Austria     Belgium     Brazil     Canada     Denmark     Finland     France     Germany     Hungary     Iceland     Ireland     Italy     Luxembourg     The Netherlands     Norway     Poland     Spain     Sweden     Switzerland     UK     USA     

Concrete, Clay, and COVID

Tennis and vaccines on both sides of the Atlantic

I relocated to Europe from the United States about half a decade ago. When I moved, I decided to try to keep up with tennis, my main hobby. I was thrilled: Europe is known within tennis circles for its gorgeous red clay courts, a stark contrast to the hard courts throughout the United States. The red clay causes the ball to move more slowly and reacts much more heavily to spin; thus, the game on clay is considerably slower than on hard courts. This means that young European players usually develop much more “complete” games; they cannot win by simply blasting their opponents off the courts; the clay requires them to play chess instead of checkers. Consequently, even the most dominant American players of all time have relatively weak records on European clay.

When I arrived, I met up with a local coach for lessons and hitting practice so that I could join a competitive league. He noticed what we both knew from the first minute: my flat strokes and strong serve—and weaker everything else—were optimised for American-style aggression. I was insecure about this fact, and I knew it would take me a long time to find my footing. But he said something to encourage me that has really stuck with me: “You Americans are usually only good at a couple of things, but you are extremely good at those things. But those things are usually the things that matter most”. For me versus my opponents, that was my serve and my forehand; for the United States versus COVID, that is vaccine supply and distribution.

In the first several stages of the pandemic, Europe outclassed the United States in its vaccine response. Overall, strict lockdowns throughout Europe were more effective than the inconsistent, laissez-faire response in the United States. As a result, the United States suffered mightily in 2020 in terms of infection and death rates. Europe, meanwhile, had its hotspots, but taken as a whole, the continent fared better than the US. Well, except in one key area: acquisition of vaccine supply. The United States used its economic and political power to secure its place at the front of the vaccine line. The European Union, in stark contrast, wasted time by negotiating prices. As a result, the EU lags far behind the UK and the United States in terms of vaccination.

Vaccinations doses by population
Source: Our World In Data, 11:30 BST on 1 Apr with latest available data

Despite America’s considerable weaknesses—a strong anti-mask movement, lack of consistency across states, lack of solid disease prevention measures in many places, a relatively obese population—America is faring far better in 2021 than the EU in terms of vaccinations. Vaccination rates also affect infection and death rates, both of which are falling rapidly in the US and the UK. In contrast, much of Europe is going through the dreaded “third wave” of the pandemic, requiring strict lockdowns in many countries that are doing little to stop mutations from wreaking havoc on hospitals. We can see this when we look at death rates, which have plummeted in the US and the UK, but remain steady in the EU (and are spiking in several countries)

Daily new confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million poeple
Source: Johns Hopkins Unievrsity CSSE COVID-19 Data

I spoke at an online conference in May of 2020, and I said something along the lines of “each country will be judged by their response to the COVID pandemic”. At the time, COVID was wreaking havoc on the United States, while the EU had seemed to keep the virus at bay. That statement is still valid, but the judgment of each country has shifted. The European Union will be remembered for its inability to secure a stable vaccine supply and distribute it quickly. The US, which will have vaccines available to every adult who wants one by the first of May, will be remembered as the world power that crossed the vaccine race’s finish line first. It turns out that doing one thing exceptionally well is enough to win, so long as that thing is what matters most.