If the Covid-19 pandemic has made one thing evident in the past months, it is the fact that the media should restrain itself and act more responsibly. It should stop feeding the coronavirus hysteria with daily infection and death statistic updates of which most are carelessly presented and often misinterpreted. Draconian measures were taken around the globe based on emotions and estimations of non-validated data. This is a dangerous precedent for the future.
By Arthur Blok
One of the greatest scientists and activists of the 20th century, Linus Pauling, once said, “Science is the search for the truth, the effort to understand the world. It involves the rejection of bias, of dogma, of revelation, but not the rejection of morality.” Pauling is one of four individuals to have won more than one Nobel Prize; he earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 for his scientific skills and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 for his peace activism.
The above quotation could not be more accurate today. With some exceptions, the world has entered a dangerous phase in which both national and international health institutes seem to have lost their common sense. They are overrating their roles, thus, as a direct consequence they are misinforming the governments they are supposed to serve. Harsh actions are undertaken with far-reaching consequences on the bases of assumptions and computer models. Decisions have been made in reaction to emotional calls from the public which, in its collective anxiety, almost demands a state-led panic.
We are now a couple of months into the crisis and countries still lack reliable data on the frequency of the Covid-19 virus in a representative random sample of the general population. A fair question on that perspective is: based on which valid scientific data it is justified to order the closure of airports, forcing people into social lockdowns and shutting down economies? Where is the data to support these severe measures? Do the expected health benefits measure up to the dramatic consequences that will be felt for years to come? It seems like most mainstream media collectively have forgotten to ask these questions.
In some European countries, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, and in other parts of the world, new Stasi methods are getting scary levels of support from the general public. Local police are advertising portals, special telephone numbers and even launched applications for its citizens to inform on their neighbours for breaking the ‘social distancing’ rules; the late Stasi-chief, Erich Mielke, would be proud.
Police call centers are now answering calls from ‘worried’ neighbours that call to say their neighbour went out for a second or third time a day, or that they hosted a group of friends at home. In a matter of weeks, we created a global Orwellian society 2.0 where it is broadly accepted that the police will use drones to see if people are obeying the rules with speakers attached to warn people to go back home in their social lockdown. This is for our own safety of course.
Owing to the media fed hysteria, everyone is now a viral expert. For weeks now, global media outlets report daily the consequences of the corona crisis, and on the things one should, or should not, do. It is trending on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, to name a few. The coronavirus-hysteria has gone viral week after week.
According to many, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), we are the middle of an unprecedented global health emergency. As the Covid-19 infected numbers grow, it must be said the world is reacting with inevitable levels of apocalyptic doom. Sales of face masks have soared. People are afraid to go out, to socialize, to shake hands, and to do everything that makes us human; in short, people are afraid to be human.
Do not let there be a misunderstanding when reading this article. The threat from this strain of coronaviruses is not denied; however, it must be seen in perspective. And, at least for the time being, panic must be doused.
Some research in scientific journals explains that every year there are various coronavirus-strains which are passed on from human to human. Believe it or not, most of us carry a coronavirus in our system, but it does not make us sick. It is the level that determines if you get sick or not.
Now there is SARS-CoV-2 a mutated strain that is more aggressive than our average seasonal flu. According to official figures, including those of the WHO, roughly 95% of those infected will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring any treatment. Older people and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness.
This means that 95% of the people basically have nothing to worry about. From the remaining 5%, about one fifth gets seriously or critically ill while over 80% of them recovers, this means that from all the recorded cases, the mortality rate is now estimated between 2% and 3,4%. The last figure has been communicated by the WHO in? March; however, it remains unclear if this last figure is ‘death by Covid-19’ or ‘with Covid-19’. That is quite an important distinction. Because not each member of the public is tested, the mortality rate is estimated by many scientists to be 1% or lower. By comparison, the case fatality rate for SARS was 10%, and for MERS 34%.
The WHO estimates that annually between 300,000 to 650,000 people die in the world due to complications from seasonal influenza (flu) viruses. This very conservative estimation corresponds to 800 to 1,780 deaths per day due to the seasonal flu in the winter months. Let’s look at this winter for comparison. In the U.S. alone, the flu has caused this season (until mid- March 2020) an estimated 38 million illnesses, 390,000 hospitalizations and at least 23,000 deaths according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
In reality, three months after the outbreak emerged most countries still lack the ability to test many people. To illustrate, the one situation where an entire, closed population was tested was from the Diamond Princess cruise ship and its quarantine passengers. On 1 February, a passenger who had disembarked from the ship tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus. The ship was quarantined immediately after, with 3,711 passengers and crew members on board. Over the next month, more than 700 people on board were infected, and for weeks it dominated the news as it was the largest outbreak outside China.
Officials performed more than 3,000 tests onboard, starting with older passengers and those with symptoms. Almost 20% of all the infected people on board had no symptoms, and the case fatality rate on the ship was just 1.0%, even though the population on the ship consisted largely of elderly people, the group for whom the death rate from Covid-19 is much higher.
Formally there is no official test for SARS-CoV-2 available. The most used test is the polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test, which can find viral particles on a person. Various scientific sources suggest that the test is not always accurate as was also proven in the Diamond Princess cases. It locates a coronavirus gene sequence and creates multiple copies that can then be easily detected. Simply, it tests if a person has a concentration of a coronavirus, not particularly Covid-19. If one wants to test for Covid-19, an antibody test is required and that is- not yet broadly available on the market.
Ideally, to make valid interpretations, the whole population should be tested or, as explained earlier, at least a representative random sample of it should be. Most people who finished a University study will remember this. Without that being done, in the current context, it is fair to raise the question if most people who are subjected to this method and are considered positive in fact have Covid-19 or another strain of a coronavirus.
As mentioned above, it is a commonly known fact that annually multiple coronaviruses appear during the winter. Having said that, how inflated - and trustworthy are the daily updates on Covid-19 figures around the globe? Could this be the reason that over 95% has cold and flu like symptoms?
At least for the government in the UK the statistics so far are not enough reason to longer classify the coronavirus as a High Consequence Infectious Disease (HCID), a decision in effect since March 19. This does not mean, according to UK health experts, that it is safe to resume normal life quite yet, but it is an important development in the approach towards the spread of the virus since its classification as a HCID in January. On top of that, if one compares death statistics in the country in the first months of 2020 versus those of 2019, there is no increase in overall death rate.
Why then are the events in northern Italy so dramatic? Multiple explanations can be proposed. Firstly, one must examine the demographics of the most affected regions. Northern Italy has the most elderly population of Europe. Almost one quarter of the population is 65 years or older, a much higher rate than in most other Northern European countries. It has been deemed certain by now is that Covid-19 is far more dangerous for the elderly.
In Italy, the average age of people who died until now is 80+ years. Most of these people had other underlying diseases. For example, Italy is a country with a very strong tradition of smoking which causes high rates of obstructive lung diseases and coronary heart diseases. These are all very strong risk factors to cause one to become infected with Covid-19. One could argue that many of these people would not have had high life expectancy rates in absence of the virus.
The current trend in the media - and official statistics – is to attribute all the deaths to Covid-19. While a more valid interpretation would be: how many people died with Covid-19 and how many by Covid-19? How many people of this group would have died of complications of the seasonal flu? This is crucial data to have before making a conclusion.
To make it more delicate: Italy has a relatively low number of Intensive Care (IC) beds compared to countries like Germany, The Netherlands or the UK. Every winter, the system runs at full capacity with occupancy rates between 90 to 98%. A bit of extra demand makes it quite easy for the system to collapse.
Ironically, mismanagement of health facilities also played a crucial role. Italy was the first country in Europe to be hit; in the early stages of the spread many people were admitted to the hospital with - symptoms which were not so severe. This resulted later in less IC-beds for patients who were in acute danger, creating dramatic scenes. As a result, many of the medical personnel, almost 3000, got infected and had to stay home from work. This made the situation even worse. Add to that, a lack of preventive measures by local authorities in the early stages, and one has the answer to why the virus spread so fast in that region and from there into other areas of Northern Europe.
These facts must be taken into consideration when using Italy as an example on how dangerous Covid-19 is and when consequently taking collective measures. This could also explain why in many other European countries the figures are much less dramatic, stabilized and, in some, by now in decline.
Despite these clear facts, the global panic is massive and still being fed by local health institutes, the WHO and - mainstream media. There seems to be less attention to a more objective approach and balanced news coverage on the front pages of newspapers and homepages of frequently visited websites. From a commercial perspective it makes sense because fear and panic sells.
Why not have mass media coverage and daily updates on seasonal flu deaths, or live coverage of people that die every day in traffic accidents, or of air pollution? Why not go live to hospitals every evening on prime time to report on the more than 10 million people who die of cancer annually?
In just a few days, China will lift its lockdown measures in the Hubei province. In the city of Wuhan life will return to normal. The past weeks have barely seen any new confirmed cases, and all the new cases were brought into the country from Chinese who travelled.
While the rest of the world is in mayhem, China reopens and returns to normal. In a friendly gesture, it has offered affected nations massive discounts and speedy delivery of surgical facemasks. Out of sight of the rest of the world, the Chinese government and Chinese investors are buying large shares in Western companies - now available at bargain prices due to the economic shutdowns and devastating economic consequences.
As stated in the introduction, the effects of the social and economic shutdowns will be felt for years to come. It is fair to emphasize that the facts never - justified these actions, and it remains unclear if these measures will have the intended health benefits. Other creative and cheaper solutions at hand like extra protection of the vulnerable groups were never really considered.
It is likely that more people will die as a result of the caused social and economic unrest than were prevented. How many people will die because of economic deprivation, or will commit suicide because they have lost everything they had? The longer social distancing, lockdowns and economic shutdowns are observed, civil strife even wars between nations could erupt.
One lesson to be learned from this crisis is that the mainstream media has lost its traditional role and that the world is incapable of coping with new and acute health threats. Global institutions like the WHO have proven to be ineffective, counterproductive and, in fact, have become part of the problems they are meant to solve instead.
The idea of this analysis is to help people to make their own judgment of what is currently going on in the world. Do not overreact when reading the daily death updates and the new infections. Take all the facts and perspectives into consideration before buying into fear and participating in collective hysteria.
Various experts seem to agree that the Covid-19 will not survive into the summer. Hopefully by that time, we will look back on this crisis and realize that we collectively were blind to the larger picture. If this misinformation and global hysteria is not going to be a precedent for the future, we will all be fine.
Arthur Blok is the Executive editor-in-chief of the Levant News.