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Steve Waterson

Steve Waterson

Coronavirus: We’re paying for an epidemic of stupidity.


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First published in The Australian on 15 August:

Back in the good old days, the average person used to take pride in having a robust grasp of basic maths: enough mental arithmetic not to be overcharged at the shops, enough skill with pen and paper to make more complex calculations.

Not anymore, it seems. Many of our finest minds are infected with a new innumeracy that, in today’s fevered environment, distorts our understanding of, and response to, the coronavirus threat.

In early April, as the disease was just beginning to bite, the team manning the ABC’s coronavirus news website promised to answer questions about the pandemic.

When a reader asked for help in interpreting some infection-rate statistics, it provoked a cheerful response, broadcast to the world: “This just sparked a heated newsroom discussion in which we all outed ourselves as being terrible at maths.” You don’t say.

They’re only — some might say barely — journalists, however. They don’t need the mastery of figures that our leaders display so magnificently. So for a moment of light relief, let’s examine the numbers that currently unnerve them. If we cancelled Victoria’s lockdown immediately, and its cases were permitted to grow at 1000 a day, the whole state
would be infected in no time. By “no time”, of course, I mean 18 years. No wonder they’re frightened: at that rate it could sweep through the entire country in little more than 70 years. Luckily, in recent times we have been adding 1000 people to our population every day. Phew. Dodged a bullet there.

Worldwide, excess deaths from COVID-19 (generously assuming every victim died from, rather than just with, the virus) are around 700,000. Given the roughly 60 million deaths the world records each year, it’s as though 2020 had 369 days in it, rather than 366.

If that thought chills you, congratulations! A lavishly pensioned, undemanding and unaccountable career in politics beckons.

The ultimate showcase of political innumeracy is the quasi-religious ritual of The Reading of the Cases. Witnessed and recorded by the faithful in the media (who love to have their work handed to them on a plate), it has become a farce within this bigger farce. The sombre, priestly arch-buffoon blesses reporters with fodder for their blog updates, sprinkling them with numbers that look like information but withstand no scrutiny.

Cases, as a moment’s reflection reveals, do not equal sickness, much less hospitalisations. Until we are entrusted with the knowledge of how many are the results of tests on people who show no symptoms, they serve only to strike terror into the innumerate.

Indeed, why do we need to hear these figures at all? We don’t get daily updates for any other diseases. They serve no useful purpose, as we are not given sufficient detail to make our own assessment of their significance, decide on the level of risk they represent and tailor our activities accordingly.

Their primary purpose seems to be to post-rationalise our leaders’ devastating, simple-minded lockdowns and border closures, and to panic people into sporting their masks of obedience should they be sufficiently reckless as to leave their homes.

Perhaps the announcements, if they must continue, could give us real information: “There have been 637 new cases today, but happily, 480 were young people who had no symptoms and didn’t know they’d been infected. Oh, and only two of today’s cases were serious enough to need to go to hospital.”

Maybe for context they could dilute their irresponsible scaremongering by including details of the other 450 people who die in Australia each day, including the victims of lockdown: the suicides and those who, too frightened to visit a doctor or hospital, are dying avoidable deaths through lack of screening and treatment (Britain anticipates as many as 35,000 extra deaths in the next year from cancer sufferers presenting late with correspondingly advanced tumours); and the people tumbling into despair, depression and other mental and physical illnesses.

Perhaps the premier could hand over to the state’s treasurer, who would read out the number added daily to the jobless lists, the businesses forced into bankruptcy, the mortgages foreclosed.

Then someone from social services could talk about the growth in homelessness, the “huge increase” in domestic violence reported by victim support groups, the marriage breakdowns.

But they won’t because of a mathematical and behavioural curiosity we’re all familiar with, if not by name: the sunk costs fallacy.

Imagine that last month you bought a ticket for a concert tonight. You’re tired, it’s pouring with rain, and you dread dragging yourself into town. The money’s gone whatever you decide, so logic says you should cut your losses and stay in, but instead you pull on your raincoat and call a taxi. The urge is irrational but almost irresistible. The whole vile pokies industry is built on it.

Now imagine how much harder to alter the course if your investment was enormous and everyone was watching, poised to ridicule you for changing your mind.

Here’s where our politicians find themselves, unable to admit their response to the virus — the ultimate blunt instrument of lockdown, brutally enforced — hasn’t worked, and will never work.

They can’t do so because it would mean all they have done up to this point has been in vain. How could anyone who had wreaked damage on this cataclysmic scale ever admit to themselves, let alone to the nation, that it was all for nothing? Instead, like the pokie addict, they have doubled down to unleash a runaway epidemic of stupidity. They’ve destroyed our economy and put thousands out of work; they’ve refashioned many of our famously easygoing population into masked informers; and we’ve handed control of our lives to a clown car packed with idiots.

If there is a clearer demonstration of the insidious overreach of the nanny state, infantilising and sinister, and the shameful acquiescence of its legions of time-serving bureaucrats, I’m not aware of it.

What’s more insulting, each day we are chastised for “disappointing” our leaders, as though they are our superiors and it is the citizens’ duty to please them. The infected are singled out, vilified and shamed as sinners, their scandalous movements — three pubs on a Saturday night! — tracked and condemned. It recalls the attitude towards AIDS victims in the 1980s, a divine judgment visited on wicked libertines.

But attempt to argue that the cost of our response has in any way outweighed the impact of the virus and expect to be labelled a virus denier. Then expect to be asked, accusingly, how many deaths you would find acceptable. No matter how often or how emphatically you declare “We should protect the vulnerable”, some will hear those words as “Let’s throw the old people to the wolves”.

On April 4 in these pages, I wondered when life moved from being precious to priceless. An exaggeration, but more than four months on we’ve set the opening bid pretty high. Turn the question around and ask what we are prepared to pay to protect the elderly with comorbidities. Let’s assume we’d let the disease run its course, as Sweden did, and had suffered the same death rate. We might have lost 10,000 of the old and sick earlier than in a normal year. We’ve kept that figure down, but at what cost?

On this week’s numbers, our governments have spent more than $220bn and put 750,000 people out of work; some of that burden would have been incurred whatever path we had followed, but most of it is self-imposed.

Is it callous to suggest that’s too high a price to prolong what in some cases were lives of no great joy? What good might we have done with just a fraction of that $220bn, artfully applied? Would it not have been far better to spend a smaller, but still significant, sum on protecting and caring for the vulnerable and elderly to the very best of our abilities, and then, crucially, offering them the choice whether to accept that care?

We could allow them, like sentient adults, to make a simple calculation: Do I live a little longer in safe but miserable isolation, or do I spend my remaining days at some risk but embraced by the warmth of family and friends?

That’s not a decision for any politician, even a wise one, to make. It’s a matter of choice for the individual, or, if incapacitated, for those responsible for them.

Governments don’t exist to tell us how or when we can die; but if life is measured only by length, not quality, this is where we end up: imprisoned, supposedly for our own good, on the basis of flawed statistical modelling and even worse interpretations of that modelling.

Undismayed by the models’ failure to predict the future when the virus first appeared, self-styled experts have now contorted their fears into absurd, illogical predictions of a parallel present: if we hadn’t acted as we did, they say, then tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands more would have died. How can anyone possibly know?

As the statistics, and yes, bodies, pile up around the world, we are getting a clearer picture of the virus’s course and virulence, and the more data we have, the more similar the curves appear. If we accept Australians are not exceptional in their resistance to disease, then it appears we have some heartbreak ahead of us, no matter how hard we try to avoid it.

New Zealand is lauded as the perfect example of how to crush the virus, but would anyone be surprised if it too has to pay the price somewhere down the line? Four new cases locked down the 1.6 million inhabitants of Auckland this week in a monstrously excessive overreaction that would be comical were it not so destructive.

Meanwhile, the rest of New Zealand has shut down so completely it has effectively removed itself as a nation from the international community. It’s as though the country had never existed. Soon it will be reduced to a fading Cheshire Cat image of its Prime Minister’s saintly sad face.

Let’s hope for the Kiwis’, and everyone else’s, sake a vaccine is found soon, although the World Health Organisation now warns we may never have one. It’s a tired line to repeat, but even after 40-odd years of searching, we don’t have one for HIV-AIDS.

Which, if anyone needs reminding, still kills 2600 people a day.

This article, re-published with permission of The Australian, was first published on August 15 HERE. It is the fourth article in Steve Waterson’s Coronavirus Series. Scroll down to read the previous articles. 

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Dad and how many others sentenced to lonely deaths

First published in The Australian 27 June

What has been missing all along in this man-made crisis, and I fear it may take a while to rediscover, is a sense of proportion.

My grandmother was embarrassed by her hands. They were gnarled and scarred, in winter red and cracked and prone to ­chilblains.

Her family had crossed the Irish Sea to exchange the abject rural poverty of County Cork for the everyday industrial poverty of Liverpool, where Kate Boyle ­married Freddie Waterson, a Lancastrian who promptly went off to war in Flanders and left an eye and much of his spirit in the mud of Passchendaele.

While he worked as a hospital porter, she found a job in the fish market and worked in the open air for years, chopping and filleting the cod and haddock she pulled from buckets of ice. Hence the ­ruined hands.

My father, Hugh, was the sixth of their seven children. He delighted in telling his own kids of growing up in what he called the arse-end of Liverpool during World War II, how aged seven he learned to queue to buy fish at his mother’s stall and pretend not to know her as she slipped an extra piece into his basket. We rolled our eyes and pretended to stifle yawns, but it must have been a seriously hard upbringing, though no worse than many in those days.

Childhood shaped him, as it does us all: he was determined, uncompromising to the point of intransigence, his toughness leavened by a wicked sense of humour, and driven by the ambition to ensure his family had a more comfortable life than he did. University was far beyond his reach, but after National Service he studied at night to qualify as a pharmacist, eventually owning his own chemist shop in Anfield, not far from his beloved Everton FC’s ­stadium, but a little closer than he would have liked to Liverpool’s.

It’s nothing unusual to love your family, but it seems that those who survived the war years had a more profound sense of its importance and fragility. My father was an intelligent, often nuanced, man, but he had a simple faith that a close family was the fundamental atomic particle of society, offering strength and consolation in an ­unforgiving world.

Ironic then that after a fall six weeks ago he was loaded into an ambulance and whisked away, not to be seen again until my sister was summoned by special dispensation to witness his last two hours of life.

Writer Steve Waterson’s late father, Hugh. “Please, son,” he said, the beginning of tears in his voice, “come and get me out of here.”

The urge to be with people is so powerful that it’s essential to existence. I have no doubt my dad would still be alive had he been permitted to see his family and friends. Whether he would have wanted to linger on as an invalid is another matter, but that shouldn’t have been determined by his floundering government and its cruel, idiotic, inflexible rules.

This hugely gregarious man spent his last three months iso­lated, by law, in his own home, then in hospital, then a care home, without a single visit from anyone. He was tested four times for the virus; all negative.

Was it really beyond the wit of all those hospital bureaucrats to devise an infection-free system that would have permitted him and his fellow ­patients some human contact? Apparently so. And while my dad died under Britain’s lockdown, conditions for our old people in Australia haven’t been much ­gentler.

Here is the double-edged sword of belonging to a social ­species: it makes us vulnerable to catching diseases from each other, yes, but lose that contact and we lose most of our joy, from the intimacy of couples to the laughter of friends, the conviviality of diners in a restaurant or drinkers in a cosy pub, the tingling, tribal sense of belonging in a football crowd or a street protest; and, ultimately, a comforting hand at your bedside.

Hugh’s story joins millions of lives damaged and destroyed, not by the virus but by the fevered reaction to it. For him the proximate cause was medical, and he might not have made Christmas anyway; but for so many more the misery of unemployment, the feelings of shame as their lovingly nurtured businesses collapse in debt and bankruptcy, the terrifying prospect of penurious old age, will ­poison their remaining years.

My father was prepared to risk his life to see his loved ones; others might have confronted that risk to save their human dignity. There’s no measurable coronavirus curve any more, so maybe we should try to flatten the poverty curve looming steeply ahead of us and eradicate the contagion of fear.

Instead, every day more illogical, arbitrary, contradictory regulations pop up, contort themselves, disappear and bubble up again like the wax in a 1960s lava lamp. There is, I think, only one way to make sense of them all: that is to understand that our politicians and the experts who counsel them have literally no idea how to escape the madness they have plunged us into.

The virus is out there now, all over the world, and it likely will ­arrive here in force one day. Are we to close our borders forever? Do we wait for a vaccine that may never arrive? Do we hide at home, trembling, until something else takes us? Our hospitals have been at action stations for months now, prepared for an outbreak of thousands of cases, but governments still refuse to relax their grip on our freedoms. They warn of a “second wave”, when the first one hasn’t yet arrived.

At the first tiny bump in infections they whip out the only weapon their limited imaginations have fashioned: lockdown, the order to bury ourselves ever deeper under the blankets. It’s moronic and bullying, but when it involves a premier persuading the ­federal government to mobilise the army to cover his incompetence, we are approaching dangerous territory. If it’s not quite dictatorship, it will do, as they say, until the real dictatorship arrives.

Every new case is reported by a breathless media and met with a fresh burst of hysteria; even many doctors, traditionally calm, reassuring figures, now embrace the worst-case scenario.

It will be interesting in a year or two to see the real figures on excess deaths during this period. Some countries are already cautiously reporting fewer than usual deaths this month from flu-type illnesses, but of course this may simply mean that the virus has stolen away the weak and sick who might have held on a little longer.

Will there be a boom in cancer-related mortality, as operable tumours turn into death sentences for lack of screening? Will some accounting be made of all the other non-virus conditions exacerbated by the postponement of “non-essential” treatment and surgeries?

What has been missing all along in this man-made crisis, and I fear it may take a while to rediscover, is a sense of proportion.

There’s a wise old principle in carpentry: measure twice, cut once. It should have made our politicians pause and weigh the consequences of all the possible responses to the threat before they were formulated, but it didn’t.

Instead they and their advisers panicked, looked around to see what the other headless chooks were doing, and took their axes to anything they could perceive as a risk, building fences around and across the country.

Since the ancient days of leper colonies we’ve isolated the sick to protect the healthy. This must be the first time in human history we’ve done things the other way around, and largely without the ­vulnerable having any say in it. My ­father was appalled, and I suspect many others would have shared his disappointment.

Although there was no way of seeing him in his last weeks, I did have one conversation with my dad a fortnight before he died. I’d been trying various numbers, but his mobile phone had disappeared somewhere in the confusion of his moves, and the hospital’s bedside telephone was an 0872 premium-charge number, inaccessible from overseas. My sister relayed mes­sages, but Hugh grew more bewildered and agitated, lucid but struggling to comprehend why none of his family had been to see him.

Then the day after he was moved into the care home, triggering a further 14 days of total ­isolation, a kindly nurse, breaking the rules, carried the ward phone over to him and he chatted to me, then my daughter, before asking to speak to me again. “Please, son,” he said, the beginning of tears in his voice, “come and get me out of here.” Those were his last words to me; it’s not a memory to treasure, but happily I have others.

More than two months ago in these pages, when the panic was just beginning, I quoted my dad’s view that most people at his stage of life would prefer to take their chances with the virus if it meant they could see their families. At 87, he said, whatever happened to him as a result would not be “a f..king national tragedy”.

He was right; his death is but a personal tragedy for the tiny group of people who were able to attend, or livestream, his funeral two days ago. But add it to all the other deaths made unnecessarily miserable by this well-meaning brutality, factor in all the sadness to come, and national tragedy doesn’t begin to do it justice.

This article was first published on 27 June HERE

***

Disaster awaits us when the money-go-round stops

First published in The Australian 23 May

Shortly after World War II, British writer and theologian CS Lewis examined what he called “moral busybodies” in one of his essays on ethics. “Of all tyrannies,” he said, “a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”

Tyranny is a strong word; but not too strong, I think, to be applied to what we’re experiencing now: incompetent politicians exercising powers they have no idea how to control, in response to the coronavirus. Let’s not question their intentions, even though the signs of mission creep abound, and the voices of reason are drowned out by the sound of goalposts being dragged into new, contorted positions.

We were told, were we not, that by flattening the curve of infections we would buy enough time to prepare for the coming onslaught. We would take cover from the virus, ramp up our health facilities and, thus prepared, stand behind our ranks of ventilators and face it gallantly.

The problem is, we have been forbidden to break cover. We have not confronted the virus, treated our casualties and bravely returned to the barricades. We have hidden from it. There is no curve left to flatten. But the virus is still out there, and we will have to deal with it one day.

The mantra parroted by our federal leaders, premiers and the medical bureaucrats they hide behind is that they will do nothing that threatens their citizens’ health. That sounds like a noble principle, but they’re solving the wrong problem. We are no longer facing a health crisis: we are facing economic carnage.

Our leaders are stunned into idiotic paralysis. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was looking a shoo-in for best on ground when she said this week, “More than 220,000 jobs lost in April is beyond our wildest expectations in terms of what could have happened.” Really? You find catastrophic modelling that says tens of thousands of people are going to die entirely believable, but those jobless figures astonish you?

Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk came with a late grab at the title with her (or is it her chief health officer’s?) ruling that despite having next to no infections she would not be opening her state until September. The CHO then quantified the conditions needed to satisfy her: two consecutive 14-day incubation periods without community transmission in Victoria and NSW. So no one’s going to the Sunshine State ever again.

The defiant stupidity is beyond parody, and beyond comical. It’s costing Queensland $50m a day in lost tourism revenue. The state relies hugely on domestic visitors during the winter, with a plethora of small businesses running cafes, restaurants, tours, accommodation, transport and so on. They used to employ many thousands of mainly young people, but not now. If the border does not reopen immediately, neither will many of those businesses. By September the opportunity to recover will be lost. And there are no international tourists on the horizon.

So far, the pain is dulled by unsustainable federal handouts, ludicrously applied. I haven’t come across anyone who has had the virus, but I know a half-dozen uni students who have seen their $200 Saturday jobs turned into a $750 bonanza, without the nuisance of having to go to work. A friend in Sydney’s Bondi lives next door to a household of cheerful bludging surfers who are bewildered but joyful at the doubling of their dole payments.

Their joy won’t last. When the financial props are removed, millions of Australians will fall into a largely avoidable misery. They will soon be more afraid of poverty than the virus. At some point their debts will be called in; their overdue rent demanded; their missed payments see cars and white goods repossessed. I hope the banks and landlords are merciful, but history doesn’t suggest so.

When we reach the end of this economic disaster, let’s not forget it was man-made. In 1957, for example, the Asian flu claimed some 120,000 American lives, from a population half its current size. But the US didn’t close down business, schools or travel, destroy the economy or shatter society. Those now rather creepily celebrating an apparent rise in Sweden’s fatalities might consider that this is likely to be a marathon. We may only be kicking the reckoning down the road, where a broken nation and shell-shocked officials will be ill-equipped to deal with it.

It’s career suicide for a politician to admit they’ve made a mistake. They are conditioned from their first appearance before the selection committee to show nothing but confidence and to double down if challenged. The media bears much of the blame for this unhealthy instinct; its reporters pounce on any slip of the tongue, any sign of weakness, indecision, self-doubt, memory lapse — any of the things that mark us as human beings.

We are seeing the conseq­uences now, with politicians whose laser focus on factional fighting, speaking in platitudes and slithering up the greasy pole has left them disconnected from reality. We’ve tolerated the lesser, state-level mediocrities because they were only supposed to look after the boring bits. They were neither equipped nor expected to make proper, grown-up decisions about people’s lives. Now they’re terrified, and so are we, but for different reasons.

Perhaps we can offer them a face-saving deal: end the lockdown while there’s something left to salvage, promise never to do anything so foolish ever again, and we will pretend to accept that their brilliant agility saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians. And when the virus resurfaces, let’s pretend it’s just another bad flu and take the simple precautions we have always taken, without committing economic suicide.

Naturally, this stance will be characterised as prioritising money over lives. But it’s not. A healthy economy is necessary for life. The equation now is lives versus lives: the broken lives of people left destitute, with the attendant physical and mental health debris, versus the lives of those who will succumb to the virus. It becomes clearer, as the death toll mounts around the world, which people we most need to protect, and we should divert some of the billions we are giving away to do so.

Others who remain fearful should be urged to protect themselves; their caution should be respected, their absence from society encouraged and supported financially. Let them hide forever if they want: the government, via employment or welfare, is funding 9.5 million — roughly 72 per cent — of our 13.2 million workforce; a few more on the payroll won’t make any difference.

But those who so desire, especially the 28 per cent who pay for all this, should be allowed to return to normal, accepting the virus as just one of the multitude of risks life entails. No one will make the vulnerable mingle with the daredevils. No one will burst into their homes and lick them. Decide what level of risk you are comfortable with and live by it. I don’t go skydiving or rock-climbing; you don’t go to the pub or lie on the beach.

Instead, we are living by a policy whose costs are still unknown. Already the British government has estimated their lockdown has caused 12,000 excess deaths, through suspension of cancer and other disease screening, delays to surgery and other procedures, and the catastrophist media-fuelled hysteria that has made people too scared to visit hospitals. I haven’t seen such figures for Australia, but I’d have a substantial bet they’re higher than our 100 virus deaths.

A final thought for those who insist this downturn is the price we must pay to save the sick and elderly: others will pay too. A UN report, released last month, says after decades of lifting living standards in the world’s poorer countries, in a matter of months tens of millions will tumble back into extreme poverty. By year’s end more than a quarter of a billion worldwide will be close to starving.

There will be old people among them, but for anyone who saw the famines in Ethiopia, what haunts them still are the images of tiny, uncomprehending victims. Get ready to see them again. According to the UN, “hardship experienced by families as a result of the global economic downturn could result in hundreds of thousands of additional child deaths in 2020, reversing the last two to three years of progress in reducing infant mortality within a single year”.

There is no stopping this madness without some concerted effort by the public to make our leaders wake up to their errors, but I despair at our timid acquiescence to their witless rulings. Even in Spain, Germany and the US, some of the worst-affected countries, there have been protests in the streets. Here, rather than rage against the erosion of our liberties, the battery chickens send out hilarious memes about living under lockdown: “Hey, sleeping on the couch tonight to cut down on the morning commute!” “Now I know why dogs get so excited to go for walks!” Terrific, here’s a LOL and a smiley face for you.

We opened with Lewis, so let’s end with him. “Those who torment us for our own good,” he wrote, “will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

I fear our leaders believe in their hearts that their paternalistic actions are in our best interests. Sadly, a righteous conscience is no substitute for dispassionate reason when it comes to protecting the country. Maybe we should all have a quiet think about what we’re doing.

This article was first published on 23 May HERE

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Our response to the outbreak has been panicked, illogical, absurd and sinister

First published in The Australian 4 April

I thought of my father, terminally ill with pulmonary fibrosis, when I heard of another victim of coronavirus this week.

He’s confined to his house, alone since my mother died four years ago. He relies on family and friends to shop for him; they wave through the window and leave him food on the doorstep.

I spoke to him as news came in of a 90-odd-year-old woman dying in a nursing home. He’s sick of the isolation and doesn’t want the time left to him to be spent in solitary confinement. His first great-grandchild was born six months ago and he fears he will never see the boy again.

“Look, son, I’m 88 in August,” he said, cheerfully. “I’ve had a good run. Whatever happens to me from now on, it’s not a f..king national tragedy.”

My father’s attitude is, he believes, not uncommon among his contemporaries, who understand the tough reality of old age. As he put it, with his winning sarcasm, “These people in nursing homes aren’t exactly snatched away in the prime of their lives, are they? Half of them don’t know they’re there, don’t even recognise their children when they visit.”

It’s brutal, but I’m sure he’s right. If you’re in an aged-care facility you’re not waiting to be discharged and sent home in a few weeks. You’re on your way out, and the exit’s probably not that far away. Coronavirus is speeding up the process, and it must feel overwhelming to the medical staff on the frontline. Which is precisely why they shouldn’t be making the decisions.

The health of a nation is not the sum of the health of its citizens. We require doctors and nurses to focus on their patients, but politicians need to take a broader view of the myriad components of a functioning, worthwhile society.

Sarcasm aside, when did life move from being precious to priceless? We lost 20 people to the disease in March. In the same month we lost another 13,000 or so to other ailments and accidents, but let’s not worry about them.

As more facts emerge about the virus, it looks as though it does most harm to the chronically sick or the elderly, as do most respiratory diseases. And when old age is combined with a pre-existing serious illness, you’re in real danger. So the high-risk group would be wise to take all precautions, withdraw from society if they wish, and resurface when there’s a vaccine. We could devote enormous resources to looking after them.

Instead, we are asking the healthy, most of whom will be no more than inconvenienced by this latest strain of flu, to sacrifice or cripple themselves, their livelihoods, their children’s future, to preserve people whose own future is already precarious and limited. Has anyone checked with the elderly, who tend to have a more sanguine outlook, to see if this eco­nomic suicide is what they want?

As individuals it’s excruciating to assign a value to human life, and happily few of us are obliged to do so; but as a society we make those calculations all the time. Our highway speed limit is 110km/h; we could reduce that to 20km/h and watch the fatalities tumble, but the inconvenience would be intolerable. We let people swim and surf (at least we used to) from wild, unpatrolled beaches, and sadly accept some of them will drown, measuring the pleasure of millions against the misfortune of a few.

We are always managing risk, but suddenly in this panic no risk, to anyone, is acceptable.

Even news organisations have adopted this position, their HR departments issuing earnest communiques that declare “the health and wellbeing of our employees is our paramount priority”. Sorry, since when? As part of my job I have been sent, and sent others, to war zones — yes, with bombs and bullets — to bring our readers the news. That’s what I thought our priority was as journalists. Now half my colleagues in the media have emerged as trembling amateur epidemiologists, scouring the online world to find the youngest and healthiest victim to ramp up the terror and prove this disease attacks anyone, not just the old and sick, when that’s manifestly not the case.

As Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford, said last week, “people with no comorbidities can relax; you may feel funny but the mortality is incredibly low. The wider question is how we best manage people with comorbidities and keep them safe and out of hospital.” So far our leaders’ answer is to paralyse the country and the prospects of everyone in it.

In Sweden, never thought of as a nation of daredevils (they’re so safe they gave us ABBA and Volvos), the vulnerable are sequestered and cared for. They might have to sit things out until a vaccine is developed, while the rest of the people are visiting restaurants and bars, more or less as usual. So far it seems to be working.

No such luck here, though. Our reckless, hysterical governments tumble over each other to impose ever more ridiculous constraints on our liberty, supported by police forces that interpret their authority in a fashion sinister and absurd at the same time. And they have the audacity to quote “the Anzac spirit” as they order fit young men to cower in their trenches.

Some of us are not surprised that our elected leaders and their unelected enforcers have been found wanting, but what really shakes your faith in society is how meekly their ludicrous commands have been obeyed. Did anyone real­ly think more than 500 people at Sydney’s Bondi Beach represent a threat? And if so, why the same 500 limit around the corner at Tamarama’s beach, a fraction of the size? And why a zero limit now? Why can’t a solo sunbaker lie on the grass in a park without a police car moving him on? Why can’t a boat owner take a run up the coast? Why can I only buy “essential” goods? Will PC Plod soon be inspecting my shopping bags for truffles and Toblerone?

Save your comments; I know there will be plenty of people rushing to justify any extreme measure that “saves someone’s life”. The curtain-twitchers are busy in Britain, dobbing in neighbours who leave their houses twice a day or have their girlfriend over. They’ve adapted to their police state very comfortably. Fortunate, perhaps, that Churchill’s World War II promise that “we will fight them on the beaches” was never tested.

The driver of this madness is that the data we are working with, as has been pointed out by many epidemiologists, is fundamentally flawed. If we don’t know how many people have been infected, we don’t know the mortality rate. One of our panic-stricken pollies was on the radio on Monday warning people that even if they felt fine, they could be walking around spreading the disease. A disease with no symptoms that doesn’t make you ill? Terrifying.

But those symptom-free people will never be counted, just as all the people who have avoided burdening the hospital system with their minor coughs and sore throats will never be counted, so the mortality rate is inflated. So too in Italy and Spain, where everyone who dies with the disease is recorded as dying from it, no matter whether they have been wiping their feet on death’s doormat for months.

You don’t need to be good at maths or medically trained to realise all these numbers are wickedly inaccurate. If the infection can manifest itself with mild symptoms or none, how on earth can we declare how many are infected? How many run-of-the-mill flu infections go uncounted each year? I’ve never been sufficiently troubled by a cold or flu to go to the doctor, so I’ve never featured in any statistics. Perhaps I’m freakishly lucky, but I doubt it.

Instead we have a simple division sum, but one where the denominator may be out by a factor of a hundred, or a thousand. If one in every 12 people infected dies, that’s a nightmare. One in every 1200, with 99 per cent of them already gravely ill and of advanced age, it’s not so frightening. And are the millions thrown out of work a price worth paying?

John Ioannidis, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Stanford University in the US, believes if we hadn’t counted and tested this new COVID-19 separately from ordinary colds and flu (and the scary sci-fi name doesn’t help), “we might have casually noted that flu this season seems to be a bit worse than average”.

He may be wrong, but what is certain is that for many of our fellow citizens, this will be the year everything they’ve worked so hard for — their businesses, their savings, their jobs and dignity, their marriages, their sanity, their hopes and dreams and joy — evaporated.

One day we’ll emerge blinking into the economic wasteland we have wilfully created, but next year winter will come around again, and with it more flu, no doubt with another horror mutation.

So what will we do then? You can only kill yourself once.

This article was first published on April 4 HERE

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