Little Belarus has been in the news due to the political turmoil following its presidential election early last month. While it isn’t high in the consciousness of most people in Western countries, it is one of the last European nations led by the kind of old-fashioned dictator who used to be common in countries like Portugal, Spain and the former Soviet satellites. In Belarus (population 9.4 million, GDP US$60 billion, per capita annual income US$19,240) that man is Alexander Lukashenko. He’s a bit of a puzzle. Although certainly authoritarian and no friend of the Western democracies, he’s also sometimes at odds with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
After the August 8 vote, the 66-year-old who’s held power since 1994 declared victory, claiming a resounding 80 percent of the vote and crushing the self-proclaimed democratic opposition led by Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya. The 38-year-old human rights activist claimed to have won the first-round voting and now, fearing for her safety, promptly fled to neighboring Lithuania. What the West should do, what Putin will do and how this will play out remains anyone’s guess. It is seemingly just another messy situation in a region that’s always been known for such sad sagas. End of story, right?
But Belarus is unusual, and unusually interesting, for another reason: the way it handled the coronavirus pandemic. Or perhaps more accurately, the way it didn’t handle it. You see, Belarus did practically nothing to combat the virus. The country’s old-fashioned quasi-dictator openly mocked it, calling it “the flu” and dismissing the virus-induced panic sweeping Europe and North America as “coronapsychosis”. Lukashenko not only rejected the internationally approved lockdown model, calling the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended approach “absurd”, he even rebuffed loans the WHO offered to induce him to accept that model.
Practically no laws were passed in Belarus mandating social distancing, masks or anything else. Citizens largely made their own decisions about how to behave. The country is too poor to do what lockdown countries did – close businesses, send workers home and generously compensate everybody for months. (Where poor countries did try lockdowns, the situation proved calamitous for the lower classes.) So Belarus just muddled through. People went to work, schools stayed open and many sporting events continued as usual. Media photos of the recent political unrest show large crowds of unmasked people in the streets.
If the army of political, public health, media and corporate elites who make up the lockdown advocacy movement are to be believed – namely that unless our governments imposed all of the drastic measures that were taken, there would be mass deaths everywhere – Belarus should be one big smouldering pile of corpses. So then, just how did Belarus do? Has there been mass death and terrible suffering?
It appears not. Instead of that pile of corpses, Belarus has reported a decidedly moderate death count. As of September 2, its official death toll stood at 686. The death rate of about 72 per million population seems barely believable (Canada’s is 248 per million) and, granted, statistics in the backward country are poorly kept. Then again, within Canada the province of Alberta has racked up only 55 deaths per million (you’ll need to take the statistics provided and divide them by the population of 4.37 million), so Belarus’s claimed performance is hardly unattainable. And if Belarus’s claims were wildly off, surely Lukashenko’s opponents would get word out. Either way, it does seem Belarus weathered the pandemic at least as well as its richer, locked-down counterparts. The pandemic there appears to be largely over, and Belarusians are going about living their lives.
How have Belarus’s immediate neighbours fared? It seems none of them did much better or worse than Belarus, although the social distancing rules and regulations varied considerably from country to country. Corrupt and incompetently run Russia reports about 123 cases per million population. The tiny Baltic state of Lithuania next door adopted somewhat stricter measures and did hold its per-capita death rate to half that of Belarus. Latvia, beside Lithuania, is being lauded as a Covid-19 success story. It adopted more restrictions than did Belarus but still basically kept its economy functioning. Its death rate of only 18 per million is lower than for most other places – dramatically lower than New York’s astounding rate of 1,700 per million (note: the linked site provides the death rate per 100,000). But Latvia’s end result, while better than Belarus’s, is not orders of magnitude better.
There are far too many variables to make definitive conclusions about one country’s approach compared to another’s. Caution and a certain intellectual modesty are called for. That hasn’t, of course, stopped the lockdown zealots from trashing “renegade” Sweden and constantly pointing out its higher death rate than Norway’s, while usually omitting that Sweden has done better than numerous other countries, like Belgium. Taiwan and New Zealand, to take other examples, each have suffered remarkably few deaths despite adopting varying measures, but they are island nations and thus relatively easy to protect compared to a city like New York or a country like Brazil.
Many African countries, remarkably, have far lower death rates than Italy or the state of New Jersey (at 1,800 per million, even worse than New York). But Africa has an exceptionally young population and very few people in nursing homes. There are probably many factors that we don’t yet fully understand that account for some of the differences in death rates. Climate? Vitamin D deficiency? The use of zinc and hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19? Or, perhaps, the widespread habitual use of chloroquine by tens of millions of Africans to treat malaria? And some of the richer countries that aggressively suppressed the virus, like Norway and Denmark, will very likely see infection rates rise as they reopen their economies.
It is also a fact that the draconian lockdown model is available only to rich nations. Poorer countries, like Belarus or Haiti, simply lack the financial muscle to quarantine the healthy population and send them cheques while most of the population “shelters in place”. As a result, even some poorer nations that officially went lockdown were generally not able in practical terms to include the poorer parts of their population.
India, for example, has millions of migrant workers who simply have to leave their modest homes to earn enough to feed their families. And those homes, in cities like Mumbai, tend to be small and crowded. As a result, only the wealthier parts of the population submitted to the lockdown. And yet India seems to be largely over the pandemic.
And so – surprisingly – is horrifically poor Haiti. And no, these countries’ death counts are not anywhere near as high as are those of the lockdown jurisdictions. Haiti to date has fewer than 19 deaths per million. The same dynamic applies in many of the world’s other poor nations. The poor majority simply could not afford the luxury of the lockdown.
That the death rate in one poor country after another has not been higher than in the rich lockdown countries – and, in many cases, has been far lower – suggests that adopting the lockdown model was not only unnecessary but was a mistake of huge proportions. Perhaps the greatest public policy mistake to date of this century.
That not even the rudimentary health care systems in the poorer countries were overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients also puts the lie to the logic underlying the lockdown model. The lockdowns came about after the now-infamous Neil Ferguson/Imperial College London model predicted that millions would perish unless drastic lockdowns were immediately implemented. It was wildly wrong. Just like Ferguson’s predictions concerning previous epidemics.
Why the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations would seize upon one badly written, badly researched paper to imprison their populations and devastate their economies is mystifying and will be fodder for essays and books for many years. But what moves this question from the sublime to the ridiculous is that the entire social-distancing/lockdown model apparently has much of its origin in the high school science project of a 14-year-old. Yes, you read that right. Her name is Laura Glass. How the West’s elites chose to set the world on its head based on Ferguson’s bogus model and the musings of a bright teenager is another question for historians (and psychologists).
John P.A. Ioannidis is a Professor of Medicine, Epidemiology and Population Health at Stanford University, as well as world-renowned in biomedical data and statistics. His list of academic publication fills a page of small type. He is as credible as they come, and here is how he describes the lockdown model: “A shutdown is a medieval measure. It’s the equivalent of cutting off your arm because of some joint pain in your hand.” He has also called it “the nuclear option that destroys everything”, arguing extensively that lockdowns cause far more harm than good and are hardest of all on society’s poorest segments. You can hear him here in a recent Munk Debate.
Ioannidis’ colleague, Jay Bhattacharya, a fellow Professor of Medicine at Stanford, says that we must honestly discuss the grim trade-offs generated by the lockdown model. Hard questions such as, How many 20-year-olds who die by pandemic-related overdoses or suicides can be justified by adding a year or two to the life of an 85-year-old dementia patient? You can listen to Bhattacharya here.
The sole Western nation that definitively refused to buy into the crude lockdown model was Sweden. (A few others, like Austria, went distinctly “lighter” than France or the U.K. while paying lip service to the overall approach. For that matter, here in Canada Alberta went lighter than Ontario and Quebec – again, while mouthing the right rhetoric.) Sweden decided on its own course. Schools were not closed, businesses were not ordered shut, and Swedes were able to go about living their lives. People were constantly urged to be careful but were not threatened with heavy fines or prison; they were trusted to be sensible. The Swedish government banned gatherings of more than 50 people and stood ready to impose tougher rules if the hospital system looked as if it might get overwhelmed.
But that never happened. Instead, people social-distanced according to their own situation, needs and risk evaluation. The economy took a hit, but it is now functioning more or less normally. Plus, Sweden did not incur the crippling debt of the lockdown countries in compensating idled workers and embattled companies and attempting to restart economies. In charting its own path, Sweden might also have gotten lucky. The prevailing theory concerning “herd immunity” had been that 60-80 percent of a population would have to develop antibodies to a given virus before the “herd” was largely immune. Sweden never came near that figure, yet it appears the epidemic there is over. Since mid-August, the typical daily death count has been 1 or 0.
Jonas Ludvigsson is a senior paediatrician and Professor in the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. “The top priority in the Swedish strategy was always to protect the elderly and the risk groups,” he explains. “Already in March, the data showed that the virus did not affect the young nearly as much as it did the elderly – so our second priority was to keep the schools open.” The Swedish strategy also made a high priority of preserving people’s ability to earn a living.
Ludvigsson pointedly argues that the lockdown model is simply unsustainable to contend with a virus that could hound us for years. “This is not about running [the] one-hundred-yard dash,” he says. “This is a marathon.” Sweden aimed from the start to craft an approach that could be sustained for years if needed. And Sweden’s approach has paid off. “Herd immunity is higher in Sweden than in many other countries,” Ludvigsson says. This recent Munk Debate is devoted to the Swedish model’s efficacy.
What happened? It seems that a big part of the answer is “T-cells”. Simply put, many of us – maybe most of us – might have some measure of resistance to Covid-19 simply because we have been infected by other coronaviruses in the last few years. The science here is far beyond my understanding, but in lay terms, Sweden might have stumbled into herd immunity. A description of what is happening in Sweden from the point of view of Sebastian Rushworth, a practising Swedish doctor, is here.
But not only have lockdown-spurning countries done no worse than the average for lockdown countries as whole, there’s even growing evidence that lockdowns cause more deaths than adopting the Swedish model. As mentioned above, death rates in New York and New Jersey are more than five times higher than in Sweden and 20 times higher than in little Belarus. Those states locked down harder than nearly any other jurisdictions, are reeling economically and will pay for those decisions for a decade or even a generation.
It should also be noted that Britain and Holland both originally planned to follow Sweden’s approach. It was the Imperial College scare that put the panic in them – a mental state not all that far from Lukashenko’s contemptuous moniker. They locked down very hard and implemented measures like encouraging people to snitch on neighbours and conducting brutal arrests and punishments of violators. Yet Britannia fared worse than Sweden in deaths, and is still seeing a higher rate of new infections. And its approach of course hammered the economy.
The end result does not yield a clear pattern of infections and deaths between countries imposing strict lockdown and those allowing social and economic life to continue with minimal disruption. For nearly every country on one side, as we’ve seen, there are countries on the other side that did better and worse. The only consistent difference is that the economies of non-lockdown countries haven’t suffered the severe trauma of being artificially shut down. In addition, and very significantly, even with the many differences from nation to nation it is clear the countries that refused the strict lockdown measures being urged upon everyone did not suffer the mass deaths predicted by the lockdown zealots and their media and public health mouthpieces.
It is also becoming more and more obvious that draconian lockdown measures suppress the virus’s spread for a while, but eventually the virus has its way with the population. Countries praised for their radical suppression, such as New Zealand, are now seeing more infections. Peru is one such example from the poorer countries. Here is how Ethan Young of the American Institute for Economic Research put it in his recent lockdown study: “The idea of closing down society with draconian lockdown policies is an economic experiment that is not based in reality”.
Perhaps the best policy is to focus on protecting the vulnerable and going about one’s business as best one can, while letting the normal life of a nation (or state or province) go on. Viruses do not respect borders. If people are given the most accurate – and, above all, honest – information available, they can make their own decisions about social distancing, sending kids to school, returning to close-quarters work settings, and so on.
Unfortunately and outrageously, much of the political and public health establishments of lockdown countries did the opposite. They took it upon themselves to strip citizens of personal responsibility, fomented panic and shamelessly rationalized their rolling litany of errors and exaggerations (starting with their initial claims that Covid-19 wasn’t dangerous and closing borders would be racist). Instead of focusing on protecting the vulnerable while letting healthy people live their lives, they quarantined the healthy population and badly failed the vulnerable, with many thousands dying needlessly as a result. All while claiming to have saved us from mass deaths.
How could it be, then, that Belarus has done so well? How could it be that the approximately two-thirds of the world’s population too poor to follow the lockdown model that their (in this case, thankfully corrupt and incompetent) governments attempted to impose also did not suffer mass deaths? But, rest assured that the leaders of lockdown countries will continue to insist that it was their very rules and regulations that flattened the curve, kept hospitals from being overwhelmed (actually, they kept many hospitals virtually empty, forcing them to dial back needed work like cancer treatment and organ transplants) and saved millions.
A joke by iconoclast Peter Hitchens comes to mind. A fellow with spots on his face consults his doctor. The doctor says, “You have measles and I will have to cut off your leg.” He does so. In a month the poor fellow hops back in on his one leg. The doctor says, “See, the spots are gone. I cured you.” Many politicians are already performing a sick version of that.
But by avoiding “coronapsychosis” and treating the Wuhan flu basically like any other, Belarus – and the rest of the world that couldn’t afford the lockdown model – puts the lie to their claims. The death rates do reveal this part of the story. I’ve only touched on a few key examples. The broader and deeper statistics are widely available and easily found on such websites as Statista, Worldometer and Our World in Data.
Dr. Rushworth likens the Swedish pandemic strategy to pulling off a bandage. One either pulls it off very slowly, resulting in the pain being spread over a long time. Or one rips it off with the intense but short-lived pain that causes. Sweden opted for the quick approach. Here in Canada we opted for the long, excruciating option. We have devastated our economy, we did not fully protect our elderly, and it looks like we will be battling this virus for a long time to come. In short – and with due respect to the meaningful variations that lessened the pain in Saskatchewan, Alberta and to some extent B.C. – we largely chose the lockdown model. We made the wrong choice.
Some Western politicians do seem to be catching on, and a few are even willing to take a public position bucking the prevailing dogma. Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, last month declared that his state “will never do any of these lockdowns again”. Although DeSantis has been mercilessly vilified and ridiculed by the mainstream media, his previous lighter approach not only saved Florida’s economy from New York’s fate, but his state’s death rate of 550 per million is less than one-third New York’s.
The unrest is continuing in Belarus, and we don’t know who will prevail in the struggle for political power. But we do know that this small but apparently still free-thinking country has stood up to the lockdown model and survived. We should designate Belarus “The Non-lockdown Model”.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired Manitoba provincial court judge, Senior Fellow with the Frontier Center for Public Policy and frequent commentator on public policy issues.