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The Covid horoscope

Why did so many public health experts fall for obviously flawed predictions?

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

We’ve endured two very long years of restrictions to life and liberty as we knew it ‘once upon a time’. I published my first article on the pandemic in March 2020, suggesting that politicians, journalists and analysts should substitute sceptical question marks for excitable exclamation marks. The first of many Covid articles for The Spectator Australia was on 17 September 2020 with about another 20 articles in between in the mainstream media and policy blogsites including Australian Outlook, Japan Times and the Times of India.

The key arguments from day one were that Covid was a once in a decade, not once in a century outbreak, closer to the Asian and Hong Kong flus than the Spanish flu. Even in the West but especially in poorer countries, there were many other deadlier diseases like cancers, heart diseases, TB, diarrhoea and HIV/AIDS. The choice therefore was not lives versus the economy but lives versus lives, although any extended effort to flatten the curve would flatten the economy also and squeeze resources for health. The key policy question was the threshold of risk tolerance for Covid, not pursuit of the fool’s gold of eradication. In the long run lockdown could kill millions more than Covid itself which is distinctive for discriminating sharply by age, giving the lie to ‘we’re all in this together’. Policy responses should all along have focussed on protecting the most vulnerable and avoided universal quarantines that amount to mass house arrest of the healthy, not a public health measure for the sick. It’s immoral to make children suffer – emotionally, socially, educationally – now and pay the economic price for the rest of their lives to prolong the lives of the elderly by a few months. Lockdowns rejected a century of settled science, driven not by data but by deeply flawed modelling closer to astrological horoscopes than science. Masks are theatre more than science; mRNA vaccines are a potential miracle cure but this is no reason to abandon established protocols for evaluating efficacy, risks and long-term safety; compliance with unethical mask and vaccine mandates was promoted through deliberate fear-mongering that fluffed the threat and hid the costs and risks of policy interventions; the media was fully complicit in the pandemic porn despite ‘coronaphobia’ being deadlier than coronavirus. The refusal to urgently assess treatment alternatives and the power of natural immunity was suspicious. The demonisation of dissenting voices from the health and medical community was despicable. Covid also revealed weaknesses in the architecture of global health governance. The biggest surprise for me was how easily Westerners surrendered core liberties and freedoms to medical tyranny. The herdlike rush to panicked policies will necessitate a royal commission to learn lessons, establish culpability and ensure accountability to prevent this ever happening again.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious diseases at Edinburgh University and part of the elite Sage group of advisers to the UK government, essentially confirms all of the above in his book The Year the World Went Mad: A Scientific Memoir. The book has been widely discussed in the UK media but less so here. On the claim from Cabinet minister Michael Gove in March 2020 that the virus didn’t discriminate and ‘everyone is at risk’, for example, Woolhouse says to the contrary, ‘this is a very discriminatory disease’. ‘People over 75 are an astonishing 10,000 times more at risk than those who are under 15’. ‘The result was the worst of all worlds – a reaction that failed sufficiently to protect those who were at risk while imposing hugely damaging lockdowns on those who were not’, reported the Telegraph. Now, I’m not a scientist, epidemiologist or statistician, just a policy analyst who can however see theoretical codswallop when it hits me in the eyes. This begs the question: if the shortcomings of the dominant narrative were obvious to me, why did they escape the attention of the geniuses in charge of public health?

Having puzzled over the question long and hard without a satisfactory answer, I’d like to turn it around, especially as the obverse has in fact been addressed to me a few times. What explains my early conviction that lockdowns embed an inherent imbalance of unclear benefits but proven harms and are racist and elitist in their impacts? The first and most obvious is my Indian origin and more intimate knowledge of conditions there than most Western analysts who dominate the global policy discourse. People from poor countries are relatively more sensitive to the reality that life presents numerous hazards from the womb onwards; death is inevitable, omnipresent and an everyday reality; and balance, proportionality and policy trade-offs are essential in navigating the journey with sensible risk management. Hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin are commonly used drugs throughout the developing world with well-established safety profiles. As well, I was in the Indian hinterland for a month in February–March 2020 and witnessed the Covid-lockdown imbalance of harms to daily wage labourers and interstate migrant workers. Growing up in India also exposes one to the cult-like hold that astrology has in governing people’s lives and decisions and the impossibility of countering belief in astrology with facts and science. If a bad prediction doesn’t materialise, it’s because you followed the astrologer’s advice; if it does, you failed to follow the advice precisely as instructed. And vice versa with good predictions. Second, even as a conflict policy analyst, I could see parallels between lockdowns and the Iraq War with respect to threat inflation, thin evidence, denigration of critics, dismissiveness of collateral harm, lack of exit strategy and mission creep.

Finally, in my professional work I have postulated that ‘the national interest’ is of limited conceptual utility and leads to flawed analysis and faulty policy prescriptions. Instead, ‘a balance of interests’ better captures the empirical reality of sector-specific interests in continual competition for government attention, resources and prioritisation, for example between airline shareholders, workers and consumers in aviation policy; manufacturers, pharmacies and citizens in drugs policy; the military-industrial-scientific complex, elites and ‘deplorables’ in national security policy, and so on. The relevance of ‘a balance of interests’ should be self-evident when applied to pandemic policy, viz: the need to balance considerations between different health outcomes for the big killer diseases, not just mouthing the idiotic mantra of even one avoidable Covid death is one too many; physical vs mental health; health vs educational, social and employment objectives; immediate policy interventions vs creation of long term resilience in the public health infrastructure; vaccine nationalism vs national health policy as indivisible from global health policy in a closely interwoven world; state authority vs civil liberties; and state vs individual responsibility for health decisions. Instead, governments have either refused to do cost-benefit analysis, or else refused to publish the results.

No prizes for guessing why.

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