The Shock and Awe of Covid-19

span flu2
The Spanish Flu

It’s all coronavirus all the time in the news these days and people are afraid. When people are afraid, they might countenance measures more terrifying than the disease itself. Totalitarians never let a good crisis go to waste and this one is a giant leap forward with no clear way back. Confined to our homes, under virtual “house arrest”, we can only watch helplessly as events unfold. As I write, civil liberties are suspended and there is a virtual takeover of the economy by government. When it comes to public spending, we are oft reminded, “there’s no magic money tree”. Well, quite suddenly – we have this magic money tree. Government will bail out affected business without discrimination – the good, the bad and the ugly, whatever it takes. There will be cash for affected individuals too but as usual, the benefits for them will be inadequate. No one knows for sure what the consequences will be, except – there will be consequences. If we have this magic money tree after all, then why do we have a health care system that’s so quickly and so easily overwhelmed?

A 2016 “wargame” concluded that Britain’s National Health Service was woefully unprepared for a pandemic. The results of the test, which was suppressed by David Cameron’s conservative coalition government, cited shortages of IC beds, tests, protective equipment and ventilators. We now know that austerity kills as surely as any virus. Oxford university estimated 120,000 people lost their lives as a result of austerity in the health service imposed in the aftermath of bank bailouts. That’s more than have died from coronavirus worldwide so far. Properly prepared health services could have coped with Covid-19 and there would have been no need to deliberately engineer an economic collapse.

It will be small business which suffers most from the lockdown. It is estimated that up to one third of small businesses will not re-open. Whether it’s the disease or the cure, lives are ruined or ended prematurely by suicide or despair. There will be suicides, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, necessary doctor’s appointments missed, treatments put off and the unquantifiable damage to our sense of autonomy.

Life here on our small farm goes on much as it always has. We can go for a walk in the woods or on the marsh and we have ample supplies. But what if you live in a small apartment in a big city with four kids climbing the walls? You have just lost your job, joining ten million in the USA who have lost their jobs in the last two weeks alone; and this is only the beginning. Your relationship was strained to begin with, now it’s at the breaking point. What does this mean for the incidence of domestic abuse? What does it mean for mental health? In 2012, a landmark report from University College, published in both Britain and the USA, identified a new “killer disease”– isolation.

Lockdown is not a choice of lives vs dollars; it’s lives vs lives. How many lives will be lost from the cure? It’s now a given, we are in a self-induced recession worse than The Great Recession of 2008 and, if so, it could take up to two years to recover once the crisis ends; but if the shutdown persists much longer, we could have a depression and that could last ten years. This could mean hardship on a par with the 1930s. Could it be that we are so afraid of death, we are willing to commit suicide?

I am reminded of Naomi Klein’s bestselling book The Shock Doctrine. Shock leaves us disorientated and confused. Shock leaves us begging the authorities to apply their cure. Draconian policies are often imposed on a population in shock. Minds full of fear are blank slates highly receptive and easily persuaded. If the policy response doesn’t work, there will be more shocks. In such a state we lose the capacity to resist. Klein refers specifically to the radical free-market policies imposed on Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, policies inspired by the fundamentalist economic ideology of Milton Friedman of the Chicago School. The ensuing disaster was all part of the cure, Friedman argued. The radical Marxists are no better. In either case, when things don’t work as advertised, the response is the same – double down. ( As I have argued in my book, no need for a binary choice between the seemingly opposite ideologies of the political left and right; there is another way – integration.)

It’s not clear these radical anti-virus measures will work either, unless or until there’s a vaccine but that could be two years away. By that time, we will be well accustomed to dictatorship. We are warned not to let our guard down – against the disease that is. There could be a renewed outbreak, perhaps in the fall. Even when there’s a vaccine, the disease could mutate or there could be another even more deadly virus unstoppable in a globalized world. Coronavirus could well be the new normal. Acceptance of dictatorship could also be the new normal. Having been gradually conditioned to such solutions, one question remains: Is this the end game or just one more step along the way?

Given the magnitude of the crisis and the response to it, one would hope that there would be some certainty as to the numbers. If the deaths were numbered in millions, as first indicated, then the response could be justified. To put things in perspective, the World Health Organization puts the annual worldwide deaths from ordinary flu (respiratory complications only) at 290,000 to 650,000. According to John Hopkins University, the worldwide deaths from coronavirus as of this date (April 11, 2020) stand at 105,000. The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed 40-50 million.

What is the true death rate for the coronavirus vs ordinary influenza? The number of deaths is the numerator, the number of infections is the denominator. The number of deaths over the number of infections equals the death rate. Current estimates are that this flu is 10 times more deadly than ordinary flu or one person dying for every one hundred infected. The truth is, no one knows the denominator because there is no antibody test available yet. Such a test would tell us the number of people who have had the virus but have recovered, having produced an antibody affording them immunity. Such a test would greatly increase the denominator (the total number of people who have been infected). A larger denominator produces a much lower death rate. The true death rate is therefore less than the one reported (the reported number is based on incomplete information).

There are problems with the numerator also. How many people die with the infection but not from it? You can have the infection and not even know it but you die of a heart attack. The test says you died of Covid-19.

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, MD Phd, is a professor of medicine at Stanford University. He recently wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal asking, Is The Coronavirus As Deadly As They Say? He argues that the lethality of the coronavirus is much less than advertised. He raises these issues in an interview with The Hoover Institution (included with this posting). He proposes alternatives to shutting down the entire economy.

Whatever the numbers, it’s important that we know the price we pay.

British conservative MP Steve Baker fought back tears as he labelled Britain a dystopian society following new laws passed amid the growing coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Baker said: “We are implementing tonight in this Bill at least a dystopian society, some would call it totalitarian.”

He approved the Bill in the fervent hope that these measures would remain in force not one minute longer than necessary. It’s often the case though, that once enacted, there’s no going back. The Patriot Act, authorizing unprecedented surveillance of U.S. citizens, is still in force 20 years after 9/11. It was due to expire in 2015 but was extended by the Obama administration.

Former Cabinet Minister Ted Davis added: “Even worse is how some police forces are encouraging people to spy upon their neighbours, seemingly attempting to turn us into an informer state.”

From The Times of London April 10, 2020:

Nick Adderley, the chief constable of Northhamptonshire said, that a “three-week grace period” in the country was over, adding: “We will not, at this stage, be setting up roadblocks.”

“We will not, at this stage, start to marshal supermarkets, checking the items in baskets and trolleys to see whether it’s a legitimate, necessary item. But again, be under no illusion, if people do not heed the warnings I’m making today, we will start to do that.

And in Derbyshire, police use drones to find people walking alone on the mores. Such activities are deemed “non-essential”.

We recall with horror the prospect of being asked by police, “where are your papers”, recalling many old films depicting life under Nazi rule. Could we be that far off? Of course, it’s always in a good cause, legitimate or not.

(C) Adrian Charles Smith 2020


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