March 27, 2020
Author: Ralph Berry
A expert is one who disagrees with other experts. In the law courts, an expert witness is paid to cast severe doubt on the evidence of another expert. The Government has placed its faith, and the way the nation deals with COVID-19, with the two top medicos whose lugubrious features and message appear daily on TV. We can just hope that they got it right.
There are other experts. Here is one. Professor Sucharit Bhakdu is Head of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. He regards the current response to COVID-19 as ‘grotesque, absurd and very dangerous.’ Of the headline deaths, which he refers to as ‘apparent mortality rates’, his main point is: ‘When patients concurrently have other illnesses, an infectious agent must not be held solely responsible for a lethal outcome. This happens for COVID-19 but such a conclusion is false and gives rise to the danger that other important factors are overlooked. Different mortality rates may well be due to different local situations.’ He cites Lombardy, where the industrial centre is Milan and the air pollution rate the worst in Europe. ‘Every day in Germany 2,200 over 65 die.’ Say that 22 people a day die (which is too low a figure). They are now counted as COVID-19 deaths. But Germany reports 10,000 infections, of whom 99.5% have no or only mild symptoms. ‘They are not seriously ill. “Infection” is not identical with “disease”.’ Professor Bhakdu ends with ‘the horrifying impact’ of current policies on our whole society, and its capacity for medical care.
Another expert is Professor Neil Ferguson, of the Faculty of Medicine in Imperial College. He has been enormously influential in shaping the Government’s reaction to the crisis. He is now reported (Daily Telegraph, 26 March) as having told the Select Committee of the Commons that as many as two thirds of the people who will die from coronavirus in the next nine months would most likely have died this year from other causes. ‘We don’t know what the level of excess deaths will be in the epidemic, in that, by the end of the year what proportion of people who have died from Covid-19 would have died…These are people at the end of their lives or have underlying conditions. Fatalities are probably unlikely to exceed 20,000 with social distancing strategies, but it could be substantially lower than that.’
So much for the doom-laden predictions of the experts who foregather in Imperial College and see only a disaster of Biblical proportions. Put at its simplest, old people are going to have problems anyway. Blaming them all on COVID-19 is scaremongering masquerading as science.
And here’s another kind of expert: Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England. His crisp assessment is this: ‘The Government has decided to contract the economy. It is now the purchaser of last resort.’ The economic morass into which Britain is plunged is having already a devastating effect on the economy. As seen by a Telegraph columnist, ‘the Government has decided to trash the economy rather than expose itself to political criticism.’ So Britain is immured in the extravagances of self-isolation and social distancing. Yesterday I was prevented from entering a Tesco Express store, which would admit only one shopper at a time.
It is not even as though these measures are universally accepted. In Sweden, pubs, bars, and restaurants are still open. The authorities presumably believe that the savage prices of liquor will do the work of social discipline. In neighbouring Denmark, Hamlet had reckoned that heavy drinking gave the nation a bad name: ‘They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase soil our addition.’ Hence the brutal taxes on liquor, which however seem not to discourage Scandinavians. If the Swedes can enjoy the benefits of social conviviality, with huge gains in social morale, why not the British? President Trump believes that the cure may be worse than the disease, and is prepared for Americans to debate the trade-offs between livelihoods and lives. That debate is the arena for the clash of experts.