‘The Day the World went Mad’ – a review (3)

No death from coronavirus is acceptable’ said Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, while the idiot Health Minister for the North of Ireland stated that the health service could not turn away any Covid-19 patient.  When asked whether this meant that a cancer patient may die, he replied “Yes, that’s as black-and-white as it is.”

Mark Woolhouse describes the first remark, if taken literally, as making it ‘impossible to tackle the novel coronavirus epidemic in a rational manner’.   He goes on: ‘unfortunately, it was taken literally, and not only in Scotland, and that’s a large part of the reason why we ended up in lockdown.’

His argument is therefore that the lockdown policy wasn’t rational because it was impossible to find a balance between costs and benefits.  The Health Minister in the north of Ireland took it a step further and in effect claimed to throw all clinical judgement out the window by making Covid-19 patients a priority no matter what.

What sort of priority? Why a political priority of course!  One so obvious he did a U-turn, but only after the absurdity was too embarrassing.

While statistics were regularly produced on test numbers, infections, the R number and other covid metrics, the health cost of lockdown was ignored by invoking a simplistic health versus ‘the economy’ argument.  The need to protect the NHS, especially exposure of its inadequacies – due in part to Tory policy – covered up both the failure of the Covid policy and the performance of the NHS.  Woolhouse notes that during the first lockdown bed occupancy was 65 per cent between April and June while television news homed in on the small number of hospitals close to 100 per cent capacity.

Woolhouse reviews the harms of lockdown under the headings of health care provision, mental health, education, the economy and societal well-being.  He could have added the political effect of the government and state taking on dictatorial powers, frightening large sections of the population, and determining very basic activities that would never have been thought before to require some right in order to exercise.  These costs are nowhere near being evaluated and quantified even now and were all but ignored during lockdown.

Even the argument of prioritising health over ‘the economy’ had to ignore the health effects of austerity, including that an ‘additional 335,000 deaths were observed across Scotland, England & Wales between 2012 and 2019’, according to research at the University of Glasgow.  Marxists are often accused of wrongly exaggerating the importance of ‘the economy’ to social life but in this case some went further than anyone in claiming its inconsequence.

As we noted in the previous post, the first models assumed a disease with very different incidence from Covid-19, yet a later risk estimation algorithm analysed from the data of over six million people found that ‘the 5% of people predicted to be of greatest risk accounted for a staggering three-quarters of all deaths attributed to Covid-19’. It should therefore have been possible to target protection of the population in the same way the disease discriminated, and Woolhouse makes some suggestions how this could have been done, saving lives and money.

But politicians disagreed, and Michael Gove declared that ‘we are all at risk’ – ‘the virus does not discriminate’, while Health secretary Matt Hancock claimed one localised outbreak was ‘disproportionately’ affecting children.   They followed the views of certain experts who claimed, according to the BBC’s Newsnight programme, that ‘ a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened . . . the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased . . .’

The media themselves played their part by ‘regularly reporting rare tragedies involving low-risk individuals as if they were the norm.’  Then, of course, we had some on the left for whom all this was far, far too relaxed, if not a calculated conspiracy to weed out the unproductive members of the working class.

Woolhouse recounts his experience of the second lockdown, in which the failures of the first were largely repeated – ‘the case for a second lockdown in England remains weak to this day.’  On the issue of lockdown at Christmas at the end of 2020 he argued that ‘we could focus not on reducing the number of contacts but on making those contacts safe’, but states that ‘this idea did not gain hold in what became an increasingly hysterical debate.’

He observes that ‘as the second wave raged across mainland Europe, the zero Covid campaign faded away when even its most ardent supporters were forced to admit that zero was not a realistic target.’  Woolhouse, however, is obviously not familiar with all its advocates, for whom the last politically correct stance by the Chinese state has now been surrendered.  One recent article has claimed that China embraces ‘forever Covid’ when what is really happening is that Covid is embracing China as it was always going to do, with the only appropriate response being to prepare for it in the correct way.

The arrival of vaccines is presented by Woolhouse as the cavalry, and the fact that China has failed on this while pouring its energy into repressive lockdowns should be yet another lesson.  Many, however, will let the whole Covid-19-episode retreat into the distance that is known as the past and become ‘history’.

Woolhouse reviews the experience of several other countries, including Taiwan, New Zealand, and Sweden, which was prominently disparaged but which he defends.  He also addresses the experience in Africa, where he has interesting things to say but is less definitive.  He looks at alternatives but is critical of The Great Barrington Declaration, despite its emphasis on protecting the vulnerable, although it is not clear to me that his criticism is not compatible with a version of its general approach.  Of the UK’s science advisory team, he accepts that the following could have played a part in its failures: ‘group-think, unconscious bias, tunnel vision, hubris, discouragement of dissent and lack of diversity . . .’

Though disliking the term ‘lockdown sceptic’, which he thinks makes him sound like a ‘climate change denier’ or ‘flat earther’, he still declares ‘why I’m a lockdown sceptic.’  He describes what happened as ‘following the crowd even while it is stampeding in the wrong direction’ because changing course would mean admitting being wrong in the first place, although he notes that the case to do so was so compelling the World Health Organisation did so.

He lists the thigs he did not expect to happen in the pandemic, including many ignoring elementary principles of epidemiology or scientists abandoning their objectivity, and finally that the world would go mad.

‘But it did.’

concluded

Back to part 2

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