Features Australia

One of the most colossal failures of the century

History will be scathing about government responses to Covid-19

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

The essayist Nassim Taleb, who made his name with the wider public with his 2007 book The Black Swan (a book with some very powerful insights but a miserable prose style), has long had a fascination with uncertainty and events that fall at the far ends of statistical distributions. He’s also a firm believer in only being guided by those who have ‘skin in the game’ – this catchphrase also being the title of his most recent 2018 book. The idea is that those who will bear the costs and benefits of any decisions they make will tend, in the face of uncertainty, to make better calls.

And that brings us to the Wuhan virus, in politer, more politically correct circles (so all of media and government) also known as Covid-19. I have been a sceptic of the Australian, and most other, government’s reactions to this virus virtually from day one. In fact I started expressing my scepticism for the Speccie Australia way back at the start of April. Nothing I have read about the virus since has changed my mind that the Swedish government got this right (as did Taiwan’s) and virtually the whole of the rest of the democratic world’s political class screwed up big time. What I said back then I’ll repeat now: in a decade this will be looked back on as one of the most colossal public policy fiascos of the century.

And the general recipe followed by Australia’s, Britain’s, Canada’s and virtually all Western governments who have favoured the East German-style lockdown approach involved some combination of the following: shut down businesses the bureaucratic-political complex deems ‘inessential’; indulge in extraordinary inroads into people’s civil liberties; don’t trust average citizens but turn the police into an arm of the nanny state; lockdown huge chunks of the productive economy; pay – make that over-pay – all sorts of people to do nothing at all while having no plausible politically palatable route out of that situation; and in doing all that become the biggest government spenders of virtually all time, saddling the next generation with untold debts and making Gough Whitlam green with jealousy. This is the sort of package of policies you might unleash when faced with the 14th century’s Black Death, which is estimated to have killed from a third to a half of Europe’s population. By contrast, the American Center for Disease Control estimates (no one yet knows for sure) the infection fatality rate of corona to be about 0.26 percent, as reported by USA Today. To put that in contrast, a bad flu season kills 0.2 percent of people who catch it, and we don’t annihilate the economy over that. To put it in further contrast, 161,000 or so Aussies die every year in this country, between 1,500 and 3,000 die of the flu, and about 1,200 die in car accidents. As of writing the Wuhan/Covid flu has not cracked the top 50 causes of death in this country. In the US State of Pennsylvania more people over 100 have died of the virus than under 45; more over 95 than under 65; and more over 85 than under 80.

All of that explains why the press (which has been a Pravda-like supporter of lockdowns) and medical bureaucracies hate Sweden. You see Sweden did not lockdown or shut down any businesses or drive a truck through civil liberties. It gave its citizens advice, trusted them and then tried to protect the elderly and frail (though they were far from perfect on that latter front). And yet so far, and including the fact authorities everywhere count deaths with corona as part of deaths because of corona, there have been all up 5,619 deaths in Sweden from the virus. (Translated to Australia’s population that would be about 14,000.) In terms of deaths per million Sweden’s deaths have been fewer than in Belgium, the UK, Spain and Italy, not much above France, and within sight of the US – all the others keen lockdowners. Or put in terms the fearmongers in Australia can grasp, 99.95 percent of Swedes have not died of the corona virus, so some way short of the Black Death.

For those Swedes under 60 years of age, 99.998 per cent have not died from it.  To sum this up using a concept from the philosophy of the mind, this massive over-reaction and love of lockdowns is ‘bonkers’, a monumental screw-up.  Or so say I.

And to see why, go back to Nassim Taleb. You see throughout this crisis the politicians have carried on with their same pay. So have those in the public service, perhaps at worst putting off for a few months a foreshadowed pay rise. Likewise most (not all) of those in the universities and medical establishment. All this while many in the private sector lose their businesses, and those with personal guarantees on them then lose their homes too. Simply because politicians and bureaucrats decided what was ‘essential’ – unlike in Sweden, let me repeat. On any understanding other than one couched in terms of sloganeering, or politicking, it is simply a lie to say as the prime minister does that ‘we are all in this together’.

Want to bet whether the response would have been less draconian had every politician and bureaucrat had to take a 20 per cent pay cut if businesses were shut down? Want to bet whether the incessant fear-porn of the ABC would have stopped if the ABC were looking at a 20 per cent annual cut if a lockdown had to be instituted? (And by ABC ‘fear-porn’ I mean such things as their always choosing the most alarming way to report facts – so ‘deaths’ not ‘deaths per million’; percentage increase or absolute numbers, whichever is worse; saying new cases going up but ignoring death rate is going down; no reporting of normal yearly flu deaths, or car deaths, or that corona hasn’t cracked the top 50 causes of death, or that for those under 45 corona is less lethal (and I mean everywhere in the world) than getting in a car and going for a Sunday drive; never noting anything about Sweden in a non-alarmist light, and so on.)

No skin in the game readers. So they can afford to pretend that the deaths from corona do count in any calculation but the deaths caused by the lockdown (suicides, more cancer from less screening, all the devastation in the Third World from the ruined global economy, deaths from a ruined economy here, etc.) do not count.

In my view, politicians should be looking at massive pay cuts, now. Ditto civil servants. Ditto the ABC. And the pay cuts should stay until we return to normal unemployment rates and are paying off the debt. But don’t hold your breath, mask or no mask.

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