The Australian: ‘We May be Over-reacting to an Unremarkable Coronavirus’


Stay safe. Keep well. Perhaps a hysteria has gripped the nation, at extraordinary cost, when we’re telling each other to take special care over a disease that in three months has killed about 60, in the main quite unwell elderly people.

Even in coronavirus hot spots in Europe and the US, there’s greater chance of being killed in a car accident than being harmed by COVID-19, according to research published last week by Stanford scientist John Ioannidis.

“The risk of dying from coronavirus for a person under 65 years old is equivalent to the risk of dying driving a distance of nine to 415 miles by car each day during the COVID-19 fatality season,” he concluded.

Yet many of those under-65s have had their lives pulled apart, including loss of 195 million jobs around the world this quarter, according to the International Labour Organisation.

In Australia at the very least, with so few deaths and infections, the response to the virus is starting to appear to be a damaging over-reaction. Last month’s draconian response by officials — inducing a recession, destroying millions of jobs and businesses, and locking us all up — was at least politically understandable. The hankering for total lockdown, cheered on largely by those who would be relatively unaffected by it, was irresistible.

Yet as more real data rolls in — as opposed to the wildly inaccurate epidemiological forecasts of millions of deaths globally and many thousands locally — justifications for massive interventions, fiscal and civil, are dwindling.

We were told lockdowns were needed; otherwise hospitals would be swamped. But during the first 11 days of the month, the number of people in intensive care in NSW has fallen to 30, of whom 21 were using ventilators. That’s 2 per cent of available ventilators, even before 3,000 more arrive.

Fears of a Spanish flu-like pandemic, which killed almost 40 million people a century ago, are looking exaggerated as the global death toll from COVID-19 approaches 120,000, which is 0.2 per cent of the 60 million people who will die this year from all causes (including more than three million from respiratory infections).

Yes, the lockdowns and social distancing in theory must have slowed the spread. But evidence is thin. Sweden and Japan, for instance, have not imposed lockdowns yet have far fewer deaths as a proportion of their populations than Spain, Italy or France, which have.

The Spanish flu killed 1.2 per cent of Italians, according to new research by Harvard economist Robert Barro, equivalent to 720,000 people today. Almost 20,000 Italians have died of (or with) COVID-19 so far, putting the virus more on par with flu pandemics of the late 1950s and 60s, when governments refrained from destroying their economies. The weakness of the virus itself, rather than wise government action, is the likelier reason the death toll is not as grim as first predicted.

“The likelihood of someone dying from coronavirus is much lower than we initially thought,” Ioannidis told Greek media this week, forecasting that “the mortality rate will be slightly — but not spectacularly — higher than the seasonal flu.”

Indeed, almost 80 per cent of the population of Gangelt, a German town highly exposed to COVID-19, was recently tested to see if they had had the virus. About 15 per cent had, without any symptoms, implying an infection death rate of 0.37 per cent — about four times as bad as seasonal flu but much lower than figures of 1 per cent to 3 per cent first feared.

The first officially detected case of COVID-19 in Australia was in January, eight weeks before lockdowns took effect. Does anyone seriously think only 6,400, yesterday’s domestic tally, have been infected? It’s the infection fatality rate — not the official rate of infection — that matters:official tallies are meaningless when so many are asymptomatic.

“I am much more concerned about the consequences of blind shutdowns and the possible destruction of a (Greek) economy where 25 per cent of the GDP is based on tourism,” Ioannidis said.

For the Australian economy, the costs of the response to COVID-19 will be profound too, quite aside from the significant additional debt burden. Joblessness soon will likely double, based on a Roy Morgan survey for last month. The costs of loneliness and inactivity are harder to measure.

“Another month of mass isolation will cost the West at least the equivalent of a million deaths in terms of reduced quality of life,” says Paul Frijters, a professor of economics at London School of Economics using his index of wellbeing. That’s too bad for Victoria, where Premier Daniel Andrews has extended the nation’s most severe lockdown for another four weeks.

If Austria and Denmark — each with many more total deaths and more new infections than Australia — can see the sense in beginning to lift restrictions, so should we. Hospitals have plenty of capacity and new infection rates have tumbled.

Everyone has a right to a view on this fundamental question. Disease experts’ forecasts have proved hopelessly wrong anyway.

It’s not certain a vaccine will ever emerge, but we obviously can’t stay locked down for six months. The longer it lasts, the harder it will be to switch the economy back on. The businesses won’t be there.The economy isn’t a machine like the bureaucracy but a complex set of relationships that will atrophy.

Why not let sport occur without crowds, parliaments sit, young people swim at the beach, businesses reopen, provided they observe social distancing principles? No one is saying “let it rip”; clearly insulating the vulnerable from this virus is a high priority. But it appears less likely the virus will wipe out 5 per cent of India, or 3 per cent of Indonesia, as the Spanish flu did.

We urgently need randomised testing to see how widespread the coronavirus already is. The Prime Minister has said COVID-19 is akin to a one-in-100-year event. It’s unlikely that’s true of the virus, but it’s looking true of damage caused by hysteria.