Government and Institutions

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 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 Covid-19 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 paper, Viral Myths: Why we risk learning the wrong lessons from the pandemic, 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, as high as 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. 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 argued early on for specific pandemic containment measures that we now know to be effective.


This article was originally published on CapX.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

4 thoughts on “Enough of the “coronfirmation bias” – the pandemic has not vindicated anyone”

  1. Posted 09/02/2021 at 14:01 | Permalink

    I am not convinced that your last comment is correct. I think it might arise from confirmation bias. I am suffering from it myself when i say this, though. I think you might find that the countries that used very specific containment measures were countries where this was relatively easy to do both technically and culturally and/or they had had sars experience. Containment measures in countries such as the US and UK are just very difficult.

  2. Posted 09/02/2021 at 21:16 | Permalink

    Good ideas Kristian. I’m of the Left and yet having spent quite some time in NHS hospitals I can personally vouch that they are inefficient, poorly run with simply dreadful procurement systems and have terrible patient outcomes considering the money we spend on the institution.

    However, the debate seems to be framed by comparing the NHS with the dreadful system in the USA rather than the much better systems in Europe and elsewhere.

    It IS perfectly possible to have a competitive and efficient health service at the same time as providing universal health care. I hesitate to add the word “free” to that description because the NHS is certainly far from free itself.

  3. Posted 09/02/2021 at 21:28 | Permalink

    A Hayekian cry of narcissistic rage being reflected by the uselessness of markets in a pandemic-Hayek became a fascist in fear of the moral turpitude of what he had unleashed-you just spew hollow hopes for a post NHS bonanza going up in smoke.

  4. Posted 11/02/2021 at 09:29 | Permalink

    Some interesting points, but rather naïve conclusions and there are many. Excess deaths are not a measure of effectiveness. All we can discern from the excess death rate; is that deaths are higher than they normally are. The reasons (and we have to wait for the analysis) are multifactorial, but will almost certainly include, the higher that average levels of obesity we have in the UK. The UK has the 6th highest rate in the world (OECD 2017) and 20% higher than Korea. Equally, if you look at poverty, the UK is ranked 32/36 for highest poverty gap (OECD 2017).

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