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Differences (China, Italy)

  • opinion

In the Netherlands, today, a judge awarded an appeal against the illegality of the COVID curfew. The movement that filed the appeal operates under the motto “virus insanity.” The ruling is based on the observation that there is a lack in the legal ground on which the measure was taken. No formal law behind it. The verdict is likely to lead to devastating divides and stormy legislative activity.

Differences raise questions. In terms of COVID-19 we are buried under them. I look at differences between periods within countries and differences between countries. Within countries I put two periods side by side: weeks 0 – 26 (the first six months) and weeks 17-58 (the end of the first wave until now). I discuss differences between countries on the basis of numbers in the order in which the pandemic struck, today China and Italy. The differences that we want to be able to understand are, for example, (i) speed, hardness and perspective of the measures taken (ii) the differences in the relationship between the daily numbers of infections and deaths.


This is where it started in December 2019. The peak of the first wave was around February 17, 6 weeks after the first recorded contamination, 4 weeks after the Wuhan lock-down and 2 weeks after the adjusted settlement of “spring festival” travels.

There is a huge difference in scale between left and right. On the left, we see a typical first wave of a pandemic that is seriously addressed: exponential growth first, followed by exponential decline after action has been taken. Calculated throughout China, the risk of death at the peak of the wave was 1 in 10 million inhabitants. After the first wave (which is supplemented with a one-day correction), the chance of death from COVID on a bad day is 2 in 1 billion. In the scale of the left graph (of which weeks 17-26 coincide with the first ten weeks of the right graph) these probabilities are not clearly visible. But the structure of the graph on the right clearly shows how the approach to new infections in China has contributed to keeping the pandemic under control. This approach seems to rely on a combination of several factors. The experiences with SARS play a role. The combination of an age-old social culture focused on the standing of the group to which one belongs (collectivism) and an equally age-old political narrative in which hierarchical administrative power is combined with open access to it. In that narrative, no central place has been given to what is called human rights elsewhere (where the culture is more individualistic in nature or where administrative power can make use of the narrative in other ways).

In the left graph an attempt has been made to scale the red line (the number of infections) according to the number of deaths. In China during the first wave, this is possible on the assumption that 37 infections will lead to 1 death. I notice that in the first two weeks, the red and black lines coincide and then the red line precedes the black – about 17 days when the first wave settles. I assume that COVID in China evoked some form of administrative urgency that has led to a focus on testing and treatment, so that the dynamics in infections and deaths can be taken seriously after a few weeks. That means that where I see that the black and red lines coincide, there are major problems registering infections before they turned out to be lethal.


In January, isolated cases of COVID infections were detected in Italy, all of which could be traced back to Wuhan, either brought by Chinese tourists or Italians returning from China. The first “superspreader events” took place in the winter sports areas in February. The introduction of COVID in Italy contributed to its spread in Europe through the logistics dynamic in the winter sports season, which is somewhat similar to the one of the Chinese spring festival. The first infections were diagnosed on January 31. The peak of the first wave fell on April 3, eight and a half weeks after that.

For Italy there is hardly any difference in scale between left and right. At the peaks of the first and second waves, the risk of death from COVID is about 130 per 10 million inhabitants in both cases. Compared to the odds in China (where there was only a first wave, for the time being), more than two orders of magnitude difference. Code red was marked on March 9, and schools and non-essential stores closed on March 22. They reopened on 3 June and stricter rules followed on 13 October. The structure of the first wave is similar to the Chinese one. Where things are going to deviate seriously is with the second wave.

Sometime in December 2020, the structure of the second wave starts to deviate from the first, so much so that for the latter period I wanted to find out whether rescaling the red-black ratio would lead to new questions. When the ratio of registered infections / deaths is adjusted from 1 in 47 to 1 in 33, the lines come closer to each other during the last 9 weeks, but the regularity disappears in the context (red first, black follows a few weeks later) .

I can of course freely speculate about this. Because there may be a new, Italian, variant. In view of the leading position of Italian science, I assume that if such were the case, it would have been noticed and published. In other words, for these dynamics, as for those in the Chinese charts, I should find mottos that support their imitation in toy worlds. Rules of thumb that are in line with what we know about the habits that are dominant in Italian culture, politics, economics and science. On that later, this post is already too long.