We use cookies to help improve and maintain our site. More information.

March 25, 2020

Scientific advice and politics

We will only know well after the Covid-19 crisis what sort of measures were successful and why. South Korea and Japan recovered without strict confinement, while European countries have imposed confinement measures of varying strictness, African countries just started with confinement measures but have no chance of strict enforcement, and Donald Trump is considering to lift social-distancing measures altogether.

How much is scientific advice worth in politics? There are still many unknowns about the virus, how it spreads and why it kills in certain hotspots more than in others. Politics is flying blind.  

Will public opinion back the leaders? The virus is an invisible threat for many. Doctors in Bergamo send pictures through social media to remind people what it feels like to be in an a hospital there. There are queues for funerals. These stories inform the views of people in their solitary confinement back home.

The scientific committee Emmanuel Macron installed just two weeks ago is already being challenged by politicians and journalists as week two of the confinement starts. Last night the committee, led by Jean-François Delfraissy, recommended to extend the confinement until end-April as the death toll rose by 240 to 1100 yesterday. This means six more weeks in confinement. Macron also installed a second scientific committee under the leadership of Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who discovered the HIV virus. This new committee is to advise the health minister on more operational questions such as testing and how to use innovative methods to track people in contact with an infected patient. The two committees are meant to be complementary to each other, but one can easily see how they could end up with different and opposing advice. The more testing methods are available, the more France could afford a scenario like that in South Korea, where emphasis was on testing rather than confinement.

Show Comments Write a Comment

March 25, 2020

Why the Oxford study is so useful

Epidemic models are like economic models. As the statistician George Box once remarked, all models are wrong but some are useful. A new model, by Oxford’s Evolutionary Ecology of Infectious Disease group, is almost certainly wrong but it is useful because it challenges the status-quo consensus. The Oxford group believes that up to 80% of the population may already have been infected and have built up an immune response to the virus. This calls for widespread testing for Covid-19 antibodies. Such a test would pick out anybody who caught the virus but did not develop symptoms. If the hypothesis were true, it would imply a mortality rate of under 0.01%. The model flatly contradicts the alarmist forecasts by Imperial College, which warned about an uncontrolled spread of the disease. 

We note that epidemology has hit its Keynesianism-versus-Monetarism moment. Our own view is agnostic and guided by the principle that, when faced with catastrophic consequences under extreme uncertainty, policy should follow the precautionary principle. But this is not an explicit endorsement of one model over another. We still do not know enough about the virus to make an informed choice. The Oxford model, for example, does not explain the presence of hotspots like Bergamo, where the mortality rate is higher than by a factor of 100. 

Donald Trump goes with his own gut instinct, and ignores all scientific advice. He hinted at lifting all restrictions by Easter. This gamble can kill his presidency. Or it could save it. We don’t know, just as we cannot rule out either that the Oxford team may turn out to be correct. But at least their hypothesis is testable.

Show Comments Write a Comment

This is the public section of the Eurointelligence Professional Briefing, which focuses on the geopolitical aspects of our news coverage. It appears daily at 2pm CET. The full briefing, which appears at 9am CET, is only available to subscribers. Please click here for a free trial, and here for the Eurointelligence home page.


Recent News

  • March 03, 2020
  • On the unintended consequences of GDPR
  • September 05, 2019
  • Would Keynes be in favour of Brexit?
  • March 11, 2019
  • Ask what Europe can do for Germany - AKK's EU manifesto
  • September 14, 2018
  • Carney warns about dramatic hard Brexit impact on housing market
  • Can Africa thrive on free trade with Europe?
  • March 21, 2018
  • The political pathway to a Brexit revocation is closing
  • September 26, 2017
  • Brexit is a binary choice between EEA or third-country status
  • April 05, 2017
  • What if Macron were to become president?
  • The case for relative optimism about Article 50
  • October 14, 2016
  • Tusk's awkward choice
  • Seven candidates, three debates
  • April 25, 2016
  • The death of the Grand Coalition
  • Insurrection against TTIP
  • Juppé to benefit from Macron hype
  • On optimal currency areas
  • Why the Artic region could be the next geopolitical troublespot
  • From a currency to a people
  • May 22, 2020
  • Russia and Turkey double down in Libya
  • What to make of No 10's Brexit briefings
  • January 15, 2020
  • Philippe's not-so-generous compromise offer
  • What is Erdogan up to in Libya?
  • When it is noise and not a signal
  • September 11, 2019
  • What are the chances of a deal?
  • May 09, 2019
  • The EU's impossible dilemma
  • The horsetrading starts in Sibiu
  • May to bring withdrawal bill to Commons week after next
  • January 04, 2019
  • Will the AfD become the Dexit party?
  • Romania's corruption problem in the spotlight of its EU presidency
  • August 24, 2018
  • Towards a standoff between Italy and the EU
  • A short note on the diminishing role of economists in political life
  • April 23, 2018
  • More bad news for the SPD
  • Will Theresa May accept a customs union? The Times says yes. We think so too.
  • A comeback for Marine Le Pen?
  • December 20, 2017
  • Down with the gown
  • How to overcome the political gridlock in Italy
  • Varoufakis is suing the ECB
  • August 21, 2017
  • Soft, getting softer
  • Tsipras' chances of a boost
  • On the fallacy of a middle-ground option for the eurozone
  • April 12, 2017
  • Macro in a state of denial
  • Where Schulz is vulnerable
  • Schäuble’s three party tricks
  • December 15, 2016
  • Scared of its own electorate
  • Towards a transitional deal
  • The comeback of Gerhard Schröder as the SPD's powerbroker
  • August 19, 2016
  • Brexit realities slowly dawning on the City
  • Opening shot for Hollande's campaign
  • April 25, 2016
  • The death of the Grand Coalition
  • Insurrection against TTIP
  • Juppé to benefit from Macron hype
  • On optimal currency areas
  • Why the Artic region could be the next geopolitical troublespot
  • From a currency to a people
  • September 21, 2020
  • Forget soft power
  • September 03, 2020
  • Navalny notwithstanding, we are still buying Russian gas
  • August 17, 2020
  • How Putin could divide the EU over Belarus
  • The impossible mission of forming a federal government in Belgium
  • July 29, 2020
  • Le Pen's summer contribution
  • Turkey's games with the EU
  • July 14, 2020
  • Why the far-right might win in the end
  • June 29, 2020
  • Édouard Philippe - mayor or prime minister?
  • Sir Humphrey, R.I.P.
  • June 15, 2020
  • US and Germany step up fight over NordStream 2
  • Macron's agenda for the next two years
  • June 01, 2020
  • Refugees' mass eviction in Greece
  • This is Brexit week again
  • May 20, 2020
  • Car purchase premiums - a way to save the car industry?
  • Centralised lockdown, decentralised exit
  • May 10, 2020
  • On court rulings and folk economics
  • EU regions - some far better on Covid-19 but not on downturn
  • April 29, 2020
  • Will the first be the last? Virus edition
  • Don't hurry your exit strategy
  • April 21, 2020
  • Lockdown as burden and opportunity
  • April 15, 2020
  • Italy’s coalition disagrees about the ESM
  • April 08, 2020
  • Is Greece ready for virus spread in migrant camps?
  • On the future of the EU - the final part 12 of our series
  • April 03, 2020
  • After medical concerns, economic concerns take centre stage in Greece
  • New momentum to exclude Fidesz from the EPP
  • The Swedish experiment
  • March 30, 2020
  • Decision making under radical uncertainty
  • March 27, 2020
  • Watch out for the coalition of the south
  • The race to save jobs
  • March 26, 2020
  • Testing and tracking - a recipe for Europe?
  • Diplomacy and the Wuhan virus