Features Australia

End of the world? Call me sceptical

There are just not enough deaths to justify the draconian reaction to the coronavirus

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

In the United States nearly three million people die every year, so over 8,000 per day. In that year 650,000 die from heart disease; 600,000 from cancer; 83,000 from diabetes; and 40,000 from car fatalities. If you want that in Australian terms then 161,000 or so people die every year in this country; depending on the year between 1,500 and 3,000 die from the flu; and 1,200 or so die from car fatalities. Remember those basic numbers because I’m going to argue that based on the numbers we are seeing so far there’s been a rather massive over-reaction to the coronavirus around the democratic world, including here.

Or put it this way. Societies regularly have to make choices that effectively put a price on life. What drugs will be covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme? If it’s not covered, people can and will die. Same goes with speed limits. Make the speed limit 5 kph and you will take those 1,200 yearly driving deaths in Australia and make them just about zero. (The same would happen, by the way, if you locked everyone in their homes so they couldn’t drive.) Just like that – poof! – you’d save 1,200 lives a year in Australia and 40,000 in the US. But we don’t. We regularly weigh up the indirect costs of near-zero speed limits – so a transport system moving at medieaval speeds, people who can’t get to the hospital, inefficient firms, etc. – against the fact we know people will die at higher speeds. You can think of endless examples in modern life, from taking all those flu deaths on the chin to allowing the sale of all sorts of things that we know will cause heart disease.

So now turn to the coronavirus.  When that Imperial College study came out suggesting there could be two million deaths in the US and 500,000 in Britain most of the world’s politicians (and most of us) thought ‘wow, those are big numbers – we’d better take big steps’. But the fact is that we are simply not seeing anything like those numbers of deaths, at least not yet. In fact the author of that Imperial College study now says the upper limit of UK deaths is probably 20,000, maybe substantially less. He’s reduced his prediction by over 95 per cent, albeit after some (not all) of Boris’s measures had come into place.

Now I can’t speak for you but for me the sort of economy-killing effects we’re seeing right now can only be justified where we see more deaths, a lot more deaths, than a bad flu season (which would be about 3,000 deaths or about 0.1 per cent of infected cases). Remember, as I write there have been 19 Australian deaths due to the virus. If we eventually come in at deaths of 0.2 or 0.3 per cent of all infected cases, so a bit worse than a bad flu season, was destroying the economy worth it? I think not. Remember, people die from a ruined economy. Suicides go up. Hypertension goes up. Despondency due to 15 per cent unemployment leads to alcoholism. All those small businesses with owners having personal guarantees on their homes will leave many people devastated. GDP correlates very well to the long-term death rate. We might trade that economic devastation off when the corona death rate is 10 or 5 or even 3 per cent of cases. But when it’s well under half a percent? And one more thing, there are strong reasons to think coronavirus deaths are being over-reported compared to flu deaths (see John Lee’s article in the UK Speccie).

Worse, there are now solid claims from leading experts in Stanford (in the Wall Street Journal) and Oxford (in the Financial Times) that the number of cases is vastly higher than is being recorded. In other words, the denominator in deaths over contracted cases is wrong. It’s way, way too low. There is a significant number of people who get corona, don’t go to hospital, have mild to almost invisible symptoms and get better. But they didn’t see a doctor so didn’t get into the statistics. If so, the death rate is orders of magnitude lower. The Stanford experts think it’s possible that coronavirus might be less lethal than the flu!

Now, yes, we need better data. We need a sense of how many people have had it and don’t know it, in other words some randomised sampling. The keys are its lethalness and how fast it is transmitted and both those are looking on the less dangerous side as the days pass. Remember, on the numbers so far the flu is more lethal to young people than is coronavirus. And for those up to late-middle-age there’s not much in it.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the press. They are doing a woeful job. Some of them seem downright innumerate. Others revel in apocalyptic scenarios and fear-mongering. And more than a few American journalists would prefer a 1920s-style depression to anything that helped President Trump. But today in the US they have more cases than anywhere (partly because the Yanks are now testing 100,000 people a day) and yet their death rate per million population is one-twentieth of what it is in Italy, and ours is one-two hundredth. Why? Lots of old people. Close contact as the cultural norm. Dodgy numbers. Who knows?

What might help is this. When coronavirus deaths are reported we should also give the number of deaths in the same time span from last year due to the flu and to road deaths. Or give that day’s total deaths last year and this year. Much of the hysteria will dissipate if we do that.

And then there are the politicians. I know they’re in an impossible position. What can they do when people shout ‘do anything at all that might, just might, save lives’? It’s tough to go down the Swedish more relaxed route. I would start by asking all people who demand tougher measures to give up their jobs. Almost without exception those demanding the strictest measures are those who will continue to have a job – from the public broadcaster, the bureaucracy, the universities. For those who have lost and will lose jobs, they might sacrifice the job when it’s Spanish Flu numbers of deaths. But not when it’s what we’re seeing. So make all the absolutists give up their jobs.

Meantime, if we end up coming in with ‘bad flu season’ numbers then something has to change in future. For many people this is destroying their children’s and grandchildren’s lives, leave aside all mention of the incredible debt we’re racking up.

So call me sceptical.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments