It’s the same the ‘ole world over…

It’s the poor wot gets the blame.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that the “precautionary principle” that’s so prevalent in the current crisis, and in many other recent public applications of science, is a highly dangerous one.

I first considered this years ago when some over-stringent regulations were put in place to prevent accidents (or it may have been abuse) to children. The apologist said, “Nothing is as important as child safety.” It was immediately obvious that this is not true – if it were children would be locked up at home all the time. Some risk is necessary for children to develop as human beings – and on the wider scale, child-safety takes it place amid a host of other human priorities.

Before COVID-19 came along, the global political plan of the great and good was already to change the entire world’s way of life based on the worst-case scenarios of computer climate models, because “there is no Planet B, and you can’t be too careful.”

But the obvious low carbon solution to this potential problem, that of nuclear power, has somehow been excluded from serious consideration because “nuclear accidents have happened, and you can’t be too careful.” This despite the fact that there seems good evidence that, nuclear and emergency workers apart, there have been scarcely any deaths definitely attributable to radiation accidents in history, whereas there have been many deaths cause by the frantic efforts to evacuate affected areas. See here.

On a less dramatic, but probably equally important, scale state agencies from the US to the EU have increasingly based their policies regarding risks such as chemicals and diesel particulates on the precautionary principle of “there is no safe dose,” rather than actual evidence of cause and effect. If feeding massive doses of a chemical to rats kills them, then banning even trace amounts in industry or agriculture becomes mandatory because “you can’t be too careful.” If that principle were universally applied, water would be banned, since that is reliably toxic in the high doses used by, for example, totalitarian interrogators and the occasional world-record wannabe.

Regarding diesel particulates, some toxicologists who have calculated the actual dose of particulates inhaled by city dwellers over a lifetime have pointed that no known substance is toxic in such low amounts, barring acute poisons like plutonium. That’s worth remembering when claims of the number of deaths from traffic pollution are made – they are usually projections from models whose parameters are based on extrapolations from unrealistically high doses, according to the precautionary principle.

This has real-world impacts – in the UK, Sir Ian King’s urgent push to diesel vehicles to save the planet from CO2, a decade ago, was suddenly reversed by diesel’s (dubious) implication in respiratory deaths, causing real economic problems for those who had paid out to save the planet and were now lumbered with vehicles whose value had plummeted. And of course, the whole green energy thing is empowered by the vague idea that “fossil fuels are killing the planet,” for which clear evidence is lacking.

Statistician William A Briggs deals with the issue of particulates and causation in detail in section 10.3 of his excellent book, Uncertainty, but you can see a presentation here for free.

So, as I suggested in a recent post, I remain concerned that we may be likely to see more deaths overall from self-induced world economic collapse than from Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) itself. As Peter Hitchens points out from his experience living in Moscow, economic collapse is not about the stock market going down – it is about ordinary professional people selling their possessions on the streets for bread. It could happen here – it will happen in poor or badly governed countries.

One of the recent interesting observations (though it’s early in the day to be sure of the stats) is that the lockdown, by reducing the number of cases of ordinary seasonal viruses, appears to have reduced the normal excess winter deaths, so that total mortality is either less than, or roughly on a par with, that of most years. Furthermore since those flu viruses and even other Coronaviruses are still around, but are not, and have never been, tested for in patients, it is impossible to say in any one death whether the detected COVID-19 is even the sole viral contributor to death, let alone the major cause.

For an example of COVID-19 as a secondary player, I can cite today’s UK celebrity death. Comedian Eddie Large has sadly died with COVID-19 whilst hospitalised for pre-existing heart failure, at age 78. Any doctor will tell you that the prognosis for cases of CCF severe enough to require admission is uniformly poor: the main difference that Coronavirus is likely to have made is that the poor man, because of “social distancing,” had to die without his family around him to comfort him.

Nearly all the problems experienced in our shut down nations are due to our response rather than the plague – an economic reality keenly felt here with two of our kids’ families having vulnerable small businesses, and the third dependent on a healthy commercial market to keep him in work. Most people are even more vulnerable to job loss.

Combine that unprecedented social and economic situation with the deliberately pessimistic initial modelling estimates by Imperial College’s Prof Neil Ferguson of 250-500K UK deaths, and one has surely to question the proportionality of the policy. The precautionary principle appears to have no place for proportionality. As quoted in my previous post, Ferguson predicted such high numbers on the precautionary principle – better to overestimate than underestimate.

But is that true? To shut down society, without any recovery plan whatsoever, to save half a million lives is a different matter from shutting it down for a number lower than many winters take. Since Ferguson, like Michael Mann, refuses to release his computer code for public examination, public science is essentially being used as a rather pessimistic Delphic Oracle… which seems to be becoming a habit, given the previous predictions of climate doom by 2030.

The Telegraph said (23/3) that Ferguson’s downwardly revised modelling, which led directly to the lockdown, made new predictions of 20K deaths. I’ve commented on his doubling down on the original figure in a comment on my previous post, but in the present context you have to compare that 20,000 figure with the 50,000 UK deaths associated with flu in 2018, when the vaccine proved unusually ineffective, and the 80,000 in the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu outbreak that nobody remembers, and which didn’t affect the economy at all. The figure is, of course, also relevant to the total world deaths so far associated with (not necessarily caused by) COVID-19, which as of yesterday were 53,167 (compared to 650,000 annually from influenza, despite the wide availability of vaccine). This, of course, does not account for the probably unreliable figures from the source, China.

The constantly increasing death figures in the news are like the Bank Holiday road deaths they used to trot out to ruin everybody’s day in the 1960s. Every UK news bulletin back then dampened the holiday spirit by telling us that 32, or 58 people had died in road accidents. The message was that it could be you next. The practice went on for years, and only stopped when somebody twigged that Bank Holiday accidents were actually fewer than those on average days.

In that instance the hidden truth was that some road accidents were a price worth paying for the workers to be released from factory drudgery for a day. In the case of child-safety, a sense of adventure and meaningful relationships with adults is, in fact, at least as important as protecting them from harm.

The hidden factor now – though less so since my 18th March article, because journalists like the Mail on Sunday‘s Peter Hitchens, and senior judge and historian Jonathan Sumption, have drawn attention to it – is the idea that society and the economy can be successfully divided into “necessary” and “unnecessary” components. NHS workers must keep hard at it, and be rewarded by people clapping into the air out of their windows, whereas those who have laboured all year to produce bedding plants for the gardens of those imprisoned at home are deemed “unnecessary.” Not only does this deprive the souls of the garden-lovers of meaningful activity, and ruin the livelihood of the garden centres, but it gives the message to horticulturalists that they are, when push comes to shove, unimportant to the world.

Yet when I was a doctor, I was constantly aware that my entire role was to get people out of sickness and back into real life, where homes and families are made, food is put on the table, and all the complex beauty of human relationships work out as a functioning society – and a working economy. Both are currently disrupted more than at any time in history, on a worldwide scale.

I think the falsity of this “essential/non-essential” dichotomy is summed up in a good old traditional song I learned back in my folkie days. Not only does it remind us that we are all equally important to society, but it reflects the working man’s hope that, however much the clever folks mess the world up for them, things are bound to look up a bit in the end (though in the past they could at least drink to that – now all the pubs are closed too). Nevertheless may that hope be fulfilled after these cruel days have passed.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Medicine, Politics and sociology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to It’s the same the ‘ole world over…

  1. Robert Byers says:

    I had wondered if shut downs would stop deaths, of the elderly, from other viruses etc.
    i don’t agree there is a need for shutdown or really a epedemic. in fact I read there was a flu in 2009 that killed 12,000 Americans and put 200,000 in hospital but I never heard of it. on another post you mentioned a real epidemic called the Hong Kong flu and even that was less newsworthy then the breakup of the beatles in the late 60’s.
    i think its likely a warning from God , probably over the wars in syria by the west, but still its a establishment overreaction. the same crowd who brought us global warming hoax and supersensitivity, as you write here, to odds in safely are the real parasites.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      The breakup of the Beatles is actually a very good comparison – I wish I’d thought of it. Even three years later, I was mightily impressed that my friend got a job with the lawyers who were sorting out the Beatles affairs. But Hong Kong flu just disappeared into history.

      The warning from God aspect I take for granted, and perhaps I should post on it. The errors of, amongst others, the prosperity gospel False Prophets is to claim, without a true insight from the Holy Spirit as the biblical prophets had, to explain God’s actions… usually in simplistic terms of the end of the world or a judgement on whatever happens to be in the headlines recently.

      I was discussing this with my pastor before we went into lockdown. The way God governs the world is not, for the most part, through cryptic signs whose meaning is revealed to the few, but simply by doing stuff which has the effect he desires to see, in the way of judgement, mercy, warning or whatever. The world comes to understand what’s happened afterwards – or at least, those with wisdom do.

      And so a few decades ago, in judgement on Soviet Communism and mercy on the rest of the world, God brought about its downfall, largely through the stumbling of the politicians of the day trying to do something else. Remember that at the time, nations were dropping to communism one by one, and it seemed like only a matter of time before they ran the world, or there was a Nuclear War. In retrospect, God ended the Soviet Empire just as he long ago ended Babylon.

      Now a different and even more complicated state of world affairs exists, and it’s anybody’s guess how it turns out, because God has not revealed it. Chinese communism was certainly the major cause of Coronavirus (the only infected bats in Wuhan were not in a wet market, but the nearby government virology lab, brought from caves 900Km away!), and that could lead to the downfall of the Communist Party tyranny.

      But on the other hand the west has been cosying up to China commercially, and even envying its political system (what’s the difference between Google snitching on people evading lockdown, and the Chinese social surveillance system?); and there are biblical examples of God’s saying to Israel, “OK, you want foreign gods, I’ll give you them – here come the Assyrians and Babylonian armies.” In other words, China might end up picking up the pieces of the west’s shattered economy and running the world – Scripture gives us no promises about the survival of our freedom if, as a society, we have rejected him.

      Here in Britain we’ve pulled out of the EU, I believe rightly. There are signs that might be timely, as many see signs of its falling apart because of the Coronavirus crisis. But, once again, history sometimes turns on its head suddenly, and the only one who fully understands it is God, and particularly Christ who has been exalted to rule over everything (eg Rev 5).

      So my point is that God’s actions in the world are well above our pay-grade, and we look fools if we second-guess them in any but the most general terms. However, it’s equally wrong to follow the current trend to think of God as wringing his hands helplessly whilst evil humans, or untamed Nature, mess up the world – if I’ve learned anything from Jesus, it’s that God has never stopped governing human affairs, via all kinds of shocks and judgements that Jesus describes as “birth pangs,” toward the final end he has determined in Christ.

      My pastor preached on Jesus’s Mark 13 prophecy last Sunday, and got an e-mail from someone criticizing him for mentioning death and the end of the world at such a sensitive time. But as C. S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

  2. Robert Byers says:

    Yes gods plans are beyond us. only the bible hints that there is punishment in this world against natuons because in the next its only people who get punished. So the only evil thing i see is about killing humans unjustly. that brings to mind the instigated war in syria to overthrow the regime. Many nations were involved. I guess not china. yet the virus seems to be over in China.
    I don’t think it likely the gov’t there invented the viros. just another marketplace problem instead.
    Yes Britain leaving EU was right. A people/nation must rule themselves.
    i predict this virus will not expand much more and not ever much relative to numbers. In fact i just found out there was a 2009 virus they say killed 12,000 Americans and put in hospital 2000,000. This on wiki about the virus in america. never heard a thing!
    I am suspicious about why a minor outbreak is treated with such reaction. Lord pleaee no more deaths/cases but if thats it will people question why the fuss? Something funny going on. Hmmm.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    “I am suspicious about why a minor outbreak is treated with such reaction. Lord pleaee no more deaths/cases but if thats it will people question why the fuss? Something funny going on.”

    According to even the initial most pessimistic projections (eg Ferguson’s) this was going to be a major (rather than minor) pandemic, but on a par with others and, from first experience, likely to target overwhelmingly the elderly infirm. This was quite unlike the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-19, actual mortality in line with worst predicted for COVID-19, which largely hit the productive young – including the young guys returning from war, some of whom were relatives of mine. This is why it had a great economic impact (on top of the crippling debt of a world war), compared to Hong Kong Flu which killed 40% of the numbers in UK, but didn’t hit he economy noticeably.

    This one differs is that, for the first time, governments and scientists have tried to manipulate the outcomes, rather than simply put up with it, and it is the response that has hit society far harder than even Spanish Flu did, at a stage when the total number of UK cases has only just overtaken the number of people in the acting profession, and the deaths the population of a smallish village.

    I have two possible answers to “Why the fuss?” The first, more likely, one, is that we are repeating our society’s tendency to believe that science gives us more certainty than it actually does. The models – or the ones we choose to believe – tell us what will happen to the disease (rightly or wrongly). What they don’t tell us – the effects of the cure – we shrug off for later consideration (a bit like exit strategies for recent wars).

    The second, conspiracy-theory type, explanation is that a pandemic everyone knew would come eventually has been harnessed to the task or re-ordering the world’s political and economic system to the pattern powerful groups have been advocating for years. To investigate that possibility, you’d have to follow the paper trail to who first suggested to governments the novel idea of voluntarily shutting down the world’s economy as a response to the kind of pandemic that occurs every few decades.

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