Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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We’re flying blind


EVERY country has the government it deserves, according to Joseph de Maistre, and perhaps every rich country has the coronavirus outbreak it deserves.

The Japanese prefer to make the nation and the economy the first priority rather than the individual. The British are relaxed and then panic. The French, according to an article in Asia Times by Pepe Escobar, corruptly prevented the sale of an antimalarial drug which is said to cure the Covid-19 virus and then the stocks were stolen. The Americans are fighting a culture war over the virus, as they do over everything.

I was astonished to read that the British deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries had told the BBC that ‘overall we are looking at a scenario of over a six month period but not necessarily with a lock down of this level going on throughout that time’.

On February 29, which seems another age (though it was two months after Brexit) Ross Clark in the Spectator said: ‘If you have just cancelled your trip to Venice and ordered your £19.99 surgical face mask from Amazon, how about this for a terrifying vision: by the time we get to April, 50,000 Britons will have succumbed to a combination of infectious disease and adverse weather. Frightened? If you are, don’t worry: you survived. It was two years ago. In 2017-18 the Office for National Statistics recorded 50,100 “excess winter deaths”. The explanation, according to the ONS, was probably “the predominant strain of flu, the effectiveness of the influenza vaccine, and below average winter temperatures”.’

The British government’s new lockdown is being compared with the previous policy of herd immunity, which is still being pursued in Sweden, the Netherlands and Mexico, where people go blithely to restaurants and bars. We shall see how those countries fare.

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, is critical of the Imperial College paper which warned this month that 250,000 people in the UK would die if the government failed to introduce a lockdown. 

‘We have had a fair amount of people looking at it and they are sceptical. They think Imperial chose a number of variables that gave a prognosis that was quite pessimistic, and that you could just as easily have chosen other variables that gave you another outcome. It’s not a peer-reviewed paper. It might be right, but it might also be terribly wrong. In Sweden, we are a bit surprised that it’s had such an impact.’ 

Meanwhile, Professor Neil Ferguson, responsible for the Imperial College paper in question, who has been criticised more than once in the past for flawed research,  has now massively downgraded his previous forecast and projection of the potential death toll.

South Korea, which seems to have overcome the virus, did not have a lockdown but did have a lot of screening, testing, tracking, compulsory quarantine and spontaneous self-isolation. Dr Dan Yamin, an Israeli who has developed models for predicting the spread of infectious diseases and helped curb the Ebola epidemic, has said: ‘There is one country we can learn from: South Korea. It has been coping with corona for a long time, more than most Western countries, and they lead in the number of tests per capita. Therefore, the official mortality rate there is 0.9 per cent. But even in South Korea, not all the infected were tested – most have very mild symptoms.

‘The actual number of people who are sick with the virus in South Korea is at least double what’s being reported, so the chance of dying is at least twice as low, standing at about 0.45 per cent – very far from the World Health Organisation’s [global mortality] figure of 3.4 per cent. And that’s already a reason for cautious optimism.’
In Japan the approach involves ignoring the virus in order not to damage the economy. Trains and buses are full of people. CT scans are provided for early detection of pneumonia. Expert treatment of pneumonia is provided, the elderly are vaccinated against it and Covid-19 numbers are suppressed by losing them in unpublished pneumonia statistics. Japan has recorded a mere 49 deaths from the virus.

Japan has the advantage that social distancing is a cultural norm. People rarely kiss or shake hands. Wearing masks for health reasons is also part of their culture – as it may be from now on in Europe – and they are an extremely clean people.

It may be that in the end none of the policies will make very much difference. The great challenge is the effect the virus is having on hospitals and doctors in Lombardy and may have throughout the world. It is a challenge that many countries are less equipped to meet than Italy.

Different political tailors cut the cloth of the coronavirus to suit their political purposes. The American Left complains loudly about racism. The Old Trumpites see in Chinese viruses examples of the perils of globalisation and ain’t that the sorry truth. Other Right-wingers see the lockdown as an example of the over-mighty state interfering with civil liberties and acting on misinformation. Endless numbers of people somehow try to link Brexit with the coronavirus or attempt in a way that is very transparent to make this Donald Trump’s Hurricane Katrina.

Donald Trump I said the virus was only flu. His hunch was right that the mortality rate from the virus might be less than 1 per cent. Donald Trump II instituted travel bans and a lockdown. Donald Trump III might decide the economy has to be prioritised above the virus. If so, this could be lethal for his chances of re-election – or it could be the right call. Nobody knows. We are flying blind, people.

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Paul Wood
Paul Wood

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