said “If the government is not following scientific advice, if it is not interested in measures that will effectively control a pandemic that is killing Albertans, then Hinshaw owes us the responsibility of coming out and saying, ‘They are not letting me do my job’…The focus needs to be on the disease, on how you stop it, not the economy. Nothing is more important.” On Friday the CBC followed up with a response from Dr. Hinshaw, who feels personally betrayed, and added, “I was not elected by Albertans. The final decisions are up to elected officials who were chosen by Alberta. This is how democracy works.” Dr. Hinshaw is the only professional in this sordid mess.

With their article, the CBC is appealing to the I-believe-the-science crowd, an intolerant wokeist slogan that reflects a distrust in democracy, incrementalism, consensus building, and an attitude with little recognition for the difficulties in real decision making. Increasingly, the new chattering class feels that the job of our elected officials is to hand the keys of the state over to the “experts” obediently accept “solutions” (I believe the science, after all) and leave the room. Our democracy doesn’t work that way for a reason – experts are not accountable like our elected officials. Liberal democracy may not be perfect, but it has given us a quality of life unprecedented in human history with stability and peace that is the envy of the world. Accountable legislatures are among our institutions that make it all possible. You’d think that this ground would have been covered in middle school. I hope the forthcoming investigation finds those responsible for the leak, and if they are civil servants, fire them.

As a scientist, I really detest this trend of looking to science to provide the answer to our social and moral questions. From COVID-19 to climate change, the chattering class appeals to “settled science” as a mechanism to prescribe policy solutions. Science can do no such thing. Scientific discoveries by themselves do not have moral implications. This wokester attitude of believing-the-science for public policy is not unlike the 15th century Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo in reverse. What we discover about the world does not tell us what we should do or how we should treat our fellow human beings. When it comes to public policy, science cannot make the decision for us. In the public sphere everything is a trade-off. Those trade-off decisions create suffering and make losers out of some people regardless of which choice we make. How we balance that suffering – how we gain the acceptance of those who lose – is part of the grand bargain built into our liberal democracy. It’s how we create legitimacy. That’s not a scientific question! Believe-the-science is nothing but vacuous wokeist sloganeering.

With COVID-19, our elected officials have a monstrously difficult task. Science is an input, but it cannot offer the solution. COVID-19 mitigation strategies will cost lives no matter what we do. Our polices risk a debt crisis, falling productivity, business destruction, and a potential for the gutting of human capital formation with long term consequences. Balancing those choices and risks against protecting society from the immediate harm of COVID-19 is not obvious; it’s not as easy as professor Ogbogu would have us believe. A policy that saves as many near-term lives as possible, damn the consequences, is a moral choice, a political choice, not a scientific one. In a liberal democracy our elected representatives make decisions that best reflect our collective values. The CBC did us all a disservice by reporting these secret recordings. The CBC undermined Alberta’s efforts to build legitimacy and made Dr. Hinshaw’s job even more difficult than it already is.

Shame on the CBC.