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Lockdown: It’s the mood swings that bother me most

New Zealand has put a stop to community transmission of SARS-Cov-2; Yeah!  It is a victory of sorts, and one which was hard won.  As the BBC explain:

“The country brought in some of the toughest restrictions in the world on travel and activity early on in the pandemic, when it only had a few dozen cases.

“It closed its borders, started enforcing quarantine of all arrivals in the country, brought in a stringent lockdown and mounted an extensive testing and contact tracing operation.”

That’s the same BBC who called US President Donald Trump an idiot for banning flights from China into the USA at the same time.  The difference, one suspects, is that while Jacinda Ardern is the current hero of the neoliberal establishment media (Justin Trudeau having blotted his copybook of late) Trump is anything but.

New Zealand’s problem, though, is that it is among the most complex economies on Earth.  As the Observatory of Economic Complexity explain:

“The economy of New Zealand has an Economic Complexity Index (ECI) of 0.483 making it the 41st most complex country. New Zealand exports 179 products with revealed comparative advantage (meaning that its share of global exports is larger than what would be expected from the size of its export economy and from the size of a product’s global market).”

In simple terms, New Zealand occupies several key nodes in the global network of supply chains, often importing products for re-export; leaving it exposed to a global economy which might not be faring quite as well as New Zealand just at the moment.  It also means that, since the country cannot function as an isolated entity, as soon as it opens its (actually it’s part of the global) economy it risks importing SARS-Cov-2 once again.

The same goes almost everywhere, of course.   No matter how well or badly one state happens to respond to the spread of SARS-Cov-2, the moment economies open up once more, the virus will begin to spread again.  And since, unchecked, SARS-Cov-2 has a doubling time of three days; reinfection will result in a similar peak to the first one in about six weeks.

This brings us to the thorny question of how we should respond.  At the macro level, we face just two alternatives.  First, we can attempt to completely eradicate the virus.  That is, we – all 7.5bn of us – could collectively agree to shut down the entire global economy (i.e., including everything currently considered essential) for around six weeks.  This would allow the last spread of SARS-Cov-2 through prisons, barracks, care homes and other collective living settings.  Once the spread had stopped, we could open everything up and hope that not too many jobs and businesses will have failed in the interim.  Whether 7.5bn people would be able to survive without such things as food and clean drinking water for six weeks is another question.

Since eradication is a non-starter, one or other variant of herd immunity will have to do.  There are three broad versions of herd immunity.  First, there is the policy being followed in Sweden and which was attempted and then dropped by the UK government.  This is to allow the virus to spread through the population at a pace that, hopefully, does not overwhelm critical infrastructure.  Ultimately this will result in the majority of the population developing antibodies against the virus, slowing its transmission and preventing all but a tiny minority from becoming seriously ill in future.

The UK government was panicked into changing course.  In part this was due to new – and contentious – modelling which suggested a death rate far higher than had been anticipated.  In large part, though, the UK government was forced to respond to a public which generated severe harm to an already vulnerable economy by acting in its own perceived self-interest.  So-called “panic buying” – in reality more people than usual adding a few extra items to their weekly shop – disrupted food supplies even before the official lockdown began.  On the other side of the equation, the collapse in demand for air travel, public transport, cafes and restaurants and High Street non-food retail created a recession that the state had little choice other than to respond to.

In March, this resulted in the first establishment media mood swing.  After spending February telling us that banning flights from China was racist and that Covid-19 was just like flu and only killed old people, the media started accusing government of playing games with people’s lives by keeping schools open and by allowing large public events to go ahead.  In part, the media were only reflecting what a large part of their audience was already doing.  But in order to get ahead of the game, they began to hunt down examples of people failing to practice social distancing as evidence that the state would have to impose a legally-binding lockdown.

Eventually, the government ordered a lockdown for the period around the Easter holidays.  And since most of the metropolitan liberal types who work for establishment media were going to be off for Easter anyway, they helped to promote something close to a holiday atmosphere for those who weren’t too poor to avoid work or those cooped up in bedsits or tiny high-rise flats.

Then the disrupted supply chains that some of us had been warning about for months began to bite.  It became increasingly obvious that reopening the economy was going to be a damned sight harder than locking it down.  Emergency government spending packages were going to have to be paid for in the aftermath.  And it is blindingly obvious from the poor state of the services charged with responding to the pandemic that there is nothing left to cut in the public sector.  That, in turn, means that those same metropolitan liberal types who work in the establishment media are likely to be first in line for redundancies, pay cuts and tax increases when the lockdown is over.

It should come as no surprise that the latest mood swing in the establishment media is an increasingly shrill demand that government must begin the process of unlocking the economy.  They are right to be concerned.  More than a million people were forced to claim Universal Credit – the punitive benefit designed to force people into low-paid work – in April.  Most will not have received a payment yet, since there is a five week waiting time for new claims.  They will, however, have been living on the last pay packet before they were fired.  Sadly, that pay packet is likely to have been considerably higher than the £92.00 per week they are about to receive.  And so May is likely to be the first month when more than a million people wake up to the harsh reality of not having enough money to live on.  Indeed, with various utility bills and subscriptions outstanding, many will be starting their new way of life in debt.

The question is not so much if we will reopen the economy – the depth of the coming global recession will leave us with no choice.  The question, then, is whether either of the remaining versions of herd immunity is possible.

The ideal would be for clever people somewhere else to develop a vaccine.  This has been the outcome preferred by the establishment media; which has routinely touted the narrative of “a vaccine in 18 months” which was, frankly, plucked out of someone’s backside.  Indeed, it is hard not to believe that the various stories about the first human tests beginning together with the 18 month timescale as anything more than sugar coating for a highly unpleasant pill. 

The three key facts that the establishment media have gone out of their way to hide from a public that is just beginning to experience the negative psychological impact of six weeks in lockdown are:

  1. Nobody has ever produced a safe vaccine for a corona virus (a very unsafe one was developed for SARS-Cov-1 and was abandoned when it resulted in a life threatening cytokine storm in animals exposed to the virus after taking it)
  2. The fastest vaccine ever to be developed was the 1967 mumps vaccine which took four years from collecting samples to licencing
  3. The UK does not have any vaccine production facilities and will thus will have to wait (as it has done for ventilators and PPE) for any newly licenced vaccine to be produced in large quantities.

Even if these could be overcome, there is simply no way in which the current lockdown could be maintained for 18 months; the economy will be a smouldering ruin long before that.  This is because the underlying weaknesses which caused the 2008 crash were never addressed.  Instead, central banks used quantitative easing and zero (when adjusted for inflation) interest rates to pump up an even bigger financial bubble while imposing austerity cuts which undermined the “real” economy.  The pandemic is merely exacerbating what was already there.  And, as financial commentator Alistair McLeod explains:

“With the general public and virtually all the financial establishment ignorant of or blind to the inflationary situation, central banks have chosen this moment to announce unlimited monetary expansion to buy off the consequences of the coronavirus. They have committed to the virtual nationalisation of their economies, to be paid for by debauching their currencies. The process depends on public ignorance of the consequences. In all the announcements of government support for their economies and of their central banks’ monetary role, there has been virtually nothing said or written about the consequences of the monetary inflation involved.

“Indeed, the only thing more astounding than the ignorance of the general public over monetary matters is the apparent ignorance of the politicians and central bankers charged with implementing monetary policy. But the brakes are now off, the chasm beckons, and the purchasing powers of fiat currencies are set to run downhill at a rapidly accelerating pace. We are now about to embark on Phase 2, when it dawns on the public that with respect to prices money is collapsing and will soon become worthless.”

Whereas governments and central banks around the world were able to produce an international response in 2008, according to McLeod the logic of the current predicament will be a series of conflicting national responses:

“To address their escalating liabilities at home, foreign governments and businesses will require financial resources currently invested in US securities to be repatriated. Foreign central banks have their own economies to rescue. Businesses everywhere are suddenly facing mounting losses and have no alternative but to reduce their dollar exposure. Foreign portfolio managers are being spooked by a developing worldwide bear market and seem certain to liquidate their US holdings and their dollar positions in the coming months.

“Diminishing cross-border trade and the shock of the coronavirus have fundamentally undermined demand for dollars. This is not to be confused with demand for dollar liquidity, which some say will support the dollar. Liquidity is required in all currencies, which will be satisfied by liquidation of financial assets. The ensuing collapse of financial asset values and foreign liquidation of dollars is increasingly likely because all classes of foreign investors have, until now, enjoyed the security of investing in the world’s reserve currency, while Americans have generally avoided owning foreign currencies. It is only a matter of time before this imbalance begins to undermine the dollar, and then consequences will follow.”

We have seen what happens when national currencies become worthless time and again throughout history.  It always looks like some variant of the post war Soviet Union in which everyone has plenty of Roubles to spend, the shops are empty and the black market accounts for almost all of the economic activity that remains.  What we may be about to witness is something almost unheard of – the complete collapse of the entire global monetary system.  This happened to an extent in the early 1970s after Nixon ended the post-war Breton Woods monetary system.  But that was at a time when the economy was still basking in the unprecedented and never to be repeated oil boom 1953-73.  This time the global currency collapse is occurring after half a century of (non-financial sector) economic decline.

Little wonder, then, that the establishment media is currently giving a good impersonation of manic depression; swing from excessive optimism about vaccines and opening up the economy to the depths of depression as it becomes clear that the economy is tanking and there is no acceptable way of opening the economy without risking a massive loss of life.

“Acceptable,” that is, because the establishment media – along with the “big pharma” lobbyists – have ruled out the third version of herd immunity precisely because it is the one promoted by their arch enemy Donald Trump.  The Trump option – and much as I dislike his persona and his politics, I hope he is right – is to trawl through the wide range of antiviral drugs which are already in use – meaning they do not need to be tested for safety and they will be inexpensive – to see whether a drug or combination of drugs can prevent or greatly reduce the deaths and hospitalisations from Covid-19.  As pathologist Chris Martenson explains, much of the media hostility to Trump’s suggested treatment, hydroxychloroquine, is political rather than scientific and appears to be based in prejudice rather than data.  After all, the one systematic review of the drug carried out for the World Health Organisation in 2016 concludes that:

“Despite hundreds of millions of doses administered in the treatment of malaria, there have been no reports of sudden unexplained death associated with quinine, chloroquine or amodiaquine, although each drug causes QT/QTc interval prolongation…

“Apart from halofantrine, antimalarial medicines that prolong the QT/QTc interval, such as quinine, chloroquine, artesunate-amodiaquine and dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine, have been associated with a low risk of cardiotoxicity. Out of ~200 000 people treated with close follow-up, the one reported case of sudden death considered to be possibly causally related to treatment with dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine suggests that… cardiotoxicity may occur as a very rare event…”

Current media concerns about the drug centre on instances of people taking the wrong substance – as in the case of the couple who poisoned themselves with fish tank cleaner – people with pre-existing heart conditions – who shouldn’t have been prescribed it anyway – or people given a far greater dose than is approved for malaria.  Either way, as Martenson points out, if some combination of drugs including hydroxychloroquine proves to be an effective treatment for Covid-19, then the establishment media will have been responsible for at least some of the unnecessary deaths.

That, though, is the choice before us.  It is a choice that has no easy answers because at this stage there is so much that we don’t know.  We think but do not know that exposure to Covid-19 will give us immunity in the same way as exposure to measles (or a measles vaccine) does.  But not all viruses work that way.  SARS-Cov-2 might prove to be like its cousin, the common cold, and just keep coming back year after year. 

We think but do not know that a relatively large number of us have already been exposed to Covid-19.  This is because antibody tests are woefully inaccurate, leading to thousands of false positives; people who think it is safe to go back to work but are actually at risk to themselves and others.  Tom Chivers at UnHerd explains the mathematics behind this:

“Imagine that you have a test that is 95% accurate… So you are given the test, and it comes back positive. How likely is it that you’ve had the disease?

“The answer, for the record, is not 95%. The answer is: you don’t know. Unless you know what percentage of people in the population have had it, then you simply don’t have enough information to answer the question.

“Let’s look at why. Imagine that 3% of people in this country have had Covid-19, which probably towards the upper end of most reasonable estimates at the moment. Now let’s imagine that you test a million people, completely at random.

“Of those million, about 30,000 will actually have had the disease. Your test will correctly identify 28,500 of them. And 970,000 people will not have had the disease. Your test will correctly identify 921,500 of them. So there will be about 1,500 people who are wrongly told that they haven’t had it, and who are forced to remain in unnecessary isolation. That’s bad. But it’s not the real problem.

“The real problem is that 48,500 will be told they have had the disease and are now immune. That outnumbers the true positives by almost two to one. If you issue immunity passports on this basis, barely a third of the people you give them to will actually be immune.”

We think but do not know that a vaccine or new treatment might save the day.  But the timescale for this is far too long and the odds are stacked against it.  And so for better or worse, our best hope is that Trump is right and there is an existing drug or combination of drugs that will significantly lower the hospitalisation and death rates.  Because if that option doesn’t exist, then Boris Johnson’s and Dominic Cummings’ original version of herd immunity will be the only game in town… and even that depends on the as yet unproven belief that exposure confers immunity.

As General Practitioner and Science writer Ben Goldacre wrote about a previous pandemic:

“We are poorly equipped to think around issues involving risk, and infectious diseases epidemiology is a tricky business: the error margins on the models are wide, and it’s extremely hard to make clear predictions…

“All people have done is raise the possibility of things really kicking off, and they are right to do so, but we don’t have brilliantly accurate information. Someone has said that up to 40% of the world could be infected. Is that scaremongering? Well it’s high, and I’m sure it’s a bit of a guess, but maybe up to 40% could be. Annoying, isn’t it, not to know.”

Annoying it most certainly is.  But not so annoying as an establishment media that is swinging back and forth between demands for an even tougher lockdown one day and an early opening of the economy the next; while blaming us for everything that goes wrong.  Goldacre’s concluding remark then is likely to be writ large when this is all over:

“I’m not showing off. I know I’m a D-list public intellectual, but I just think it’s interesting: because not only have the public lost all faith in the media; not only do so many people assume, now, that they are being misled; but more than that, the media themselves have lost all confidence in their own ability to give us the facts.”

As you made it to the end…

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