RAMESH THAKUR. Sound the Trumpists: The deputy sheriff rides again – Part One: The global landscape

Cockwomble: A person, usually male, prone to making outrageously stupid statements and/or engaging in inappropriate behaviour while generally having a very high opinion of their own wisdom  and importance. Presently exemplified by Agent Orange who dwells in the casa blanca in the geopolitical capital of the world and is the inheritor of a long line of global sheriffs.

The headline on the front page of The Weekend Australian caught my eye as a rare LOL moment in these gloomy times: ‘Going early, going hard paid off’. Its core message was confirmed by the Newspoll on 27 April which recorded an astonishing 68-28 approval-disapproval rating for Morrison. Who’d have thought, back in February when his approval rating was 37%? Yet it seems to me the government was initially complacent and introduced border checks and controls on the coronavirus very late in the day; it then over-reacted; and it’s been reckless in goading China.

I travelled to India earlier in the year. I was tested for CV-19 symptoms transiting through Singapore airport and on arrival at Mumbai airport on 14 February. By the end of the month flights were starting to be cancelled and I kept a watchful eye on return flights. On 6 March I was again screened through Changi airport but no tests whatsoever in Sydney or Canberra. The Ruby Princess fiasco therefore was no surprise to me.

Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan learnt a hard lesson in the SARS crisis and instituted various preparedness measures for another emerging epidemic/pandemic. These were activated with a sense of urgency and implemented rapidly, efficiently and decisively, including at all ports of entry. By now we know enough to say that early and aggressive interventions have been far more effective in slowing the curve than late lockdowns to flatten it.

Lockdowns have not been effective

The scientific consensus on climate change is deep and broad and has accumulated over many decades, but decisive preventative action is rejected for fear of inflicting pain on some sectors that are key political constituencies. The catastrophist warnings of doomsday scenarios without decisive action on coronavirus rests on shakier scientific foundations. John Ioannidis, a professor at Stanford’s School of Medicine with a cross-appointment in statistics, dismisses much of the early Covid-19 epidemiological modelling as ‘speculation and science fiction’. Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell observes that lockdowns have no ‘historical scientific basis’. OffGuardian has reported three separate lists of twelve, ten and eight epidemiological, public health and scientific experts who have questioned the dominant model informing policy.

Studies by several other epidemiologists and medical scientists show considerable discrepancy between the modelling and observational data, finding little evidence that lockdowns are effective on their own terms: see here, here, here, here, here and here. Between them, these look at cases in Europe and the 50 US states. Similarly, our regional neighbours like Hong Kong (0.5 deaths per million), Taiwan (0.3), South Korea (4.8), Japan (3.4) and Singapore (2.7) have done as well and mostly even better than Australia (3.6) and NZ (3.9), without having locked down their countries as comprehensively. (The data as at 30 April.) The net overall conclusion is that something other than early or late, gentle or severe lockdowns is the decisive factor in explaining the wide variance in how countries are doing.

The science is not settled even on social distancing. Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, an American infectious disease epidemiologist with the WHO, said on return from Wuhan that CV-19 is not spread in casual interaction, but in close family and institutional settings. Hendrik Streeck, a leading German virologist leading an investigation of a severe outbreak in Germany’s Heinsberg district, is similarly sceptical that activities like shopping or even touching contaminated surfaces pose significant risks to the public. And in China, a study of 318 clusters (involving 1,245 patients) found 80% involved transmission in the home, 34% in public transportation. Only two of the 1,245 patients looked at were found to have been infected in an outdoor setting. The authors’ explanation of why their figures add up to more than 100% (80+34) is that ‘many outbreaks involved more than one venue category’. Their overall conclusion: ‘All identified outbreaks of three or more cases occurred in an indoor environment, which confirms that sharing indoor space is a major SARS-CoV-2 infection risk’. In other words lockdowns might actually be increasing the risk of infection!

Tegnell told the BBC on 24 April that Sweden, that continues to attract much international attention, is better placed than most European countries to face a second wave of the outbreak. The strategic goal was to slow the progression of the disease so the country’s healthcare system did not become overwhelmed. Between 15%-20% of the population is estimated to have become immune, which is enough to slow and control the spread of the disease further. Regarding Sweden’s high death toll relative to its Nordic neighbours, he noted that ‘as many as 50% of deaths had come in care homes for the elderly, which have banned visitors’. So it’s ‘hard to know how a lockdown would have stopped that’.

In an interview with Nature magazine, Tegnell explained further: ‘Each country has to reach “herd immunity” in one way or another, and we are going to reach it in a different way’. ‘Herd immunity’ refers to the situation when a high proportion of the population has acquired immunity, either through having survived the infection and/or through vaccination. This then limits the spread of the infection to people who are not immune. Total isolation policies prevent the development of population immunity which in turn can prolong the problem.

As we know, countries have followed different strategies based on varying advice from public health experts and epidemiologists. They are all claiming success for their particular strategy and most have garnered increased domestic approval for decisive leadership, with the significant exception of President Donald Trump whose incompetence, ignorance, bombast and blame-shifting has been on undisturbed display. They can’t all be right.


Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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8 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. Sound the Trumpists: The deputy sheriff rides again – Part One: The global landscape

  1. Andrew Glikson says:

    please change “It Covid” to “if Covid”

  2. Anthony Pun says:

    Having been schooled in my Grandma’s “she knows best home medical treatment” and later in life as a medical scientist, I can under both logic – the lock down and the herd mentality. My Grandma said it was no point to keep “so clean” when you are a kid otherwise you will have no natural immunity from everything from small pox to food poisoning to influenza. Giving the high infectious ability of the virus and known transmission by droplets, lock downs are preventative and works well. Those who have high natural immunity to any antigens obvious does not need to lock down and they end up as asymptomatic, and their status as carrier or non-carrier of the virus. Re-infection by asymptomatic carrier is another story and they can infect others. However those with low immunity will cop it if not adequately protected. The question is this: do you know whether you are a person of high, moderate or low immunity? You could be tested for such categorization but if you were a low immunity person, then RIP for you.
    Herd mentality is useful when there is no advanced frontier of medicine to protect us and we rely on nature to determine who lives and who dies. However with lock downs, we protect the weakest of our fellow humans who would otherwise perish as member of the herd. Failing that, we can always rely on divine intervention, as in my case, I had countless needle pricks during the HepB and HIV epidemics from patients’ blood samples and survived with loads of antibodies in my blood.

  3. Jerry Roberts says:

    You are a brave man, Ramesh, entering the world of medical science. We will not gain immunity under our Australian strategy. Our best hope is that French scientist Luc Montagnier is correct in his view that Covid-19 is a human, genetically modified virus that is unstable and won’t hang around too long. Montagnier has form, having won the Nobel Prize for isolating HIV. You are also brave if you continue your schedule of overseas travel. People might be just as happy staying in their own little valleys.

  4. George Wendell says:

    And the goading of China is more in the US’s interests than ours.

    Just look at what US Republican think tank advisers are feeding to the party linked below. The massive infection rates and failures in the US cannot have anything to do with President Trump and administration apparently, so the deflective anti-China propaganda is in line with what they accuse China of doing and out in full force. A hybrid war already.

    Unfortunately, in this country Murdoch’s range of newspapers and Nine entertainment flagships like SMH are doing their bit to prop up our government’s stand – it works like clockwork every time.

    My point is that the Australian federal government and its media sycophants in an increasingly right wing media argue for Australian sovereignty, but unless we are already a vassal state, a puppet state, or even a defacto US state now, the government’s allegiance seems more directed towards US sovereignty and not ours.

    This is what is circulating among the members of the GOP:

  5. Evan Hadkins says:

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that more people died where restrictions were less severe, and fewer people died were lockdowns were early and tight.

    • Ramesh Thakur Ramesh Thakur says:

      Are you comparing apples and oranges? Should we compare Australia to Europe? To US states? To our own region? A major new study from Europe comes to two important conclusions: full lockdown ‘strategies might not have saved any life in western Europe’ and ‘neighboring countries applying less restrictive social distancing measures… experience a very similar time evolution of the epidemic’. Or this from Prof. John Ioannidis of Stanford University, one of the world’s most cited scientists: lockdowns ‘may have worked in some cases, they may have had no effect in others, and they may have been damaging still in others’.
      Second, what is our exit strategy? Jacinda Ardern says NZ has ‘eliminated’ the coronavirus. Does this mean NZ will stay closed to the world until the virus is eliminate everywhere or a vaccine is found?
      Never before have countries adopted policies that cause such massive economic and social disruption, with so little public scrutiny. I’m genuinely baffled by why we’ve suspended critical faculties and refused to ask the hard questions to justify the draconian measures. There is something very perverse abut locking up healthy people in their homes.

      • Peter Martina says:

        I agree. The optimal response is the society that remains the most open while not allowing the health system to be swamped. The problem with the response in Australia is that millions of healthy, unaffected people have been kept away from one another. It’s not possible to catch covid-19 from someone who hasn’t got it.

      • Andrew Glikson says:

        Most people appear to be able to worry about only one issue at any one time. It Covid-19 ends up killing millions in the long term, pushing a cold war in the context of the US-China rivalry, possibly leading to a nuclear conflict, can end up killing billions of people. Furthermore, the ongoing saturation of the terrestrial atmosphere with carbon dioxide can only lead to destruction of nature and of ciivilization. As stated by Professor James Hansen, NASA’s former chief climate scientist, in 2002:
        “Burning all fossil fuels would create a different planet than the one that humanity knows. The palaeoclimate record and ongoing climate change make it clear that the climate system would be pushed beyond tipping points, setting in motion irreversible changes, including ice sheet disintegration with a continually adjusting shoreline, extermination of a substantial fraction of species on the planet, and increasingly devastating regional climate extremes” https://citizensclimatelobby.org/hansen-cant-burn-all-fossil-fuels-without-creating-a-different-planet/

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