Truth, the Ongoing Casualty of COVID-19

This is from Health Minister Greg Hunt’s website, reporting a transcript of an interview he gave on  April 14.

It’s very different from this concept of herd immunity that has been raised a little bit, but that would mean 60 per cent of the population, 15 million people. If you had a one per cent loss of life, that would be catastrophic. That is absolutely not our policy.

So, to add to Mr Hunt’s arithmetic. One percent of 15 million would mean 150,000 Australian deaths from COVID-19. He is right, that would be catastrophic. It would be unacceptable. Such a death rate, relatively speaking, is in the same order of magnitude that the Imperial College (IC) report, which I reviewed, estimated would apply in the US and the UK if no mitigation/suppression measures were implemented.

I don’t want to pull punches. The IC report has been largely discredited as alarmist. But that aside, a month has passed since the report was issued. Hunt is now armed with more knowledge. Also, he is apparently a very bright bloke and can’t hide behind dimwittedness. He is therefore in danger of being perceived by some of deliberately putting out misleading information to excuse the government’s gross, damaging and continuing overreaction. That is regrettable. Let me explain.

First, no-one ever suggested that nothing be done. The alternative strategy was to protect the vulnerable, build up additional hospital capacity, and to allow people to continue working and life to go on, while at the same time, taking extra precautions in social situations and at the workplace to cut down the incidence of transmissions.

Second, there is increasing evidence that the fatality rate of those contracting this disease is much less than one per cent; and this particularly applies in a country like Australia with first-class medical resources. For example, virologists tested 80 percent of the population in a town in Germany (Gangelt) finding an estimated fatality rate of 0.37 percent. This was known on or before April 9.

Now, to be clear, such a fatality rate is not small. By comparison, the seasonal flu has a fatality rate of about 0.1 percent. Note, however, that the US fatality rate for the virulent flu of 1957-58 was around 0.27 percent; and the economy was not nearly shutdown. And, the likelihood, when the story is finally told, is that the fatality rate for Covid-19 will fall below 0.27 percent; perhaps well below.

The Economist (“Footprints of an Invisible Enemy”) cited a recent paper (“Using ILI surveillance to estimate state-specific case detection rates”, by J. Silverman & A. Washburne; Johns Hopkins CSSE) in the following terms:

Covid-19 takes 20-25 days to kill victims. The paper reckons that 7 million Americans were infected from March 8th to 14th, and official data show 7,000 deaths three weeks later. The resulting fatality rate is 0.1%, similar to that of flu. That is amazingly low, just a tenth of some other estimates.

Clearly, we are observing the estimated fatality rate coming down as more information comes to hand. This is not surprising. If the disease is as highly infectious as the experts tell us, and the fatality rate anywhere near to one percent, we would have had many more deaths.

My third and final point is that quoting an overall fatality rate glosses over the different rates among different age groups. Based on the latest Worldometer data, 79 percent of those dying, having been infected, are over 70 years old. I assume that including those younger but suffering from serious illnesses would push the percentage to well over 90 percent. In other words, if these cohorts of people were largely protected from infection, any overall fatality rate — even if it were one percent in the absence of counter measures — could in practise be bought down to acceptably low levels without shutting everything down.

Greg Hunt is treating us as fools. The easy solution is to shut everything down and bugger the cost. And to then justify it with alarmist talk about imaginary deaths which would have occurred if we were not blessed with such wise government.

The harder solution – which required not panicking when the infection broke out – was to spend a little time considering and debating options. At a very early stage, there was sufficient information to know who was at most risk, and time to work out how best to protect them. Remember, money was no object, as we’ve discovered.

So please, Mr Hunt, spare us. It is bad enough to be locked inside while seeing the economy and people’s businesses and working lives going down the tube, queues at Centrelink, deserted streets, children out of school, government spending money as though it were confetti, and armed police forces bringing out their inner Stasi, without hearing your self-justifying, self-exculpatory, propaganda.

The moving finger writes and, having writ, moves on. We can’t change the past. We can the future. So, please save the furniture and open up the country now, albeit prudently.

24 thoughts on “Truth, the Ongoing Casualty of COVID-19

  • lloveday says:

    Off topic, on author.
    On 13 April, Peter Smith wrote: “I have written a letter to the editor. Whether it will be published I don’t know”.
    It was published in the Sunday Telegraph, as the lead letter.

  • Stephen Due says:

    It cannot be said too many times that the response of governments to the pandemic is the result of a political process. It is not scientific. The deficiencies that Peter Smith and many others have identified in the responses of Australian governments do not result from defective science (which is not say there is no defective science ‘out there’). Rather, they result from superficial political thinking and processes that are letting the country down. We lurch from one ’emergency’ to the next. One day it’s climate, the next a virus; one day it’s domestic abuse, the next ‘discrimination’. Bad leaders like emergencies, because emergencies legitimize their tenure. Good leaders avoid emergencies by thinking ahead, running a tight ship and steering a steady course. Australia needs another John Howard – urgently.

  • pgang says:

    Not at all surprising given the contempt with which the political class treats us, almost as a sport. I read today that federal pollies refuse to download the tracking app. How nice for them, picking and choosing the ways in which tyranny affects their lives. I guess it would be embarrassing to be caught driving to the holiday dacha.
    Protests are spreading in the USA…
    and The Australian has tried to spin it into a story of right wing extremism.
    This farce of a crisis has been presented to us a mirror to show us what we really are.

  • DG says:

    Clearly the Sensible Party is not yet in power.

  • ianl says:

    A reasonable attempt at answering the “gotcha” question I pointed out last week, although I expect it will make no real difference. Hunt et al will continue to prevaricate.

    However, there is still this persistence: “In other words, if these cohorts of people [70+ and the otherwise ill] were largely protected from infection …”
    Protected how, Peter Smith ? As usual, details please.
    Now watch the dodgems. This is a gotcha question as well.

  • March says:

    Love the logo, there’s an empty cart trundling down my street at present. Business much better when a real plague was on.

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    With all the spare time on some people’s hands, this is the time for further education.
    We need to roll out an online course in barrier control of respiratory disease, and certificate it.
    Organisations that are certified and on ‘the list’ then are allowed to slowly start up.
    Start with micro and small business.
    Sure, protect the aged and infirm, but do so sensibly.
    Don’t lock down the ‘healthy happy’ aged who are still working in society.
    ‘A good marriage before age 50
    Ingenuity to cope with difficult situations
    Altruistic behavior
    Stop smoking
    Do not use alcohol to the point where your behavior shames you or your family
    Stay physically active. Walk, run, mow your own grass, play tennis or golf
    Keep your weight down
    Pursue education as far as your native intelligence permits
    After retirement, stay creative, do new things, learn how to play again

    Coffee shops with footpath tables and chairs, or some room inside come to mind as micro start ups.
    Open a few Northern beaches [NSW] away from the backpackers and imperatively, council parks near those high rises where people go mad easily.
    Northcott [ AKA Suicide Towers] in Surry Hills would be a good place to start.
    The police have a strong presence there.
    Rather than telling companies to allow people to work from home,actively engage with them to ‘Make It So’.
    That’s because post Covid a lot of frustrated motorists will not want to drive 3 hours a day to get to work and back.
    I am getting a lot of feedback to this effect.
    Resist the super funds and toll collectors and have this idea examined immediately by The Productivity Commission.
    These funds and rent seekers have gamed the system by exponential increases in charges while being oligopolies.
    No other roads are available.
    Start limited sport. As per Sir Walter,
    ‘”Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall.” – Walter … We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.’
    Define essential services,eg power, water, transport, mining, manufacturing,ports ,think Darwin
    Ruthlessly give value and control costs.
    Build power stations and dams that are long term viable.
    This will have an immediate effect and assist the millennials in 30 years by boosting the long economic cycle.
    Chinese made solar panels degrade annually and are a throw away in 20 years.
    Build our own railway carriages, like Victoria did.
    Stimulate the pharmaceutical industry.
    Put kindy to year 6 back on the map.
    Its safe to do so.
    Obtain more advice on ‘Global Warming’.
    Note that Northern Alpine Italy and Wuhan share the same cold.
    Mild warming is good for controlling respiratory viruses.
    My late grand parents used write from England annually and say ‘I have survived another winter.’
    They missed out on the flu that year.
    The latest figures from the UK are appalling.
    The frontline statistics only tell of death in hospitals, not in the nursing homes or council flats.
    Were you to add these the current toll is 22000 deaths.
    So the start up has to be slow, with the option of local government hot spot lockdown.

  • Mannie Gross says:

    Peter, according to Worldometer as of April 19, 2020, 02:19 GMT, the COVID-19 mortality rate in Australia is 1.65%. Although this rate has been decreasing steadily over time, it is hard to imagine it will reduce to below 1% over the next few months. (Unfortunately there is no graph tracking the mortality rate over time. This may have helped estimate what the rate might settle at.) At the current mortality rate, it implies total deaths in Australia of over 420,000! Hence the government is in a very difficult situation if it takes the brakes off too early to too much.
    Your whole argument seems to be predicated on much lower mortality rates. When can we be sure those order of magnitude less mortality rates have been established? Until then what should be done?

  • Peter Smith says:

    Mannie, we will have no hard information on the fatality rate until we have the denominator, i.e., the number of people infected (to divide into the number of deaths). However, the number of people infected is very likely to be a multiple of those presenting (as cases) at clinics or hospitals. Most people will have no symptoms or mild symptoms. We will only discover the fatality rate when we have conducted a large stratified random sample of the population, identifying with reliable antibody tests those who have had the virus. The experience in the German town I quoted was 0.37 percent but you would never get anything near as low as that by just looking at deaths and identified cases. And the John Hopkins study is instructive and might well point to the actual fatality rate.

  • Peter Smith says:

    ianl, I know this is a concern of yours. But protecting the vulnerable does not mean, to me, locking them away. The onus has to be put on those interacting with the vulnerable to take precautions. It is true, at the same time, that obligations will fall on the elderly and the sick not to intermingle too much with the broader population for a time. But my view is that this should be brought about by incentives and the provision of services. I would put my hand up to stay for some weeks in a first class hotel, for example. But I see no reason why special payments should not be given to those who volunteer to stay at home (whether that is their own home or a nursing home); money has proved to be no object obviously. And you can’t expect people to stay at home unless they are able to easily access goods and services. Efficient and timely home delivery is one – but also medical and health services and personal services (hardressing etc). I don’t have all the answers. But one of them isn’t forcing the vulnerable into onerous positions. Good ideas welcome. Certainly the government had none.

  • Biggles says:

    Can anyone tell me how many Australians aged 65 or less without diseases such as heart, kidney, liver, asthma, etc., have died of Covid19 ? I would bet a month’s pension that it is close to zero. If I am correct, why aren’t such people at work?

  • Mannie Gross says:

    Peter, thanks for your explanation. But I wonder if the .1% mortality rate for seasonal flu includes the number of cases infected or the or just those who presented. The same for the virulent flu of .27% in 1957/58. Would they have had the technology in 1958 to work out the real denominator? In other words are you comparing apples with apples?

  • Peter Smith says:

    A good point Mannie and I don’t know the answer with any certainty. Mind you, the 0.1 percent fatality rate for the seasonal flu is so widely acknowledged and bandied about by epidemiologists and other medical experts that I assume it is scientifically based and, therefore, includes an estimate of all infections. You have prompted me to find out, if I can.

  • Bwana Neusi says:

    Peter Smith, I support your article and your response to ianl. We live in an enclave where we have two eighty six year olds, a seventy nine year old and the another dozen or so all above seventy. ianl is right to ask how you protect our group since four of them have serious health issues.
    We still need to get food from the supermarket, get to the doctor, whilst trying to avoid undue exposure.
    Until recently home deliveries from the supermarket was stopped, so where was this protection?
    Channeling tested and virus free support services to the most vulnerable would have been a great start. Clearly there are complications when the vulnerable live with younger families, but exceptions can be catered for by a little common sense.
    Putting the entire population into isolation, based on hyped up alarmism is ridiculous and smacks of “Jobsworth Syndrome”
    On the bright side this whole fiasco has opened our collective eyes to a far more sinister threat.

  • Peter Smith says:

    Just to get back to the point Mannie made. In talking about Covid-19 perhaps having the same fatality rate as the seasonal flu (approx 0.1 percent) – this specifically is the “infection fatality rate” – and is an apples-to-apples comparison. The “case fatality rate” is of course, by definition, higher for both diseases.

  • Stephen Due says:

    The recent Santa Clara study by reputable researchers using an antibody test suggests an Infection Fatality Rate in that county of 0.1-02% i.e. similar to influenza.

  • pgang says:

    Stephen Due extrapolating from the report there are less than 2% of those infected showing symptoms and becoming ‘cases’. A couple of things to note here – we were told way back in the beginning that this would be the case, yet that advice was completely trampled in the mass panic. It is also an even lower ratio than the previous extrapolation that 85% of the infected were going undetected.
    Our generation are the greatest cowards ever to inhabit the earth.

  • Carlos says:

    To Peter and Mannie

    Formula I use for total infected with seasonal flu (the denominator) as follows:

    Mortalities/0.1 X 100 so for Australia it’s 2250/0.01 x 100 or 2,250,000 people. A blunt instrument to be sure but the flu is not generally diagnosed via pathology, just a GP’s best guess. Bear in mind that (in Australia) 98% of Covid-19 tests are negative, so we’re pretty useless at distinguishing Covid-19 from the flu, other corona virus’ and the common cold.

    Gangelt is instructive because it was in the infection epicentre so if anyone was going to get it, they would have. 85% per cent of those tested were negative (immune?) 7.5% were infected but asymptomatic and 7.5% had mild, severe of fatal symptoms. It’s interesting if you overlay these figures over various global populations.

    Note: Average mortality in Australia is 1500 – 3000, I’ve used the mid point, 2250.

  • RAS25 says:


    Ta for the super articles. One of the other pieces of modelling to the government was that we would need about 40,000 ventilators…..which is about 20 fold of even the maximum Spanish experience. I wonder if they think most people are so innumerate that’s they are gobsmacked by any number > 20.

    We in Victoria are forbidden to play golf so Mr Andrews can virtue signal about not doing so as it would risk causing death… (my bad 2 irons often risk people’s death), and our senior health officials advise they have saved us from 60,000 deaths….that would per capita have made us 10 x worse than Manhattan…….but he said it, so it must be so.

  • Peter Smith says:

    Thanks RAS25. Governments have completely lost the plot. The more left they are, as in Victoria, the more this is so. Modern society has produced populations of sheep. That’s how governments can now get away with removing rights that we thought were inalienable – apparently they aren’t.

  • pgang says:

    I think that’s an insult to sheep Peter. Sheep will fight their way out of a corner, and I doubt that they’re mortally afraid of catching a cold. It appears that modern society has produced populations of narcissistic cowards more like.
    There are people out their dying of all sorts of horrible things every hour, but they’re now dying alone with no friends or even family around. It’s obscene.

  • Peter Smith says:

    A very good point pgang, and one I admit to not having thought about. It is yet another tragedy of this complete and utter over and misdirected reaction.

  • lloveday says:

    I often read others’ words similar to yours, written as if they express a given, but far from it being an obscenity or tragedy to me, the closer I get to death the more certain I am that I’d prefer to die alone, certainly no friends or family around, preferably not even an unknown nurse or doctor.
    The script writer of “Tombstone” understood there are people like me when he put the following words
    into Doc Holliday’s mouth as he lay dying .
    “Wyatt, if you were ever my friend – if ya ever had even the slightest of feelin’ for me, leave now. Leave now… Please”.

  • tbeath says:

    Hospitals, morgues and cemeteries across Brazil are being overwhelmed by coronavirus cases as Latin America’s largest nation veers closer to becoming one of the world’s pandemic hot spots.
    Key points:

    Brazil has officially reported 53,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 3,600 deaths
    Some Brazilian scientists estimate there could already be more than one million cases
    Rio de Janeiro is erecting several field hospitals to cope with the outbreak, including in the Maracana football stadium

    Medical officials in Rio de Janeiro and at least four other major cities have warned that their hospital systems are on the verge of collapse, or already too overwhelmed to take any more patients.
    Health experts expect the number of infections in the country of 211 million people will be much higher than what has been reported because of insufficient, delayed testing.

    Meanwhile, President Jair Bolsonaro has shown no sign of wavering from his insistence that COVID-19 is a relatively minor disease and that broad social-distancing measures are not needed to stop it.
    He’s as big a dickhead as you lot.

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