Coronavirus: We’re paying for an epidemic of stupidity.
By STEVE WATERSON
Back in the good old days, the average person used to take pride in having a robust grasp of basic maths: enough mental arithmetic not to be overcharged at the shops, enough skill with pen and paper to make more complex calculations.
Not anymore, it seems. Many of our finest minds are infected with a new innumeracy that, in today’s fevered environment, distorts our understanding of, and response to, the coronavirus threat.
In early April, as the disease was just beginning to bite, the team manning the ABC’s coronavirus news website promised to answer questions about the pandemic.
When a reader asked for help in interpreting some infection-rate statistics, it provoked a cheerful response, broadcast to the world: “This just sparked a heated newsroom discussion in which we all outed ourselves as being terrible at maths.” You don’t say.
They’re only — some might say barely — journalists, however. They don’t need the mastery of figures that our leaders display so magnificently. So for a moment of light relief, let’s examine the numbers that currently unnerve them. If we cancelled Victoria’s lockdown immediately, and its cases were permitted to grow at 1000 a day, the whole state
would be infected in no time. By “no time”, of course, I mean 18 years. No wonder they’re frightened: at that rate it could sweep through the entire country in little more than 70 years. Luckily, in recent times we have been adding 1000 people to our population every day. Phew. Dodged a bullet there.
Worldwide, excess deaths from COVID-19 (generously assuming every victim died from, rather than just with, the virus) are around 700,000. Given the roughly 60 million deaths the world records each year, it’s as though 2020 had 369 days in it, rather than 366.
If that thought chills you, congratulations! A lavishly pensioned, undemanding and unaccountable career in politics beckons.
The ultimate showcase of political innumeracy is the quasi-religious ritual of The Reading of the Cases. Witnessed and recorded by the faithful in the media (who love to have their work handed to them on a plate), it has become a farce within this bigger farce. The sombre, priestly arch-buffoon blesses reporters with fodder for their blog updates, sprinkling them with numbers that look like information but withstand no scrutiny.
Cases, as a moment’s reflection reveals, do not equal sickness, much less hospitalisations. Until we are entrusted with the knowledge of how many are the results of tests on people who show no symptoms, they serve only to strike terror into the innumerate.
Indeed, why do we need to hear these figures at all? We don’t get daily updates for any other diseases. They serve no useful purpose, as we are not given sufficient detail to make our own assessment of their significance, decide on the level of risk they represent and tailor our activities accordingly.
Their primary purpose seems to be to post-rationalise our leaders’ devastating, simple-minded lockdowns and border closures, and to panic people into sporting their masks of obedience should they be sufficiently reckless as to leave their homes.
Perhaps the announcements, if they must continue, could give us real information: “There have been 637 new cases today, but happily, 480 were young people who had no symptoms and didn’t know they’d been infected. Oh, and only two of today’s cases were serious enough to need to go to hospital.”
Maybe for context they could dilute their irresponsible scaremongering by including details of the other 450 people who die in Australia each day, including the victims of lockdown: the suicides and those who, too frightened to visit a doctor or hospital, are dying avoidable deaths through lack of screening and treatment (Britain anticipates as many as 35,000 extra deaths in the next year from cancer sufferers presenting late with correspondingly advanced tumours); and the people tumbling into despair, depression and other mental and physical illnesses.
Perhaps the premier could hand over to the state’s treasurer, who would read out the number added daily to the jobless lists, the businesses forced into bankruptcy, the mortgages foreclosed.
Then someone from social services could talk about the growth in homelessness, the “huge increase” in domestic violence reported by victim support groups, the marriage breakdowns.
But they won’t because of a mathematical and behavioural curiosity we’re all familiar with, if not by name: the sunk costs fallacy.
Imagine that last month you bought a ticket for a concert tonight. You’re tired, it’s pouring with rain, and you dread dragging yourself into town. The money’s gone whatever you decide, so logic says you should cut your losses and stay in, but instead you pull on your raincoat and call a taxi. The urge is irrational but almost irresistible. The whole vile pokies industry is built on it.
Now imagine how much harder to alter the course if your investment was enormous and everyone was watching, poised to ridicule you for changing your mind.
Here’s where our politicians find themselves, unable to admit their response to the virus — the ultimate blunt instrument of lockdown, brutally enforced — hasn’t worked, and will never work.
They can’t do so because it would mean all they have done up to this point has been in vain. How could anyone who had wreaked damage on this cataclysmic scale ever admit to themselves, let alone to the nation, that it was all for nothing? Instead, like the pokie addict, they have doubled down to unleash a runaway epidemic of stupidity. They’ve destroyed our economy and put thousands out of work; they’ve refashioned many of our famously easygoing population into masked informers; and we’ve handed control of our lives to a clown car packed with idiots.
If there is a clearer demonstration of the insidious overreach of the nanny state, infantilising and sinister, and the shameful acquiescence of its legions of time-serving bureaucrats, I’m not aware of it.
What’s more insulting, each day we are chastised for “disappointing” our leaders, as though they are our superiors and it is the citizens’ duty to please them. The infected are singled out, vilified and shamed as sinners, their scandalous movements — three pubs on a Saturday night! — tracked and condemned. It recalls the attitude towards AIDS victims in the 1980s, a divine judgment visited on wicked libertines.
But attempt to argue that the cost of our response has in any way outweighed the impact of the virus and expect to be labelled a virus denier. Then expect to be asked, accusingly, how many deaths you would find acceptable. No matter how often or how emphatically you declare “We should protect the vulnerable”, some will hear those words as “Let’s throw the old people to the wolves”.
On April 4 in these pages, I wondered when life moved from being precious to priceless. An exaggeration, but more than four months on we’ve set the opening bid pretty high. Turn the question around and ask what we are prepared to pay to protect the elderly with comorbidities. Let’s assume we’d let the disease run its course, as Sweden did, and had suffered the same death rate. We might have lost 10,000 of the old and sick earlier than in a normal year. We’ve kept that figure down, but at what cost?
On this week’s numbers, our governments have spent more than $220bn and put 750,000 people out of work; some of that burden would have been incurred whatever path we had followed, but most of it is self-imposed.
Is it callous to suggest that’s too high a price to prolong what in some cases were lives of no great joy? What good might we have done with just a fraction of that $220bn, artfully applied? Would it not have been far better to spend a smaller, but still significant, sum on protecting and caring for the vulnerable and elderly to the very best of our abilities, and then, crucially, offering them the choice whether to accept that care?
We could allow them, like sentient adults, to make a simple calculation: Do I live a little longer in safe but miserable isolation, or do I spend my remaining days at some risk but embraced by the warmth of family and friends?
That’s not a decision for any politician, even a wise one, to make. It’s a matter of choice for the individual, or, if incapacitated, for those responsible for them.
Governments don’t exist to tell us how or when we can die; but if life is measured only by length, not quality, this is where we end up: imprisoned, supposedly for our own good, on the basis of flawed statistical modelling and even worse interpretations of that modelling.
Undismayed by the models’ failure to predict the future when the virus first appeared, self-styled experts have now contorted their fears into absurd, illogical predictions of a parallel present: if we hadn’t acted as we did, they say, then tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands more would have died. How can anyone possibly know?
As the statistics, and yes, bodies, pile up around the world, we are getting a clearer picture of the virus’s course and virulence, and the more data we have, the more similar the curves appear. If we accept Australians are not exceptional in their resistance to disease, then it appears we have some heartbreak ahead of us, no matter how hard we try to avoid it.
New Zealand is lauded as the perfect example of how to crush the virus, but would anyone be surprised if it too has to pay the price somewhere down the line? Four new cases locked down the 1.6 million inhabitants of Auckland this week in a monstrously excessive overreaction that would be comical were it not so destructive.
Meanwhile, the rest of New Zealand has shut down so completely it has effectively removed itself as a nation from the international community. It’s as though the country had never existed. Soon it will be reduced to a fading Cheshire Cat image of its Prime Minister’s saintly sad face.
Let’s hope for the Kiwis’, and everyone else’s, sake a vaccine is found soon, although the World Health Organisation now warns we may never have one. It’s a tired line to repeat, but even after 40-odd years of searching, we don’t have one for HIV-AIDS.
Which, if anyone needs reminding, still kills 2600 people a day.