Written by Ciaran Ryan
Four months into the pandemic we have a clearer picture of the social and economic impacts of the lockdown.
It’s a catastrophe. The lockdown could kill far more people than the virus. At end July 2020, SA had 8,000 deaths from just short of 500,000 confirmed cases, for a case fatality rate of 1.6%. Far more people will die this year from tuberculosis and diabetes than coronavirus.
Yet more people will die from poverty-induced illnesses in the years to come. An April analysis by Pandemic Data Analysis (PANDA) estimated years of life lost to the pandemic to be 14 million, or 30X more than from the virus itself.
Bear in mind that around 450,000 people die in SA each year from all causes (446,554 in 2017 and 470,396 in 2016). Coronavirus is hardly going to move this needle, even slightly.
In late March 2020, the government’s official data modellers suggested 351,000 could die from Covid-19 in South Africa. PANDA was hastily formed to challenge this wild spreadsheet modelling. The team comprises actuaries, data analysts, economists and other specialists. PANDA challenged the government’s models, suggesting that it was more likely that 10,000-20,000 would die from the virus. Based on the current figures, PANDA is right on target as the virus infection curve maps a typical epidemic decline tail.
“What has happened in the last four months is the greatest social injustice in SA’s history since apartheid,” says PANDA co-founder Nick Hudson. “The lockdown is based on bad science, poor modelling and even worse judgment on the part of the government.”
The real effects will be felt in the years to come, and it won’t be from Covid. It will be from poverty and its associated effects.
It is not difficult to understand why: an estimated 6 million South Africans have suffered income contraction so far this year, and the figure will likely rise to 10 million by September. It is well known that poverty shortens lifespan. Economist Dawie Roodt estimated roughly 300,000 deaths would arise from lockdown-induced poverty, based on examples of rising death rates in countries such as Greece after the 2008 financial collapse. There is an undeniable link between economic decline and death rates.
Yet the headlines tell us that SA has the fifth-highest number of infections in the world. That’s grossly misleading, says Hudson, and an inevitable consequence of increased testing. A more instructive statistic is to look at deaths per million of population, in which case SA ranks number 36 in the world (and 22nd in terms of absolute deaths).
With the benefit of four months’ worth of data from around the world, we now know that there was little difference between countries embracing a hard lockdown and those that didn’t. The outcomes were more or less the same. There is simply no sign of the dramatic suppression of the reproduction rate that modellers assumed. Yet government has abrogated its responsibilities to a team of data modellers and epidemiologists who seem to be top-heavy with error-prone alarmists.
Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan and Anti-Fragility, is dismissive of economists and advisors who suffer no harm when the advice they peddle turns out to be wrong. We are in such a time now. Advisors urging extended lockdowns, as if we are living through the Black Plague, will still draw their government-guaranteed salaries at the end of the month, dispensing their wisdom via Zoom. If they were wrong at the start of the lockdown, why should we trust them now?
When the data proves them wrong, they do what self-preservation demands: double down by warning of a second and third spike in infections, lasting perhaps years.
SA is not alone in heeding advice from sources that deserve far more scrutiny than they are getting. UK epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, who had Covid-19 himself, had to walk back his original outrageous projections of 500,000 UK Covid-19 deaths, when in fact the virus has claimed less than a tenth of this.
President Donald Trump’s coronavirus czar Dr Anthony Fauci co-wrote a paper in March this year arguing (correctly) that the virus affects predominantly the old and the very sick. He predicted the mortality from Covid would not be significantly out of line with a seasonal flu. “It was remarkable that he predicted this at such an early stage in the spread of the virus,” says Hudson. “But ever since then he has been lapping up every minute of fear-mongering that he can, He’s a panic porn artist.”
Initially, most of the country seemed supportive of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s lockdown in the face of a viral attack the likes of which none of us had ever experienced. Yet we hoped it was temporary and the rights we voluntarily suspended – such as the right to work, move around freely, drink wine, smoke cigarettes, gather with friends – would be returned intact within a matter of months.
Now we’re not so sure. History teaches us that rights surrendered are seldom returned unalloyed.
Cabinet ministers and their government advisors who call for an extended lockdown based on erroneous data must be held to account. Their decisions will cause an unprecedented economic contraction of between 9% and 13% this year, but the effects in terms of poverty and declining wellness will linger for years. Blaming this on the virus and not the lockdown is the height of dishonesty.
By the end of June 2020 it was already clear that the infection curve in the Western Cape had peaked and was in decline. The same is now happening in Gauteng.
The type of modelling used in SA and elsewhere in the world is based on a completely erroneous reading of the actual data. It’s not that they lacked sufficient data on which to model their predictions. The Diamond Princess cruise ship presented data analysts with laboratory-type conditions with which to track and monitor the virus. This was a cruise ship sailing around the Pacific with 7,000 passengers, a large percentage of them old. In total, there were 12 deaths, all of them aged over 65. That’s a mortality rate of 0.2% of the ship population (in an environment in which it was difficult for anyone on self-isolate).
That presents an accurate picture of Covid’s spread in a confined environment. Yet senior academics trying to draw attention to the bogus science behind the global lockdown have been shut out of polite media circles, among them Dr Michael Levitt (born in Pretoria) of Stanford University, and Professor John Ioannidis, also of Stanford. Youtube has censored many who have questioned World Health Organisation (WHO) orthodoxy. There are dozens more senior scientists forced to get their message out on fringe podcasts and non-censored platforms. This is the “spirit of the times” in which we live, says Hudson.
Back in 1960 US-Hungarian psychiatrist Professor Thomas Szasz wrote The Myth of Mental Illness, arguing that undesirable behaviour was being medicalised and reclassified as “illness” with no science to back it up. He coined the term the “therapeutic state”. He warned us 60 years ago that the state wants dominion over our bodies and our thoughts., and would force “treatments” on us for the greater social good.
It seemed a long shot back then. Now it seems all too imminent.
Under no circumstances should a lockdown be permitted, says Hudson. “If there is a virus on the loose, people must choose their own risk-mitigation strategies. If you are afraid of the virus, then self-isolate, but you cannot force others to do the same.
“There’s something terribly wrong when you deny ordinary people agency in their own lives and their own health. People should be able to choose to stay at home, but have no right to force you to stay home. We want herd immunity, because that is how all epidemics are conquered.” It appears that the Western Cape is fast reaching that point in precisely the fashion projected by PANDA.
We need to demand our government acts on sound explanations and data. Because when this blows over and South Africans survey the wreckage, they will look for someone to blame.