A Societal Cytokine Storm

The longer shutdowns continue, the greater the risk that the post COVID-19 world will be dangerous and unstable. We are not simply talking about the external challenge by China to a weakened West. We could be facing an unprecedented destabilization of civil society. Democratically elected governments have assumed the kind of executive powers, normally only reserved for wartime emergencies. Yet not even under war powers legislation during World War II did any any democratic government dare to exercise the degree of control over private citizens’ movements we have endured in 2020.

Under the cloak of saving lives and easing pressure on the public health system, the relationship between government and the governed has been entirely reversed. The elected politicians front for the bureaucracy’s  lords and masters and the people must obey or be punished. Never mind that the now-discredited computer modelling of a certain Dr Neil Ferguson has been the rationale behind the total lockdown in Britain and partial shutdowns in our country, resulting in the destruction of thousands of livelihoods and potential deaths, way beyond any deaths from COVID-19. Okay, tell me how many people you know have died from the coronavirus? How many do you know who have lost their jobs? How many retirees have had their retirement years ruined? How many are suffering both mentally and physically? And what about increased suicides?

And talking of economic carnage, Robert Gottliebsen, writing in The Australian noted:

The share market, the banks and many solvent smaller enterprises are suddenly getting very jittery that in less than six months’ time there will be an unprecedented rise in the failure rate among small and medium sized enterprises.

Real unemployment – ABS unemployment statistics are useless – is going through the roof and is close to 20 per cent, triggered by a catastrophic slump in the small and medium sized business sector led by hospitality, retail and tertiary education services.

Liquidations, receiverships and official administrations have risen strongly, but at nowhere near the rate that could have been expected following such a big fall in economic activity.

Liquidators who operate in this area are warning anyone who will listen that there are a vast number of enterprises that are really insolvent but are still trading.

Richard Fernandez drew the obvious analogy between the virus itself and our societal reaction:

One of the ways the Coronavirus kills is by stimulating an overreaction of a patient’s own immune system. “Diseases such as COVID-19 and influenza can be fatal due to an overreaction of the body’s immune system called a cytokine storm.

He argues that this is a metaphor for how a society can harm itself when measures taken to control a disease do more harm than good.

In my opinion the stage-3 lockdowns in Australia were panic reactions by the bureaucracy, relying on computer models of an unknown unknown. A kind of cytokine storm at the official level can only be sustained by keeping the populace at large in a state of fear.

But what if  more  people start to believe that with most cases of COVID-19 are mild and the deaths largely confined to the old and already sick, the official justification for the shutdowns is invalid. What if the pandemic was already well down from its peak before the lockdowns were announced? What if the alarmist computer projections of Dr Neil Ferguson, the basis of the lockdown strategy, are more widely perceived as worthless?

To the extent that the populace retains its fear, leaders of governments will retain overwhelming popularity as protectors of human life. But once the suggestion that the pandemic has been much exaggerated gains traction, public opinion will turn against governments on a dime. 

Little wonder then that governments are desperately hoping that economies snap back into full life once restrictions are lifted. This may be a forlorn hope. Can you image the new army of unemployed, facing a life of penury, thanking the government for saving them from a virus which affected so relatively few. If the forecasts of some well-respected economic commentators are accepted, we may face not sunlit uplands “on the other side,” but a grinding economic slide which will see the destruction of a huge swathe of the private economy. After all, so many middle and small enterprises are zombies in the twilight zone, under temporary protection from bank foreclosure and bankruptcy.

The challenge to civil society may well be unprecedented.  The trend towards increased dependence on big government may be paradoxically accompanied by increased anger against the  powers-that-be. Political success will rest largely on mastery of the cultural narrative.

To take some tentative examples; in the United States, we might imagine that on traditional markers, Donald Trump would be doomed to defeat. Yet his bid to open up the economy early, derided as a blunder, could well be a masterstroke. Combine this with his ban on travel from China, condemned by his Democrat opponents as xenophobia, his attacks on China in relation to “Wuhan virus”, again condemned on cue by his political opponents and the mainstream media, and the appalling edicts by Democrat governors, forcing admission of COVID-19 patients to nursing homes, where they spread the virus amongst the most vulnerable, you have the outlines of a potentially successful deflection narrative.

No such luck will be enjoyed by Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom. His Brexit strategy, a singular success story, will likely sink into a distant second place behind his government’s disastrous response to the pandemic. How can anyone rationally reconcile the ridiculous lockdown of the local population with the total lack of checks at airports and the virtual open door to illegal boat people from across the English channel? After all, much of the support for Brexit derived from popular concern over uncontrolled immigration. Combine all this with the spectacle of the British police behaving more like the enforcers of a totalitarian state, and you have the seeds of popular anger. Boris Johnson may sooner than later wear out his welcome. We may not have heard the last of Nigel Farage. The Conservative Party victory of December 2019 seems so long ago.

And in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian, Premier of New South Wales, are looking worn. Following Scott Morrison’s lead, it seems that, finally, Berejiklian is waking up to grim reality. At least, some of our political leaders have had a look at the “other side” and don’t like what they are seeing.


9 thoughts on “A Societal Cytokine Storm

  • pgang says:

    It is as though we re-elected Gladys’s alter-ego. Since the election she has been awful in every way. As for Sco-Mo, he has masterfully achieved zilch since taking the high chair (if I am wrong about this I will be happy to learn it). That is, apart from leading the nation into a private-sector economic wasteland and shredding our moral fibre. Ah, to be an untroubled public servant in these days of trouble.

  • Rob Brighton says:

    The less than edifying spectacle of Gladys and Anna going at each other like a pair of contestants in Big Brother sets the stage. The WA premier waded in saying something about bullying? What is that? They truly are children in so many ways.
    Scotty from Marketing has dodged a bullet so far in respect to the who what and when arguments that the mini tyrants are feasting on and in the meantime I get scowled at while ordering my coffee this morning for the suggestion it shan’t be long before I can see my grandchild again which has been prevented by the communist state of Victoria. Australia the lucky country.

  • DG says:

    From what I’ve read…which admittedly is only in the public media, I get the impression that the bureaucrats don’t know how to interpret models, or how to question them.
    A model is not a prediction, at best it’s a contribution to thought. Models need to be sceptically interrogated because they are such an attenuated abstraction of reality that they are useless for prediction. The more complex the reality modelled, the less useful as predictors they are or even can be.
    First question is about assumptions, then the ranges of parameters, the ranges of outputs, the confidence intervals that apply, even a look at a Monte Carlo sensitivity or risk test…then we are on the road to take a more balanced view of things…but without economic modelling of the range of scenarios, and indeed active scenario projection and consideration at the same time, we are in no position to do anything except flounder around. QED.

  • Michael says:

    Elizabeth Beare, Michael’s Wife
    In Britain, the US and Australia no-one in political leadership is going to come out of this well. Once the genie of panic has been encouraged out of the quickly unstoppered bottle to be followed by the political realisation and general suspicion that it has all been an over-reaction, then the gee’d up populace have to be fed incoherent rubbish about risk and activity in order to justify the original panic. If there is no script based on firm data and agreement, then those things which should have been done have not been done, and much that should never have been done was done (to borrow a little rhetoric). So there is mounting anger that the daily drama is made up by leaders going every which way, and thus the narrative cascades in many forms. People don’t know who or what to believe: the explanations and impositions are inconsistent and irrational, reason has apparently fled and people who at first comply soon begin to smell a rat. The consistency the majority of people now seek is a swift return to normality and a retrieval of the shattered economy . To the extent that the electorate are thwarted in this, current politicians may expect to feel some solid pain.. Some very clear forward planning is the only way out, especially concerning national and international travel, which can be managed by limited quarantining and/or other assessments of incomers. 80% of people who get Covid19 hardly notice it; we need to emphasise that and note the extremely low death rate when immediate pandemics are controlled.

  • Necessityofchoice says:

    The lock – down response prevelant across the West, had very little to do with the purported reason of N F’s ‘ modeling, and everything to do with the CCP lockdown of Wuhan.
    When Northern Italy’s death toll started to mount, and the cruise ships began to resemble London circa 1666, what was to be done ? Politicians looked around to see who had been dealing with virus the longest, and copied them.
    All roads led to Wuhan, a city of 11,000,000 people , closed for business and everything else!
    The CCP not renowned for its tenderheartedness, had carried out this program, so Wuflu HAD to be , at a bare minimum, a rerun of 1918 – 21.
    The real mystery is how Sweden resisted the siren call of Wuhan and how they will be faring in 12 months time?

  • Michael says:

    Elizabeth Beare, Michael’s wife:
    Yes, the Chicoms made an initial very dramatic response, which freaked everyone when it was a new virus that was out and about. The initial response world-wide was very much a follow-on from Wuhan, then Italy, the Iran numbers, and the cruise ship contagions. In retrospect, the Chicom reaction was also a panic. It adds weight to the view that this was an escaped and manipulated virus and that China was totally paranoid about what it might do, so paranoid that that having put themselves into a throughly self-protective lockdown (just in case) they also wanted to not freak out the rest of the world and allowed international travel to proceed unimpeded – their Great Mistake. They didn’t count on the Twitter escape of information either. The Ferguson model simply took some very dubious data, put it into a dubious model of RO, and ran with it. He has form on that sort of thing – a committed greenie modeller and also predictor of a Mad Cow apocalypse along with other epidemic worries he created that never eventuated. Boris at first wanted to go slow, but Ferguson’s model won the panic of the day. Australia had already sensibly put up the border barriers and our curve flattened very fast and fairly traceably (cruise ships, planes, etc) after that, although given asymptomatic carriers the virus is likely still with us, maybe attenuated in virulence now by lack of opportunity (which tends to head an epidemic down in virulence).

    Stopping this virus was never an option to anyone thinking it through; the response was always quite sensibly to flatten the curve until we had a better expression of the epidemic and ways of dealing with it.. But the panic developed a life of its own and it is that which is killing us now.

  • Michael says:

    Elizabeth Beare, Michael’s wife

    Elizabeth Beare, Michael’s Wife
    What should happen now is a world-wide embargo, supported by China from the WHO review (let the past be the past re this learning lesson), on all manipulation of viruses that currently are occurring willy-nilly in a connected network of research institutes vying and/or cooperating with each other for publications, and with less than rigid controls on the facilities and their security. Agreement on this would be a great advance. Playing around with viral RNA for fun should stop now. Vaccine development doesn’t require this level of research, as far as I understand it. If I am wrong, then stringent controls over such manipulation need to be in place and constantly under surveillance..

  • Searcher says:

    Sorry to say, I don’t read nearly widely enough to have grounds to give an opinion. But also, I can say that I haven’t read anything that seems to me like a well thought-out and presented, and factually, epidemiologically and economically based overall and specific account, and strategic analysis, of the Wuhan virus problem. We are not accustomed to dealing with such problems, and, I get the impression, we are not so skilled. We are more skilled in deconstruction, political correctness, and criticism.

  • Stoneboat says:

    It all fits in rather nicely with the agenda Frank Pledge unfolds in Quadrant, 2017.

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