Rosemary Frei, MSc, molecular biology; medical journalist for 22 years and now an investigative journalist
- Death rates in China, Italy, South Korea from COVID are in the range of only 0.002% to 0.025% of the population.
- Data being gathered about numbers of cases and deaths are severely lacking in quantity and quality. In addition the numbers that are available appear to be inflated by influential groups and websites, and then echoed by media.
- The draconian measures being put in place for reducing COVID spread such as stringent ‘social distancing’ requirements combined with fines up to $100,000 for people who violate them, and also lock-downs in place for billions of people, are not evidence-based.
- The societal and economic costs of these measures vastly outweigh their benefits to the population.
Once an old, wise man was sitting under a tree when the epidemic god came along. The wise man asked him, “Where are you going?” The god of epidemic replied, “I’m going to the city and I’m going to kill a hundred people there.” On his return journey, the god of epidemic came back to the wise man. The wise man said to him, “You told me that you wanted to kill a hundred people. But travellers told me that ten thousand had died.” The epidemic god said, “I only killed a hundred. The others were killed by their own fear.”
– Zen Buddhist allegory
In very quick succession countries around the world have been closing for business and billions of people’s lives severely disrupted, all because of fear of COVID-19.
Governments are spending trillions of dollars to try and restore their economies. Yet in Canada, at least, financial institutions — which are receiving the lion’s share of this emergency funding — aren’t required in return by the federal government to temporarily forgive payments from the hundreds of thousands if not millions of mortgage holders and small- and medium-sized businesses needing immediate relief. Instead banks only are offering payment deferment. Canadian banks also are not required to drop interest rates on their credit cards.
And renters must still pay their rent on time.
In addition, the federal government closed Service Canada centres as of March 28. That means the millions of new Employment Insurance applicants and previous recipients, along with those using Old Age Security — all of whom are the most vulnerable members of society and many of whom do not have internet access – have to use online portals or the phone.
Another notable gap is that media outlets have been left out of the emergency funding. (Also, tens of thousands of people in Ontario and Quebec are about to be hit with a double whammy of spring flooding from Lakes Erie and Ontario combined with COVID-related social distancing making sandbagging efforts much more complicated and time-consuming. Yet no individuals or municipalities who are at significant risk of high losses to property have received any provincial disaster-relief funds.)
Making the overall situation even worse is a dizzying array of inaccurate information – and it’s coming from health authorities and politicians. (And also from scientists: for example, the March 16 Imperial College of London paper lauded by politicians and the mainstream press as proving that ‘suppression’ – i.e., extreme social distancing measures such as lock-downs – is effective in significantly reducing COVID mortality rate and may have to remain in effect for 18 months – and which convinced U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson to proceed with the lock-down of the entire U.K. — is patently biased. Here is one of several searing critiques of it.)
That inaccurate information includes very weak evidence for the effectiveness of the most stringent measures being used in the war on COVID, such as social distancing. Yet politicians and public-health professionals claim such distancing is highly effective and evidence-based (without offering any proof of this) and impose heavy fines for not maintaining it.
Dr. Joel Kettner, a former Manitoba Chief Provincial Public Health Officer, called CBC Radio’s Cross-Country Checkup on March 22 to express his alarm over the situation.
“In thirty years of public-health medicine I have never seen anything … anywhere near like this. And I’m not talking about the pandemic, because I’ve seen 30 of them, one every year — it’s called influenza and other respiratory-illness viruses that we don’t always know what they are. But I’ve never seen this reaction. And I’m trying to understand why,” said Dr. Kettner, associate professor of Community Health Sciences and Surgery at the University of Manitoba, former Chief Provincial Public Health Officer for Manitoba and former Medical Director of the International Centre for Infectious Diseases.
He said sequestering vast portions of the population, a measure with severe mental- and physical-health effects, is an extreme measure to take when there’s so little proof it works.
“We actually do not have that much good evidence for these social-distancing methods,” said Dr. Kettner. “It was just a couple of reviews in the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, which showed that although some of them might work, we don’t really know to what degree, and the evidence is pretty weak.”
He pointed also to the striking lack of solid data about such things as: how contagious COVID is; verified numbers of cases and deaths from COVID; and whether each death attributed to the virus is actually caused by the virus or instead by a serious disease the person had before contracting COVID.
(An example I discovered of inaccurate numbers is stats on deaths to date in Italy: the Italian COVID research group — which is the on-the-ground group in Italy directly collecting information about COVID in their country — recorded 5,542 total deaths in Italy to March 24, while the European CDC has the tally to March 24 as 6,077 and Wikipedia records it as 6,820. And the gap keeps growing: as of March 26 the Italian group reported 6,801 total deaths, the European CDC 7,505 and Wikipedia 8,165.)
(And an example of lack of data comes from a question a reporter asked during the March 28, 2020, press conference for Ontario’s chief public-health officials [these are held daily, as are the press conferences for: the City of Toronto’s mayor, Toronto Medical Officer of Health and other city officials such as the fire chief and city manager; the premier; and the prime minister; similarly, local officials give press conferences across the country]. The reporter asked, “What is the recovery rate for people who go into ICU?” [i.e., what percentage of people who are in ICU for COVID recover from it?] Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams responded, “Good question. We know some have recovered from ICU and venting. Our number there is still small, but that would be a good one to collect or understand as we go forward.” In other words, they’re still not collecting that data.)
Dr. Kettner said pronouncements from the World Health Organization (WHO) that COVID is a very grave threat and that countries’ inaction is significantly increasing its danger put immense pressure on public-health physicians and politicians to impose extreme measures very rapidly.
As a result, there has been a rapid-fire series of laws around the world that constrict billions of people’s movements, violating their civil liberties in the process. This is despite the fact that death rates in China, Italy, South Korea and other countries from COVID are in the range of only 0.002% to 0.025% of the population (see the ‘Fact Check’ section below).
The vast majority of North Americans appear to be very willing to comply with these very strict new laws. They trust the WHO, politicians, local officials and media, virtually all of whom amplify the message that millions will die from COVID if these directives aren’t followed to the letter.
For example, in a March 26 news conference Toronto Mayor John Tory said that maintaining social distancing is “a matter of life or death.” And a commentary in the Globe and Mail said that “human touch literally kills.”
While it’s true that COVID can be dangerous — just like any other pathogen can be — and very contagious, rather than mass isolation of billions of people combined with drastic violations of civil liberties and destruction of the global economy, only the most at-risk people and their close associates should be isolated. In addition, public-health authorities need to collect much better data and provide full disclosure of the state of their knowledge so that we have the information needed to make truly evidence-based decisions.
Rapidly Escalating Restrictions in Ontario and the Rest of Canada
(*A detailed listing of restrictive measures is in the appendix at the end of this article.)
On March 11 the WHO declared a COVID pandemic.
On March 12 Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced all public schools in the province would be closed for two weeks immediately following March Break. (The closures have since been extended.)
Courts across Canada have stopped hearing cases – for example, on March 12 all upcoming jury trials in Ontario were suspended. In addition, jails across the country are not allowing visitors or volunteers. And many guards aren’t going to work; as a result, large numbers of inmates are crammed three to a cell and on lock-down 24/7. The province is giving at least one apparent nod to the in-humaneness of this: people serving sentences on weekends have been granted a temporary absence from custody.
The Trudeau administration also has moved very fast (including not ruling out cellphone surveillance to track people who are in close proximity to each other). Federal Bill C-13 passed unanimously on the morning of March 25 gives the finance minister the unilateral power to spend “all money required to do anything in relation to that public health event of national concern.” This new power extends until September 30, 2020.
(The federal Liberals originally pushed to be able to both spend and tax unilaterally for the next 21 months; they backed down under intense opposition from the other parties and Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux. Giroux is quoted in the Globe as saying, “The draft legislation … seeks to circumvent parliament, for both spending and tax, by granting extraordinary powers to cabinet and individual ministers.”)
Also on March 25 the federal government made it mandatory that people coming back to Canada self-isolate for 14 days or face fines of up to $750,000 and/or six months in prison. (An exception is “certain persons who cross the border regularly to ensure the continued flow of goods and services, and those who provide essential services.”) Those who subsequently develop symptoms are prohibited from using public transport to travel to where they’re going to self-isolate and they also can’t isolate in a place where they will be in contact with vulnerable people.
Meanwhile all levels of government across the country, together with public-health authorities and medical facilities, are very rapidly ramping up their focus on COVID. Within the next day or two Ontario alone will reach the target of testing 5,000 people per day and are aiming to reach 19,000 daily next month. Many companies such as auto manufacturers are switching to producing ventilators. And on March 23 the federal government pledged $275 million for “coronavirus research and medical countermeasures” with a primary focus on vaccine development.
The High Toll From the War Against COVID
There’s a long list of devastating social, financial and mental- and physical-health effects of all of this.
All weddings have been cancelled and funerals are now being conducted without attendees. Recreational events of every size, from small concerts to NBA games, are postponed if not cancelled altogether. Even the Tokyo Olympics have been pushed back to next year.
Some hospitals are prohibiting partners of women who give birth to stay longer than two hours after the birth. Emergency departments are turning away people.
Dental clinics and hospitals are only doing emergency procedures. Even some cancer surgeries have been cancelled. All other cases including such things as organ transplants are being delayed. This is to free up ventilators and ICU space in case they’re needed for COVID cases.
There also is an increasingly severe lack of access to health-care professionals because of fear of spread of the virus, and also because many of them are in self-isolation after travelling or testing positive for the virus. In addition, blood banks across the continent have been experiencing severe shortages.
The economic collateral damage from the war against COVID also is unprecedented.
Canada’s Gross Domestic Product is projected to fall by 20% to 30% in the period from April to June. A Canadian Federation of Independent Business survey released March 24 found, among the more than 11,200 businesses that completed the survey, 55% are completely or partially shut down and of the remaining, almost all have laid off staff and/or reduced staff hours, and can’t survive this way much longer.
“We’ve never seen a shock of this magnitude,” Stefane Marion, the National Bank of Canada’s Chief Economist, remarked.
Yet Amazon is thriving. Loblaws and Metro, and American giants Costco and Walmart are also very busy. They are among the main companies people are flocking to for panic buying large quantities of groceries, staples, masks, gloves and cleaning supplies.
Many other very large enterprises also are poised to profit handsomely. For example, in a candid comment about his imminent opportunities to buy other companies, the CEO of Saputo, Canada’s biggest milk producer, said, “Coming into this crisis, some of our competitors were already on very thin ice. Perhaps this might just take them over the edge.”
Experts Speak Out
The starkness of the situation is pushing experts such as Dr. Kettner to go public about the fact that the dangerousness of COVID is being very overblown and that the response is vastly disproportionate.
One example is a March 19 interview of Dr. Sucharit Bhakdi, a high-profile microbiologist from Germany – which, like Canada, the U.S. and a rapidly growing number of other countries, has imposed unprecedented movement and civil-liberty restrictions. He highlighted data showing 99.5% of COVID infections result in either no or only mild symptoms. He called the emergency measures against COVID “grotesque, absurd and very dangerous” and said they “are leading to self-destruction and collective suicide because of nothing but a spook.”
In a March 20 commentary in the New York Times Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Centre in New Haven, Connecticut, called for more-targeted measures to contain COVID.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is pointing to potential Charter violations. For example, they question some of Nova Scotia’s requirements that are part of the province’s state of emergency, such as everyone entering the province being stopped, questioned and ordered to self-isolate for 14 days.
“[R]restrictions on rights and liberties, even in these exceptional circumstances, must be necessary and proportionate,” states a CCLA March 23 letter to Nova Scotia’s minister in charge of this portfolio.
On March 22 Dr. Kettner, who’s had a 30-year career in public medicine, resorted to calling Cross-Country Checkup. He told host Duncan McCue that public-health officials are receiving low-quality data.
“We’re getting very crude numbers of cases and deaths, very little information about testing rates, contagious analysis, severity rates, who’s being hospitalised, who is in intensive care, who is dying, what are the definitions to decide if someone died of the coronavirus or just died with the coronavirus. There is so much important data that is very hard to get, to guide the decisions about how serious a threat is this.”
He also said that public-health doctors and public-health leaders are under “immense pressure” to implement extreme measures very rapidly.
“That pressure’s coming from various places. The first place it came from was the Director-General of the World Health Organization, when he said this [COVID] is a grave threat and public-health enemy number one. I’ve never heard a Director-General of the WHO use terms like that. Then at the announcement of the pandemic, he said he’s doing it because of a grave, alarming, quick spread of the disease, and an alarming amount of inaction around the world.
“That puts a huge pressure on public-health doctors and leaders and advisors, and a huge pressure on governments,” Dr. Kettner emphasized. “And then you get this what seems like a cascade of decision-making that really puts pressure on the countries and governments – provincial, state – to sort of keep up with this action … which is an over-reaction. I don’t know what’s an appropriate action, but I do know that I’m having trouble figuring this out!”
(Dr. Kettner’s reference to the WHO being an extremely powerful player in the war against COVID is easy to corroborate: for example, on March 23 a WHO official called for aggressive action in India against COVID, and just one day later Prime Minister Nordenra Modi ordered a 21-day lock-down of all of India. There were only 482 cases and 10 deaths attributed to COVID as of March 24 in that country, which has 1.4 billion residents.)
McCue challenged Dr. Kettner over another assertion of his (shown at the beginning of this article), that there’s only very slim evidence for the effectiveness of social distancing.
“I understand that there’s probably quite a bit of literature about studying this, but what’s the basis of your concern then: if the social distancing is debatable, in your mind, what do you worry about [regarding] that?” McCue asked.
Dr. Kettner responded by citing some of the most serious consequences, from massive loss of jobs and shortages of healthcare professionals, to people being afraid of physical contact with each other.
He then explained that the risk of death from COVID is very low.
“In … the [Chinese] province of Hubei — where there’s been the most number of cases and deaths, by far [because the city of Wuhan, where the first COVID cases were reported, is in Hubei] — the actual rate of cases reported is one per thousand people. And the actual rate of deaths reported is one per 20,000 people. So maybe that would help people put things in perspective as to the actual rates and risks of this condition, because it’s a lot lower in every other part of the world, including Italy, and certainly in Canada and the United States.”
Another expert pushing back is Dr. John Ionnidis, a physician-scientist at Stanford (who became prominent in 2005 because of his scientific paper proving that most published medical research is false). In a March 17 commentary he cried foul over the lack of a solid evidence base for the drastic measures being taken against COVID spread.
Dr. Ionnidis also urged, in an extract from a Munk-Debate podcast posted March 27 on the National Post website, that it is imperative to very rapidly gather unbiased data. He said this should cause countries to change how they’re dealing with the virus.
“It could be that we need to continue with lock-downs, but it’s very likely that we would quickly need to abandon blind lock-downs and focus instead on protecting the lives of those who are susceptible, such as the elderly and those with severe underlying diseases,” he said. “At the same time, we would be able to allow people who are very low-risk or have already been infected to return back to normal life and not destroy our planet and civilization.”
However, such unbiased data are rare.
Indeed, Globe and Mail health reporter André Picard noted parenthetically in a March 21 article about a CDC COVID study that, “We can’t yet do this kind of detailed analysis in Canada because provincial officials have a strange allergy to transparency and data sharing: in two-thirds of 800-plus cases, we don’t even know the age of the person infected.”
That’s propelled individuals from the general public such as Jutta Mason of Toronto’s Centre for Local Research into Public Space to compile these statistics themselves. Mason is also trying but failing to pry more data out of Ontario’s health officials. For example, officials still aren’t disclosing which hospitalized cases are moderate and which are severe, nor which non-hospitalized cases are asymptomatic, mild or more serious. They also haven’t started tracking the number of patients who recover after being treated in the ICU, as noted earlier in this article.
This all means critical questions are going unanswered. For example, is the fall in death rate in each area – which, like any other infectious-disease outbreak, usually starts within a few weeks of infections first being detected – the result of the virus completing its natural passage through that community or from the mass isolation of the population? We may never know.
Economic, Social and Health Damage from Governments’ Responses
Meanwhile, despite the dearth of answers, countries’ responses to COVID have been the confinement of billions of people to their homes.
In the span of just two weeks a huge proportion of the world’s population has been subjected to loss of their jobs or businesses, along with a significant portion of their life savings from the unprecedentedly rapid market crash. Billions more surely are poised to follow very soon. That’s leaving all of them in very precarious housing and financial situations – and at the same time they’re being deprived of their liberty, fresh air and most other aspects of their normal lives.
These same countries are pouring massive amounts of public funds into the recovery from the carnage.
The Canadian federal government, for example, announced on March 13 that it’s pumping approximately $500 billion into the big banks and is using many other significant monetary, fiscal and regulation-reducing manoeuvres. In the process the country is repeating and expanding serious mistakes made before, during and after the 2008-2009 crash. (Yet a March 21 Globe article dubbed these measures as largely coming “from the policy toolkit developed during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.”) Among other emergency programs coming down the pipelineis a $15-billion bailout for the oil and gas industry that will be announced any day now.
In other major federal moves, on March 18 the Liberals introduced the COVID-19 Economic Response Plan. This includes $52 billion for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for the four million or more people who’ll need help after losing income due the economic disruptions. It also includes $55 billion worth of tax deferrals and more than $10 billion for the new Business Credit Availability Program, which provides financing to struggling businesses. (However, many businesses will not qualify for this program: it only includes businesses that qualified for Business Development Bank of Canada financing prior to the current crisis. It therefore excludes businesses such as gaming operations, nightclubs, bars, pool and billiard halls, and companies “inconsistent with generally accepted community standards of conduct and propriety.” Cannabis growers also appear to be excluded.)
On March 27 the federal government announced another set of measures to help businesses. Two of these are deferral of GST/HST remittances and the launch of the new $25-billion Canada Emergency Business Account in cooperation with Export Development Canada with interest-free loans for small businesses and non-profits. Together with a new loan-guarantee program for small and medium-sized businesses and a new co-lending program for this size of business, these new programs total $65 billion. The announcement also included several measures to defer and/or reduce taxes due by individuals and businesses.
(As a comparator, the economic bailouts of Portugal, Ireland and Greece totalled $350 billion.)
The Bank of Canada is using a wide array of its own tools to flood the market with money. So far, for example, since March 17 it has purchased $851 million worth of Canada Mortgage Bonds to help financial institutions fund residential mortgages. The central bank also significantly loosened the amount of money banks must have on hand as collateral for borrowing. And on March 19 it created the Standing Term Liquid Facility, another vehicle for it to lend very large amounts of money to banks.
“A firefighter has never been criticized for using too much water,” Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz said. (He also dismissed the predictions of a sharp drop in the Gross Domestic Product as merely exercises in “arithmetic.”)
All other levels of governments also are opening their spending spigots.
In Ontario alone, the province’s public-health agency has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the anti-COVID effort.
And the Toronto Transit Commission is losing $18 million a week due to plummeting ridership (yet is maintaining close to normal vehicle frequency). The transit agency will need a very large bailout; yet in a March 26 press conference Mayor Tory waved away concerns about the potential high cost of this, saying “it’s not just about money.”
Meanwhile, none of the governments are publicly asking how they can afford all this. Yet this question is particularly acute in view of the parallel dramatic contracting of the tax base by the wholesale loss of businesses and jobs (and Canadian federal and provincial governments’ penchant for lowering tax rates).
October 2019 Pandemic Simulation With Striking Similarities to COVID
Perhaps a mid-October 2019 meeting of powerful players to hash out how corporations could play a central role in dealing with a novel-coronavirus pandemic sheds light on what’s happening with COVID.
Event 201 in New York City involved a “global pandemic exercise.” Information about the gathering is here and its official videos are here. It was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (more on this foundation below), as well as the World Economic Forum and the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The simulation involves a fictitious new coronavirus first detected in South America. It causes symptoms ranging from mild flu to pneumonia, with the sickest people needing intensive care. At first it’s limited to close contacts, healthcare works and families. Then it spreads rapidly, followed by international travel that turns “local epidemics into a pandemic spanning the globe,” observes a narrator in a newscast produced for the pandemic simulation. During the first weeks of the pandemic the number of cases doubles every week.
“Alarmingly,” people infected with the coronavirus but have no or very few symptoms “are allowed to walk around and spread the virus, not realizing they are doing so,” the narrator notes. And “because it appears the virus is readily transmitted through the air from person to person, essentially all people are susceptible.” A poll shows that 65% of people in the U.S. “are eager to take a vaccine, even if it’s experimental.”
During the pandemic, which plateaus after 18 months, experts debate what to do. Some argue, according to realistic-seeming ‘Global News Network’ or GNN newscasts that are sprinkled throughout the meeting proceedings, putting in place dramatic counter-measures against COVID “to protect every life we can” must be the goal, even though economies will collapse because of the strictness of those measures. Others call for a more moderate approach because “letting the global economy slow to a halt puts lives at risk.” Scenarios — another feature of the meeting — predict “the pandemic could push the world into a prolonged period of significantly slower growth” that is much worse than the Great Depression.
Among the 15 lead participants discussing how to react to all these aspects and more of the pandemic were representatives of the Gates Foundation and other global bodies including the CDC, CIA, World Bank and public-relations firm Edelman.
The event started with remarks by Ryan Morehard. He’s the lead of the World Economic Forum’s Global Health Security Group and the author of many papers on disasters. Those include one that came out shortly after Event 201 on international biological risks, focusing on man-made pathogens. Morehard said the reason for the gathering was that a fast-moving pandemic is inevitable. He posited that the risks pandemics pose to the world rival those associated with climate change, and therefore “public-private cooperation will be essential” to deal with them.
One question the 15 leads addressed was how financial resources should be prioritized in the face of a growing global economic crisis caused by the pandemic, and whether there are “nodes that we cannot allow to fail.” A participant from China’s CDC suggested that, “Government can supply some money, a lot of private sector [companies] — some sitting here — you have some money, but now we need a really coordinated, centralized effort.” An official from the U.S. CDC said “it’s really a war footing that we need to be on.”
An executive from the financial firm Henry Schein – which according to the company’s website is “a global distributor of medical and dental supplies, including vaccines, pharmaceuticals, financial services and equipment — added that there needs to be government support of manufacturing entrepreneurship and it should be escalated extremely quickly: “a Marshall Plan that can go into effect can stimulate change very quickly.”
Another main focus of Event 201 was the need for a very rapid corporate take-over of control of supply chains for materials related to the COVID crisis, particularly anti-viral medication, via public-private collaboration with international organizations and governments. (Note that on March 18 the B.C. government declared a state of emergency and on March 26 gave itself the power to take over supply chains for delivering essential goods and services, including health supplies. On March 28 the Ontario government took over the supply chains in its province.)
The Event 201 lead participants also addressed how to deal with “the overwhelming amounts of dis- and misinformation circulating over the internet” that the pandemic simulation predicted would occur. Matthew Harrington, Edelman’s Global President and Chief Operating Officer, said that in response social-media platforms must recognize their role of being broadcasters and partner “with the scientific and health communities to counterweight [misinformation], if not flood the zone, [with] accurate information.”
Harrington also said “there needs to be a centralized response around the communications approach, that then is cascaded to informed advocates representing the NGO communities, the medical professionals, etcetera. … Centralized on an international basis. Because I think there needs to be a central repository of data, facts and key messages.”
Another participant said communications should include incentivizing people to behave in ways that reduce their chance of getting infected.
Hasti Taghi – chief of staff capacity at NBCUniversal, a mass-media conglomerate that comprises prominent outlets ranging from NBC News and MSNBC to DreamWorks and Universal Pictures — said that even before this simulated pandemic began the anti-vaccine movement was very strong, primarily because of social media. Therefore they need to disseminate “the right information … to ensure that the public has trust in the vaccines that we’re creating” against COVID. Harrington agreed, saying recent strong resistance against vaccines was a “beta” test for dealing with resistance to COVID vaccines during the pandemic.
Avril Haines – who was Assistant to the President and Principal Deputy National Security Advisor during the Obama administration, as well as Deputy Director of the CIA and Legal Adviser to the National Security Council — suggested daily briefings at international, national and local levels by people such as community and faith-based leaders and health care-officials. This would help “flood the zone” with information from “trusted sources” and would work better than trying to control information, she advised.
Messages Supporting War Against COVID Flourish
At the beginning of March 2020, about four and a half months after the pandemic simulation, there was a dramatic uptick in information about COVID in the media. Simultaneously, new material started appearing online that vividly paints the coronavirus as the most serious threat facing humanity. These have rapidly gone — well, viral.
A prominent example is the internet presence of Our World in Data. The organization has an authoritative-looking website that focuses on the rapid doubling time of the number of cases and the number of deaths. It does not examine the overall rise and fall in the spread of the virus across each country.
Our World also is involved in an expensively-produced video that (falsely) states the number of COVID cases is far higher than cases of the flu – and that it is “much more dangerous,” much more contagious and spreads far faster. (It also makes the very unscientific error of calling neutrophils ‘neutrophiles.’) The video describes an unstoppable cataclysm if measures aren’t put in place with alacrity to slow the spread of the virus: cases will spiral out of control, in turn overwhelming the capacity of healthcare workers, ICUs and equipment to cope. “Horrible decisions will have to be made about who gets to live and who doesn’t,” the video’s narrator tells viewers.
“Since we don’t have a vaccine for corona, we have to socially engineer our behaviour to act like a social vaccine,” the narrator continues.
That includes everyone washing their hands very frequently, social distancing — and also acquiescing to the equivalent of mass-scale house arrest.
“Quarantines are not great to experience and certainly not popular. But they buy us — and especially the researchers working on medication and vaccination — crucial time,” the narrator assures viewers. “So if you are under quarantine, you should understand why and respect it.”
However, there are glaring gaps in the video’s logic. For example, it doesn’t distinguish between, on the one hand, quarantine/self-isolation of people who are most at risk of serious harm or death from the infection, who have symptoms, or who test positive for the virus and, on the other, confining extremely large numbers of people – with no evidence they truly are a danger to others — to their homes for a long time. It also doesn’t offer any evidence to back up these assertions.
Our World in Data is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has an endowment of $52 billion. It has given more than $2.4 billion to the WHO since 2000, according to a 2017 Politico article (while countries have reduced their contributions to the world body, particularly since the 2008-2009 depression, and now account for less than one-quarter of the WHO’s budget). The article quotes a Geneva-based NGO representative as saying Gates is “treated liked a head of state, not only at the WHO, but also at the G20,” and that Gates is one of the most influential people in global health.
Gates announced via LinkedIn on March 13 that he is leaving Microsoft “to dedicate more time to philanthropic priorities including global health and development, education, and my increasing engagement in tackling climate change.”
His focus within the WHO is on vaccines and medicines, rather than on building up robust health systems. His foundation promotes widespread vaccination around the globe and has a strong focus on funding the development and manufacture of vaccines.
Gates’s Foundation also is involved in the mass production of home-testing kits for COVID in the U.S.
And it was a main sponsor of Event 201.
Another example of the high-profile portrayal of COVID as being extremely dangerous is a pair of long articles by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and TEDx speaker Tomas Pueyo. The articles contain strikingly similar messaging to those from Our World in Data: alarming statements and even more frightening statistics and graphs, all coming across as authoritative and evidence-based.
In his first article, posted on Medium March 10, Pueyo states that, “The total number of [COVID] cases grew exponentially until China contained it. But then, it leaked outside, and now it’s a pandemic that nobody can stop.”
“The coronavirus is coming to you,” Pueyo writes. “It’s coming at an exponential speed: gradually, and then suddenly. It’s a matter of days. Maybe a week or two. When it does, your healthcare system will be overwhelmed. Your fellow citizens will be treated in the hallways. Exhausted healthcare workers will break down. Some will die. They will have to decide which patient gets the oxygen and which one dies. The only way to prevent this is social distancing today. Not tomorrow. Today. That means keeping as many people home as possible, starting now. As a politician, community leader or business leader, you have the power and the responsibility to prevent this.”
The second COVID article by Pueyo was posted on Medium March 19. It starts with this summary: “Strong coronavirus measures today should only last a few weeks, there shouldn’t be a big peak of infections afterwards, and it can all be done for a reasonable cost to society, saving millions of lives along the way. If we don’t take these measures, tens of millions will be infected, many will die, along with anybody else that requires intensive care, because the healthcare system will have collapsed.”
All of this is being done because of the ostensible grave danger posed by COVID. So let’s look at Italy, one of the countries that’s been among the highest-profile in the COVID crisis.
The Wikipedia page on COVID in Italy includes the percentage of increase in cases from one day to the next. Curiously, though, until March 25 it didn’t include the most important statistic: the percentage of increase in cumulative deaths from one day to the next.
I put the Wikipedia data on the percentage increase in deaths from day to day in the table below. Italy’s epidemic appears to have peaked around March 10.
Since then, the death rate has fallen nearly three-fold to about 12%.
Cumulative Total Number of Deaths in Italy
Increase in Deaths vs Previous Day
So within just a few days — from March 3-4 when there was an increase by 35% to reach 107 deaths, to March 8-9 — the increase in death rate had stabilized and subsequently decreased relatively steadily. According to the March 24 edition of the very frequently updated reports from the Italian COVID research group, the average age of people who died from the virus was 78 years. And almost 99% had at least one other serious condition ranging from ischemic heart disease to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). (Note that Northern Italy, which is where the outbreak’s epicentre is in Italy, is one of the places in the world with the worst air pollution and the pollution lessened during the lock-down of the country.)
As pointed out near the beginning of this article, the Italian COVID research group reports a far lower total number of deaths than do either the European CDC or Wikipedia.
The Italian COVID group also makes the critical distinction in their data between people who died from COVID and those were infected with the virus but died from other causes.
Based on the Wikipedia data, I conservatively estimate that the total number of deaths when the epidemic ends is on track to be approximately 15,000, or 0.025% of the country’s population of 60 million.
That in turn may well explain why the Italian stock market started rising again after March 12.
Yet news reports, at least the North American ones, focus almost exclusively on the increase in numbers of cases every day to the virtual exclusion of the fact that the increase in percentage of deaths from one day to the next is falling quickly. A March 25 Globe and Mail article is an exemplar of this: “Since Italian stocks hit bottom on March 12, total confirmed cases have surged from 15,113 to 63,927, total deaths have risen from 1,016 to 6,077, and daily deaths have risen from 189 to a shocking high of 793 on March 21,” journalist writes.
Note also that in South Korea there have been just over 9,000 cases and 120 deaths according to Wikipedia, for a death rate of 1.3% (or 0.0002% of South Korea’s population of 51 million).
And a total of just over 3,300 people in all of China – or 0.0002% of that China’s population of 1.4 billion – died. (Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on COVID in China does not list numbers of deaths, daily or cumulatively, in the chart on COVID cases in China, unlike the pages for Italy and many other countries; the only place the total deaths is listed is not very prominently in the summary box near the top of the webpage.)
There’s also a paucity of media coverage examining what has and hasn’t worked in countries in dealing with the pandemic. Testing, quarantine and social distancing — followed as quickly as possible by vaccination and other medication — are proffered as by far the best approaches, despite the lack of evidence for this.
Another factor that’s heavily downplayed is that the vast majority of cases of coronavirus are benign. People get sick briefly, if at all.
Therefore sequestering the vast majority of the population, as well as making people fear contact with COVID — and even fear touching anyone else except those who live with them — together with panic buying masks, gloves and cleaning supplies to keep their home environments squeaky clean, is like putting oil on a fire: if they haven’t been exposed to COVID they will be vulnerable to it in the coming days, months and years.
Indeed, Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO’s Emergency Services Programme, appears to have a obliquely acknowledged this in a March 21 interview on BBC (although this doesn’t appear to have been reported in Canadian media).
“What we really need to focus on is finding those who are sick, those who have the virus, and isolate them — find their contacts and isolate them,” Ryan is quoted as saying in the interview. “The danger right now with the lock-downs … [is that] if we don’t put in place the strong public-health measures now, when those movement restrictions and lock-downs are lifted, the danger is the disease will jump back up.”
Despite all of this, masses of people are being confined to their homes in a completely unprecedented fashion. In the U.S., California was locked down on March 19 — and according to Wikipedia 24 states followed suit by March 25, with two another two having similar restrictions. Lock-downs usually are reinforced by the National Guard and local police forces.
Public-health officials and governments clearly aren’t basing their actions on an objective examination of options and on the experience of other countries dealing with the novel coronavirus. They’re also not highlighting the low percentage of each country’s populations that die from COVID.
What is clear is that only a very low percentage of people and businesses will be the beneficiaries of the seismic shifts occurring more rapidly than ever before on this planet.
Appendix: Detailed List of Some of the Main Measures Put in Place in Toronto, Ontario and Other Parts of Canada to Attempt to Limit the Spread of COVID
On March 13 officials announced the City of Toronto’s libraries, pools, community centres, childcare centres, galleries and museums and recreation facilities, among other public facilities, would all be shuttered the next morning. This also happened in Montreal on March 16, following a declaration of a state of emergency by the Quebec premier on March 14.
On March 16 Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams, said there should not be gatherings of 50 or more anywhere in the province. (That was extended by Premier Ford on March 28 to prohibit more than five people gathering, excluding family.) On March 16 Dr. Williams also ordered the closing province-wide of churches and other ‘faith settings,’ bars and restaurants (except for take-out and delivery), recreation programs, libraries, daycares and private schools.
Echoing Dr. Williams’ orders, on March 16 Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, told owners of all dine-in restaurants, bars, nightclubs and theatres in the city to close their facilities, with restaurants allowed only to continue take-out and delivery. Seniors’ homes were also ordered to isolate their residents.
That day Prime Minister announced our country’s borders would close to all but returning Canadians and travel across the border with the U.S. (that prohibition was quickly extended to all but essential and trade-related trips to and from the States).
On March 17 the premiers of Ontario and of Alberta both declared states of emergency in their jurisdictions, and the mayor of Calgary announced a state of emergency for his city. Ontario’s decree also prohibits gatherings of 50 people or more.
That week a very large number of other businesses shut their doors because people were staying away in droves and owners and employees were afraid of contracting and spreading COVID. And tens of thousands of Canadians travelling abroad scrambled to try to come home; most have failed so far and likely won’t get back for months.
On March 20 Ontario shuttered all provincial parks. On March 22, Nova Scotia’s premier declared a far-reaching state of emergency. On March 23 Premier Ford ordered all non-essential businesses to close by 11:59 p.m. the next day (here’s the province’s list of essential businesses). Quebec followed suit on March 25.
Also on March 23 John Tory issued a state of emergency in Toronto. That allows him to make decisions without a city-council vote. These extraordinary powers — which far exceed those of the ‘strong mayor’ system Tory covets — last for 30 days but can be extended by city council.
He started making executive decisions without council’s approval before he officially had the right to do so: via video interview on March 23 he told thousands of members of a group named TechTO that “I asked for and I’m getting it: we had the cellphone companies give us all the data on the pinging off their network on the weekend so we could see, ‘Where were people still congregating?’”
This type of move is illegal, whether the mayor acts unilaterally or with council approval, Canadian Civil Liberties Association executive director Michael Bryant told The Logic, which broke the story. On March 26 Tory denied that the cell-information-collecting had happened.
(The use of cellphone tracking was endorsed in a March 24 opinion piece by Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa. “All measures can and should be considered in response to the global pandemic,” Geist wrote.)
Back on a more local level, on the afternoon of March 25 Tory announced that “all city-owned playgrounds, sports fields, basketball and tennis courts, off-leash dog parks, skateboard and BMX parks, picnic areas, outdoor exercise equipment and other parks amenities, as well as parking lots attached to its parks system, will be closed effective immediately.”
That includes the city’s 83 community gardens and 12 outdoor allotment gardens.
Fines for disobeying are up to $5,000.
Dr. de Villa also urged all condo boards, Toronto schools and community housing apartments to close their playgrounds and park amenities.
And at a March 26 media conference she warned repeatedly she’ll ramp up restrictions if residents aren’t compliant.
“If people do not follow these protective measures [to maintain social distancing], then stronger ones affecting our civil liberties will be put in place to protect our city.”
Dr. de Villa added a few minutes later in response to a journalist’s question about why she hasn’t already done more to enforce social distancing, “these kinds of public-health measures — particularly the very strong ones – are the ones you want to do in concert with all levels of government. It has to be done in a quick fashion, but with care, and in a coordinated and collaborative fashion.”
Across Canada similar strictures are in place. The penalties for violations can be very steep: for example, in Vancouver people or businesses can be fined up to $50,000 if they don’t obey the new rules and in Toronto individuals can be fined up to $100,000 and businesses up to $500,000.
On March 30 the Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario, Dr. David Williams, reiterated that everyone should stay home except for essential reasons such as getting groceries or medicine and accessing health-care services. He also strongly recommended that everyone over 70 years of age self-isolate.
The key messages are inescapable: ‘Stay home. Stop the spread. Save lives.’
People who have country homes have been fleeing to them in droves. Virtually all the rest are staying at home, believing this will lessen the chance that they or their parents, partners or babies become victims of the new plague. Public-health officials, politicians and many media outlets are suggesting this may be necessary for many more weeks.
Social control is taking care of any outliers: for example, the Ontario Provincial Police is being peppered with complaints about people violating the new rules.