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.