What insights might Corona-Panic Studies get from Belarus?
Compared to Belarus, even Sweden looked like it might be overreacting.
Here is a graphical representation I’ve put together of total all-cause mortality in Belarus over the past forty years. I think the patterns speak for themselves but some commentary is included below anyway:
Belarus’ Anti-Lockdown Regime
At a time many were embracing delusion, panic, and group-think, at a time millions began indoctrinating themselves into the Virus Cult, Belarus stayed totally open. It kept its sports leagues open, playing without missing a match, spectators and all. Nothing was closed. No masks. Nothing. This is how a visitor described it in late May:
[S]chools remain open, as do cafés, restaurants, bars, shopping malls and most outdoor events. Indeed, many thousands of people lined the streets for the annual Victory Day parade on May 9th. Belarus has struck a refreshing balance: one which has not led to a population in fear of one another.
Just like a normal flu wave. People would have had little idea anything was “going on,” if they relied entirely on lived experience. Now that the flu wave is over, none outside certain specialized occupations would have ever noticed it had ever happened, exactly as it would have been in any of our countries if this the exact same flu wave had spread in 1990, 2000, or even 2010.
The president of Belarus was defiant and stood with both feet in the anti-Panic camp in a way that was much less possible in the West. (Belarus might have a state-run media, while we have a media-run state.)
As the LockdownSkeptics corrspondent wrote in late May:
The country often referred to as the last dictatorship in Europe suddenly has more individual freedoms than virtually anywhere
The Two Lessons of Belarus
Yes, there was a flu wave in 2020. There is a clear mortality spike is associated with it, but not a historically unprecedented one and nothing like the media-promoted images of doom and millions of deaths.
(1) The Wuhan-Corona flu is a severe flu wave, not an Apocalypse Virus. All flu waves will cause some kind of bump in mortality, and classic severe waves tend to “kill” a few hundredths of a percent of the population (“kill” in quotation marks because most of the deaths are already people in very weak state).
This loss of a few hundredths of one percent of the population in a peak flu event is something we lived with throughout all history without particularly panicking over. Earlier peak flu events of this magnitude were never even noticed. We have long already known this as the full ‘punch’ carried by Wuhan-Corona, from elsewhere, but it is good to see it corroborated yet again, especially in this case, the Belarus “super natural experiment.”
On the Niall Ferguson model, Belarus should have had something over 100,000 coronavirus-caused and follow-on deaths from the mythical swamped hospitals, but the true number as of the provisional total through June 30 is 3,500 excess deaths (see table below).
(2) Economic dislocation kills. Excessive attention on one virus in one year seems to have made many forget something important: Economic collapse and/or social collapse causes untold negative effects and kills many over a period of years and even decades. Belarus is a perfect example:
Wuhan-Corona is a one-year case of pushing mortality back up near where it was in the toughest years of the 1990s in terms of total mortality. The effects of the post-Soviet-collapse years on mortality are as much as hundreds of times worse, and depressingly stretched out over a whole generation, than Wuhan-Corona, a “one-and-done” in mid-2020. The bigger lesson therefore is: Context. Economic dislocation kills. Social disruption and loss of hope kills. Lockdowns Kill.
“Missing the Forest by Focusing on the Trees”
Swiss Policy Research posted briefly on Belarus in September and includes a graph with their post, but I believe my graph tells the overall story that needs to be told even better and more explicitly.
In the SPR graph, it looks like Wuhan-Corona is the sixth noticeable flu spike in Belarus since the disintegration process of the Communist bloc began in 1989. (Poetically, the 1989-90 winter itself was a bad one for Belarus, with a classic flu spike visible in January to February. At the same time that the Soviet-led order in Eastern Europe was undergoing a crisis, a flu wave struck.)
When we look for flu spikes, are we “missing a forest for the trees”?
If we use the hypothetical long-run natural death rate (the orange line in my graph) as
Belarus like everywhere else in Europe was and is aging, and a gentle and gradual total death rate rise from the 1980s to the 2010s/2020s was to be expected. It should have been gradual, a steady rise, not a sudden jolt upwards following a geopolitical and economic collapse. That is the orange line in the graph, the hypothetical long-run baseline absent an economic collapse in 1989-1991, and it is better to use it as the long-run baseline rather than a rolling immediate-term average. Measured this way, 2020 has actually one of the better years for mortality (lower excess-death rates) in Belarus since 1980.
Notice that each year, 1993 to 2011, shows a higher excess over the hypothetical long-run baseline (orange line) of slowly rising mortality consistent with an aging society. The 1985 flu wave was also definitely worse than 2020. As of now, 1984 was also worse.
(Something else to note in the mid-1980s flu spike: 1983-84 and 84-85 bad flu seasons was both preceded by and followed by mild years [1982-83 and 1986], just as 2021 is likely to be. A certain number of people were statistically likely to die in the five-year window 1982 to 1986, and the cards fell that they bunched up in 1984 an 1985; the same is at work in 2020 with the Wuhan-Corona wave, as almost everywhere with mortality spikes was preceded by mild years.)
If making a list of years sorted by mortality excess, puts 2020 and the Wuhan-Corona wave at the number-22 or number-23 spot in the past forty years in Belarus in excess deaths.
The rise in what are now called “deaths of despair” in the old communist bloc in the 1990s and beyond is a well-known story. That big rise you see in the graph, starting in the early 1990s and finally settling down really only by the mid-2010s, represents hundreds of thousands of excess deaths. That was a true public health disaster.
Then when one brings in the ‘qualitative’ to supplement the ‘quantitative’ here, that is to say when one realizes what kind of people those “excess deaths” were in the 1990s/2000s and what kind died in the Wuhan-Corona wave of 2020, you see in clear view how minor Wuhan-Corona flu wave actually is compared to what can happen to a society that goes off the rails even absent any war, famine, meteor impact or the like. This is the “forest.” Wuhan-Corona is a “tree.”
Belarus vs. Sweden
A direct comparison with Sweden is worth it because Belarus and Sweden underwent the Wuhan-Corona flu wave about the same time. They are both European countries with similar populations (Sweden: 10.4m; Belarus: 9.25m). Both refused to cave into lockdowns-ism or the general world media Embrace The Fear drumbeat, Sweden by the good fortune to have had particularly principled and strong-willed people in charge, Belarus partly the same and partly that its political leadership was anti-Western by instinct, with the president saying the whole Corona-Panic was a “Western delusion.”
Sweden is seldom brought up by those in the pro-Panic coalition because Sweden undermines the pro-Panic side’s basic beliefs. Even less does one hear about Belarus. I don’t recall hearing anything in the Western press about Belarus in 2020 except something about protests against the government a few months ago. Nothing about “Covid” in Belarus, which is strange because Belarus took such a hardline anti-Panic position and surely it has had huge numbers of dead, surely it should be held up as an example of what never to do?
I have written much on Sweden but little on Belarus mainly because Belarus is much less accessible, and their government was downplaying the flu deaths that were clearly going on, but all-cause death data is much harder to spin.
Belarus should be of particular interest as a natural experiment on Wuhan-Corona, but of course it comes down to small-audience people like me, and much larger but still non-mainstream places like Swiss Policy Research to point to this.
Belarus’ epidemic curves probably mirror Sweden’s in shape and magnitude but trailed it in time by a few weeks, given the higher likelihood of travel to Sweden from places the virus was circulating in early 2020. Sweden’s period of excess deaths lasted from the end of March to the end of May, two months, and was slightly elevated for another month after that.
Belarus’ total-deaths curve looks a lot like this except trailing by a few weeks. Belarus’ might begin in late April and fade by late June. Then it was over. It’s long over as of this writing.
Quantifying Wuhan-Corona’s hit in Belarus
Belarus has had one-time, one-year +0.040% all-population mortality bump associated with the Wuhan-Corona flu wave, something near 4000 excess deaths (depending on how you count; see Table I below and Appendix), which will be somewhat higher when we have final data next year. Measured against per capita deaths of the 2015-19 period, the hit from Wuhan-Corona is +0.06% (see Appendix).
Belarus’ population almost certainly achieved herd immunity after a few weeks of transmission and therefore we can assume the death totals through the end of June are near the full
This +0.04% is notable for Corona-Panic Studies because it is so similar to what Sweden has had (they are now inching their way to 6000 reported Corona-positive deaths, 0.058% of total resident population, with some degree of overcount from the Deaths With vs. Deaths From problem). Actually, Belarus’ +0.04% is similar to what really all the Western countries who underwent the flu wave had, regardless of lockdown policy or lack thereof. (It’s a flu virus. It spreads. Deal with it. Don’t panic.)
Here is 2020 in chart form:
|Table I.||Belarus |
Deaths in 2020
2020 vs 2010s
|Sum, first 6|
Yes, it was a classic severe flu wave, and the reported deaths mean an extra +0.04% of the population, effectively entirely drawn from the oldest/frailest, died in 2020 than might otherwise have. But why make a big deal about it? Severe flu waves happen. We get through them. We always have. Whatever the final ‘hit’ attributable to the Wuhan-Corona flu wave will be, it is a “one and done.”The great majority of those +0.04% (or whatever the final number is) will have statistically died in the early 2020s anyway.
Here is 1984 and 1985 for comparison:
|Table II.||Belarus, deaths,|
|Avg. deaths, 1980-89 excl. ’84-’85||Excess or Deficit, 1984||Excess or Deficit, 1985|
|Sum, first 6 mo./year||54,545||58,980||50,641||+3,904||+8,339|
In absolute terms, 2020 (+3677) now looks like the 1984 flu wave (+3904), and less than half the severe 1985 flu wave (+8339); given late-reporting deaths, it will probably finish between the two.
There are multiple apparent flu waves of the 1990s and 2000s:
The Wuhan-Corona flu wave of 2020 in Belarus appears to be approximately in the severe flu range which is hit one to three times per decade. If you were born in 1980, you lived through something like six of these. But again the much bigger story is that if you were born in 1980 and lived in Belarus your whole life, the major disruptions of the 1990s and 2000s were a much bigger deal than any of the flu waves, at it’s not close.
The Lesson of Belarus is “Social and Economic Collapse Kills;” flu waves, even severe ones, cannot compete
We see in Belarus, as really everywhere else, that Wuhan-Corona was a classic severe flu wave, but in Belarus’ case it also looks almost irrelevant compared to what long-term major economic and social disruptions can do to a society.
As for how it compares to other flus — which is really an academic question — it is hard to flesh out distinct flu spikes in the 1990s and 2000s, though certainly there were some, because the data was not hugging a clear baseline and then occasionally spiking (as in 1985). The general up-and-down from the post-Soviet breakdown overshadows the various flu spikes of the time, which is a macro-trend visible in the graph:
The much bigger lesson of Belarus is that economic dislocation can be much worse than any one-and-done flu wave, which is a word of caution to the Lockdown-pushers among us.
Wuhan-Corona, for all its hype, is so much weaker than the economic dislocation associated with the Soviet breakup in Belarus’ case as to make the 2020 spike all but unnoticeable to someone glancing at this graph from a great distance of time or space. 2020 is totally overshadowed by the 1990s-to-early-2010s high mortality period.
The deaths of despair phenomenon in the post-Soviet sphere in the 1990s and beyond has long been understood, and provide two lessons: (1) A signpost on the magnitude of unmitigated Wuhan-Corona flu wave, and (2) The effects of economic and social disruption: As Dr. Scott Atlas says, “Lockdowns Kill.” Unemployment and hopelessness kill; drugs and alcohol kill.
In 1986-89, Belarus had just under 1.0% of its population dying per year. By the mid-1990s, the rate had risen to 1.3% and went even higher in the 2000s and began to improve markedly in the 2010s. That’s 20+ years of excess mortality at a magnitude of +0.2%/year (total: 4.0%+ for the twenty-year period), against the Wuhan-Corona flu wave’s one-and-done +0.04%. Maybe 2020 excess mortality will be closer to +0.1% when the smoke clears, and match the 1985 severe flu year.
The mortality effect of the Soviet economic and political collapse was therefore as much as 100 times worse than the Wuhan-Corona flu wave, and that is measuring on “body count” alone. Qualitatively, a lot of the excess deaths in the 1990s-2000s period were to people of working age either dying deaths of despair or suffering worse long-term health outcomes as a result of the dislocations. On the other hand, we know from data everywhere the age-and-condition profile of Wuhan-Corona deaths (elderly and frail, very seldom of working age). Incorporating both “body count” and qualitative age-condition profiles of those dying, the Soviet collapse is many hundreds of times worse for public health than the Wuhan-Corona flu wave.
- “Deaths, by month of death,” Demographic Statistics Database | United Nations Statistics Division [data.un.org] for Belarus. Data updated August 19, 2020.
- Total population by year from World Bank database [data.worldbank.org].
On the completeness of deaths data: This is all-cause death data. Belarus might politically downplay deaths it wants to say are “Covid-related,” but it is much less likely they are hiding bodies. A dead body is a dead body.
We have provisionally complete data for Belarus up through June 30, 2020. The graph compares all-cause deaths for the same period (January to June) back to 1980 and up to 2020. That’s forty-one years’ worth of data. The way these things usually work, when finalized data is available the full magnitude may rise slightly, so the spike you see on 2020 will probably end up a little higher.
Table of the data behind the graph:
|Year||Belarus total deaths in first 6mo./year (Jan. 1 to June 30)||Belarus Total pop. in year||Percent (%) of Belarus total population dying in first six months of year|