Don't believe the hype

This was originally published on 4th April, 2020, and republished here on 4th Janurary, 2022.


Imagine that you’re the leader of a community, and you receive word that your people will soon be faced with a new, previously unknown threat — we’ll call it the ‘boronavirus’. You don’t have much information about this boronavirus, and the information you do have is conflicting. Researchers need more time to study it — not that long, maybe just a few weeks more — but there’s every chance that the boronavirus will be in your community by the time they start coming to solid conclusions.


All you have to work with are some unreliable stats from the origin point of this boronavirus, and a knowledge of how similar boronaviruses act. You must now make a choice about what your community should do. Do you:

a) Ignore the problem

b) Run around like a headless chook

c) Wait until you have enough information before taking any drastic measures

d) Panic, claim to have enough information to bring in drastic measures and ignore the real problem


If your answer was d), congratulations! You are now qualified to be in government. Your job starts tomorrow — although you’ll be working from home, of course. We look forward to seeing what kind of draconian measures you can come up with, which will allegedly tackle the threat of coronavirus.


(Image: Image: MASSolutions)

Public Enemy №1

We’re only a quarter of the way through 2020, but there’s no doubt what this year will be remembered for. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, commonly known as ‘the coronavirus’ and cause of the COVID-19 disease, is the world’s public enemy. We are, according to various governments across the globe, ‘at war’ with the virus (and don’t ask how one fights a war against a virus).


The media are breathlessly reporting around the clock on ‘coronavirus deaths’ — I received a notification on my phone from one media organisation about their medical expert being tested for the virus, despite having turned all notifications from the app to ‘off’ — and, if they’ve got time, on the economic freefall that has accompanied governments shutting their countries down.


Stocking up on essentials, laughed at by most people only weeks ago, has now become the norm, as the non-stop noise of fear and hype drown out all else. The world appears to have stopped, as people lose their jobs, can’t send their kids to school, and worry about having access to basic needs while isolated in their homes, unable to visit family and friends.


The Australian government has been claiming that Australians should expect such measures to be in place for up to six months — a truly frightening amount of time to be cooped up at home. Even the technological onslaught that accompanies us in our residences these days — from Zoom and Microsoft Teams, to Facebook and TikTok, to Netflix and Disney+, to the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One — can’t quite stop us from needing to be in the presence of others on a regular basis, and to be free to go where we want, when we want.


Have the Wiggles actually ever had problems social distancing? (Image: The Daily Telegraph)

Instead, we are spooked into languishing inside unless we have ‘good reason’ to go out, a situation not too far removed from countries like Italy and France, where leaving your home requires a permit. But such countries are used to such measures, and have a different relationship between the state and the people than do countries owing their traditions to Britain. In these places, the police owe their legitimacy to being members of the public, serving the public and having the approval of the public. In nations without this tradition (accounting for much of the European continent), police instead owe their allegiance to the state and do their bidding — such as forcing people to stay home unless they have a permit. Restrictions under either system are, of course, mentally taxing.


And this is without mentioning the enormous economic fissures that have been caused by shutting most of the world down, and the huge government expenditure that has been announced in its stead. Many are now out of work, and while some have the promise of things returning to normal after the crisis is over, many do not. It is hard to imagine how things will return to being the same way afterwards that they were before, particularly if you worked in a service industry. Governments will also more than likely be reducing future expenditure, including on health care, in order to pay for the welfare schemes they have had to put in place.


Military-looking police in France checking that this motorcyclist has a valid reason for being outside. (Image: Christophe Petit-Tesson/EPA)

So, for all the mess that this virus — and the response to it — has caused, you’d think it would have to be especially deadly and dangerous, right? The only way you could justifiably trample on freedoms and take a wrecking ball to the economy is if there was no other solution, and the virus was guaranteed to cause an enormous death toll that would otherwise never take place, right?


What, then, would happen if SARS-CoV-2 turned out to be somewhat less potent than that?


The diverging paths of fantasy and reality

When the first whispers about a coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan began making the news, it was a great unknown. Was it a deadly virus, or no worse than a common cold? How many were being affected? Where did it come from? Was the Hubei government’s response adequate or necessary?


Some of these questions are still up in the air today, but the spread of the virus has meant that most countries are now more concerned with their own backyard than they are with the still-inadequate information coming out of China.


Unfortunately for us, the human mind has a habit of getting creative when there’s an information gap, and the fact that this crisis involves something that can’t be readily observed with the naked eye makes it all the more disturbing. If someone thinks that there’s reason to worry about this invisible threat, we think we have good reason to worry about it too.


Furthermore, the flow of information is tangled, with the media mostly uninterested in explaining new research on the virus, and more interested in reporting DEATH TOLLS and INFECTED CRUISE SHIPS and the like, and social media tending to focus on what funny thing your dog is doing with you at home while you implore everyone to ‘flatten the curve’ again.


If I ever hear this phrase or see this graph again, it will be too soon. (Image: CNBC)

As a result, the few morsels of important information that are now making it through the pipeline are often unhelpful and tell us less than we actually need in order to come to our own conclusions on the risk of the virus — not that we’re being allowed to do anything if our own conclusions are radically different to the official line.


Dead Doctors! Rapidly Rising Death Tally! Do Something!

The Imperial College, London really kicked things off on the ‘speculative disaster’ end of the spectrum, with Neil Ferguson (previously responsible for positing that mad cow disease could kill 150,000 Britons unless the British government forced farmers to slaughter millions of cattle) putting forward an estimate of up to 500,000 deaths in the United Kingdom if their government did nothing out of the ordinary, and 2.2 million in the United States.


Other countries have had similar models put forward, often based either on early data from Wuhan, or latterly the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Because these models often used one data-set with little adjustment from early on, some of the numbers they spat out were truly staggering.


These numbers were enough to not just set off alarm bells, but set many people into a genuine state of fear, particularly those working in health care. Governments began asking their hospitals to delay elective and ‘non-essential’ surgeries, and set aside hundreds and thousands of beds to prepare for the inevitable. Reports of tragedy in other countries necessarily fed into those worries, leaving many distressed and preparing themselves for the worst.


And that’s without getting into the actual numbers. As of the 31st March, the World Health Organisation was reporting 750,000 cases with 36,000 deaths — just under a 5% fatality rate. In Italy, that figure is around 10%. And all those doctors dying it Italy, at least 50 so far! Isn’t that scary?


Well, it depends who you listened to.


Reality stands at the door and knocks

There were a select number of epidemiologists asking questions early on, but they tended not to be those involved in official government advice, and many of them have been busy working on discovering more about the disease in the mean time instead. John Ioannidis from Stanford University was one of those questioning the decision to shut down countries early on, and some of his peers at Stanford have estimated that the real fatality rate of the virus may be lower than 0.1%.


Research will also be undertaken to determine whether Prof. Ioannidis’ haircut counts as a mullet. (Image: ITMO)

The model used by Imperial College to frighten the British government into action they were otherwise not going to take has been questioned by some, at both Oxford University and The Telegraph. It has been noted more broadly that models are exactly what they say they are. They model data, and so are almost always ‘wrong’ in the long-run, even though some of them are useful. The question being asked is not whether Ferguson’s model is ‘right’ — it’s whether it’s useful.


Prior to his intervention, Britain was planning to go down the road recommended by the lead epidemiologists in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, which mostly involved recommendations to avoid unnecessary risks. Bars, churches and restaurants were to remain open, as were schools. Of those countries, only Sweden’s government has taken that advice on board, and a low percentage of Swedes fear catching the virus.


Over in Japan, they too have taken little in the way of special measures to combat the likely spread of the virus, to the extent that the appearing of the virus in larger quantities now is being reported as an impending crisis. The Tokyo Olympics have only now been delayed until next year, after their government held out for as long as possible. But even the manner in which positive tests are being reported in Japan is indicative of a wider problem, which goes to the heart of the issue: the numbers, and how we get them.


I see red, red, red. (Image: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html/Forbes)

Everything revolves around testing

Modelling is dependent on testing. Media reports are dependent on testing. Taking effective action is dependent on testing.


If the testing we have at the moment gave a true indication of the impact of the virus on the population as a whole, then we would have reason to be locked away, safe and sound. But the tests don’t do that, because the numbers are being pulled in two direction, both unhelpful, and one leading the other.


The biggest issue is that there is simply not enough testing, and more importantly, there is no random testing taking place. Random testing is only way for us to know whether large numbers of people are carrying the virus asymptomatically or with only very mild symptoms. Random testing is the only way to know what the actual spread of the virus looks like, which is why the Oxford and Stanford modellers have argued that it is possible the virus has already been present in their respective populations for months, with little real effect on mortality rates.


As it is, the only testing that is taking place is under particular conditions, according to the regulations in each country. Australia has bragged about having the lowest rate of positive tests in the world, but testing has been mostly limited to people returning from overseas, and if they are positive, then those in close contact with them. Lombardy and Venetia, both regions of Italy, have significantly different testing practices, which has not only helped the latter to trace the virus and limit its impact, it’s also helped them to deliver figures that are likely to be closer to reality than Lombardy’s.


An impressive? show of social distancing outside a Perth COVID Clinic (Image: ABC News/Benjamin Gubana)

Because of testing practices being what they are, severe cases (usually requiring hospitalisation) are the only cases guaranteed to be reported, rather than the asymptomatic and mild cases that slip through the cracks. As a result, severe cases, including cases in those that have died, are the only ones guaranteed to be recorded, which necessarily means they will be over-reported. Some countries have also been hospitalising people with mild conditions, which both strains their own system with not enough room for critical patients, and leads to an over-reporting of hospitalisations.


If the real case fatality rate of the COVID-19 disease was 10%, as the current Italian stats would suggest, it would mean that this strain of coronavirus would be on par with its cousin, SARS. If Germany’s CFR — currently standing at less than 1% — is accurate to reality, it would make this virus potentially as serious as a bad flu epidemic (which are worse than you may think, but still not taken overly seriously by most). One study, based on the town of Vo in Florence, has concluded that at least half of all people who get the virus are asymptomatic; one study based on the Diamond Princess estimated that the figure was around 18%, while another based on the same ship estimated that 90% of cases are not detected. The US CDC estimates that the number of asymptomatic carriers may be around 25%. It’s also known that other coronaviruses have an equal or higher number of carriers that are asymptomatic than are symptomatic.


The more testing is done, the more likely it is that we will find people test positive without any symptoms. The more than happens, the more the real fatality rate drops. The more it drops, the less serious the pandemic is, and the less serious the response to it should be, because the higher the proportion of asymptomatic carriers, the lower the real deadliness of the virus is. This reality is not reflected in the daily hyper-ventilation from news channels and websites, who record every recorded case as proof of the virus spreading, rather than as a reflection of a virus that is likely to have reached far further than we were aware of, and the fact that more tests will necessarily result in more positives.


The other problem with the fatality rate is the way in which ‘coronavirus deaths’ are recorded and reported. At the moment, the standard worldwide practice is to record every death that takes place where the person tested positive for coronavirus as a ‘coronavirus death’. This is different from the standard practice for influenza (which is only recorded as the cause of death in a small number of cases), and hides a critical distinction, in that someone who dies and has coronavirus present may not have actually died from anything related to the virus.


DRAMA! RED! BLOOD! (Image: ABC12)

Walter Ricciardi, a professor whose various titles can be read here, has noted that in his role as an assistant to the Italian health minister, a re-evaluation of ‘coronavirus deaths’ found that only 12% of certificates showed a direct causality from the virus. Under normal circumstances, these would not be recorded as ‘coronavirus deaths’ at all, and the fact that they are is skewing the figures. Italy isn’t alone in this regard — Sucharit Bhakdi, a German epidemiologist, has criticised the German health system for doing the same thing, as has John Lee in Britain. Furthermore, a French study has concluded that SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely to be more deadly than other coronaviruses and various common endemic viruses already in circulation, which are collectively responsible for some 2.6 million deaths worldwide every year.


If only 10–15% of ‘coronavirus deaths’ are actually because of the virus, and the proportion of deaths to infections is already significantly lower than the official statistics show, and this virus is comparable to other common endemic viruses, then we are dealing with a very different pandemic to what is being claimed. Note that this doesn’t mean we aren’t dealing with a pandemic at all, nor that there aren’t going to be stresses on health systems in certain places. It simply means that the reaction to the pandemic might need to be questioned, because there have been some basic assumptions guiding the responses in each country that may not hold up to scrutiny. And if they don’t hold up to scrutiny, neither will the decisions made because of them.


What’s been most clear in the relative uniformity of the response is that people in positions of power are willing to risk long-term pain for short-term gain, because it is too risky to them to do the opposite. In fact, that mindset directly led to this situation, and the mad scramble to catch up to a level of preparedness that the dire warnings have made necessary has exposed it.


Diagnosed with a chronic lack of preparation

Part of the reason, I suspect, why so many ‘experts’ (I put ‘’ around them not to question their expertise, but because that title is used so liberally that it has lost all meaning. You can find an expert for pretty much anything, these days) have leapt upon the worst-case scenario, deadly destruction hypotheses is because they have been warning for years that countries are massively under-prepared to deal with an actual, real, biological threat. This, in their eyes, may be the emergence of that threat.


Here’s Anthony Fauci, currently head of the American government’s coronavirus response team, speaking in 2017 about major vulnerabilities in the ability of the USA and the rest of the world to respond to a major health crisis. Only last year, Johns Hopkins released a report advising countries how best to prepare for a ‘high-impact respiratory epidemic’, and stressed therein that many countries did not currently have the capacity to deal with such a crisis, especially in terms of working across national borders.


Countries according to their preparedness of a typical epidemic. (Image: GHS Index/Washington Post)

Many health systems in first world countries are put under enormous pressure on a regular basis, often stretched to breaking point. In the 2017–18 northern influenza season, nearly 1 million Americans were hospitalised for the flu (with the CDC estimating 80,000 deaths as a result), and hospitals were struggling to keep up with the numbers, while Britain’s NHS was barely staying afloat. The Lombardy region struggled under the sheer weight of numbers due to a lack of ventilators (ECMO).


And on it goes. The bigger the health crisis, the less prepared most countries are to tackle it. The Global Health Security Index places the United States a distant first in readiness for a pandemic — which is to say, no country is ready for one, even a mild one. In fact, many wealthy nations rate poorly in their overall readiness, which explains why they cannot even cope well with seasonal near-epidemics. Ultimately, it comes down to resources, which governments have a limited amount of. Even though health is always a big and popular budget item, governments still have to choose where exactly that health budget is spent, and forward planning for a big crisis that hasn’t happened yet is hard to argue for when there are immediate needs for an ever-aging population — at least when trying to calculate the political benefits of your choices.


After all, what happens if you spend vast sums of money on a crisis that never eventuates? You might get unfavourable press about wasted funds, and how that money could’ve been better spent on this or that. If a crisis comes, you can worry about it then. For now, you focus on what’s in front of you.


Is that a good way to be governing? No. But it’s the obvious end-point of a system that is designed to be hyper-focussed on what’s happening now. Polls are happening now. Social media is happening now. News reports are happening now. Elections are always just around the corner, and no-one wants to be the one to take a gamble on long-term gain if it means risking their job in the immediate term. If everything’s going well, then don’t take a risk and mess that up. If everything’s not going well, then fix whatever’s going wrong right now, and let the future take care of itself.


And it’s no different for the medical experts, particularly those in positions of authority. The higher up the ladder you are, the less you want to be the one to make a big mistake. It is far better on a personal level to have mistakenly thought something was worse than it was, than for something to turn out worse than you had mistakenly thought it was. You can easily justify claiming that a mild virus was actually deadly — after all, not that many people died, so your actions must’ve been worthwhile, right? — but it’s much harder to justify claiming that a deadly virus was really just a mild one.


Don’t worry about the future, just worry about the present

When crises do hit, governments are generally forced to choose between two ‘options’: do something, or do nothing.


This is, of course, quite unfair to them and not at all a representation of their real options, but it is what the conversation often gets reduced to. If you’re seen to be ‘doing something’, your will get approval and your polling will go up. If you’re seen to be ‘doing nothing’, expect scorn and condemnation in the polls. Australian PM Scott Morrison has found this out over the past few months — during the bushfire crisis in the summer, he was on a pre-planned holiday and was roundly criticised for being on holiday instead of ‘doing something’. What, exactly, he was meant to be doing when there was already an entire apparatus of government still working went unsaid — it was simply about the image.


Definitely not social distancing. (Image: Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Now his government has announced a slew of measures to combat the virus and stimulate the economy, while not appearing to go too hard or too soft, to mostly warm approval. This pattern has been repeated across the world, and any governments that have dared to challenge the status quo have normally been attacked for it. Sweden has been under enormous pressure, first internally from their own media, and now externally as well, to change their tune because they ‘aren’t doing enough’. The British government caved as soon as Imperial College spat out the numbers from Ferguson’s model. Above all, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has been repeatedly cast as a ‘coronavirus denier’ for arguing that anyone not at risk should be at work.


Bolsonaro is in a tough position, as his country cannot afford to stop working in order to pay for their already struggling healthcare system (pandemic or otherwise), and yet the worldwide fear around the issue has caused his position to be considered extreme. He does, however, have the advantage of being recently elected. Donald Trump does not have same benefit, and has therefore had to hedge his bets much more, even though the language he has used throughout the crisis indicates that he would instinctively rather be following a course similar to Bolsonaro.


This is not how governments should be expected to act. There is nothing less helpful in a crisis situation than having decisions made on the basis on emotion. Fear, anxiety and hysteria are known to have serious psychological impacts on decision making, and governments are not going to be immune from this, as they are both necessarily (in democracies) dependent on the opinions of their people to continue being the government, and themselves full of people — normal human beings like you and I, prone to making poor decisions in certain circumstances.


And so the decision that they have made involves some serious long-term risks, and with each passing week of shutting down the nation, these risks grow. Life-spans will almost certainly shrink if there is a sustained period of recession or even depression, as the collective hits to mental (and therefore physical) health of unemployment, isolation, loss care of carers for the elderly, loss of savings, stress, loss of education, domestic violence and a slew of other factors, along with decreased government expenditure, make themselves known. Furthermore, there doesn’t appear to be an exit strategy in place — how long will we ‘lockdown’ for? What happens when the virus returns to a population that may not yet be immune?


Britain has had a long battle over austerity, and it may come back. (Image: The New Yorker)

This is, in many ways, the single most important question to have gone ignored throughout the crisis. While there have been some questioning whether the virus is as potentially catastrophic as its been made out to be, it is just as important to ask whether that catastrophe, if it turned out to be an accurate prediction after all, would still be worse than the one that is coming. Arguments can be made either way, and they need to be had.


But rather than allow governments the time to act reasonably, the overarching feeling, pushed on by the mass media, was that they needed to ‘do something’ to fix the crisis, now, whatever the cost! And most of them have been all too happy to oblige.


Keep Quiet and Panic On

Having failed to prepare adequately for life going on as normal in the midst of an Official Epidemic Crisis, governments have turned to the only other action that could theoretically stop a virus from spreading: don’t let people be in contact with each other.

As the saying goes, of course, we live in a society, so achieving this is theoretically quite difficult. Families live under the same roof, and we all go shopping for our basic needs. Many workers need to be in contact with each other to keep things ticking over — electricity, food, water, internet, public transport — and we are fundamentally social creatures. We need the company of others to stay healthy.


Many churches have moved online, but few would suggest it’s a real substitute for meeting in person. (Image: ABC Southern Qld/Peter Gunders)

But the masses have, in some ways, been extraordinarily pliant in acceding to the commands of government, at least for the time being. Emergency powers, usually reserved for war time, have been enacted worldwide, making use of either pre-existing legislation which had been surreptitiously passed under people’s noses (often as a response to the threat of terrorism), or new legislation which parliaments have hurried to pass before taking a long break. The ABC may be more concerned with power grabs in foreign nations, but there are reasons to focus on Australia’s potential for government overreach instead.


The Federal Government is acting under the broad powers of the Biosecurity Act, which gives extraordinary powers to the Health Minister and the Chief Medical Officer. Individuals can be ordered to undergo house arrest, be isolated or vaccinated, along with a litany of other requests at the behest of the government. If the individual does not consent to this taking place, they can be compelled and detained in order to force them to do so.


Astonishingly, there is no requirement that there be even a reasonable suspicion that someone is infected and is a health risk in order for them to be detained. In theory, anyone can be detained at any time as being a ‘health risk’ for as long as these powers are in place (with the only exception being those who work for a state or territory government, in which case they must have that government’s approval first). While it may seem far-fetched that that would happen, good legislation is able to withstand such seemingly outlandish scenarios.


The Biosecurity Act does not, and in addition it gives the Health Minister the power to do virtually whatever they want. According to the parliamentary website, the legislation allows the Health Minister to ‘issue any direction to any person that the Minister considers is necessary.’ While they do have to be ‘satisfied’ that the requirement is likely to be effective, appropriate and ‘no more restrictive or intrusive than required’, they can decide for themselves what that actually means, as they are not beholden to any other person or body to prove the necessity of their order. Crucially, they can give these orders ‘despite any provision of any other Australian law’.


In theory, this legislation allows them to rule by edict. What’s more, although an emergency declared by this act is to be limited for three months, it may be extended indefinitely if the Health Minister considers it necessary.


Your new overlord. (Image: Australian Government)

It’s not just the Federal Government that’s got some ridiculously far-reaching powers under its belt. Queensland rushed legislation through its state parliament before it suspended itself for up to six months, which gave its own emergency officers similar powers to their federal counterparts, allowing them to direct businesses to be open or closed, and people to go where they’re told to, in accordance with their Public Health Act. Notably, on my first reading of the legislation, it appears that the powers given to the emergency officers have less checks on them than what was originally in the Act, as they no longer need to have the approval of the Chief Executive before giving specific orders to people.


Other state governments have similar powers in place, though some have greater restrictions on themselves. In Victoria, anyone detained under their Public Health Act must be given access to communication every day, and every officer must inform the Chief Health Officer if they have detained someone. They also have direct provision for compensation. South Australia provides an option for appeal via the courts. But for the most part, these acts give the same far-reaching powers to state governments to compel individuals and businesses to comply with whatever an emergency officer tells them to do.


Even human rights groups, who are usually quite happy to complain loudly about anything and everything that could conceivably be considered the slightest of affronts to a human right, have been quite docile, generally saying that these actions are necessary for now but promising to tut-tut louder if it carries on too long. As mentioned above, the degree to which they are actually truly necessary is up for debate — if this crisis was caused by something mild, will it give governments carte blanche to do similarly during any mild public health crisis? — but so too should be the extent to which governments should be allowed to impinge on freedoms in the name of safety.


It is true to say that governments in Australia are highly unlikely to try and keep their emergency powers in total after the crisis has passed. But governments will always try to increase their power, as they have done with emergency terrorist legislation in the past, and the unlikeliness of a blatant and total power grab does not mean that a salami-slicing approach may not take place instead.


If only 5% of the powers that they have taken onboard for the moment are reintroduced and passed through the Parliament, that will still be a reduction in liberties. If another similar crisis hits and they take 5% more, and again and again, then over the course of generations the liberties that we enjoy now will no longer be enjoyed by our grandchildren. But who is holding them to account? If those 5% of powers are deemed ‘necessary for our safety’, will you be raising a fuss about it? Will you know, or even care?


Does the Magna Carta say anything about coronaviruses? (Image: British Library)

Police have taken to their new task with zeal. In New South Wales, police decided to slap a runner with a $1000 fine for having a kebab on a park bench, much to the amusement of the Premier of Western Australia, but the list of other ‘offences’ that were deemed to be illegal and worthy of a fine make for extraordinary reading. Not that we seem to mind: NSW Police received hundreds of calls from people dobbing in their neighbours for potential violations of restrictions, and across the ditch, NZ Police received so many calls that their system crashed. In Britain, police are encouraging people to use online portals to make their reports.


The future is now

Not only have citizens been remarkably unquestioning as governments seek to shut them in their homes as much as possible, technology has also made it easier than ever for those governments to ensure that it stays that way, going far beyond just online dob-in-your-neighbour portals.


Google has just released a report, open to the public, which has used Android phone tracking to determine whether people have stayed at home like they’ve been told, or if instead they’ve been naughty and left their premises. While some governments, such as South Korea’s, have been open about their use of phone tracking and metadata to determine points of origin for the spread of the virus, Australian governments have kept relatively quiet. South Australia confirmed they had used it already so far with one case, but would only go as far as saying they ‘might’ continue to use it. Few will have considered that state governments, rather than just federal, might employ such means.


Technology has also provided other ways police forces to go about their ‘enforcement’. In Britain Derbyshire Police were criticised for the use of a drone to publicly shame people that dared to go for a walk in a popular area, even though the legislation passed by Parliament did not prevent them from doing so, and they weren’t crowded together. Cherwell District Council will be making use of thermal imaging to make sure people are distancing in public at night.


“YOU ARE NOT 1.5m APART! EXTERMINATE!” (Image: ABC News)

WA Premier Mark McGowan may have found the kebab story funny, but his own state’s police for is not immune from the zeal either. Early this week, they announced that they too would be using drones to enforce the law. Like something out a dystopian sci-fi flick, this creepy device, which will blare officiousness and loud noises at anyone in sight, cowering its subjects into submission, should send shivers down the spine of anyone who values their freedoms.


It is an affront to not only the liberties that we enjoy in Anglosphere nations, but to the concept of policing as it has existed in these countries since the Peelian principles of 1829 established that ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’. The police do not exist in these nations to serve the whims of government, but rather are members of the public whose paid duty is to uphold the law in the same way as everyone else should — they are ‘police by consent’. Patrols by drone, over-zealous fining, commands to where one can and can’t go and how far apart you’re allowed to be from other people would, in any other circumstances, be considered the first signs of a police state.


Indeed, there have been questions raised in New Zealand and Britain as to whether police even have, by law, the powers that governments are saying they do. Police by consent is dependent on the public continuing to trust the police to be on their side by upholding the law, rather than seeking to upbraid them because the government said so.


Even in some countries where that tradition does not exist, the relationship between authorities and the people is beginning to show signs of deterioration. Ultimately, treating public health crises as a matter of law enforcement can often have an inversion effect, leading members of the public to do the opposite of what was intended. As early as 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union was warning about this reality, and emphasised the need for transparency and accountability at these times, both of which have instead gone flying out the window.


As has been pointed out though, police aren’t choosing to do these things contrary to their governments. They’re doing these things because they think that governments have permitted and asked them to do it, regardless of whether or not the relevant legislation actually covers them. If legislation is being passed that contravenes basic freedoms and liberties, then it is not up to the police to examine them and correct them, but instead the Parliaments and the media, both of which have almost entirely failed in that duty. And if that legislation does not exist, those groups should be going on the attack, rather than watching these actions with mostly muted wonder.


Hysteria is infectious

“Can you imagine what would’ve happened if, for the 60 million deaths that happen every year, we had a meter counting them, one by one, and having stories written for each one of them? It would be horrible! We have gone into a complete panic state…” — Prof. John Ioannidis, Stanford University

I mentioned earlier that there was a number being thrown around about Italian doctors who’ve died ‘fighting the coronavirus’. The list first featured in international news once it hit 50, but the number is now pushing 80. Putting aside the fact that it is hardly unheard of for doctors to fall ill with the illness they are treating, that list used to have important pieces of information on it that are now missing: dates of birth. You can see those dates on this archived version of the page, and it shows that the majority of these doctors were in their 60s or older, and it is not stated how many of them were actively involved in coronavirus cases (for example, a number of them are dentists). The page itself points out that their deaths aren’t necessarily related to the virus.


This is not to wave away their deaths, but saying that a group of various medical professionals that we know little about but were approaching an age where co-morbidities become an increasing worry in their quest to stave off death have died during the coronavirus crisis is not as attention grabbing, is it? Whereas saying “More than 50 Doctors in Italy Have Now Died From Coronavirus” grabs your attention, and induces fear and panic that your doctor might also die, thereby being all the more reason for you to stay at home. It turns what may or may not be a noteworthy statistic (which we won’t know until many months from now) into a means of frightening the population.


(Image: BBC)

Asking questions of official policy, even in a crisis, should never be an arduous exercise, nor one we plop in the too-hard basket. While our politicians and our media are generally given this job in the day-to-day, they have largely failed to do it (with, thankfully, at least a few exceptions), which means that we must do it instead. Every government is continually placing value on human life when they make health care decisions, and when the stakes are higher, it is more critical than ever than they be afforded (and demanded to take) the opportunity to make the right ones.


In terms of how dangerous it really is, this coronavirus could turn out to be something significant or something not. The current estimate from Ferguson et. al. is of a fatality rate around 0.66%, significantly lower than early estimates, but still quite a bit higher than typical flu viruses. The hype around it, however, has caused general sentiment to spiral out of control, to our detriment. The very real possibility that the virus is not what we’ve been led to believe, and the implications that has on policy decisions that have been allowed to happen with little to no opposition, is being ignored.


As a result of the hype, the impact of the virus on policy has already become significant, plunging countries and individuals alike into debt and guaranteeing poorer long-term health outcomes for all, though no-one can yet be sure how long that will be for and how much poorer they will be. However, it should also encourage countries to plan ahead for future pandemics, so that the same drastic actions do not need to be taken again. And if that does not happen, we must demand it does. Both our wellbeing and our liberties are at stake if we do not.


Above all, don’t believe the hype.