Features Australia


Our economy may be the virus’s greatest fatality

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

Often in life, we must choose between evils. Today’s choice is between the potential of Covid-19 infection and extreme economic hardship. In making our decision, we trust we have the most reliable information.

But what if we don’t?

Health experts had been warning that if Australia were to succeed in slowing the rate of Covid-19 infections to a level at which hospitals can cope, social distancing measures then in place were inadequate. We were told that unless further measures were taken, Australia could still hit a peak of 125,000 infections a day which would submerge the nation’s intensive care units.

University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely believed infections could climb to 500,000 a day. Based on modelling completed by epidemiologists from Imperial College London and adapting their model to Australia, Professor Blakely predicted that by the epidemic’s end, 165,000 — 0.84 per cent of cases —would require intensive care, assuming 60 per cent of people of all ages were infected. Governments began to heed these warnings and through an escalating series of regulations, set about imposing authoritarian restrictions on businesses and the free movement of citizens.

But why adopt the Imperial College model as the standard? We know its penchant for alarmism from its oft expressed views on climate change. It claimed  Brexit would cause 12,400 people to die from heart attacks and strokes leading to accusations it had become a member of ‘Project Fear’. And its assertion that coronavirus has ‘comparable lethality’ to the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed at least 17 million people, simply lacks credibility. War, malnutrition, overcrowded medical camps, unhygienic hospitals and returning soldiers were perfect conditions for spreading that superbug.

A leading British vet, Dick Sibley, said his heart sank when he heard Imperial scientists were advising the government on Covid-19. He blamed them for the unnecessary slaughter of millions of healthy cattle and sheep during Britain’s 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Clearly, if Imperial College’s modelling reflects a doomsday predisposition, Australian projections which are based on it should be treated with extreme caution.

Stanford University medical professors Eran Bendavid and Jay Bhattacharya, write ‘Fear of Covid-19 is based on its high estimated case fatality rate: 2 to 4 per cent of people with confirmed Covid-19 have died, according to the World Health Organization and others. So if 100 million Americans ultimately get the disease, two million to four million could die. We believe that estimate is deeply flawed. The true fatality rate is the portion of those infected who die, not the deaths from identified positive cases.’

Another Stanford professor of medicine and epidemiology, John Ioannidis explains, ‘In some people who die from viral respiratory pathogens, more than one virus is found upon autopsy and bacteria are often superimposed. A positive test for coronavirus does not mean necessarily that this virus is always primarily responsible for a patient’s demise’. He says, ‘If we had not known about a new virus out there, and had not checked individuals with PCR tests, the number of total deaths due to “influenza-like illness” would not seem unusual this year’.

This seemed the initial view of New York Health Commissioner Dr Oxiris Barbot who advised people ‘not to change any plan due to misinformation spreading on Coronavirus’. New York Mayor, Bill de Blasio, encouraged people to ‘Get out on the town despite coronavirus’. London Mayor Sadiq Khan told Londoners they ‘faced no risk’ on public transport. In Italy, the government refused to quarantine workers returning from China because it would be seen as ‘racist’. In Spain, the government suppressed the publishing of case numbers while it encouraged people to participate in feminist marches. Hundreds of thousands did. In Australia, inward-bound travellers faced no airport health checks. In Sydney, 2,700 passengers disembarked the infection-declared cruise ship Ruby Princess, unchecked.

Now it appears, having underestimated the threat, authorities and experts, abetted by a hysterical media, are exaggerating the risks. No one is saying Covid-19 is a non-issue. However, is universal quarantining worth the cost it imposes on the economy, community and individual mental and physical health? Even for totalitarian states, there is no reliable data. So how can policymakers tell if they are doing more good than harm? Sweden has no quarantining, yet, proportionate to its population it has fewer coronavirus cases than the US.

With more than 120,000 businesses registering their interest in the government’s $130 billion wage subsidy in just 24 hours, Australians are beginning to understand the economic cost. They worry that putting companies into ‘hibernation’ sounds benign, but their company may not survive the experience.

They are right. Without an early end-date, unemployment will continue to soar along with corporate bankruptcies. In just a fortnight, US initial jobless claims have leapt by 6.4 million, to an indicative 10 per cent rate. The reality is, the global fetish for pseudo-Keynesian policies has left world economies over-leveraged and lacking resilience. Any suggestion that on the other side we will emerge stronger is based on faith, not economics.

It is understandable that health authorities worry facilities may be overwhelmed. It makes sense to keep pushing personal hygiene and sensible distancing as well as concentrating on older populations and hospitals. Holding out hope is important for mental health. But sowing false expectations is not healthy. It’s a difficult balancing act. Governments can’t cover everything.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese says health is the first priority followed by the economy ‘in that order’ and that is indeed the present focus. But being well-intentioned is not enough. Already people are suffering deepening financial hardship and social misery. Media hype does not make unreliable medical data reliable and, medical experts have already been found fallible. So it is the long-term health of the economy, not the coronavirus, which should be uppermost in policymakers’ minds.

A dead economy helps no one.

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