Some unpleasant pandemic arithmetic

A lot of discussion around “living with Covid” starts from the premise that, as long as vaccination rates are high (say 80 per cent of the population), we don’t need to worry about high case numbers. That’s because vaccinated people are less likely to suffer bad outcomes (hospitalization and death). The problem with this claim is that, because the primary function of vaccines is to protect against infection, unvaccinated people will be over-represented among cases. Let’s try some simple arithmetic.

Suppose the vaccination rate is x%, and that vaccination gives y% reduction in infection risk and z% reduction in bad outcomes (hospitalization and death) conditional on infection. Denote the percentage of bad outcomes for unvaxed by b %. Assume all unvaccinated will be infected if exposed.

Then, for each 100 people exposed, (100-x) unvaccinated and x*(100-y)/ 100 vaccinated will be infected. Example, if x = y = 80%, there will be 20 unvaccinated and 16 vaccinated. That is, even though unvaccinated people are only 20 % of the population, they will account for more than half the cases.

The number of outcomes will be

b* = (100-x)*b⁄ 100 + x *(100-y)*(100-z)*b⁄ (100*100 )

Say b = 5%, z = 80%, Then we get 1.16 bad outcomes, compared to 5 in the absence of vaccination. So the good news is vaccination works,

But as a proportion of cases, things don’t look nearly so good. In the absence of vaccination b=5 % of cases have bad outcomes, but with vaccination b*=1.16/36 = 3.2 per cent, which is only marginally lowe.

So, the idea that we don’t need to worry about high case numbers if vaccination rates are high doesn’t really stand up. We have to keep case numbers down. Taking the vaccination rate as given, that can only be done with measures like mask mandates, social distancing and vaccine passports.

Could the culture wars really be over?

It seems almost inconceivable that the culture wars that have dominated Australian public life for decades could end, and with victory for the progressive side on nearly every front.  And I have made premature predictions to this effect before. 

 But consider the following list of events over the last couple of years, many in the last few months.

*  After decades of quasi-legality in many states, abortion rights have been enshrined in law throughout Australia – attempts to mobilise public opposition went nowhere
*  Voluntary assisted dying has now been legalised nearly everywhere (a bill in NSW looks very likely to be passed) – again the debate was low-key and generally civil

*  The Morrison government, backed by the Murdoch press, appears certain to adopt a 2050 net zero target, and a somewhat more ambitious 2030 target. While there will still be plenty of fights about the details, these will be in the realm of normal political dispute. Culture war denialism (even of the nod-and-wink variety) is now outside the Overton window. 

* Transgender rights are estabished in law, and attempts to whip up culture war on the issue (as with Safe Schools) haven’t been successful.

*  Despite the long and bitter battle over equal marriage, the issue disappeared almost as soon as the law was changed. No one on the right even mentions the idea that it might be reversed. Nor do we see any of the snarky talking points and bogus studies purporting to prove that the idea was disastrous.  Religious freedom laws, if they are ever passed, are likely to restrict rather than expand the existing exemption of religious employers from anti-discrimination laws (an exemption which is becoming harder to exercise in the absence of social license)

The big exception to all of this is the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. As elsewhere it’s been a potent issue for the culture war right and one on which they have generally been successful.  

What remains of the culture wars is a kind of free-floating identity politics in which well-off university-educated people denounce others with indistinguishable lifestyles as ‘inner city elites’ and appeal to ‘real Australians’, which roughly translates to ‘people with moderately bigoted views about others, who want a free pass for this’.


A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

To be clear, the sandpit is for regular commenters to pursue points that distract from regular discussion, including conspiracy-theoretic takes on the issues at hand. It’s not meant as a forum for visiting conspiracy theorists, or trolls posing as such.

Who’s afraid of Perrottet ?

The selection of Dominic Perrottett as leader of the NSW Liberal Party, and therefore Premier has raised lots of concern about his conservative religious views. But the only concrete instance raised so far is a dispute over whether the Catholic Church should get management rights over cemeteries.
To see how little impact Perrottett is likely to have, consider that in the last eight years, we have had two Prime Ministers clearly aligned with the religious right, and one too weak to resist them. Despite this, the religious right has comprehensively lost the culture wars in Australia. Most of the issues that drive religious culture wars in the US have been resolved here, with hardly any fuss. Conservatives stalled on equal marriage as long as they could, but once the plebiscite went through, the issue was settled. Meanwhile state parliaments passed legislation formalising the long-standing situation on abortion rights, and setting out rules for voluntary assisted dying.

The big demand from the religious right after the equal marriage debate was a “religious freedom bill”. The motive was the spurious fear that it would be illegal to express opposition to equal marriage – in practice, this is a dead issue.

The Israel Folau case raised the separate question of whether employees could be sacked fro expressing their religious views. But far from advancing the cause of the religious right, the resulting debate has highlighted the indefensible exemption from anti-discrimination law that already exists for religious employers such as schools and hospitals, allowing them to sack gay (or non-believing) employees, exclude students and so on. Even if this exemption survives in law, it has become unsustainable in the light of adverse public opinion.

It’s much more reasonable to be worried about Perrottet’s rush to remove Covid restrictions. But that’s a subject for another post.

How big a bubble ?

We[1] are often urged to “get out of our bubbles” and engage with a wider range of viewpoints. This mostly turns out to be a waste of time. As I experienced from my side, engagement with the political right consists mainly of responding to a string of talking points and whataboutery, with little if any content. On the rare occasions these discussions have been useful, it’s typically because the other party in the discussion is on the verge of breaking with the right[2]

To restate the case in favour of getting out of the bubble, it’s easy to see examples of people on the left putting forward arguments that don’t stand up under criticism, but haven’t faced such criticism within the limited circles in which they’ve been discussed. But the most effective criticisms of such arguments is likely to come from people with broadly similar political aims and understandings.

As Daniel Davies once observed, opinion at Crooked Timber, the group blog of which I am a member, runs the gamut from social democrat to democratic socialist, and I have traversed that range in both directions. I get plenty of benefit from arguing with other people in that range and with some a little outside it, such as liberaltarians and (not too dogmatic) Marxists.

Opening up the discussion bubble now.

fn1. At least we on the left, I rarely run across this suggestion in the rightwing media I read.
fn2. TBC, I don’t think the powerful force of my arguments has converted them; rather it’s that people making this kind of shift often have interesting things to say,