A Cure Worse Than the Disease?

American writer H L Menken provided a perspective on scares in 1918. “Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

Nothing has changed in the past 100 years. Right now, the “Let’s call it Trumpvirus”, as columnist Gail Collins put it in the  New York Times, is sweeping the world. Hatched, no doubt, in Mar-a-Lago and the Kremlin by Trump and Putin in a collusive effort to kill off Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Old folks with underlying medical conditions are particularly susceptible, we’re told, and heart-attack Bernie and demented Joe are obvious targets.

Or, just maybe, it happened by accident in a Chinese wet market selling all manner of unpalatable and unsavoury animals to be butchered on the spot. Ugh! Another theory of course is that it escaped from some Chinese biological warfare lab. Yes, that’s feasible, bugger a variety of deadly poxes, nothing like giving healthy adults a mild case of a flu-like virus to kill them off.

I do find some respite in the wall-to wall coverage of the latest coronavirus (Covid-19). Climate change, bushfires, floods and droughts are off the front page. It is as though we have switched into an alternate universe where all our troubles have been boiled down to the latest in a long line of threatening morbidities. Each abruptly disappears leaving a temporary vacuum in the space marked “the next unnamed pandemic.”

There might well, in the future, be a really deadly pandemic. Bad things can happen. But somehow, I don’t think that Covid-19 lives up to that billing. Who knows, but it will likely be contained, as have other threatening new viruses in recent decades — SARS, for example, another coronavirus which emerged also from China in 2002, and a new strain of swine flu, which was declared a pandemic in 2009. And who still remembers bird flu in 1997? As Trump suggests, we should keep our cool even if parts of the media invest in panic. Remember, the degree of panic has little to do, necessarily, with the severity of the threat. People might be trampled in rushing out of a cinema on hearing the fire alarm. Yet the fire might turn out to be of little threat.

I rather liked the matter-of-fact comments of Professor Ian Mackay of the University of Queensland, as reported in The Australian. “We already have four of these coronaviruses, mostly causing colds. We get them every year.” And the reported comments in today’s paper (March 3) of UNSW virologist Peter White to the effect that the virus would degenerate into another form of the common cold once the global community became immune to it. Evolutionary theory is at play when germs and viruses emerge. Those that are mostly deadly tend to disappear quickly as the hosts die off, preventing contagion. The least deadly live on as the hosts go about their business, touching and spluttering over their fellows; as you discover on public transport.

I had a cold not so long ago. After about seven or eight days of sneezing and stuffiness; as unpleasant as it is to describe, the mucus from my nose turned greenish. I immediate took a course of amoxycillin, which I keep handy in case of need. I dare say I would have recovered without it but I have become less stoical as the years go by. My point. I doubt all of those people would have died from the infamous Spanish flu in 1918-19 if the circumstances had been less crowded, the hygiene better and, critically, if antibiotics had been around to combat the secondary bacterial infections (bacterial pneumonia), which, it is now thought, mainly caused fatalities.

Of course, even with modern Western medicine people die of the seasonal flu each year and have already died of Covid-19; mainly in China, though also in much smaller numbers elsewhere — notably in Iran, Italy and South Korea. But perspective is needed. The CDC estimates that about 34,000 Americans died of the flu during 2018/19. To date, as I write, six American have died from Covid-19 and one Australian. All were in the category of being susceptible to this kind of thing. No doubt many more people, particularly the aged and medically frail, will die, as they will also of all manner of respiratory illnesses.

I don’t mean to minimise the threat or to seem callous about those who have and will succumb to the virus. I have no elderly parents to worry about but do have an older sister in poor health and young grandchildren. Taking personal precautions to avoid contagion is sensible, as always And given the incipient panic, it will be a relief if an effective vaccine is found and, in the meantime, if particular antiviral drugs are shown to be effective.

All I’m saying is that the threat at this stage looks overblown and that this is not surprising given the propensity of the media to cry wolf over everything. Moreover, the fact that Trump can be blamed for any and all ills gives the US mainstream media additional reason to up the hype.

We are getting a plethora of information about how government after government is closing things down to avoid contagion. And the very latest on the number of new infections and deaths. We need more grounded, professional and objective information on the relative virulence of this new virus.

Stop and imagine. Suppose the new virus was what we now call the flu.  “Influenza attacks the lungs, nose and throat. Young children, older adults, pregnant women and people with chronic disease or weak immune systems are at high risk. Symptoms include fever, chills, muscle aches, cough, congestion, runny nose, headaches and fatigue.” It is highly infectious and according to the WHO kills up to 400,000 people per year.

Now, ask yourself, just how much of the economies of the world is it worth shutting down to try (and “try” is the operative word) to prevent the spread of this deadly flu pandemic? How many resources should be switched into fighting this “new virus” at the expense of dealing with the vast array of other health issues? Is it worth calculating how many people will die of other causes as a result of shutting down economies and switching medical resources?

Back to real life and the actual new virus. And my point, and my only point, is that I would like some sensible consideration given to whether the cure is worse than the disease. Fine, if the worldwide containment strategy works speedily (say within a few weeks) to quell the spread of the virus. Otherwise, a sensible trade-off involving living with the virus for the time being until a vaccine is developed, as it will in due course, might be the best option. A deep recession brings health risks too.

As a final aside, one good thing to come out of this current scare is the more-general realisation that most medical equipment and drugs are made in China. Clearly, major pharmaceutical companies find it more profitable to outsource their manufacturing to China and import the products back into the West. Apparently, ninety-five percent of antibiotic used in the US are made in China. This is another grievous example of “free trade” gone completely mad – where you put vital supplies in the event of conflict in the hands of the most potent potential adversary. Hopefully, Trump, in particular, will do something about it. We should too.


16 thoughts on “A Cure Worse Than the Disease?

  • pgang says:

    This is nothing to do with evolution. These viruses do not contain novel structures or new information. They are either losing functionality or diversifying within the boundaries of their structures. Population growth through adaptation will reverse. You quoted Peter White on this yourself. Will Christians please, please educate themselves about evolution.
    Otherwise Peter I reckon you are spot on.

  • Rob Brighton says:

    Pgang. Have you, in your expert views on evolution managed to find any taxons with vestigial features from different clades? Be nice to put that pesky evolution with all of its annoying facts to bed eh?

  • Rob Brighton says:

    @ Peter Smith. If there is an upside let us hope the financial pressure on Universities will be sufficient to see them cut courses, if only they would let me pick which ones.

  • Peter Smith says:

    pgang please don’t get hung up about my reference to evolution. I was making no deep comment about evoluntionary theory as it applies to the development of species. I was simply saying that if the conditions are not right for a virus to spread – if, for example, it kills a host quickly – then it is likely not to spread. If, on the hand, it simply makes people unwell, and more particularly if it makes many people only slightly unwell, then they are likely to go on spreading it more widely and effectively. Evolutionary theory has this as part of its makeup but of course it goes much much further than that. And on that I have my views but I did not touch on them in this piece.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Peter, you gazumped me. I was contemplating a similar post but you have covered the issue comprehensively.

    I well remember how Ebola was going to wipe us all out and AIDS before that. Human ingenuity has intervened in all cases to prevent armageddon.

    I wonder how long it will be before the penny drops that CAGW (if it exists and which hasn’t yet delivered on any of its promises) ) is exactly the same.

    The latest issue of Spectator has an interesting article by Peter Van Gend that references the Absolute Zero report, written by some Oxford and Cambridge academics and commissioned by the supposedly conservative British government. This report recommends that the only way the UK can achieve its now legally mandated target of zero emissions by 2050 is by eg eliminating all air travel and shipping by 2050, ditto beef and lamb production, ditto cement and steel. Worth a read (https://ukfires.org/absolute-zero/). Craig Kelly should be beating Albanese over the head with it.

  • Peter Smith says:

    Peter, I have just read the executive summary of the Absolute Zero report. I assume it is a spoof produced by climate sceptics. I have to assume that else believe the academic world has gone mad.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    your second assumption is correct.

  • DG says:

    Evolution of novelties is typically de-evolution at the species level. Changes introduced by broken protein coding or regulating segments of genes. Looks like its downhill all the way.

  • Davidovich says:

    Peters Smith and O’Brien, the academic world went mad years ago.

  • Farnswort says:

    “Who knows, but it will likely be contained, as have other threatening new viruses in recent decades..”

    No, the cat is well and truly out of the bag. The priority now is to slow down the spread of the virus.

    I think it’s fair to say that the Chinese Communist Party isn’t particularly sentimental when it comes to human lives. Yet Beijing was forced to lock down Wuhan in order to slow down the spread of the virus after local health services were inundated. China hasn’t put a third of its population under travel restrictions – and in the process shut down a large chunk of its economy – for the sake of a mere flu.

    Recent estimates put the coronavirus fatality rate at 2% (rising to 49% in the critically ill), with an incubation period of 1 to 14 days, possibly longer. Around a quarter of patients develop a ‘severe’ case requiring intensive care, and approximately 10% require mechanical ventilation. Again, this is not a mere flu.

    Australia’s health system has failed to keep pace with the frenetic population growth of recent years. It is already overburdened and will struggle with a sudden surge of coronavirus patients.

    I would argue that Australians, particulalry our older citizens, have a legitimate reason to be somewhat concerned. No need for panic. But we need to be realistic.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Well, here’s one auld phart who is pretty relaxed about the whole thing. There are plenty of worse ways to die, and die we all must.
    Shopping at Costco last weekend, without a single thought about the Coronavirus thing, I asked my wife if we needed toilet paper and she said we still had plenty. Little did we expect that the best part of a quarter acre of toilet paper would be stripped bare within days. Fortunately, we really did have sufficient for a month or so.
    As with the whole “climate change” panic, one can only marvel at the media’s capacity for almost infinite hysteria about things we have seen many times before. As many have already noted, the death toll of this latest “pandemic” is still trivial compared with the routine annual death tolls of common or garden influenza that raise nary an eyebrow among the chattering classes. But still the idiot children in the media either stupidly or cynically ramp up the hysteria.
    At our present state of apparent learned helplessness, I don’t know how we could ever survive a real emergency.

  • Farnswort says:

    “As many have already noted, the death toll of this latest “pandemic” is still trivial compared with the routine annual death tolls of common or garden influenza that raise nary an eyebrow among the chattering classes.”

    This is a new virus. It has only just started to spread throughout the globe.

    However, the evidence to date suggests a case mortality rate of between 2 and 4%. The seasonal flu, by comparison, has a case fatality rate of about 0.1%.

    This coronavirus is also more contagious than influenza.

    Again, China hasn’t put hundreds of millions under travel restrictions and quarantines because of a mere flu.

  • ianl says:

    What saves even the pgangs of this world from ebolas etc is the extremely short “life” cycle of these RNA entities. In practice, this means that they rapidly, and constantly, evolve into strains that our immune systems cope better with. The evolutionary process is one of perpetual opportunism – “morals” not included.
    A British geneticist some years back gave a fascinating public lecture on the evolution of the AIDS virus. He also presented good traced-DNA evidence that some northern european human populations had shown much higher resistance to major pandemics such as the various plagues over time and to contemporaneous AIDS. The DNA analyses of these strains showed basic code similarities, which the immune systems of these populations had fortuitously developed resistance to.
    I stopped discussing evolutionary concepts and evidence here as some commenters have no real basic knowledge of genetics and no wish to change that. Constant straw men on the issue is simply tedious. Eventually, the human immune system will develop its’ own vaccine to COV-19.
    And here is how one dies from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS):


  • pgang says:

    Peter Smith, acknowledged. I just think it is necessary to wage war against this destructive ideology as a matter of urgency.
    Rob Brighton your fancy technical words are not particularly relevant. I get that you are attempting to shine a light on my apparent ignorance (this is a common misconception evolutionists have towards their heretics, as per ianl’s hubris), but I do know what you mean, and it isn’t much.
    All kinds of life share common design principles. You think it is because life evolved from a common ancestor; I know it is because there is a common designer. If you really believe in evolution then you live within the assumption that all ‘clades’ evolved from a single life form – to my mind an idea so irrational that it beggars belief. Of what relevance are imaginary vestigial features if the theory of evolution is bunkum? The field of cladistics is intrinsically evolutionary.
    There is however a parallel field of study called baraminology, which is intrinsically creationist. It presumes that there are groups of created living beings that will remain forever distinct (called baramins), which are the created ‘kinds’. All ‘taxons’ and ‘species’ have adapted from these baramins, but this is not evolution as nothing new has been created through natural selection (my point to Mr Smith). On the contrary, adaptability is a built-in function of life.
    Now as we know, parallel lines never meet (except in imaginary space). Therefore your question is one that only has relevance within the confines of evolutionary theory.
    Now if you want to talk about serious population genetics, and the cost of selection, rather than presumptive models of imaginary hereditary trees, then good. But I’m afraid that evolutionists have given up on the hard questions in that field and are happy to rest on the false premises of previous decades (such as neutral selection).
    Anyway I hope that one day you will also be able to free yourself from the de-humanising doctrine of Darwinism.

  • Francois Stallbom says:

    pgang: “……….an idea so irrational……….”. You should have included unscientific as well.

  • Kyle Hargraves says:

    For a given infection the probability of the consequences actually being ‘significant’ are about 2%. Statistically such a value is negligible and the probability of recovery is a near certainty. Moreover given that about 0.0015% of a population for a first world country dies in its sleep each night the actual observations of the lurgie are hardly significant. The incidence of cancer is a good deal greater with corresponding more severe implications.

    This article (from the journal ‘Science’) takes a swipe at the policy applied to date and deems most of it ineffective or, at best, only short-term effective.

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