Over the last six months, we have witnessed an unprecedented global outbreak of politicians and journalists declaring how much they care about grandmas. Oddly, some of the most passionate outpourings have been for those dead for over 100 years.
Chris Bowen, the shadow health minister, was one of the first out of the blocks. He emotionally unburdened himself in parliament back in April with the sad tale of his great grandmother, who died, aged 29, in the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. “We have to learn the lessons of this pandemic and the pandemics that have come before”, he implored, directly comparing the deadliness of COVID-19 with that past pandemic and suggesting that young people today faced similar risks — both of which are entirefalse.
That didn’t stop journalists from jumping into the act with stories of even more distant ancestors to demonstrate their vast literary and historical (if, sadly, not their mathematical) expertise. The dead from the Plague of Athens, the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, smallpox and so forth were all disinterred to help us better understand our current predicament.
Such examples, we now also know, are completely irrelevant to our current circumstances. It’s not that I, like all Australians, don’t care about Chris Bowen’s much loved (and long-dead) great granny. I also get a bit teary thinking about the death of Pericles. The problem is there is simply no evidence this current virus is anything like the diseases that knocked either of them or others off.
This is now beyond doubt. It is clear to any intelligent observer with a basic statistical understanding who has reviewed the real-world data. Anyone who continues to refer to this current coronavirus as akin to the Spanish Flu really should be considered certifiably loco.
I should probably add that I am not blasé about respiratory illnesses. My own great grandmother (seeing as we are now all sharing family folklore) took all her children off an already remote sheep station in Western Queensland during the Spanish Flu to an even more isolated camp near Dillybroo (look it up) for over three months. She happily survived, I have taken two of my own children in ambulances with breathing difficulties and nervously watched them in hospitals on ventilators. I lived through SARS in Hong Kong where there was, unlike this time, a real risk of ICU wards being overrun. If there were an exceptional risk I would be concerned and, initially, I was. It always pays to watch China very closely.
But the reality is such fears were vastly overblown. “Excess deaths”, the key metric to access the impact of this disease, shows this. You will now struggle to find any country on the planet that has now experienced, on a per capita basis, anything that could be characterized as an exceptional number of excess deaths compared to recent bad flu seasons. If you don’t believe me ask a politician to name one.
It does not matter whether a country did not lock down much at all (like Sweden) or implemented severe lockdowns (like Britain, Italy, New York). All of these countries are now experiencing either average or below average deaths for this time of year. Like all countries, they will only experience slightly higher than average numbers of deaths this year – certainly nothing like the Spanish Flu.
While Trump’s United States is routinely described breathlessly as a worst-case example of where the “once in a hundred year” pandemic is still “raging’, it now has less weekly deaths than it did in 2018. Why did politicians and journalists not care about grandma back then?
All flus can be are deadly. They need to be taken seriously. But the only thing unprecedented about this particular virus has been the incredible overreaction to it. It has been bizarre watching what I had once assumed were relatively easy-going members of the political and journalistic class carry on like Scar from The Lion King — “Stick with me and no one will die of respiratory illness again!” — to hypnotically captivated followers.
The interesting question is why they have reacted this way. I thought long and hard about it and then the only explanation I can think of is they have been infected by an authoritarian Chi-Com virus.
This is unrelated to coronavirus but is far more terrifying. Historically, it has been largely confined to members of the ruling party in Beijing (although in recent years it has also been spotted among certain Australian university vice-chancellors or members of Dan Andrews’ government in Victoria).
Symptoms include a tendency to secretive, centralized decision-making. The issuance of misleading statistics combined with a tendency to ruthlessly crack down or delegitimize anyone asking hard questions is common. The Chi-Com virus is known to trigger a fondness for the promotion of infantile oft-repeated slogans (which translate very well into Chinese). It may include an obsession for using technology for surveillance and to regulate individual behaviour or wanting to post inane dance clips on TikTok. It has also been known to cause a strange desire to lock up citizens in apartment buildings or to send them off to internment camps.
Do not take the Chi-Com virus lightly. It is incredibly contagious and deadly to our democracy. My expert advice — and I’m a sinologist so you can’t argue with me — is that any politician, chief medical officer, or journalist exhibiting symptoms should be confined in isolation for at least 2 weeks. They should be forced to wear masks — gagged — to prevent them from being heard and potentially infecting others. We should then test, test, test them regularly and only when, to our complete satisfaction, they are deemed “Chi-Com Safe” should they be able to be let back into the community.
The precautionary principle dictates that they should be locked down immediately and that such restrictions not be lifted in haste. After all, many while seemingly asymptomatic may still be latent carriers. There are few that have natural immunity so the only prudent thing we can really do is wait for a Chi-Com virus vaccine (which will, of course, need to be mandatory). We can’t simply settle for suppression; we must push for complete elimination.
Yes, I know all this sounds draconian. But it’s for their own good and I assure you there are no other options. Never fear, while we wait this out to pass the time I am happy to provide incessant hysterical breaking updates on TV on new cases and how many politicians and journalists we have locked up each day until we have got this thing under control. Be sure to tune in.
Dan Ryan is a former board member of the Australia-China Council. He is a lawyer and a technology executive with over 20 years of experience in Greater China.
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