Health Experts in Plague Proportions

Two idiocies have been messing with my mind since the closing-down hysteria began.

“We’re all in this together.”

No, we are not. Please shut up! I am not with you at all. Not even a little bit. More to the point, those thrown out of work and desperate are not with you in your tenured jobs or sinecures.

“Social distancing.”

Can we apply this permanently to the insufferable left-wing creeps who have infected our media, universities, schools, legal fraternity and public services; and who seem as happy to build useless wind turbines, as they are to jail an innocent cardinal, as they are to shut more and more businesses down and keep families and friends and congregations apart. Personably, I am happy to keep my distance from them into eternity.

Here is another idiocy which I’ve now added to my list: “Restrictions can only be lifted when medical advice indicates to us that it will be safe to do so.”

This specific form of words, of which variations abound, is courtesy of those attributed to Mathias Cormann by the Australian newspaper. Safe, now there is a word to conjure with. Might as well  cocoon ourselves in bubble wrap and wait to die of natural causes; if, indeed, safety is our defining imperative.

But this piece of mine is not about the above; at least not directly about the first two idiocies. It is inspired, if that is right word, by a particular Review of the Imperial College (IC) team’s scary predictions. These predictions came out on March 16 and panicked the UK government and other governments into shutting things down tout de suite. The Review, of only about 800 words, and authored by among others Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Fooled by Randomness), came out of an institute within New York University just a day later.[i]

The Review ended this way: “Where lives are at stake, it is essential for science to adhere to higher standards.” Obviously, the Review has not been influential. I was only alerted to it the other day and, thus, unfortunately perhaps, did not build it into my Quadrant commentary on the IC report, “The Blunt Instrument of Suppression“.

The mistakes made by the IC team, according to Taleb et al, were to ignore the dampening effect on infections of both contact tracing and of a more general identification of those with symptoms. They note that the availability of testing is not brought into the analysis. And they also argue the transmission rate is overstated by failing to account for the observation (from China) that only five percent of those in contact with an infected person become infected.

The important conclusion in the Review is this:

Since lockdown results in exponentially decreasing numbers of cases, a comparatively short amount of time can be sufficient to achieve pathogen extinction, after which relaxing restrictions can be done without resurgence.

Time to get things going again, I think. Trump, Morrison et al take note. Well, that is not my point, though I do believe it.

My point is that in any crisis groupthink can take over, quashing alternative views. That has certainly happened in this case. The views of Taleb et al and perhaps those of others questioning the received wisdom were simply lost in the panic. When only the President of Belarus stands against the tide, you can bet that debate has been killed off with extreme prejudice.

Events have moved on since March 17. For all I know, those authoring the Review might have changed their minds. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that one view and one associated strategy have prevailed since the start of this crisis. And not because they came out of a vigorous public debate about alternatives. No, one government after another has followed the pack at the behest of their senior public health experts; who, no doubt, form a collegiate international grouping, and thus speak with one voice. Can they all be wrong?

The answer to that question is not yes or no. They are right that the only way to contain a highly infectious disease, without a cure or vaccine, is to keep people apart. I know that without studying epidemiology. They knew it in the Middle Ages. It is the bleeding obvious. The tricky bit is to what extent and for how long should people be kept apart. If you are a public health expert, charged with minimising hospitalisations and deaths, the answer is clear. Everybody should be isolated and for as long as it takes to be “safe” from new infections and deaths.

There is a scene in The Godfather that applies to the position of all governments (except Belarus’s) and their current public health advisers. It concerns the Corleone Family’s consigliere, Tom Hagen.

“Michael. Why am I out?” Tom asks. Michael replies: “You’re not a wartime consigliere, Tom. Things may get rough with the move we’re trying.”

It is time for governments to take their current public health advisers out of the firing line. While they remain in the firing line they will not and cannot give balanced advice. The risk of them giving advice that things can be opened up is too great for them personally. They suspect people will go on dying, unless we wait for forever and a day, and that they will be blamed. Who can blame them for being risk averse? They are not paid or elected to suffer public floggings for missteps. Politicians are.

Now is the time for presidents, prime ministers and governments to come to the aid of their nations. Not hide behind the skirts of their experts. Governments have plunged their populations into the misery of unemployment and despair; not the experts. Governments must take the risk of more infections and death in relieving that despair; and the sooner the better. Like the end of this month and no later.

It is easy to close things down. Now let’s see how clever governments are in opening things up. And how brave they are in facing up to their responsibilities and taking accountability.

14 thoughts on “Health Experts in Plague Proportions

  • brennan1950 says:

    Arguably, if left to a weather forecaster, the invasion of Normandy would not happened in a timely fashion.

  • PT says:

    The trouble is that if you take them out of the firing line, you’ll get at least some of them bellyaching to an eager media that they strongly advised strong lockdowns etc, and the nasty government in the picket of big business refused to listen! We certainly see that with most of the attacks on Trump, and it’s been pushed by some advocates even here.

  • rod.stuart says:

    “Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts.”
    Richard Feynman

  • pgang says:

    ‘Stay home, save lives’. That one I hate the most.
    First they saved us from the climate, now they’re saving us from viral contamination. Is there nothing the government can’t do? This superstitious fear of nature is not healthy.

  • pgang says:

    Peter, the president of Brazil has also kept his head. Don’t know what he’s up to now but a couple of weeks ago he was telling Brazilians to stop panicking and get on with life. It was the municipals that were shutting everything down – the little men with big dreams.

  • ianl says:

    PT is right – the States and their health advisors will not easily give up hero limelight so contradictory, noisy tv interviews will infest our consciousness for as long as some political advantage is perceived.

    Already Hazzard, NSW Health Minister, is blaming the passengers of the Ruby Princess for … whatever. Such a hero, he.

    “Social distancing”. Anti-social distancing, actually.

    “Protecting the elderly”. Code for incarcerating 70+ in isolation for an indefinite period as scapegoats. Plenty of younger neighbours would act as informants.

    “Flattening the curve”. The curve is now so well flattened it cannot be distinguished from the x-axis. So now what ?

    “Exit strategy”. Here Peter Smith is right. The MSM in the US exposed the problem by deliberately asking Donald Trump how many deaths were acceptable. An exit strategy requires that question to be answered.

    Opening the internal economy for activity is a popular dream. Aus has become totally dependent on imports, including processed food, so the planes and ships have to come, bringing with them probable infections.

    “Rebuild our capacities” is another popular dream. With whose capital ?

  • lloveday says:

    In the same address that Feynman said “Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts.”, he also said:
    “I, therefore, did learn a lesson: The female mind is capable of understanding analytic geometry. Those people who have for years been insisting (in the face of all obvious evidence to the contrary) that the male and female are equally capable of rational thought may have something. The difficulty may just be that we have never yet discovered a way to communicate with the female mind. If it is done in the right way, you may be able to get something out of it”.


    Time for Australians to build a silver lining out of this pandemic by restructuring our economy around being more self reliant.

  • pgang says:

    I assume that many people think this is a re-visitation of the Spanish Flu (born in the USA apparently), which killed untold millions and was spread through the squalor of the trenches and poverty. It has struck me from the beginning that people have ignored information about the relatively benign nature of this virus. The Spanish Flu was deadly – it triggered the immune system to exhaust itself fighting off other infections, then the SF would pounce. It killed mostly the young and healthy because their strong immune systems worked against them.
    This virus has never been like that. It’s constrained by healthy immune systems and only gets out of hand if conditions are suited to it. We were told this right from the beginning, and it has been proven by the unfolding drama.
    None of this requires any specific scientific knowledge to comprehend, surely, yet the authorities/media created a panic regardless.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Trump and Fauci are fascinating to watch at their press briefings. Trump gave up his Easter deadline because of Fauci. Fauci thinks he has had a win. But Trump is not satisfied. Fauci gets up in front of the cameras each day and says “we must do this and we must do that”. Trump glowers. Fauci in effect is usurping Trump’s prerogative. It looks as if Trump is beginning to wonder whether Fauci – a public servant – is running the country or he is. Nobody should imagine that political ideology is not controlling national policies on the virus. In Australia the Left are increasingly happy with Morrison. That is bad news – in my view – for Australia.

  • Peter Smith says:

    Prediction Stephen: Dr Fauchi’s tenure will depend on whether he buys into the goal of Trump’s new task force, which is to begin opening the economy as soon and as safely as is practicable. Judging by what I have seen I think he will. I hope he will. We shall see.

  • en passant says:

    “Arguably, if left to a weather forecaster, the invasion of Normandy would not happened in a timely fashion.”
    Fauci is the ultimate ‘Infallible Expert’. If things get worse, he is right, if they don’t. he pays no penalty.
    Example: Ehrlich – there will be no oil by 2000. Today it is $23/bbl (1,500 litres) and the cartel are reducing extraction by 10,000,000 BBL /DAY. But he was an expert …

  • Farnswort says:

    “The views of Taleb et al and perhaps those of others questioning the received wisdom were simply lost in the panic.”

    Peter, with all due respect, I’m pretty certain that Nassim Nicholas Taleb does not share your views on this pandemic and how best to manage it.

    As Taleb and others concluded back in January:

    “Standard individual-scale policy approaches such as isolation, contact tracing and monitoring are rapidly (computationally) overwhelmed in the face of mass infection, and thus also cannot be relied upon to stop a pandemic. Multiscale population approaches including drastically pruning contact networks using collective boundaries and social behavior change, and community self-monitoring, are essential.

    Together, these observations lead to the necessity of a precautionary approach to current and potential pandemic outbreaks that must include constraining mobility patterns in the early stages of an outbreak, especially when little is known about the true parameters of the pathogen.

    It will cost something to reduce mobility in the short term, but to fail do so will eventually cost everything—if not from this event, then one in the future. Outbreaks are inevitable, but an appropriately precautionary response can mitigate systemic risk to the globe at large. But policy- and decision-makers must act swiftly and avoid the fallacy that to have an appropriate respect for uncertainty in the face of possible irreversible catastrophe amounts to “paranoia,” or the converse a belief that nothing can be done.”


    Taleb tweeted this a couple of days ago in reference, presumably, to the US and UK situations (combined death toll of 38,000+ to date):

    “It’s not the reaction that wrecked the economy. It’s the LACK of INITIAL reaction that wrecked the economy.

    Proper border controls on Jan 26, plus masks & tests & we’d be fine now.

    The CDC, WHO, UK Gov helped spread disinformation.

    After 3 m, still no masks & tests!!!”


    Given that the virus is now loose, Taleb has argued elsewhere that the only obvious policy left now is a lockdown, with overactive testing and contact tracing.

  • Peter Smith says:

    Farnsworth, I never considered that Taleb was onside. Simply that he had a different view than presented in the Imperial College (IC) report. My point was that his and other alternative views (including protecting the vulnerable and relying on herd immunity) fell by the wayside without proper debate. Intitial, rising infections and deaths simply panicked governments, in my view. Only a couple of weeks ago Trump, via Fauci and Birx, was still quoting alarmist – imaginary – numbers, which came out of the IC report, to justify a heavy-handed, economy-killing, response, And here we are, few deaths, yet lumbered with the greatest overreaction in the history of humankind. And, of course, the IC report, and others exactly like it, will live on to justify government actions – just look at what would have happened if we hadn’t acted as we did, they will say. Insufferable! Death where is thy sting.

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