Ordinarily when dealing with conspiracy theories it is best to take the advice of science fiction writer Carl Sagan – “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The fact that someone said it on YouTube or that an increasingly detached pseudo-news outlet like CNN or the Daily Mail reported it doesn’t really count. Although not infallible (humans on occasion – especially those in positions of power – often do conspire for all sorts of nefarious reasons) apply Occam’s razor – “plurality should not be posited without necessity,” i.e. the simplest explanation is usually correct. The trouble is that, every now and then, the evidence to support a conspiracy theory appears to be a lot simpler than the special pleading required to explain it away.
One such theory is that “They” – the Illuminati, the deep state, the lizard people, the Rothschilds, pick your poison – deliberately set out to cause as many deaths as possible through the spread of SARS-CoV-2. It hasn’t helped, of course, that the Chinese state deliberately withheld information about the virus at the beginning of the outbreak or that the World Health Organisation has lacked consistency throughout a pandemic which it refused to acknowledge long after it was clear that SARS-CoV-2 was spreading across several continents.
It is, however, the response of – among others – the British government which provides the best evidence in support of the belief that some shadowy malign entity was deliberately maximising the number of deaths from Covid-19. On 1 March in a piece examining the rapid exponential growth of the infection, I raised the concern that:
“The problem – given our inability to process time – is that the actions we need to take to mitigate today’s situation had to be taken at least a week ago if they were going to have an effect. That is, if the aim was to prevent the virus from spreading we needed to go into the kind of lockdown that Italy and China have imposed at the same time those lockdowns began.”
A few days later I argued that:
“The UK government has been some two to three weeks behind SARS-CoV-2 since it was first reported in China. For several weeks in January and early February, the standard – and entirely ineffective – temperature check on passengers arriving from Wuhan was the only measure used to halt the spread of the virus. Then, as the public health authorities tried to seek out people who had been in contact with people carrying the virus, the first cases of unknown transmission within the UK emerged. Even today, with Italy on shutdown, air travel from the quarantined region into the UK solicits no more than a plea for travellers to voluntarily isolate themselves for 14 days; which may, in any case, be too short to prevent the spread.”
“… a week earlier we’d have reduced the final death toll by at least half… The measures, given what we knew about the virus then, were warranted. Certainly had we introduced them earlier we’d have seen many fewer deaths.”
There is a degree of butt-covering here. It was failures like this which led to calls for greater transparency about the scientific advice being given to government and about who was included – and perhaps more importantly excluded – from the advisory committees. The fact that a former government science advisor was moved to set up an alternative science committee is evidence enough that scientists had serious reservations about the UK government’s approach.
Lockdown, when it finally came at the end of March, gave people more time to examine the government’s actions; and they were quickly found wanting. Health Secretary Hancock – as good an example of the Peter Principle as you will find – got the ball rolling with the spurious claim that he had done a deal with the supermarkets to deliver food to the 2.5 million high-risk people that the government had ordered not to leave their homes for at least 12 weeks. This fib, though was to pale into insignificance compared to the dangerous misinformation put out about supplies of personal protective equipment – it turned out that the government had privatised the stockpile and the new owners had begun to sell it abroad. Basic advice about the relative benefits of wearing masks in situations where social distancing was not possible – such as on public transport – was deliberately obfuscated because the government had failed to stockpile enough masks and feared that public buying would make NHS shortages even worse. Even so, there was barely any provision of masks or PPE in the care home sector; where government was effectively bumping residents off by insisting that homes accept Covid-19 positive people discharged from hospital.
At the end of May, Talha Burki in a paper in The Lancet found that there had been 20,000 excess deaths in care homes in England and Wales:
“Once COVID-19 enters a care home, it moves quickly. By the time the first patient displays symptoms, up to half the residents might already be infected. Care homes have found it difficult to obtain adequate quantities of personal protective equipment in a reasonable time, with providers tending to prioritise the National Health Service. A survey by the Alzheimer’s Society found that almost half of care homes were not confident in their supply of personal protective equipment; one facility said it had started taping bags over staff members’ hands, feet, and hair.”
Although the 20,000 figure relates to all deaths, not just those directly caused by Covid-19:
“Comas-Herrera points out that even if the majority of this year’s excess deaths in care homes are not directly attributable to infection with SARS-CoV-2, that does not mean they are not a consequence of the pandemic. ‘COVID-19 has been hugely disruptive; it has affected all aspects of care’, she said. Isolating residents may mitigate the spread of the virus, but it is associated with morbidity of its own. Care homes are built for communal living and staffed accordingly. The lack of supervision places isolated residents at increased risk of injury, particularly from falls, and their mental health might suffer. People with dementia often stop eating if they are depressed, which can hasten death. Besides, it is no small task to persuade people with dementia to stay in their rooms and maintain physical distancing. No-one wants to see caregivers resort to restraining or sedating residents.”
The latest government figures for care home deaths directly attributable to Covid-19 are now above 16,000:
“The grim milestone was reached with the deaths of 564 residents in England and Wales in the week to 5 June, according to the Office for National Statistics’ analysis of death certificates…
“The addition of Tuesday’s ONS data to those of the statistical agencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland means there have been 52,161 deaths across the whole of the UK in all settings by 5 June, confirming Britain’s status as the hardest hit European country with a death toll that appears to be surpassed so far only by the US and Brazil.
“In March, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said keeping the death toll within 20,000 would be a ‘good result’.”
Indeed, Britain is only lagging behind the USA and Brazil in absolute numbers. But both of those countries have far higher populations so that when deaths per million people are considered, Britain really is a world leader:
While the care home deaths are unconscionable, and will no doubt lead to inquiries and law suits in due course, they are in line with the broad “herd immunity” strategy which the government only reversed when it became clear that the infection was spreading much faster than expected and that, left unchecked, would overwhelm the NHS and other critical infrastructure within weeks. Nevertheless if – as the conspiracy theorists claim – a government had deliberately set out to cause the unnecessary premature deaths of thousands of its people, we would be hard-pressed – short of actively murdering people – to think of other potentially lethal actions and inactions beyond those already deployed.
When SARS-CoV-2 began to spread beyond the borders of China, however, three broad strategies emerged for combatting the virus. The first was an aggressive form of track and trace; most notably deployed in South Korea where a large cluster threatened to grow into a population-wide infection. The second was the lockdown approach developed in China itself and, reluctantly, copied in Italy as cases there spiralled out of control. The third was the approach taken in Brazil and Sweden, and initially in the UK and the USA of letting the virus spread through the population in order to develop herd immunity.
The latter course of action was particularly reckless given that SARS-CoV-2 was an entirely new virus whose effects were – and to a considerable degree still are – unknown. There was no guarantee that it would behave like its close relatives SARS and MERS; still less like a strain of influenza which most government plans assumed would be the cause a modern pandemic. Admittedly, aggressive track and trace was – and still is – beyond the technical capability of the UK government; and was only really available to hi-tech and more authoritarian states like South Korea and Taiwan. Nevertheless, many states that recognised the need to develop track and trace capability opted for an early lockdown while the technology was developed.
In the early stages, herd immunity states like the UK and Sweden argued that there would be no difference in the ultimate outcome, and that states which avoided a spike in deaths by locking down early would end up with the same death rate in the long-term. As such, the key issue was not directly concerned with how many people died, but how many seriously sick patients the public health services could treat without being overwhelmed. “Flattening the curve” was intended to spread the deaths out over months instead of weeks; while the decision to move infected people into care homes was to lessen the death rate in hospitals; not least among frontline healthcare workers. Meanwhile if a large part of the population was quickly infected and rendered immune, we could all go back to work and repay the damage caused to the economy.
The UK government gamble was that if the virus did not prove too deadly and too infectious, there would be a huge economic advantage in staying open while everyone else was shutting down. Although there would inevitably be disruption to supply chains, with the economy still open these could be worked around so that the loss of GDP in the UK would be significantly less than the loss in other states around the world. This, perhaps, explains why so many people in and around the UK government initially likened the impact of SARS-CoV-2 to that of influenza, and promoted the idea that only the old and the frail were at risk.
The trouble was that SARS-CoV-2 is not like anything we have ever seen before. Its nearest relatives – the coronaviruses which cause SARS and MERS, while deadly, are far less infectious so that outbreaks have been relatively easily contained. The long pre-symptomatic phase and in some cases entirely asymptomatic infection during which people are unaware they have the virus but readily spread it to people around them meant that, unchecked, the numbers infected were doubling every three days once clusters emerged. If the government had continued with its herd immunity strategy, just based on the official number of cases (which, given the paucity of testing were much lower than the true number of cases) the UK would have had 100,000 cases by Easter and 1,000,000 by 26 April. By the beginning of May the NHS would have failed under the burden on intensive care facilities. Meanwhile, the prospect of tens of thousands of key workers randomly becoming incapacitated, leading to disrupted critical infrastructure was sufficient to finally persuade ministers that they had to follow China and Italy and lockdown the economy.
Ironically, by locking down late, the UK has ended up with the worst of both worlds. In the post-war period, no UK recession – including the 2008 crash – has resulted in a fall in GDP of more than 5 percent. But in March and April 2020 alone, UK GDP fell by twenty-four percent. Figures for May 2020 have yet to be published but are unlikely to be any better. It may be that the Bank of England estimate of a 30 percent fall in GDP will prove to be optimistic and that we are living through the early stages of the worst depression of the industrial age. At the same time, the delay in implementation has meant that lockdown measures failed to prevent the UK rising to the top of the world league table for total deaths as a proportion of the population.
Until now, however, the UK government could fall back on the claim that other states would end up with the same death toll as soon as they opened up their economies again. While it appeared that Britain was acting callously, in reality we were merely getting our deaths in early to avoid the rush. Heba Habib’s article in the British Medical Journal examining the Scandinavian experience removes even this fig leaf from the UK government:
“For months Swedish public health authorities have defended their controversial decision not to lock down the country in response to the global covid-19 pandemic. Schools were closed to children over 16 and gatherings of more than 50 people were discouraged, but bars, restaurants, and other public spaces remained open, and citizens were trusted to distance themselves.
“At the heart of the government’s strategy was the implicit and controversial idea that, rather than contain the spread of disease, a country could achieve herd immunity by allowing a proportion of the population to be infected—at the expense of deaths among the vulnerable…
“As case numbers proliferated around the world and death tolls rose in neighbouring European countries, Swedish experts, and indeed the public, still seemed largely supportive of the strategy. According to a poll conducted between 17-19 April by independent agency Novus, 73% of 1000 respondents said they trusted the strategy of the Public Health Agency of Sweden.
“But time has told a different story.
“Sweden has the largest number of cases and fatalities in Scandinavia—around 37 000 confirmed cases at the time of writing, compared with its neighbours Denmark, Norway, and Finland which have 12 000, 8000, and 7000 cases, respectively. All three neighbouring countries adopted a lockdown approach early in the pandemic, which they are now slowly lifting. All three have since re-opened their borders, but not to Sweden…
“And what of herd immunity? An ongoing nationwide study conducted by the Public Health Agency of Sweden on 20 May found that just 7.3% of Stockholm residents had developed covid-19 antibodies by late April—and that was the largest number of positive results found in the country.”
Global data showing deaths per million compiled by Oxford University’s Our World in Data show a distinct difference between states which followed the herd immunity strategy and those which adopted a lockdown followed by aggressive track and trace strategy:
With the exception of Italy – which had the unfortunate distinction of being the first state outside China to have to work out how to tackle the virus – it has been herd immunity states like Brazil, Sweden, the UK and the USA which have emerged with significantly higher death rates. As SARS-CoV-2 spreads through poorer states in Africa and South America, the high rates in the UK may be eclipsed. But that is only because those less prosperous states will have no choice other than herd immunity because they lack the health facilities and the economic reserves to implement lockdowns or track and trace schemes. States like Sweden, the UK and the USA had an alternative; they chose not to take it.
So are the conspiracy theorists right? Did the UK government deliberately set out to kill people?
In the case of the care homes at least, it is hard not to conclude that elements inside the government saw an advantage in cutting pension and healthcare costs by having a large proportion of the over-75s shuffle off this mortal coil slightly earlier than might otherwise have been the case. But no, it is far more likely that what we are witnessing is the consequence of four decades of neoliberal dogma.
Central to the neoliberal project was the belief that governments should play no role in the running of the economy. Anyone under-50 today probably takes this for granted. But those over-50 will remember a time when the state stood at the heart of the economy – operating and regulating the banking and finance industry; running a raft of major nationalised industries including mines, docks, railways, steelworks, energy, water and sewage, telecommunications and mail services; and directly running public services like health, education and housing. Today, all of those activities have gone – either dispensed with entirely or sold off to private corporations to do with as they please. Even the money supply – the thing which confers sovereignty on a state – has been handed over to the CEOs of private banks.
The calibre of the politicians we get to vote for has declined accordingly. In the 1970s, Parliament was far more representative of the wider population – including in its ranks former miners and steelworkers alongside business owners and former CEOs of British corporations. Today, former special advisors are the single biggest “profession” in Parliament; followed by lawyers – i.e. people who specialise in telling other people what to do rather than people who specialise in actually administering things.
Covid-19 has exposed Boris Johnson’s government as incompetent. But we would be mistaken if we thought that this was a specific problem relating only to this government. All of the neoliberal political parties exist solely to get themselves elected. The politicians are merely specialists in persuading gullible electorates to vote them into office and in pretending to be in charge while other people somewhere else do the actual day-to-day running of the economy. If you want a government which can successfully respond to crises like a global pandemic – or to looming resource shortages and a rapidly deteriorating environment – there is no point swapping the blue team for the red team unless and until you change the system that they operate in.
In the meantime the conspiracy theorists – the only people who still fall for the myth that someone is in charge – will continue to gain credibility as politicians make so appalling a trail of mistakes that it gets harder and harder to believe that they weren’t deliberate.
As you made it to the end…
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