Since Western nations first became aware of Wuhan Coronavirus in early January there have been so many conflicting reports about it that it is almost impossible to know exactly how to respond to it. Reports have differed vastly from one country to another, and even within a country the official narratives have sometimes been so fluid as to be reversed 180 degrees and back again in a few short weeks.
In January alarming reports began to emerge daily from Wuhan where the virus originated. The mainstream media in the UK immediately downplayed its seriousness, by generating the narrative that coronavirus was not at all contagious and it was not even as serious as the flu. An ITV report in February stated that 17,000 people died every year from flu in the UK - the implication was clear: fewer people had officially died from coronavirus in the whole world than flu in the UK, so there was nothing much to worry about.
In February however, not only did the narrative change but also the facts. A report in Metro said that only 600 people a year in the UK from flu, that coronavirus will be far worse than the flu, and is highly contagious so its effects will be far worse. A few days later however, a different report in Metro again stated the figure of 17,000 people dying per year from flu, but this time admitted that perhaps up to 100,000 people may die from coronavirus. With conflicting narratives and data even within the same media outlet, how can one possibly ascertain the facts?
Various reports at various times have also stated that the virus can be spread through airborne droplets, but it isn’t spread by droplets, you can get it from touching surfaces but you won’t get it from touching surfaces, you can get it on a bus but you won’t get it on a bus, we should wear face masks, and face masks won’t protect us, it can be spread by air conditioning and lately that we must all wash our hands regularly. Whether this will be effective in slowing down the spread of the virus is debatable if the virus can be spread through airborne droplets, but whether it can or not depends on which report you read or which expert you listen to.
Another contradiction of the utmost importance concerns the length of the incubation period and whether it can be transmitted during that time. There is no consensus whatsoever on how infective it actually is, with some organisations still trying to downplay it, and others overplaying it.
The Wuhan Coronavirus has an incredibly long incubation period of up to 4 weeks and most scientists acknowledge that it can be transmitted during this period before any symptoms present themselves. A study from Germany suggests that it is highly contagious before symptoms show , but the UK government is still advising that people who are healthy can visit the elderly, which may well include pre-symptomatic people who are spreading the virus.
The one thing that is almost certain however is that the initial data from China is erroneous. For nearly two months the official figures of coronavirus cases in China almost perfectly followed a quadratic equation. This is almost unheard of in disease propagation and is highly suspicious. In addition, anyone with a passing familiarity with Mathematics could see that fraction of deaths to cases reported in China remained remarkably stable at approximately 2.2% for nearly two months. This again is beyond the realms of reasonable probability or credibility. In other words, it is highly likely that the official data from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are simply made-up according to a pre-determined algorithm. The real figures are almost certainly orders of magnitude higher than those reported.
The CCP keeps an iron grip on its population and media. For a couple of weeks a few young Chinese dared to criticise the official CCP narratives and even to speak openly against the government after the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who was threatened for initially reporting the existence of a new disease in December. In mid-February however, the Chinese government deployed 1,600 social media monitors to crush ‘misinformation’ on social media, meaning any independent or dissenting views. Some of the young internet dissidents who dared to criticise the CCP by calling for greater freedom of expression have since disappeared from social media and may have paid the ultimate price.
In Western nations, there is no such penalty for criticising the government, but media narratives are tightly controlled in order to manipulate human behaviour and emotion. We appear to have a huge multiplicity of competing, independent media outlets, but in reality there are just six big global media conglomerations, plus the monolithic state-owned BBC in the UK, which all get the vast majority of their news from one giant news agency: Thomson Reuters.
Statistics are presented to us in the West which are just as likely to be erroneous as those from the CCP. The official figures of the number of people with novel coronavirus are almost certainly well below the actual number who have it. This is due to a very low testing capacity compared to the general population. The UK, for example, only has the capacity to test 4,000 people per day. If, 80% of the population were to contract it (54 million out of 67 million) as estimated by UK Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Christopher Whitty, it would take 37 years to test everyone at the current rate.
In addition, the time taken to process the results of up to 5 days, the long incubation period which can be up to 28 days, and the large number of people who will remain asymptomatic or experience only mild symptoms so do not take a test, make it almost impossible for the figures to be anywhere near the real amount.
It is in Italy however, where a better picture has emerged of what the effects of this novel coronavirus really are. A Twitter thread by a doctor stationed in a hospital in Lombardy describes the phoney war against coronavirus before it hit hard. Non-emergency patients were gradually moved out of hospitals to free up space for a coming storm. After a few days of quiet waiting, patients started to arrive with bilateral interstitial pneumonia – slowly at first, then rapidly, then overwhelmingly so that there will soon not be enough intensive care beds or ventilators in the whole country to treat people with pneumonia caused by novel coronavirus. The majority of patients are over 60-years-old with pre-existing conditions. As there are so many people developing interstitial pneumonia at the same time and hospitals cannot cope, the mortality rate is high and increasing. Medical staff are having to make impossible decisions of choosing to treat people who have a higher chance of recovering, and turning away those whose chances are lower.
This is what is likely to happen in the USA, the UK, France, Germany, Spain and other countries where the number of cases is beginning to rise sharply. The question remains as to what action the government should take – should they ‘lock down’ the country as has been attempted in Italy (with limited success) to try and stop it spreading, or should they let life carry on as normal given that trying to stop the virus spreading may be as useless as King Canute trying to turn back the tide?
The best course of action is likely to be somewhere in the middle rather than swinging to either extreme. The CCP in China locked down Wuhan city, Hubei province and dozens of other cities with an iron fist.
Hong Kong and Singapore took drastic measures very early while still maintaining the great majority of civil liberties. They worked hard to quarantine anyone arriving from outside and to trace and isolate all contacts of anyone testing positive, and seemed to have been somewhat successful in dramatically slowing down the spread. However, these are places which suffered intensely from SARS in 2003: they have an internalised experience which the USA and European countries simply don’t have and therefore reacted with far greater urgency to the new virus.
With such a long incubation period, millions of people in the USA, the UK and other European countries have probably already contracted the virus, and any extreme measures taken now may be a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. They are likely to have minimal effect on stopping it spreading as it has already spread widely in Europe since the first cases were diagnosed in late January.
Western nations do still need to act to protect the most vulnerable as much as possible, in this case elderly people with pre-existing conditions. In particular, care homes need to be protected and steps taken to ensure that no-one with the virus is allowed into contact or proximity to them from now on.
Some activities where large crowds gather such as sporting events and pop concerts may need to be halted for a time, but a general lockdown which prevents people who are generally fit and healthy from travelling, working, shopping or visiting others may to do more harm than good.
The primary objectives of governments during this period must be to lower the risk to the vulnerable elderly, without unnecessarily damaging the economy or civil liberties. By drip-feeding information and making constant U-turns on both their advice and data however, they have often looked as though they are more concerned with their media strategy than their health strategy.
It would be far better and much easier to achieve these objectives with complete openness and transparency and full disclosure of scientific data rather than constant narrative manipulation.
David Kurten AM
London Assembly Member