Questions for Merkel

Stamford, Connecticut is a ghost town, with virtually everything closed after 9:30pm and only a few furtive-looking people roaming the streets. Identical green signs on restaurant windows advise that delivery and takeout are available. However, the convenience stores and big chains (McDonald’s, Subway) were the only establishments that weren’t closed and locked. My favorite restaurants are all shuttered – in a couple of cases, possibly forever since they are not even offering takeout. Quiet, dark and nearly deserted, the city center felt post-apocalyptic.

Thus, with 401 laboratory-confirmed coronavirus “cases” (is that the right term for infections, which may not manifest symptoms?), a city of 130,000 people has been effectively shut down. How long will this last? It’s not clear.

The public may be under the impression that there a conensus among the experts about the wisdom of this approach. There is not. In Germany, a distinguished medical research scientist had some pointed questions for Angela Merkel a few days after the Chancellor announced a nationwide “contact ban,” and I am posting the full text of this important document here:

Open Letter from Professor Sucharit Bhakdi to German Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel

An Open Letter from Dr. Sucharit Bhakdi, Professor Emeritus of Medical Microbiology at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, to the German Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel. Professor Bhakdi calls for an urgent reassessment of the response to Covid-19 and asks the Chancellor five crucial questions. The let­ter is dated March 26. This is an inofficial translation; see the original letter in German as a PDF.
Open Letter

Dear Chancellor,

As Emeritus of the Johannes-Gutenberg-University in Mainz and longtime director of the Institute for Medical Microbiology, I feel obliged to critically question the far-reaching restrictions on public life that we are currently taking on ourselves in order to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

It is expressly not my intention to play down the dangers of the virus or to spread a political message. However, I feel it is my duty to make a scientific contribution to putting the current data and facts into perspective – and, in addition, to ask questions that are in danger of being lost in the heated debate.

The reason for my concern lies above all in the truly unforeseeable socio-economic consequences of the drastic containment measures which are currently being applied in large parts of Europe and which are also already being practiced on a large scale in Germany.

My wish is to discuss critically – and with the necessary foresight – the advantages and disadvantages of restricting public life and the resulting long-term effects.

To this end, I am confronted with five questions which have not been answered sufficiently so far, but which are indispensable for a balanced analysis.

I would like to ask you to comment quickly and, at the same time, appeal to the Federal Government to develop strategies that effectively protect risk groups without restricting public life across the board and sow the seeds for an even more intensive polarization of society than is already taking place.

With the utmost respect,

Prof. em. Dr. med. Sucharit Bhakdi

1. Statistics

In infectiology – founded by Robert Koch himself – a traditional distinction is made between infection and disease. An illness requires a clinical manifestation. [1] Therefore, only patients with symptoms such as fever or cough should be included in the statistics as new cases.

In other words, a new infection – as measured by the COVID-19 test – does not necessarily mean that we are dealing with a newly ill patient who needs a hospital bed. However, it is currently assumed that five percent of all infected people become seriously ill and require ventilation. Projections based on this estimate suggest that the healthcare system could be overburdened.

My question: Did the projections make a distinction between symptom-free infected people and actual, sick patients – i.e. people who develop symptoms?

2. Dangerousness

A number of coronaviruses have been circulating for a long time – largely unnoticed by the media. [2] If it should turn out that the COVID-19 virus should not be ascribed a significantly higher risk potential than the already circulating corona viruses, all countermeasures would obviously become unnecessary.

The internationally recognized International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents will soon publish a paper that addresses exactly this question. Preliminary results of the study can already be seen today and lead to the conclusion that the new virus is NOT different from traditional corona viruses in terms of dangerousness. The authors express this in the title of their paper „SARS-CoV-2: Fear versus Data“. [3]

My question: How does the current workload of intensive care units with patients with diagnosed COVID-19 compare to other coronavirus infections, and to what extent will this data be taken into account in further decision-making by the federal government? In addition: Has the above study been taken into account in the planning so far? Here too, of course, „diagnosed“ means that the virus plays a decisive role in the patient’s state of illness, and not that previous illnesses play a greater role.

3. Dissemination

According to a report in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, not even the much-cited Robert Koch Institute knows exactly how much is tested for COVID-19. It is a fact, however, that a rapid increase in the number of cases has recently been observed in Germany as the volume of tests increases. [4]

It is therefore reasonable to suspect that the virus has already spread unnoticed in the healthy population. This would have two consequences: firstly, it would mean that the official death rate – on 26 March 2020, for example, there were 206 deaths from around 37,300 infections, or 0.55 percent [5] – is too high; and secondly, it would mean that it would hardly be possible to prevent the virus from spreading in the healthy population.

My question: Has there already been a random sample of the healthy general population to validate the real spread of the virus, or is this planned in the near future?

4. Mortality

The fear of a rise in the death rate in Germany (currently 0.55 percent) is currently the subject of particularly intense media attention. Many people are worried that it could shoot up like in Italy (10 percent) and Spain (7 percent) if action is not taken in time.

At the same time, the mistake is being made worldwide to report virus-related deaths as soon as it is established that the virus was present at the time of death – regardless of other factors. This violates a basic principle of infectiology: only when it is certain that an agent has played a significant role in the disease or death may a diagnosis be made. The Association of the Scientific Medical Societies of Germany expressly writes in its guidelines: „In addition to the cause of death, a causal chain must be stated, with the corresponding underlying disease in third place on the death certificate. Occasionally, four-linked causal chains must also be stated.“ [6]

At present there is no official information on whether, at least in retrospect, more critical analyses of medical records have been undertaken to determine how many deaths were actually caused by the virus.

My question: Has Germany simply followed this trend of a COVID-19 general suspicion? And: is it intended to continue this categorisation uncritically as in other countries? How, then, is a distinction to be made between genuine corona-related deaths and accidental virus presence at the time of death?

5. Comparability

The appalling situation in Italy is repeatedly used as a reference scenario. However, the true role of the virus in that country is completely unclear for many reasons – not only because points 3 and 4 above also apply here, but also because exceptional external factors exist which make these regions particularly vulnerable.

One of these factors is the increased air pollution in the north of Italy. According to WHO estimates, this situation, even without the virus, led to over 8,000 additional deaths per year in 2006 in the 13 largest cities in Italy alone. [7] The situation has not changed significantly since then. [8] Finally, it has also been shown that air pollution greatly increases the risk of viral lung diseases in very young and elderly people. [9]

Moreover, 27.4 percent of the particularly vulnerable population in this country live with young people, and in Spain as many as 33.5 percent. In Germany, the figure is only seven percent [10]. In addition, according to Prof. Dr. Reinhard Busse, head of the Department of Management in Health Care at the TU Berlin, Germany is significantly better equipped than Italy in terms of intensive care units – by a factor of about 2.5 [11].

My question: What efforts are being made to make the population aware of these elementary differences and to make people understand that scenarios like those in Italy or Spain are not realistic here?
References:

[1] Fachwörterbuch Infektionsschutz und Infektionsepidemiologie. Fachwörter – Definitionen – Interpretationen. Robert Koch-Institut, Berlin 2015. (abgerufen am 26.3.2020)

[2] Killerby et al., Human Coronavirus Circulation in the United States 2014–2017. J Clin Virol. 2018, 101, 52-56

[3] Roussel et al. SARS-CoV-2: Fear Versus Data. Int. J. Antimicrob. Agents 2020, 105947

[4] Charisius, H. Covid-19: Wie gut testet Deutschland? Süddeutsche Zeitung. (abgerufen am 27.3.2020)

[5] Johns Hopkins University, Coronavirus Resource Center. 2020. (abgerufen am 26.3.2020)

[6] S1-Leitlinie 054-001, Regeln zur Durchführung der ärztlichen Leichenschau. AWMF Online (abgerufen am 26.3.2020)

[7] Martuzzi et al. Health Impact of PM10 and Ozone in 13 Italian Cities. World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe. WHOLIS number E88700 2006

[8] European Environment Agency, Air Pollution Country Fact Sheets 2019, (abgerufen am 26.3.2020)

[9] Croft et al. The Association between Respiratory Infection and Air Pollution in the Setting of Air Quality Policy and Economic Change. Ann. Am. Thorac. Soc. 2019, 16, 321–330.

[10] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. Living Arrange­ments of Older Persons: A Report on an Expanded International Dataset (ST/ESA/SER.A/407). 2017

[11] Deutsches Ärzteblatt, Überlastung deutscher Krankenhäuser durch COVID-19 laut Experten unwahrscheinlich, (abgerufen am 26.3.2020)

Here is a widely watched video from two weeks ago in which Professor Bhakdi attempts to dispel the corona hysteria:

Germany has decided to keep the contact ban in place until April 20, at which point… well, again, it’s vague. Merkel said that restrictions can only be eased if new infections do not double within a 10-day period. On the other hand, her chief of staff is saying this:

“Should we be able to quantify the success of our measures in the coming days, we’ll work out a strategy for the time after April 20,” Braun said. A vaccine needs to be in place before the country can fully return to normal life, he said.

A vaccine will not be widely available for at least 12-18 months. The famous Imperial College London paper, which I cited previously, touches on the issue that lockdowns need to be maintained or the virus will come roaring back:

The main challenge of this approach is that NPIs [non-pharmaceutical interventions] (and drugs, if available) need to be maintained – at least intermittently – for as long as the virus is circulating in the human population, or until a vaccine becomes available. In the case of COVID-19, it will be at least a 12-18 months before a vaccine is available. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that initial vaccines will have high efficacy. […]

However, if intensive NPI packages aimed at suppression are not maintained, our analysis suggests that transmission will rapidly rebound, potentially producing an epidemic comparable in scale to what would have been seen had no interventions been adopted.

This basic problem, which seemingly everyone wants to dance around, may explain why China is again going into lockdown mode after having allegedly won its battle against the virus:

Henan province in central China has taken the drastic measure of putting a mid-sized county in total lockdown as authorities try to fend off a second coronavirus wave in the midst of a push to revive the economy.

Curfew-like measures came into effect on Tuesday in Jia county, near the city of Pingdingshan, with the area’s roughly 600,000 residents told to stay home, according to a notice on the country’s official microblog account.

Special approval was required for all movement outside the home, it said.

After months of restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus, China has reported a decline in domestic cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. On Wednesday, the National Health Commission reported 36 new infections – all but one imported cases.

China also recently ordered all cinemas to close again after re-opening 500 venues.

In the US, the experts are working on a plan that will involve more than a year of intermittent lockdowns combined with (enforced) social distancing until the vaccine arrives:

“It’s like a fire. If you don’t completely put it out, it will come back. You have to keep suppressing it,” Michael Osterholm, professor and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told The Daily Beast. […]

Repeated periods of social distancing might not be popular. But neither would “promoting an 18-month total lockdown of the country,” he told The Daily Beast. “So, how do you try to thread a rope through this needle?”

The article further supports my contention that “lockdowns” do not have a proven track record of success:

The authors of the paper, a preprint posted at medrxiv.org that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, determined that one long period of stringent social distancing could potentially backfire in a greater resurgence of infections come fall and winter, unless other interventions are put in place. The finding was consistent with the course of the 1918 influenza pandemic, during which cities that had low peaks during the first wave of infections—thanks in large part to social-distancing measures—were at a greater risk of a higher second wave after those interventions were lifted.

The issue is time. Obviously, if you lock everyone in their homes forever, the spread of an infection is more or less impossible. But that’s not a viable strategy. The question is whether a reasonably-brief lockdown is an effective approach, given the risk of a second wave of infections – to say nothing of the colossal economic damage and health costs of suspending social life and forcing people to stay home.

In related news, Bill Gates is calling for a full national lockdown of the US, Chinese-style, including beaches and sit-down restaurants from coast to coast.

A powerful rebuke

Jonathan Sumption, the former UK Supreme Court judge whom The Guardian has described as “the brain of Britain” and “the establishment personified,” has delivered a powerful rebuke to the country’s embrace of authoritarian methods in its war against the Microbe that Ended the World. I believe Lord Sumption’s reflections also apply to the incredible stay-at-home orders being imposed across the US in places like Maryland and Virginia. Peter Hitchens provides the transcript. Please read it:

The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated. That’s what I fear we are seeing now. The pressure on politicians has come from the public. They want action. They don’t pause to ask whether the action will work. They don’t ask themselves whether the cost will be worth paying. They want action anyway. And anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria.

Hysteria is infectious. We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease.

Q: At a time like this as you acknowledge, citizens do look to the state for protection, for assistance, we shouldn’t be surprised then if the state takes on new powers, that is what it has been asked to do, almost demanded of it.

A: Yes that is absolutely true. We should not be surprised. But we have to recognise that this is how societies become despotisms. And we also have to recognise this is a process which leads naturally to exaggeration. The symptoms of coronavirus are clearly serious for those with other significant medical conditions especially if they’re old. There are exceptional cases in which young people have been struck down, which have had a lot of publicity, but the numbers are pretty small. The Italian evidence for instance suggests that only 12% of deaths is it possible to say coronavirus was the main cause of death. So yes this is serious and yes it’s understandable that people cry out to the government. But the real question is: Is this serious enough to warrant putting most of our population into house imprisonment, wrecking our economy for an indefinite period, destroying businesses that honest and hardworking people have taken years to build up, saddling future generations with debt, depression, stress, heart attacks, suicides and unbelievable distress inflicted on millions of people who are not especially vulnerable and will suffer only mild symptoms or none at all, like the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister.

Q: The executive, the government, is all of a sudden really rather powerful and really rather unscrutinised. Parliament is in recess, it’s due to come back in late April, we’re not quite sure whether it will or not, the Prime Minister is closeted away, communicating via his phone, there is not a lot in the way of scrutiny is there?

A: No. Certainly there’s not a lot in the way of institutional scrutiny. The Press has engaged in a fair amount of scrutiny, there has been some good and challenging journalism, but mostly the Press has, I think, echoed and indeed amplified the general panic.

Q: The restrictions in movement have also changed the relationship between the police and those whose, in name, they serve. The police are naming and shaming citizens for travelling at what they see as the wrong time or driving to the wrong place. Does that set alarm bells ringing for you, as a former senior member of the judiciary?

A: Well, I have to say, it does. I mean, the tradition of policing in this country is that policemen are citizens in uniform. They are not members of a disciplined hierarchy operating just at the government’s command. Yet in some parts of the country the police have been trying to stop people from doing things like travelling to take exercise in the open country which are not contrary to the regulations, simply because ministers have said that they would prefer us not to. The police have no power to enforce ministers’ preferences, but only legal regulations which don’t go anything like as far as the government’s guidance. I have to say that the behaviour of the Derbyshire police in trying to shame people into using their undoubted right to take exercise in the country and wrecking beauty spots in the Fells so that people don’t want to go there, is frankly disgraceful.

This is what a police state is like. It’s a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes. I have to say that most police forces have behaved in a thoroughly sensible and moderate fashion. Derbyshire Police have shamed our policing traditions. There is a natural tendency of course, and a strong temptation for the police to lose sight of their real functions and turn themselves from citizens in uniform into glorified school prefects. I think it’s really sad that the Derbyshire Police have failed to resist that.

Q: There will be people listening who admire your legal wisdom but will also say, well, he’s not an epidemiologist, he doesn’t know how disease spreads, he doesn’t understand the risks to the health service if this thing gets out of control. What do you say to them?

A: What I say to them is I am not a scientist but it is the right and duty of every citizen to look and see what the scientists have said and to analyse it for themselves and to draw common sense conclusions. We are all perfectly capable of doing that and there’s no particular reason why the scientific nature of the problem should mean we have to resign our liberty into the hands of scientists. We all have critical faculties and it’s rather important, in a moment of national panic, that we should maintain them.

Flatten the economy

Mad MaxNearly three months after the WuFlu outbreak was first reported to the World Health Organization, the total official global death toll of this once-in-a-century pandemic remains modest – even trivial, on the scale of the human population – notwithstanding relentless wall-to-wall media coverage, social media hysterics, and deliberately scary-looking “trackers” like that sinister map from Johns Hopkins. Although the death toll will certainly rise a great deal in the coming months as the virus spreads, it is currently a tiny fraction of the ~1 million global deaths from each of the influenza pandemics of 1957-58 and 1968; neither of which brought society and commerce to a screeching halt.

We don’t know if the repressive measures that are being taken to “flatten the curve” in the West, such as turning Britain into an Orwellian dystopia where you are only permitted to walk your dog once a day, will be beneficial overall, given the speculative nature of the epidemiological models used to justify them and the (unaccounted-for) public health costs of putting hundreds of millions of people under de facto house arrest. But it seems obvious that if these mega-interventions continue for the duration that is apparently required for them to be effective, then they will trigger a violent collapse of the global economy, and with it, widespread immiseration, political chaos and a truly Biblical scale of human suffering and death.

Yet that crazy, nation-wrecking strategy is precisely what is being rolled out around the world. The US is extending its “social distancing” guidelines to April 30, while the UK government is signaling that social distancing measures will be in place for three to six months; while similar measures are being taken in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, India (which has imposed a total ban on leaving the home for 21 days)…

It would appear that the epidemiologists have staged a global coup d’état. The Anglo-American policies are heavily influenced by Neil Ferguson’s team at Imperial College London, whose March 16 study recommended the adoption of Chinese-style “suppression” measures:

We therefore conclude that epidemic suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time. The social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound. Many countries have adopted such measures already, but even those countries at an earlier stage of their epidemic (such as the UK) will need to do so imminently.

Our analysis informs the evaluation of both the nature of the measures required to suppress COVID-19 and the likely duration that these measures will need to be in place. Results in this paper have informed policymaking in the UK and other countries in the last weeks. However, we emphasise that is not at all certain that suppression will succeed long term; no public health intervention with such disruptive effects on society has been previously attempted for such a long duration of time. How populations and societies will respond remains unclear.

But for how long? Earlier, the study notes:

The main challenge of this approach is that NPIs [non-pharmaceutical interventions] (and drugs, if available) need to be maintained – at least intermittently – for as long as the virus is circulating in the human population, or until a vaccine becomes available. In the case of COVID-19, it will be at least a 12-18 months before a vaccine is available. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that initial vaccines will have high efficacy.

Elsewhere in the Discussion section, the authors write (emphasis mine):

However, there are very large uncertainties around the transmission of this virus, the likely effectiveness of different policies and the extent to which the population spontaneously adopts risk reducing behaviours. This means it is difficult to be definitive about the likely initial duration of measures which will be required, except that it will be several months. Future decisions on when and for how long to relax policies will need to be informed by ongoing surveillance.

The measures used to achieve suppression might also evolve over time. As case numbers fall, it becomes more feasible to adopt intensive testing, contact tracing and quarantine measures akin to the strategies being employed in South Korea today. Technology – such as mobile phone apps that track an individual’s interactions with other people in society – might allow such a policy to be more effective and scalable if the associated privacy concerns can be overcome. However, if intensive NPI packages aimed at suppression are not maintained, our analysis suggests that transmission will rapidly rebound, potentially producing an epidemic comparable in scale to what would have been seen had no interventions been adopted.

In his testimony last Wednesday, Ferguson seemed to offer another possibility:

Ferguson said the current strategy was intended to keep transmission of the virus at low levels until a vaccine was available. Experts say that could take 12 to 18 months and Ferguson acknowledged it was impractical to keep the UK in lockdown for so long, especially because of the impact on the economy. “We’ll be paying for this year for decades to come,” he said.

The UK government is aiming to relax restrictions on people’s movements only when the country has the ability to test more people for the virus, said Ferguson. Some have criticised the UK for not following the advice of the World Health Organization to “test, test, test”. But Ferguson said community testing and contact tracing wasn’t included as a possible strategy in the original modelling because not enough tests were available.

He said the UK should have the testing capacity “within a few weeks” to copy what South Korea has done and aggressively test and trace the general population.

But if the country’s deputy chief medical officer is to be believed, Britain is going to be on some form of lockdown for months. What most people don’t seem to understand is that the massively complex, interdependent nature of the world economy means that switching off large parts of it for an extended period of time is likely to bring the whole system crashing down. I don’t expect infectious disease experts to consider this, but then again, who put them in charge of the world?

Magic money machine

Money MakerThe US is plowing $6 trillion of imaginary money into a faltering economy to blunt the effects of the great WuFlu Panic. For context, that sum is larger than the annual GDP of Japan and way larger than US federal revenue in FY 2019 of $3.5 trillion:

An emergency stimulus package to bail out the US economy amid the coronavirus pandemic will total $6 trillion — a quarter of the entire country’s GDP, the White House said Tuesday.

Trump administration economist Larry Kudlow said the package would include $4 trillion in lending power for the Federal Reserve as well as a $2 trillion aid package currently being hammered out by Congress.

“This package will be the single largest Main Street assistance program in the history of the United States,” Kudlow said at the White House coronavirus task force briefing Tuesday evening.

Included in the package is Congress’ almost $2 trillion emergency bill, which, when passed, will issue direct checks for American families, bailouts for the airline industry and a $350 billion loan program for struggling small businesses.

The other $4 trillion will allow the Federal Reserve to make huge emergency bailouts of whatever entity it chooses — a measure that was used to prop up Wall Street firms from collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.

This raises interesting questions about the nature of money. What does it even mean at this point? What is a dollar actually worth, if the US can just conjure a quarter of its GDP out of thin air? Why even collect taxes? This mega-bailout may stabilize things for a while, but our fake economy seems to be on its last legs.

The backpedaling begins

It’s going to be interesting to observe how the global establishment walks back its panic-mongering regarding the Wuhan Flu, if and when the expected mountains of corpses fail to materialize. Perhaps we will be told that the media-fueled mass hysteria and draconian controls imposed on hundreds of millions of Westerners actually worked at crushing the outbreak.

I’m not sure that explanation will fly, though, given that 1) we have also been told that Western governments acted too late in imposing “lockdowns” on their own citizens, thus practically guaranteeing Wuhan-like outcomes across the US and Europe; 2) the controls have not been nearly draconian enough, as evidenced by the photos of packed subway cars in New York and London and the outraged reports of people going surfing, playing basketball at the park, meeting their friends for board game nights, etc., in defiance of public health guidelines.

Most inconvenient of all is the example of Sweden, which has stubbornly refused to subject its own population to a Chinese-style “lockdown” despite suffering a staggering 77 WuFlu deaths to date:

While the UK has been placed under virtual lockdown, Swedes are enjoying life with the fewest restrictive measures so they can go where they want and do what they want without the threat of police action. Schools for children up to 16 remain open and commuter trains continue to be jam-packed with workers on a daily basis. Stockholm argues life must go on despite the worrying increases in the death toll as the global pandemic continues to spread.

Johan Carlson, head of Sweden’s public health agency, last week said the country “cannot take draconian measures that have a limited impact on the epidemic but knock out the functions of society”.

In any case, the tide may already be starting to turn:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that his stay-at-home order for the entirety of New York State was “probably not the best public health strategy.”

In a press conference in Albany, Cuomo said the smartest way forward would be a public health strategy that complemented a “get-back-to-work strategy.”

“What we did was we closed everything down. That was our public health strategy. Just close everything, all businesses, old workers, young people, old people, short people, tall people,” said Cuomo. “Every school closed, everything.”

“If you rethought that or had time to analyze that public health strategy, I don’t know that you would say quarantine everyone,” Cuomo admitted. “I don’t even know that that was the best public health policy. Young people then quarantined with older people was probably not the best public health strategy because the younger people could have been exposing the older people to an infection. “

Cuomo stressed the need for both public health and economic growth. “We have to do both,” said the governor. “We’re working on it.”

Funny, it was on Wednesday that I asked the following question:

Have mass “lockdowns” ever been demonstrated to successfully contain a viral epidemic, outside of Communist China, which has a track record of lying about the current outbreak?

Does the governor of New York read my blog? See, while it may seem “obvious” that confining people to their homes is an effective way of curbing an epidemic, the fact is that you don’t know that anything works until you try it in the real world. In this case, the observation that a virus spreads through human interaction does not mean that mass lockdowns will contain the outbreak, let alone produce a better public health outcome than a scalpel approach to identifying and isolating the sick. Cuomo, who has presumably discussed this issue with health officials, raises what seems like a very good point here.

In related news, a British scientist whose terrifying predictions were instrumental in shaping UK and US policy, has changed his tune a bit:

The UK should now be able to cope with the spread of the covid-19 virus, according to one of the epidemiologists advising the government.

Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London gave evidence today to the UK’s parliamentary select committee on science and technology as part of an inquiry into the nation’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

He said that expected increases in National Health Service capacity and ongoing restrictions to people’s movements make him “reasonably confident” the health service can cope when the predicted peak of the epidemic arrives in two or three weeks. UK deaths from the disease are now unlikely to exceed 20,000, he said, and could be much lower.

The need for intensive care beds will get very close to capacity in some areas, but won’t be breached at a national level, said Ferguson. The projections are based on computer simulations of the virus spreading, which take into account the properties of the virus, the reduced transmission between people asked to stay at home and the capacity of hospitals, particularly intensive care units.

Here is Ferguson’s explanation of why the simulations, which previously scared the shit out of Britain and the world by predicting up to 500,000 deaths in the UK, are now projecting less than 20,000 deaths. Judge it for yourself. I suspect we’re going to be seeing a lot more of these types of explanations and clarifications over the coming weeks.

UPDATE: Moving this section to the end of the post, as I thought this editorial co-authored by Anthony Fauci was new (March 26), but in reality it was originally published Feb 28. It is still of interest:

If one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases, the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%. This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968) rather than a disease similar to SARS or MERS, which have had case fatality rates of 9 to 10% and 36%, respectively.

A pandemic similar to the “Asian flu of 1957” and the “Hong Kong flu of 1968” – which killed an estimated 116,000 people and 100,000 people in the US, respectively – certainly sounds better than the doomsday virus that was supposed to kill millions of Americans. This of course raises the question of whether a relatively normal Asian viral pandemic is scary enough to justify the “emergency” imposition of martial law on whole states and countries, and the cascading economic failure and collapse that will surely accompany it.

House arrest

Now that politicians, health officials and their media mouthpieces have successfully terrified and demoralized the American public into accepting draconian curbs on their personal and economic freedom that were almost unthinkable two weeks ago, several questions come to mind.

1) What, precisely, do Western governments know about this virus and its characteristics that the public doesn’t know? When are we going to find out?

2) Is it possible that the actual coronavirus death toll in China is not <3,300, but in fact closer to 30,000, 300,000, or 3 million, and that China has successfully covered this up? If so, are Western governments aware of the truth about happened in China? If they are, why are they not informing the public? If they are not, why are they reacting to the virus as if the true death toll is orders of magnitude larger than it is reported to be?

3) What is the logical connection between a relatively normal respiratory virus, and the forced closure of thousands of businesses including restaurants, bars, beaches, parks, hair salons, etc. across roughly half of America? Why am I seemingly the only person who is unable to understand the justification for this no matter how many times it is explained to me?

4) Have mass “lockdowns” ever been demonstrated to successfully contain a viral epidemic, outside of Communist China, which has a track record of lying about the current outbreak?

5) Does the US have a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all inbound travelers, given the existential threat posed by the virus? If not, why not? Are any public figures calling for such a measure? Again: if not, why not?

6) Are there plans to distribute facemasks to urban residents and require them to be worn in public, given the existential threat posed by the virus? If not, why not? Are any public figures calling for such a measure? Again: if not, why not?

7) Will there be severe consequences for public figures who incited panic and hysteria by making frightening claims about the virus, if those predictions do not come to pass?

8) If the threat of coronavirus warrants mass business closures and stay-at-home orders affecting 100 million Americans, will this process of powering down large swaths of the nation by government edict be repeated every time a virus kills a thousand people? If so, how many times can this process be repeated before the US is reduced to a pre-industrial state?

9) What are the public health consequences of depriving senior citizens of social interactions and hobbies that make life worth living? Have these been considered by the authorities that have seized unprecedented powers over our daily lives?

10) Is the economy a public health issue? How will the US pay for its $3.6 trillion health care sector during a deep economic depression?

11) If it is true that “We will not put a dollar figure on human life” and “We will fight to save every life we can,” as the governor of New York put it, what possible justification can there be for allowing motor vehicles to kill some 37,000 people in the US each year? Is any public figure calling for a nationwide ban on cars? If not, why not?

For reference:

About half of U.S. states have imposed lockdown measures restricting gathering and social contact, disrupting the lives of more than 100 million people and suspending the operations of thousands of businesses.

No state has completely walled off their residents from the outside. Generally, people are free to leave their homes to obtain food, supplies and medical care or to get exercise or care for loved ones. The rapidly drafted executive orders also exempt millions of jobs and services deemed too essential to shut down.

Some measures were more drastic than others. California Gov. Gavin Newsom effectively made it a crime to socialize outside the home, while New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s measures are more advisory than mandatory.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s lockdown came closest to quarantining the elderly and sick populations. And some leaders like New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy wrote in broad protections for political and religious activity.

States have vowed to ensure compliance with the lockdowns, but it is unclear whether any of them can or will effectively enforce their mandates.

The great heist

Written on March 21, but still relevant. Certain, shall we say, powerful lobbies are determined not to let a manufactured panic go to waste…

1. Here’s a list of what’s been floated, either publicly or privately, for the #CoronavirusCoup. I am told that Pelosi will take whatever McConnell negotiates in the Senate on the corporate side. $50 billion for airlines. $150 billion for anyone Mnuchin wants, likely Boeing.
2. Speeding up of payments to defense contractors. Lifting of Other Transaction Authority caps for the Pentagon to shovel money to defense contractors without restrictions. Transdigm likes to use this one. washingtonpost.com/business/2019/…
3. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezo want “$5 billion in grants or loans to keep commercial space company employees on the job and launch facilities open.” They also want the IRS to give them cash for R&D tax credits.
4. “The hotel industry wants $150 billion. The restaurant industry wants $145 billion. The National Association of Manufacturers wants $1.4 trillion. The International Council of Shopping Centers wants a guarantee of up to $1 trillion.”
Congress is working on a massive coronavirus relief package — it might not be enough for businesses
“The bailout requests are mind-boggling,” said Dennis Kelleher, chief executive of advocacy group Better Markets. “And it’s going to be a matter of whose going to win and who’s going to lose.”
https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/21/coronavirus-1-trillion-rescue-package-might-not-be-enough-for-businesses.html
5. “Adidas is seeking support for a long-sought provision allowing people to use pretax money to pay for gym memberships and fitness equipment.”
Coronavirus Stimulus Package Spurs a Lobbying Gold Rush
Some industries are in dire need of a bailout. Others see a rare chance to win special breaks at a moment when the fiscal spigots are open.

6. Big meatpackers want expedited visas for seasonal workers. nppc.org/wp-content/upl…
7. Here’s one GOP lobbyist. “Any time there is a crisis and Washington is in the middle of it is an opportunity for guys like me.”
K Street Gets Ready to Feast on Coronavirus Stimulus
More than a trillion dollars is on the table, and terrified lobbyists—and the buckling industries they represent—are gonna want theirs.
https://www.thedailybeast.com/k-street-lobbyists-get-ready-to-feast-on-coronavirus-stimulus
8. Importers are rushing to get rid of duties paid by those found guilty of dumping. app.emarketeer.com/a/plink/row/v1…
9. Beer industry wants $5B. Candy industry wants $500M. And on. And on. And on. There will be more.
Beer industry calls for $5 billion in federal assistance
The Beer Institute and other alcohol beverage producers’ groups wrote to congressional leadership to ask for a stabilization fund of $5 billion to provide cash advances to their businesses in order t…
https://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/business-a-lobbying/488541-beer-industry-calls-for-5-billion-in-federal
10. McConnell wants big business to rule. So he is refusing aid to normal people, and the Dems are negotiating with him to try to get unemployment assistance and social welfare. He knows Dems won’t pay attention to corporate bailouts if he takes the public hostage.
11. Pelosi will cave on all of this, because the moderate Democrats want her to govern this way. “We have to do something!” they will say. The only hope is a bipartisan coalition of skeptics, people like @AOC and @MikeforWI coming together to say NO #corporatecoup.
12. We have to support industry in a moment of crisis. But the key here is the conditions, and what is likely to happen by allowing Mnuchin to set the terms of all aid is a consolidation of power in the hands of a few. No more small business. America will be unrecognizable.
13. I put this thread into a blog post.
Stop the Coronavirus Corporate Coup
Hi, Welcome to BIG, a newsletter about the politics of monopoly. This is a special edition. I need you to take this newsletter and repost it, forward it, and contact anyone you know in politics. Here…
https://mattstoller.substack.com/p/stop-the-coronavirus-corporate-coup
14. Take this blog post, repost it, forward it, whatever. We need to stop the opportunistic power grab. Bailouts can wait, we need aid to the people. Rent is coming due at the end of the month, but I can assure you Boeing will be fine for awhile.

Econopocalypse

Who could have predicted that stopping a $21 trillion economy in its tracks for months on end would bring about a crisis comparable to the Great Depression?

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard predicted the U.S. unemployment rate may hit 30% in the second quarter because of shutdowns to combat the coronavirus, with an unprecedented 50% drop in gross domestic product.

Bullard called for a powerful fiscal response to replace the $2.5 trillion in lost income that quarter to ensure a strong eventual U.S. recovery, adding the Fed would be poised to do more to ensure markets function during a period of high volatility.

Note that this unemployment rate would exceed the peak of 24.9% reached in 1933.

At least giant retailers like Amazon and Walmart are still hiring – indeed, they are planning to add hundreds of thousands of workers to keep up with soaring demand, while small businesses get brutalized.

Some 80 million Americans are living under a near-lockdown that Mnuchin says could last for 10 to 12 weeks. Cuomo is suggesting that the New York lockdown could continue for up to nine months.

Common-sense measures to slow the spread of the virus, like a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all inbound travelers to the US and the wearing of facemasks in public, are apparently not even being discussed, while crazy, anti-social, panic-inducing, economy-killing actions are instead being taken that have transformed daily life more than any single event since World War II. These draconian measures are being imposed in the name of health and safety, but nobody seems to have run an analysis on the public health costs of tanking the economy and effectively confining a quarter of the population to their homes.

Peter Hitchens isn’t falling for this destructive insanity in his home country of Britain.

Then and now

This review of the public health response to the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 in the US and Europe is interesting both for its similarities and differences to the current situation. Worth nothing is the highly varied and localized approach, and the absence of mass lockdowns, “shelter-in-place” orders and demands to shut down all commerce and social life indefinitely:

The public health authorities in both the United States and Europe took up fundamental measures to control epidemics that dated back to Medieval times of the Bubonic Plague. They aimed to reduce the transmission of the pathogen by preventing contact. They framed their public health orders in scientific ideas of their understanding of how the influenza microbe spread through the air by coughing and sneezing, and their conception of the pathogenesis of influenza. Since they concluded that the pathogen was transmitted through the air, efforts to control contagion were organized to prevent those infected from sharing the same air as the uninfected. Public gatherings and the coming together of people in close quarters was seen as a potential agency for the transmission of the disease. The public health authorities believed that good ventilation and fresh air were “the best of all general measures for prevention, and this implies the avoidance of crowded meetings,” (BMJ, 10/19/1918). This translated into the controversial and imperative measure of closing of many public institutions and banning of public gatherings during the time of an epidemic.

The rigidity of these regulations varied immensely with the power of the local health departments and severity of the influenza outbreak. In the United States, the Committee of the American Public Health Association ( APHA) issued measures in a report to limit large gatherings. The committee held that any type of gathering of people, with the mixing of bodies and sharing of breath in crowded rooms, was dangerous. Nonessential meetings were to be prohibited. They determined that saloons, dance halls, and cinemas should be closed and public funerals should be prohibited since they were unnecessary assemblies. Churches were allowed to remain open, but the committee believed that only the minimum services should be conducted and the intimacy reduced. Street cars were thought to be a special menace to society with poor ventilation, crowding and uncleanliness. The committee encouraged the staggering of opening and closing hours in stores and factories to prevent overcrowding and for people to walk to work when possible (JAMA, 12/21/1918). Some of the regulations in Britain were milder, such as limiting music hall performances to less than three consecutive hours and allowing a half-hour for ventilation between shows (BMJ, 11/30/1918). In Switzerland, theaters, cinemas, concerts and shooting matches were all suspended when the epidemic struck, which led to a state of panic (BMJ, 10/19/1918). This variation in response was most likely due to differences in authority of the public health agencies and societal acceptance of their measures as necessary. This necessitated a shared belief in the concept of contagion and some faith in the actions of science to allow them to overcome this plague.

The most frequently discussed and debated public health measure in the journals of the period was the closure of the schools. In Britain the prevalence of the epidemic led to the closure of the public elementary schools (BMJ, 11/30/1918). In France, students with any symptoms and their siblings were to be excluded from school. If three fourths of the students were absent then the whole class was to be dismissed for 15 days (JAMA, 12/7/1918). Some believed closing schools to be a useful measure to control infection but complained that it often occurred too late, after most students and teachers were sick (BMJ, 10/19/1918). In the United States, school closure was not as widely accepted. One article in JAMA said that, “the desirability of closing schools in a large city in the presence of an epidemic is a measure of doubtful value,” (10/5/1918). The APHA Committee debated its value too, questioning the effectiveness against the loss of educational standards. Generally, school closure was thought to be less effective in large urban metropolises than in rural centers where the school represented the point of dissemination of the infectious agent. The closing of schools and other public institutions as public health regulations to reduce the epidemic was not universally accepted. One editorial in the BMJ states that “every town-dweller who is susceptible must sooner or later contract influenza whatever the public health authorities may do; and that the more schools and public meetings are banned and the general life of the community dislocated the greater will be the unemployment and depression,” (12/21/1918).

Related – the jobs Armageddon has begun:

The state of play: Goldman Sachs predicts that more than 2 million Americans will file for unemployment claims by next week, pointing to “an unprecedented surge in layoffs this week.” […]

“We expect a total of approximately 3.5 million jobs will be lost,” BofA strategists said in a note to clients before the release of the Labor Department’s initial jobless claims report.

California is closed

Escape from L.A.America’s CPC-approved phased lockdown/economic self-immolation continues, with the most populous state in the Union ordering all its residents to huddle at home for an indefinite period of time:

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday ordered California’s nearly 40 million residents to stay home, making it the first state to impose that strict mandate on all residents to counteract a looming surge of new infections.

The order takes effect immediately and remains in place “until further notice.” Californians are not allowed to leave home except for essential purposes. They are allowed to purchase groceries, prescriptions and health care, as well as commute to jobs deemed essential.

The governor’s order comes with misdemeanor penalties for anyone who violates the restrictions, though he said he believes social pressure will keep people home rather than law enforcement.

“There’s a social contract here,” Newsom said. “People, I think, recognize the need to do more and meet his moment.”

Newsom said the order has to remain in effect indefinitely. He has repeatedly said the next eight weeks are crucial to bend the curve and stop the rapid contagion. He also said, however, that he does not expect the order to last “many, many months.”

Newsom invoked some worst-case-scenario estimates, of the type being hysterically pushed on social media, to explain why the Golden State needs to be turned into an open-air prison camp:

The measures are intended both to shield vulnerable residents and to maintain California’s health care systems’ capacity to handle an influx of new patients. Earlier in the day, Newsom laid out a grim scenario if California does not respond decisively: 56 percent of the state’s residents, or some 22 million people, could contract the virus in the next eight weeks.

Newsom’s office clarified that figure did not account for the sweeping mitigation efforts California has imposed, making it a kind of worst-case scenario. But it nevertheless communicated the dire stakes.

“It’s for their own health”:

A nationwide lockdown is most likely coming and you need to be preparing for this RIGHT NOW:

Whether you are reading this in your living room in Vancouver, office in London, or on a subway in New York City, you need to think hard, and fast, about two crucial questions: Where, and with whom, do you want to spend the next six to 12 weeks of your life, hunkered down for the epidemic duration? And what can you do to make that place as safe as possible for yourself and those around you?

Your time to answer those questions is very short—a few days, at most. Airports will close, trains will shut down, gasoline supplies may dwindle, and roadblocks may be set up. Nations are closing their borders, and as the numbers of sick rise, towns, suburbs, even entire counties will try to shut the virus out by blocking travel. Wherever you decide to settle down this week is likely to be the place in which you will be stuck for the duration of your epidemic.