Tuesday 31 March 2020

Coronavirus Tuesday 31 March 2020

To use the most popular opening conversational gambit these days, I am no epidemiologist. I  just try to make sense of the news. I do however mightily distrust the media for good reasons.

32,137 out of the 685,623 people in the world who had tested positive for Covid-19 by Sunday had died - meaning 4.7% - but this death rate is meaningless. Half of people in Iceland who are test-positive have no symptoms and most of the rest have mild cold-like symptoms. This does not tell us much either, except that Iceland tests a lot of people and the virus came to Iceland more recently than to, say, Italy.

What is noticeable and hopeful is evidence that the virus is already surprisingly widespread in many countries and that most cases are not detected because the infected people have few or no symptoms.

Measures to prevent deaths sometimes cause deaths. In a German nursing home for people with advanced dementia, 15 test-positive people died, but not necessarily from the virus. Some of these people may have died as a result of the changes to their routine: isolation, no physical contact, staff wearing masks.

I quote from an interesting article today in the Financial Times:

Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies programme, has outlined four factors that might contribute to the differing mortality rates: who becomes infected, what stage the epidemic has reached in a country, how much testing a country is doing, and how well different healthcare systems are coping. But there are other sources of doubt too, including how many coronavirus victims would have died of other causes if no pandemic had occurred. In a typical year, about 56m people die around the world — an average of about 153,000 per day. 

Researchers at the University of Hong Kong have estimated that, in Wuhan, where the pandemic began, the likely death rate was 1.4 per cent — much lower than the previous estimate of 4.5 per cent, which was calculated using official statistics on the region’s cases and deaths. In the UK, where the government has been criticised for a slow initial response, only the most serious cases are being tested. In total 1,231 people have died out of 19,758 confirmed cases, giving a death rate of 6.2 per cent. Rosalind Smyth, professor of child health at UCL, said official UK coronavirus data was “so misleading that it should not be used”. Using conservative estimates, the true number of people infected “is likely to be 5-10 times higher”, she said.  

But different countries are also reporting cases and deaths in different ways: in Italy, Covid-19 is listed as the cause of death even if a patient was already ill and died from a combination of illnesses. “Only 12 per cent of death certificates have shown a direct causality from coronavirus,” said the scientific adviser to Italy’s minister of health last week. Spain’s national government simply lists how many people with confirmed cases of coronavirus have died and provides no extra information on any other medical conditions. 

...In the UK, about 150,000 people die every year between January and March. To date, the vast majority of those who have died from Covid-19 in Britain have been aged 70 or older or had serious pre-existing health conditions. What is not clear is how many of those deaths would have occurred anyway if the patients had not contracted Covid-19. Speaking at a parliamentary hearing last week, Professor Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, said it was not yet clear how many “excess deaths” caused by coronavirus there would be in the UK. However, he said the proportion of Covid-19 victims who would have died anyway could be “as many as half or two-thirds”. 

Italy does not distinguish between people who die with and people who die of the Coronavirus but there is evidence that many deaths of people with or of the virus are not being reported as such at all. This is very worrying.

I quote Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph. He is pessimistic and alarmist about everything but has strong arguments to alarm us.

We have a ‘real time’ laboratory before our eyes. What is happening at the Italian coal face is not remotely consistent with claims being made by some that the death rate from Covid-19 is akin to seasonal winter flu at around 0.1pc.

....The mayors of Bergamo and Brescia - two Covid-19 hotspots - say the reported deaths in their cities are a small fraction of the true numbers. An epidemiological portrait is easy to construct. You compare deaths since January with seasonal averages over recent years. Corriere Della Sera has done exactly that.

The small town of Nembro has 11,600 inhabitants. Typically it would have 35 deaths over the first quarter. This year it had already had 158 deaths by March 24. Yet the official data counts just 31 Covid-19 mortalities. The implication is that the real pandemic death rate has been four times higher.

The same method showed that deaths were 6.1 times normal in Cernusco and Pesaro, and 10.4 times higher in the city of Bergamo. This is partly because Covid-19 care is crowding out treatment for other diseases. But that changes nothing in practical terms. It is all part of the same drama.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard suspects that the Government’s original strategy of herd immunity wasted weeks when was happening in Wuhan and Lombardy was ignored and that Boris Johnson 'overruled bad counsel in the nick of time'. I am told by insiders that the reverse is true, that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) wanted a lockdown earlier and were overruled by Boris.

It is too soon to guess at what the social and political consequences of the epidemic will be. Will it mean more globalism and more movement of people or more emphasis on the local?  More respect for experts and the state or less? Fortress Europe or Europe as an immigrant society like the USA?

The virus could symbolise the dangers of globalisation and interconnectedness or it could make young people see the value of both.

David Aaronovtch, archglobalist and neocon, advocate of the invasion of Iraq and ardent critic of Brexit, thinks the latter is certain.

After COVID-19 there will not be some snapping back to ancient virtues of faith, flag and family. Those who imagine that the young, freed from a psychological and social austerity imposed upon them for the sake mostly of their elders, are going to decide to live for ever in such a condition are fooling themselves.

Inevitably NGOs are arguing that conditions in migrant camps make them dangerous breeding grounds for the epidemic but in fact COVID-19 is not a deadly plague slaughtering wholescale like the bubonic plague. It kills overwhelmingly the old and infirm. The migrants in camps or being expelled by Turkey, are mostly in their 20s. To allow them to settle in Europe because of the virus is to give up on a European external border. That in turn means giving up on keeping Europe European.

In the case of Syrian migrants, they can be sent back to Syria in return for some pay off for the Syrian government but very few refugees now are Syrian and those mostly Syrians who have been in Turkey long before the war. Almost all are economic migrants seeking a better life. European states - unfortunately - really must resile from the 1967 Protocol to the Geneva Convention on Refugees obliging them to take in refugees from outside Europe. Turkey has never signed this protocol, by the way.


  1. Using conservative estimates, the true number of people infected “is likely to be 5-10 times higher”, she said.

    If only the most serious cases are being tested then the UK Government actually has no reliable data at all. Is this just normal government incompetence or do they not want reliable data?

    1. Neither reason is the explnation - they do not have enough tests.

  2. I know you were hoping for more homeschooling, but every parent I know is that his or her wit's end after a week at home with the children.

    1. Parents have a chance to teach children their values now. Romanian parents will undo some of the indoctrination their children receive from foreign schools in Bucharest which are very PC.

    2. It is valuable for parents to instill values in their children, but also valuable for children to learn to accept knowledge and authority from impersonal, non-parental figures. Parents are also noting the wisdom of paying people to handle children for 6 or more hours a day, because although we love children they are always exhausting and sometimes infuriating.