Monday, March 30, 2020

A statistically sound way to count the death toll from covid-19 (EN)

Mr. Lemaitre lives in Brussels, Belgium. He is 70 and five years ago underwent surgery for lung cancer. In mid-February his carcinoma recurred and he was admitted to hospital. Subsequently his condition worsened and in the beginning of March he entered a coma. Less than a week later, his temperature spiked and he was tested for the novel coronavirus. By the time the result came back positive, Mr. Lemaitre had already passed away.

Mr. Peeters lives alone in rural Flanders. His age is the same, 70, and he has a chronic heart condition. But he is in decent health otherwise and he makes sure to regularly visit his cardiologist. Good monitoring, a healthy diet and a quiet lifestyle could easily give him 10-15 more years of quality life, said his doctor. At the beginning of March Mr. Peeters had a couple of bad days, but then was better. He didn't worry too much, it had happened several times in the past and the doctor had adjusted his treatment in response. He would anyway see his doctor in two weeks for his regular appointment.
As the days pass, Mr. Peeters begins to stress about the coronavirus epidemic. He knows he is in a vulnerable category, at his age and with his chronic heart disease, so he limits his contacts and spends most of the time indoors, watching the news. The epidemic is growing in his region, with more and more cases reported every day. He knows stressing is not good for his heart, but cannot help it. He has another bad day and he takes meticulous notes of all the symptoms, to tell his doctor when he sees him in a couple of days.
Then one day and a half before his scheduled appointment, the government on TV announces a lockdown, aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. All non-essential outings are banned. All regular medical appointments are canceled. Mr. Peeters panics. During the night, he has a heart attack and by dawn is dead in his bed.

While Mr. Lemaitre and Mr. Peeters both died at about the same time, only one of them died due to the coronavirus. Mr. Lemaitre was already on his deathbed when he contracted the virus; it might have accelerated his demise, but it certainly wasn't the primary cause. On the other hand, Mr. Peeters' death is obviously caused by the coronavirus pandemic, even if he might not even have been infected; indeed, were it not for the cancellation of his cardiology appointment and for the stress of the situation, chances are Mr. Peeters would be happily tending to his garden in the spring sun, and for years to come.

Still, in the figures announced in the news bulletins, it's Mr. Lemaitre's death that is counted among the victims of the virus, and not that of Mr. Peeters.

Both Mr. Lemaitre and Mr. Peeters are fictional characters, but you get the point. As a real life example, I could refer to the hundreds of people who died in Iran after drinking methanol based on the false belief that it would protect them from the virus. Does the pandemic play a role in their deaths? Most certainly, but you will not find them counted among its victims. Also forgotten will be the lives lost due to the economic collapse provoked by the lockdown measures to stop the pandemic.
The covid-19 statistics that so many of us follow daily, which make the media's frontpages and determine the policy responses of our governments, are flawed.
Different countries count fatalities in different ways and test to various extents for the virus. We have no clue how many people are infected, how many recovered without ever being tested, and we only make guesses as to the death rate. Official or quasi-official estimates are multiples of the headline confirmed figures. We scratch our head at the widely diverging death rates in Italy (very high) and Germany (very low) - but we don't even know whether the data is comparable, given the differences in testing and in counting fatalities.
For all the talk about the science's comeback, about evidence-driven policies, in this unprecedented crisis our leaders are to a large extent flying blind. And the stakes couldn't be higher. The measures being taken these days are historic: state of emergency, lockdowns, border closures, huge fiscal packages to keep the economy - and indeed the society - afloat. One would wish that the figures informing these decisions would be reliable, statistically sound.

But is there any way to have accurate estimates of the death toll of the coronavirus?
The answer is yes, and it was used before - but not yet in this crisis.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Is Trump's foreign policy influenced by a TV series? (EN)

I have often wandered what may be the reasoning behind President Trump's foreign policy decisions, as they don't seem to follow a consistent pattern. Some seem purely transactional, while others are wholly unilateral; some appear very short-sighted, others potentially far-reaching; some look reckless, immature or extremely biased, others considerably more balanced. I'm not saying at all that these come in equal proportions! In my book most of his actions in international affairs are short-sighted, reckless, immature and biased. But the proportion is not the question here.

One can assume that, with his limited attention span, what counts most is who among his entourage gets his ear last before a decision is made - and the chaotic working methods and the frequent personnel changes at the White House might explain some of the inconsistencies. There were also reports that he gets easily triggered by certain TV talk-shows.
This is quite unsettling, as it leaves it unclear what this president is exactly standing for, what is the common thread in his foreign policy and how easily he can be influenced from random sources. If America's moves on the world scene are erratic and unpredictable, for allies as for adversaries, the consequences can be very serious.

But it's possible that Trump may have evolved to the next level: from being influenced by talk-shows, to being influenced by TV series.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Europe's anti-Roma racism (EN)

Traditionally strongest in Central Europe (plenty of nasty examples from recent history in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic etc.), the anti-Roma racism has rapidly spread in Western Europe since the EU enlargement. I pass on France's forced expulsion of Roma (EC Vice-president V. Reding said it all when she compared it to anti-Jewish persecutions during WW II), to focus just on the recent case in Greece that sparked a new wave of hysteria across Europe.

Greek authorities find a blonde girl ("the blond angel") in a Roma family, and suspect she may be abducted. DNA tests confirm that she is not the biological offspring of her so-called parents. While they offer a story of informal adoption, they are put in jail and much of Europe is frantically looking for the real parents ("she looks Scandinavian" is the dominant opinion). Ancestral myths of children abductions by the Roma are revived. In Ireland, a blonde girl is taken away by authorities from her Roma family, only to be returned later when DNA tests confirm that she is indeed from that family (well, yes, there are blond Roma children occasionally, as can be easily checked in many Roma communities).
The cases multiply, and note what crude racial profiling is sufficient to trigger police action:
"The police seized the girl after receiving a tip about a blonde-haired, blue-eyed child who looked nothing like her family, the Sunday World reports." 

Eventually, the biological parents of the "blond angel" found in Greece are identified in Bulgaria, and confirmed by DNA tests. They are, well, dark-skinned Roma themselves; and they confirm the informal adoption story (true, the Roma are not so good with the paperwork).

So what will happen now? Will the Greek Roma family be released from prison, with apologies and perhaps some compensation? Will they be allowed to keep the little girl whom they raised as their daughter?

My guess is different:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A wake-up call (EN)

The shocking decision to impose a 'tax' on bank depositors in Cyprus will only reveal its full consequences in the coming days and weeks. The signs so far are ominous; bank runs and social unrest in the coming period cannot be ruled out.

But whatever happens, one thing is already clear: that the North/South, Centre/Periphery cleavage in the Eurozone and in the EU at large has become irreversible, a point of no return has been reached. It is no longer taboo to force periphery governments to bypass democracy, break their promises and even their countries' law, if the powerful creditors so desire. The existence of second-class countries in the EU, for long an unspoken reality, has been officially formalised. And, with it, the end of the EU as we once knew it.

Incidentally, the measure may be as stupid as it is abusive. But even if it works, by some miracle and against the evidence of EU-imposed policies so far in its Southern rim, the harm of breaking the promise of a united Europe made of equal citizens is already done.

Out of a sense of historical justice, I would be tempted to wish that countries who are now forcing Cyprus into this legalised theft of its citizens' savings would one day live through such an experience themselves. But no, this would be wrong in any circumstance, and two wrongs don't make a right. I don't wish any citizen of any country to face a situation of being robbed outright by his or her own government. As one who lived under a totalitarian regime, I know well the feeling of frustration and disempowerment that such arbitrariness can bring, and how big a blow it can be to citizenship and basic human dignity.

For Romania, a periphery country itself and chronically treated as second-class within the EU - largely due to a corrupt, self-interested political class - this should be a last-chance wake-up call.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Dosarul Schengen - mize si incordari (RO)

Subiectul aderarii la Acordul Schengen incinge din nou, in aceste zile, coabitarea politica damboviteana. Diferenta fata de precedentele esecuri pe aceeasi tema este schimbarea de roluri: daca in 2011 presedintele Basescu era cel care propunea realocarea banilor pentru securizarea frontierelor spre alte domenii si autoritatile se razboiau cu florile olandeze, iar anul trecut pe vremea asta puterea portocalie obstructiona Serbia cu bataie pe Schengen, acum guvernul USL - sustinut de o majoritate zdrobitoare in parlament - isi incordeaza muschii in fata Occidentului, in timp ce basistii critica prestatia puterii.

In ambele ipostaze, avem de-a face cu acelasi simptom, chiar daca actorii au fost re-distribuiti: vorbim de slabiciunea pozitiei externe a Romaniei (un tratament similar aplicat, sa zicem, Poloniei sau Cehiei ar fi greu de imaginat), combinata cu incapacitatea cronica a clasei politice de a se abtine de la demagogie si de a actiona unitar si disciplinat in chestiuni care tin de interesul national. Totul, pe fondul unei deteriorari generale a climatului european in chestiunea liberei circulatii (si nu numai), despre care am scris deja de mai multe ori.

Ce ar fi, totusi, de facut? Si cum poate fi judecata pozitia guvernului Ponta?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

"DeBasificarea justitiei"? Nu, multumesc. (RO)

In contextul noului asalt politic asupra Justitiei, se vorbeste despre "debasificarea" ei, in sensul eliminarii unor sustinatori ai lui Basescu din conducerea institutiilor-cheie: CSM, Parchetul GeneralDNA.

Am fost si raman un critic acerb al lui Basescu, al sistemului de putere pe care l-a construit in ultimii ani, al felului in care si-a impus controlul asupra multor institutii ale statului, sau le-a subminat si marginalizat pe cele pe care nu le-a putut controla cu usurinta. Accept si premisa - destul de usor de sustinut cu argumente - ca influenta basista persista in unele structuri, inclusiv in Justitie. Este greu de ignorat cum, la apogeul confruntarilor politice din 2012, Parchetul a parut sa-si ia instructiunile din unele declaratii publice venite de la Basescu sau de la Monica Macovei.

Daca chestiunea "debasificarii Justitiei" s-ar fi pus anul trecut, n-as fi avut rezerve in a o sustine.
Sa nu uitam, dupa semi-esecul referendumului de demitere a lui Basescu (vot coplesitor pentru demitere, dar referendum nevalidat), alternanta democratica la putere a fost in real pericol. Jocul de poker al USL-ului cu demiterea presedintelui (despre care mi-am exprimat parerea la momentul respectiv) a dat apa la moara basistilor, dandu-le ocazia sa pozeze in - culmea ironiei! - aparatori ai statului de drept. Tabara basista, pentru un timp, a parut sa-si recapete partial suflul politic. Pana acolo incat Basescu a gasit tupeul sa declare ca este pregatit sa ignore inca o data votul electoratului la alegerile parlamentare, anuntand ca va refuza sa nominalizeze candidatul aliantei castigatoare la postul de prim-ministru.

Intr-un astfel de context, cu un Basescu hotarat sa se agate de putere chiar in lipsa oricarei legitimitati populare, amenintand fatis cu repetarea manevrelor anti-constitutionale din toamna lui 2009 (cand a impiedicat o majoritate parlamentara legitima sa acceada la guvernare) si in mod evident dispus sa faca uz de influenta subterana pe care o putea exercita asupra institutiilor de stat (vorbim nu doar de 'activarea' unor sustinatori infitrati politic in diferitele institutii, ci si, intre altele, de santajul unor oameni vulnerabili cu dosare furnizate de serviciile secrete - formula bine rodata de Basescu in ultimii ani), o operatiune de curatire a Justitiei de pionii otraviti care raspundeau la ordinele Cotrocenilor putea fi o idee buna. Era vorba, in fond, de o chestiune de viata si de moarte pentru democratia romaneasca - salvarea principiului ca ajungerea la putere si pastrarea puterii se decid prin votul popular la alegeri. Pentru un timp in 2012, masinaria puterii basiste a parut capabila sa rastoarne chiar acest element fundamental al libertatii noastre de dupa 1989 (asa cum deja o facuse, poate nu chiar atat de flagrant, in 2009). Scenariul puterii basiste rezistand impotriva votului popular cu ajutorul serviciilor secrete si al Justitiei infiltrate politic era intr-adevar unul de cosmar, pentru evitarea caruia "debasificarea Justitiei" putea fi un raspuns. Desigur, ramanea de vazut ce ar fi putut face USL-ul concret, fara a forta regulile jocului ca la tentativa esuata de a-l demite pe Basescu.

Dar ce inseamna "debasificarea Justitiei" acum, in 2013?