Lockdowns around the globe – and the correlating sink in economic productivity – have sparked a bad faith backlash founded on old numbers, bunk science and outright distortions of fact, Marc Daalder argues

No one was more surprised to see that Neil Ferguson, the author of a groundbreaking paper on how to stop Covid-19, had walked back his dire projections on the anticipated death toll of the virus than Ferguson himself.

The Imperial College London academic, whose paper changed government policy towards Covid-19 in nations worldwide – including New Zealand – told a British parliamentary committee that, with the advent of the United Kingdom’s lockdown, he expected the death toll to be in the range of 20,000.

Critics then leapt on this statement, arguing that because Ferguson had previously predicted a death toll of 250,000 for the UK, he had now substantially walked back his estimates. Former New York Times journalist Alex Berenson, recently famous for publishing a book on cannabis and violence that was widely-panned as inaccurate, took to Twitter to make this argument.

It then went viral on right-wing websites like the Daily Wire and the Washington Times, the first of which has substantially edited its article in the face of fact-checking from more authoritative sources.

As the Financial Times explains, Ferguson didn’t revise his prediction at all – in fact, the 20,000 deaths figure was directly taken from his original report. This was the estimated toll if the United Kingdom engaged in the strict suppression measures – closing schools and most workplaces – that it ultimately has, whereas 250,000 deaths were anticipated if the UK took no action whatsoever.

Ferguson isn’t the only person to be targeted in this bad faith backlash to a broad scientific consensus on the need for stringent measures like lockdowns to avoid the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Trump administration influenced by bunk science article

In the United States, an article by highly-cited libertarian legal scholar and climate change denier Richard Epstein has buoyed an anti-lockdown faction within the White House. The March 16 article, titled “Coronavirus Perspective”, sought to contextualise what Epstein saw as a massive overreaction to Covid-19, which he thought would only kill 500 Americans.

Epstein now says he made a minor error while calculating this figure and has offered 5,000 as the final death toll. As of Thursday afternoon in New Zealand, more than 5,100 Americans have been killed by the virus and there are no signs of this slowing. Even Donald Trump now admits a far higher toll is likely – his goal is to limit deaths to 100,000, although they could rise as high as 240,000.

“Coronavirus Perspective” emboldened the anti-lockdown faction in Trump’s inner circle and lead to musings from Trump of lifting mitigation and lockdown measures by Easter. “We’re opening up this incredible country, because we have to do that. I would love to have it open by Easter,” Trump said on March 24, as the US death toll hit 706.

“You’ll have packed churches all across our country. I think it’ll be a beautiful time.”

Evidently, more rational heads within the administration have managed to steer Trump back towards a strategy that avoided opening up the President to accusations of leading a death cult, but Epstein still took the time to defend his work in a March 30 interview with The New Yorker‘s Isaac Chotiner.

In defending his sloppy math, Epstein turned to bunk science, saying there are multiple strains of the virus – a stronger one that kills more people and a weaker one that is less lethal. Epstein believes, astoundingly, that the virus will also evolve to become weaker over time and falsely claimed the same occurred with AIDS, SARS and Ebola. Chotiner ended up having to turn to experts to fact-check Epstein in the text of the interview, lest he accidentally distribute fake news to all his readers.

New Zealand not immune

New Zealand, too, is not free of this misleading – and sometimes outright false – agitation against stringent measures. On Tuesday morning, Stuff published an article by University of Auckland senior lecturer and epidemiologist Simon Thornley asking, “Do the consequences of this lockdown really match the threat?”

As Newsroom’s David Williams ably explains, much of Thornley’s data is certainly up for debate. Thornley uses the Diamond Princess cruise ship as the base of his evidence, because it provides a “closed population” to analyse. His key estimate is of a one percent case-fatality rate, which, when applied to a Western country’s age structure, represent a fatality rate “higher than normal flu […] but not by much”.

This figure is based on old data, since the subsequent deaths of three more passengers on the cruise ship increased the figure to 1.4 percent. It is unclear how a 40 percent increase in the cruise ship’s death rate would impact the comparison between Covid-19’s overall expected death rate and that of normal influenza.

Another key piece of data, pointing out that just under one percent of deaths in Italy weren’t associated with “comorbidities” or underlying conditions, is based on a study of just 355 deaths from the virus. The true toll in Italy is now 37 times higher, and Thornley’s reliance on these old figures “is some serious cherry picking,” University of Auckland microbiologist and infectious diseases expert Siouxsie Wiles told Newsroom.

Thornley points to plots showing the number of deaths in Europe hasn’t deviated strongly from the norm for this time of year, with the exception of Italy, which has seen an increase in the number of deaths to the tune of six standard deviations. Yet again, these plots are two weeks old, dating to a point when the global death toll was one quarter of what it is today.

In his conclusion, Thornley goes all out, warning “we don’t want to squash a flea with a sledgehammer and bring the house down. I believe that other countries, such as Sweden, are steering a more sensible course through this turbulent time.”

Hosking’s new crusade

Thornley is right that Sweden hasn’t imposed a lockdown, but is wrong in intimating it has experienced the same struggles with Covid-19 as those countries which have. When compared with neighbouring Norway and Denmark, which phased in lockdowns on March 12 and over a five day period from March 13 to 18, respectively, Sweden’s death toll is beginning to skyrocket.

Chart from corona.help.

As the above chart demonstrates, Sweden’s deaths began to diverge from those of its neighbours on March 25 – 13 days after Norway’s lockdown began and 12 days after the first stage of Denmark’s, which involved mandatory work-from-home for non-essential public sector employees, recommended work-from-home for non-essential private sector employees, and the shuttering of secondary and tertiary schools, libraries and cultural institutions. So much for a more sensible course.

After his article ran on Tuesday morning, Thornley took to Mike Hosking’s Newstalk ZB show, where Hosking delighted in the chance to switch positions on Covid-19 for the second time in as many weeks. The morning before Jacinda Ardern’s lockdown announcement, Hosking demanded the Prime Minister shut the country down. Now, he says, this was all an overreaction.

Because of the comorbidities prevalent in the small slice of Italy’s death toll that Thornley examined, Hosking declared “they were going to die anyway. Something was going to get them, it just happens to be this. Or maybe it wasn’t. Or maybe this exacerbates it. Or maybe this complicates it.”

Now with a bit of science – albeit, outdated science – to back him up, Hosking has thrown himself headlong at the lockdown.

After speaking with Thornley he compared the death rate of Covid-19 to that of the flu. On Wednesday, he accused the Government of basing its modelling on the impact of Covid-19 on numbers pulled from thin air. The title of the two-minute-and-55-second Mike’s Minute in which he delivered this accusation was “Stop the alarmism”, which one can take about as seriously as Donald Trump tweeting “stop the hyperbole”.

Reasons for opposition

Perhaps the greatest question surrounding all of this is why it’s happening in the first place. Why Hosking? Why Epstein? Why the Daily Wire? What has motivated them to rely on data that is outdated at best and outright manufactured at worst to undermine what epidemiologists broadly agree is the most important public health measure keeping tens of thousands of New Zealanders from perishing of Covid-19?

It’s tempting to suggest these critics, who all have in common that they are business-friendly and right-wing, are more concerned with the progress of the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the NZX than they are with the lives of our most vulnerable. This is what led to the proliferation on social media in recent weeks of memes accusing Donald Trump of wanting to “kill grandma” to keep the economy chugging along.

Then again, maybe it’s just fatigue with the lockdown, which has set in overseas and could lead to widespread noncompliance in Italy and elsewhere.

I can’t speak for what goes through Mike Hosking’s mind when he stands up to give his daily rant, but we can look at what Thornley has said in defending his own criticism of the lockdown: “I intended to bring [open and honest debate] to this discussion, which, I believe, has been very one-sided,” he told Newsroom.

The Government has adopted emergency powers for only the second time in history. It has shut down public and private economic life in unprecedented ways. It has legally compelled the nation to remain in quarantine. These are weighty decisions and there needs to be accountability for them.

But that accountability must be rooted in fact and in good faith. The way in which the Opposition has gone about holding the Government to account via Parliament’s new epidemic response committee is a shining example of this, as is the output of journalists working day-in and day-out to convey accurate and important information – whether favourable or not – about the Government’s actions to the public.

Basing criticism in hyperbole, old data and misrepresentations of the scientific record is not an effective way to hold the Government to account. This is a lesson Hosking would do well to learn if he wishes to continue down the anti-lockdown crusade.

Alternatively, of course, he could just flip positions once again.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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