It is clear that the Wuhan virus is serious and more people will need hospital attention than normal for perhaps two or three months. Yet across the world it is being used to justify the removal of centuries of civil liberties and prolonged ‘lockdowns’ based on modelling which is spurious at best.
In the UK for example, one of the government’s main advisors Professor Ferguson of Imperial College London estimated that the Wuhan virus would cause 500,000 deaths in the UK, and also 20,000 deaths within the space of two weeks. A few days later some of his colleagues put the figure even lower at 5,700 deaths, all based on modelling. Which is correct? Nobody knows – because mathematical models have become the tools of ideologues as science has become increasingly politicised. Yet the UK government put in place guidance and new laws to restrict freedom of movement and assembly and shut down businesses based on the first modelled figure of 500,000 UK deaths.
Science is supposed to work by observing data from which you can develop theories. Theories allow predictions to be made that can be tested. If your predictions prove correct it gives credibility to your theory, but if they are not correct then your theories are wrong and you have to discard them and come up with a new theory. Modelling, on the other hand, increasingly begins with a politically or ideologically-driven conclusion, and seeks to justify that conclusion by making predictions which are not based on neutral observations but on trawling for the data that fit a preconceived message. Everything is done the wrong way around.
We have seen exactly the same problems with coronavirus modelling as we have become used to with climate change modelling: it is not based on empirically observed data and thus makes estimates which can be wildly inaccurate depending on what algorithms and variables are used to create the models in the first place.
Climate change modelling led to the infamous and discredited ‘hockey stick’ graph of Michael Mann and colleagues. IPCC modelling of sea levels predict a rise from anywhere between 26 cm and 98 cm by 2100 depending on which numbers you put into their algorithm , but climate alarmists and the mainstream media always pick the highest figure to generate maximum alarm and fear. These models however don’t seem to be too much of a worry to climate alarmist Barack Obama who just bought a $12 million waterfront mansion in Martha’s Vineyard, or the celebrity alarmists who continue to fly around the world in their kerosene-guzzling private jets, or to the Maldives which are about to open five new airports that are just above sea level while simultaneously claiming they need lots of money from the Paris Climate Agreement as they are soon about to sink below the waves. If the actions of these alarmists are any indication of the real situation however, sea levels will hardly rise at all by 2100.
What is dangerous is when governments are persuaded to take a political course of action based purely on models whose predictions cannot be tested for years or decades into the future. If the model is later found to be incorrect compared to real observations which cannot be made until a long way into the future, the damage of the political decisions is done and it is too late to change it. Politically and ideologically driven modelling can sound scientific to a world which is woefully unfamiliar with scientific language and logic, enabling pseudo-science to reign over painstaking real science.
Whereas real scientists welcome open discussion and peer reviews to ensure that their observations are reproducible and their conclusions are verifiable, ideologically-based modelling tends to be guarded by an army of activists who will seek to discredit or destroy anyone who dares to question the ideology behind the model. This is the case with climate alarmism, but it has swiftly become the case with the Wuhan virus too. Anyone who questions the official lockdown narrative is derided as irresponsible at best, and murderous at worst – responsible for spreading the virus and causing death. It may not be long before dissenters to the official narrative are labelled as ‘Covid-deniers’ and berated with the words: “How dare you!”
As climate alarmism has persuaded almost all the world’s governments apart from President Trump’s administration to sign up to the Paris Climate Agreement, so MSM alarmism about the Wuhan coronavirus has persuaded many governments to shut down their economies and introduce draconian lockdowns. There is however no empirical evidence that a lockdown will or won’t stop the virus from spreading – the decisions have been based on modelling which is not based on observed data, and changes by orders of magnitude depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them.
What is known is that the Wuhan virus is exceptionally contagious. It can survive on surfaces for up to nine days and it spreads through droplets which can remain suspended in the air for hours. It has been spreading throughout the world for at least three months so it is likely that hundreds of millions of people across the globe already have it. While mainstream media outlets and the World Health Organisation report on increasing numbers of cases and deaths daily in different countries, the total number of recorded cases is likely to be wildly understated as it is limited by the total number of tests which can be carried out. This makes it seem like the percentage of people who have died from the virus seem erroneously high and frightening.
A much more useful measure would be to determine the percentage of people who have contracted the virus. This would be easy to do by testing a random sample of, say, five thousand people, and extrapolating it. This would give real and useful empirical data which would allow accurate calculations to be made of the percentage of people who have died with the virus, but not many national health authorities seem to have thought of the idea yet.
It is also vital to distinguish between people who have died with the virus and people who have died from the virus, but this has been obfuscated. Again, a more useful measure would be to compare the total number of deaths in a country above an expected baseline. In Italy for example, there is a statistically significant increase in deaths above the baseline for mortality in March 2020 - almost certainly due to the Wuhan virus, but there was a far greater increase in mortality above the baseline in almost all European countries during the winter of 2016/17. In the winter of 2014/15 the situation was even worse: in England and Wales there were between 100 and 500 extra deaths per day above the five-year average for three months between December 2014 and March 2015. Despite this, there was no loss of civil liberties or shutdown of the economy at that time.
The only way to know for certain whether a course of action has worked is by comparing it to a ‘control’ – that is: real data from a country or countries which do not impose a lockdown: Sweden, Belarus and Japan, for very different reasons, have decided to keep life going as normal – they are the control. All three countries have been condemned in the MSM for their decisions. However, by comparing the development of the pandemic around the world with these three control countries, we shall know very soon whether the ‘cure’ of the removal of civil liberties and the shutdown of the economy was worse than the disease itself.
If the pandemic is no worse in Sweden, Belarus or Japan than anywhere else that will immediately prove that suspending civil liberties and closing down businesses to mitigate for the Wuhan virus was the wrong action. In this case liberty must be restored immediately and economies re-started, based on observable data, not on estimates or wildly imprecise models.
David Kurten AM
London Assembly Member