More questions

11 Apr

In the few days since that Telegraph story, the figure for London bus driver deaths attributed to CV-19 has risen to nine. See the WSWS piece, “They are doing absolutely nothing to protect us!”, for fuller coverage of what even the Telegraph presents as workers at risk from employer negligence. Whatever your views of World Socialist Website’s Socialist Equality Party hosts, it’s an example of solid reporting that can be read and digested in two minutes.

So do I, a marxist, have any problem with it? Yes and no. I’m emphatically with WSWS in seeing it as one example of the failure of capitalism in the face of pandemic. Indeed, most of my posts on CV-19 have focused on this truth. But given the problems Professor Bhakdi highlighted in his letter to Chancellor Merkel, the piece, like its counterparts in mainstream media, leaves me no wiser on a few vital questions.

Did all nine die of1 Covid-19?

Use the previous link to see points 2 and 4 of my summary of Professor Bhakdi’s questions to Angela Merkel.

How do we contextualise the figure of nine?

I’m sure there’s a way of finding this but my five minutes of searching on “how many bus drivers work for London Transport” got me nowhere. So I don’t know how 9 pans out as a percentage of the total.2 Nor do I know how many bus drivers die of flu each year. And, yes, I really am just asking. I have no stake in the answers either way.

I’ve been shouted at from all sides on this. As I’ve observed elsewhere, those who say there are serious problems with the whole CV-19 narrative, and those who say this pandemic is showing how dire capitalism is, are in my opinion both right. But the two sides don’t seem to be hearing one another. That’s always unfortunate, and doubly so when there’s no inherent contradiction – this isn’t in principle a zero sum debate.

Are social distancing and lockdown the way to go?

Here’s where things get trickier still. Leaving aside the fact, implicit in the previous question, of informed opinion divided over how serious the virus really is, we’re still left with valid questions on strategic response.

Experts are advancing, with greater or lesser confidence, differing views. Whether to ‘flatten the curve’ of a pandemic by social distancing, build ‘herd immunity’ by letting those less vulnerable freely spread the virus, or adopt a combination of both is at the best of times a judgment call.

And these aren’t the best of times given the lack of clear answers – due in no small part to poor data collection – on where exactly any given society, Britain for instance, is in the viral cycle. I’m impressed by the calm cogency of Professor Wittkowski, in the interview of April 1-2 linked from my post yesterday. (While his tucking into pot noodles as he sets out his reasoning may seem irksome or endearing, it should cut no ice in our assessment of that reasoning.)

But the fact is, we don’t really know – and perhaps never will. That didn’t, however, stop WSWS running an April 6 piece headed As COVID-19 death toll rises, the ruling classes agitate for a premature return to work. It contains this passage:

Under the slogan, “The cure should not be worse than the disease,” the capitalist media began arguing that the economic damage caused by the shutdown of businesses and factories would, in the long run, prove more harmful to society than the deaths that would result from a rapid return to work, even if the pandemic was not under control.

With consummate cynicism, the media presents itself as the champion of working people and the poor. For example, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which has never complained when corporations slashed jobs and cut wages to boost corporate profits, now professes, in an editorial statement published Friday, to worry about the shutdown’s “psychological toll on Americans who can least afford it.”

‘Consummate cynicism’? You bet! Crocodile tears over the ‘psychological toll’ of shutdown? Tick fucking tock …

… and yet. The hijacking of an idea for manifestly self-serving ends neither negates nor affirms its truth. I can only repeat a question I raised a few days ago. Since Professors Wittkowski and Bhakdi, plus many other relevant experts, have alerted us to serious flaws in the diagnosis, we may fairly and without prejudice ask:

What are the costs – in economic, mortality, psychological health and civil liberties terms to name a few of the more obvious – of the drastic containment measures we’re being told are a right and necessary response?

* * *

  1. I’m putting this question – did they die of CV-19 – simplistically. My understanding is that most respiratory viral infections leading to death do so through a causal chain ending in another ailment, typically pneumonia. Professor Bhakdi, noting that many countries have relaxed the requirement that death certificates spell out such a chain, wanted Dr Merkel’s assurance that Germany has not followed suit. Since his letter has been studiously ignored by all mainstream and most Left media, I can’t say whether he received any such assurance. I can say, however, that the UK Coronavirus Act 2020 has indeed not only relaxed that requirement. It also allows doctors not present, in the case of deaths in care homes, to give cause of death of unseen residents as CV-19 if they suspect it. This of course plays further havoc with statistical reliability.
  2. A few hours after posting, a pal in Barcelona, where things are grim, alerted me to this 2019 Loughborough University survey of Bus Driver fatigue. Page 4, under the heading, Driver Survey, gives a London Transport total of 25,000 bus drivers, making nine deaths 0.036%. (My friend’s daughter, a hospital nurse, says Barcelona’s health infrastructure is pushed to the maximum. I’m looking for reliable information about the Spanish/Catalan situation re CV-19. Any suggestions as to scientific sources?)

13 Replies to “More questions

  1. Philip, I am with you all the way on this. Data collection and attribution are both so haphazard as to prevent rational understanding of either the outbreak or the response. On my own blog, I’ve cited the example that, from the published data, the virus’ main appetite is almost exclusively for rich Western countries and their tax havens.

    I hasten to add that I don’t see that as evidence of anything much more sinister than which societies and segments of those societies are the most incontinent travellers.

    Neither left nor right is coming out of this looking good, whether it’s mindlessly telling us we should obey orders or peddling various NWO conspiracy tropes. I nearly fell off my bike yesterday when someone on Novara FM suggesed, completely straight faced, that Bolsanaro personally brought coronavirus into Brazil when he flew back from meeting Trump.

    • Well, Brecon. Had you succumbed to injuries sustained while falling off your bike and tested positive on the mortuary slab for CV-19, we’d all be arguing about whether twas Bolsanaro, daft conspiracy theory or the virus itself that had taken you out!

      Or riding a bike without due care and attention to idiots.

      Incidentally, I heard similar the other day in respect of the British royal family. I’m all for sticking it to the royals but, well, I guess I have my limits …

      Cycle safe!

  2. One such analysis can be found here in an approach which seems to take a somewhat utilitarian cost benefit analysis approach.

    A more recent piece from the same author – possibly in response to feedback – poses more general questions on Government strategy, including exit strategy, and seems to have at last got the message that the criteria and key driver for the UK Government at least is to prevent or at least mitigate the impact on what passes for the UK hollowed out health and social services systems.

    No doubt other Governments are equally exercised about preventing or mitigating such an impact on existing capacity.

    There are certainly a lot of questions which need to be asked which don’t seem to be getting an airing.

    The metrics in the data from China are being quoted as having a higher rate of infection pass on rate per person; more severe symptoms; longer periods of hospitalisation; higher mortality rates and so on than the far older influenza virus. See here for example.

    – On the basis of the known facts in terms of incubation periods, transmission and infection rates, hospitalisation and critical care rates do we have sufficient capacity in terms of

    (i) Hospital beds and associated medical equipment?
    (ii) Isolation facilities for at risk groups?

    In our hospital and social care systems?

    It seems reasonable to observe this depends on the rate at which cases present. Prediction and anticipation for plannng purposes being based on the dynamics of the first example, China, along with current experience elsewhere.

    The UK and US Government’s at least, after an initial period of treating this like an ordinary outbreak of flu/nothing to worry about in order to carry on business as usual appear to have decided we don’t have the capacity in our systems (social care for isolation of vulnerable groups as well as hospital facilities) and are desperately attempting to shut the door after the horse has bolted.

    In this regard the argument about whether someone actually died of Covid-19* rather than an underlying health problem like diabetes, chronic asthma, heart condition, a form of cancer or whatever totally misses the point.

    *Leaving aside the fact many deaths are being unrecorded for a variety of reasons – only recorded in hospital; people being sent back to care homes; inadequate testing etc, all of which it is reasonable to observe may be far higher than any claimed misrecording.

    It may well be the case many of those with existing health issues would have died in the not too distant future. Three, six, nine months, one year or more down the time line. But that is the whole point. Further down the time line. Not all putting stress and strain on an under resourced and under prepared health and social care system in a short period of time.

    Consequently, the argument about whether Covid-19 should not be recorded as the cause of death due to the presence of other health issues is totally irrelevant Covid-19 was the cause of cases in numbers putting a strain on health and social service systems over a short period of time. Taking up facilities which patients with other conditions are unable to access.

    That is the real life equation serious policy decision making has to deal with in real time – in some cases as a result of previous policy failures to contain, plan for contingencies, and hollowing out of facilities and system capacity.

    Consequently, questions need to be posed as to how systems became so run down and why advice from the WHO to test and contain at an early stage etc were ignored. Along with allowing the situation to get out of control to the extent that drastic measures – which it is recognised only a percentage of the population will and are adhering to anyway- have been put in place?

    In the absence of existing capacity to properly isolate vulnerable groups – which is not just the elderly, pregnant women are an at risk group – and in a situation in which the spread has already been allowed to get out of control with every likelihood of breaching medical capacity to deal with patients presenting as a result of this single trigger cause never mind everybody else who needs those facilities the question arises:

    – What realistic alternative is being proposed?

    Other questions which need to be addressed include:

    – The extent to which the response to Covid-19 can be realisticly be classified as the cause in the way it is being classified, rather than a symptom, of the collapse an unsustainable financial system which even some Capitalists are complaining is not Capitalism.?

    – With Brexit less than nine months away and the EU having its own problems dealing with this how, if ever, is Brexit going to be negotiated in a practical way?

    – Will the EU as an institution, project and ideal survive the current situation given its incoherent approach and very public absence of its core principles of solidarity?

    – When we lack the capacity and contingency planning to adequately deal with a pandemic how will we manage the very drastic supply chain challenges arising from absenting the single market and the customs union – assuming they still exist come the end of the year?

    Regardless of Govermental dictact or none a lot of people are making their own minds up. One area impacted by people voting with their feet is that of global seasonal food production staples dependent upon migrant workers for harvesting. Rice and wheat futures prices are already rising.

    – How will global food production and pricing be managed in this context?

    • Some good points here Dave. This for instance:

      Leaving aside the fact many deaths are being unrecorded for a variety of reasons – only recorded in hospital; people being sent back to care homes; inadequate testing etc, all of which it is reasonable to observe may be far higher than any claimed misrecording.

      It may well be the case many of those with existing health issues would have died in the not too distant future. Three, six, nine months, one year or more down the time line. But that is the whole point. Further down the time line. Not all putting stress and strain on an under resourced and under prepared health and social care system in a short period of time.

      That’s the flattening the curve argument, and anyone who calls it nonsense is grinding one hell of an axe. Ditto anyone who says it’s absolutely the way to go, and ‘herd immunity’ is the nonsense. The axe grinding gets especially preposterous when the people so sure of the truth of either of these things has no relevant expertise.

      What I’m noting is a classic scenario of people on all sides having difficulty accepting the reality of uncertainty and – like kids in the schoolyard threatening one another with “my dad’s gonna beat up your dad” – citing their experts of choice as if cherry picked scientists and cherry picked findings could somehow deliver a decisive verdict on a matter as complex as this.

      I’ve seen people I respect adopt messianic tones as they toss inflammatory terms around like confetti. “Cowards”, shriek those who insist this is no worse than flu, and that those who accept CV-19 as a new and grave threat must ipso facto be frit by mainstream ‘fear porn’. “Idiots”, bellow back those who say anyone questioning the lockdown must be a conspiracy wingnut.

      I wish people weren’t quite so damn sure of themselves, but I guess it’s one of the many paradoxes of the human condition that, as uncertainty rises, so does our compulsion to embrace the illusion of certainty.

      That said, I’m still mulling over the wisdom of my pal Mark. “When we don’t know”, he said to me, “it’s no time to be changing the status quo”. Except, of course, that “we” did change it, and now this is the status quo …

      FWIW my prediction is that precisely because there is uncertainty – hence latitude in which to cherry-pick the science – and powerful interests are being hurt by lockdown, the calls for ending it will become irresistable. Though when the damage wreaked by so drastic a remedy will be healed – and when if ever the freedoms so readily signed away will be returned – are anyone’s guess.

  3. Have you seen this, Phil? A case of abuse of power here,

    I think it’s obvious that there was a contrite response only due to the video going viral (if you’ll pardon the expression!) but I wonder what is not being filmed?

    • My erstwhile local constabulary at it again. As if Hillsborough, inviting the Beeb to film the search of chez Sir Cliff – and, not to forget, Rotherham sex abuse failings – weren’t sufficient. This reminds me of the woman on a bench at Richmond a week or so ago. What was dismaying there was the number of comments siding with the police officer because he was being polite. Of which we can say two things. One, as you note, police will be polite, won’t they, when looking into a smartphone lens in the age of social media. Two, it’s nice when people are polite but that’s no reason for surrending rights to someone acting without lawful authority.

      The Richmond woman, middle class and more articulate than Rotherham man – who for all that did nobly – cannily refused to accept a fixed penalty notice. How many of us would know to act as she did? This site offers useful advice on the issue.

      In fairness, I’m going out every day and often see cops. None have shown any desire to stop me.

  4. Have you seen this piece by Diane Johnstone? It seems to me to be very good.

    As to the controversy over statistics, they are inevitable- and of little significance. A very large number of people have underlying conditions, or health problems. Many of these conditions are pretty well untreated, sometimes because people are reluctant to go to doctors, sometimes because access is difficult.
    Incidentally I am getting a Not Secure notice with the site. I think that its new.

    • Will read later, bevin. I rate DJ.

      Could you elaborate on stats being of little significance? Both Bhakdi and to lesser degree Wittkowski voice concerns over quality of data being gathered.

      Ta for the tip-off. I’ll keep my eye on this. It may simply be that I’ve long been putting off updating WordPress. Or it may be more sinister …

      • The Diane Johnstone article has an excellent reponse below by Stephen Morrell who points out the irrelevance of simply asking for “reforms”.

        Speaking of Mr Morrell, there is a very interesting debate (of sorts) between him and Louis Proyect here. It tells you everything you need to know about Proyect.

        • I’ll read Ms Johnstone’s piece, and Mr Morrell’s BTL remarks, later. Thanks to you and to bevin. Meanwhile a paper has been sent to me on the Spain stats.

          No rest for the wicked, but I’d have it no other way.

  5. Thanks for this link bevin, a rare oasis in a desert of clickbait.

    Whilst not on the same scale of analytical insight and much as I find it annoying quoting particular sources/observers this piece also raises practical and pertinent issues and questions which are getting buried and ignored by a fixation with particular hobby horses. A fixation which, as previously observed, is conveniently letting the PTB off the hook on a whole range of issues.

    One case in point being the PM ‘s hospital stay. The official version, at least for now, is Johnson was admitted to hospital on Sunday evening 5th April and was released on Friday 10th April. A five day stay.

    On the basis of statistics showing an average 11 day stay in hospital for cases of Covid-19 who do require a hospital bed, compared to ordinary flu which only requires 5-6 days on average this seems a remarkable recovery worthy of questions being raised.

    How many male patients admitted to hospital with Covid-19 of a similar age, weight etc to Johnson have been discharged after only five days? Did he really have this particular new strain of Coronovirus or just an ordinary bout of flu?

    Of course, those kind of questions disappear entirely, conveniently so, if every metric associated with Covid-19 which is being used as a guide to policy decisions is challenged, refuted, and claimed to be a deliberate falsehood. Whether it’s number of infections per patient, mortality rate, average stay in hospital, percentages of hospital and critical care cases, or whatever on the basis it is no more lethal than a normal case of flu.

    Some people seem to be doing a sterling job for the PTB on this issue with such diversions.

    Having tracked the official statistics for the best part of a month or so against a model with specific numerical assumptions what has proved useful is not so much what is there but what is not there, reading between the lines.

    Given all Governments, of whatever persuasion, will always seek to manage public perception using statistics it remains puzzling that this UK Government is allowing the closed cases figures which it is releasing into the public domain to be released.

    Since 29 March the number of recovered/discharged patients from hospital arising from recorded Covid-19 cases has remained static at 135 whilst the number of closed cases resulting in death has climbed. As of yesterday this suggests a current survival rate of Covid-19 cases in UK hospitals of approximately 1.4%.

    Of course, we know that figure to be wrong simply on the basis that at least one high profile case was successfully discharged on Good Friday, having decided not to wait until Easter Sunday to rise from the bed. Today we appear to have shot up to 344 improving the survival rate to just under 3.5%. Which is probably the worst official figure on the planet right now.

    The fact this does not seem to be even raising eyebrows suggest the UK Government is confident no one will raise it and that it can get away with anything and everything it wants.

    Including the idea that what it calls a “lockdown” is in anyway effective with planes still landing from all other the world with no containment protocols at ports of entry; people packed cheek by jowl onto public transport; and the majority of people still leaving their houses despite the odd exceptional outlier like the Rotherham front garden case and a few fines which are statistically insignificant. Most breaches will get away with it.

    Because the practical reality is that not only do we not possess sufficient resources for an effective lockdown in terms of the “police state” fear porn being pushed down out throats the Government have not put in place sufficient resources and systems to make it effective.

    As a result, as Galloway implies, the practical reality is that despite the apparent U-turn on 16 and 23 March the culling the herd approach is being pursued by stealth.

    And they are getting away with it because people are being told and directed to look over there at something else rather than what is actually taking place on the ground.

  6. I’m very much with you Phil in struggling to steer a coherent course between ‘How dare you question what needs to be done to defeat this evil’, my anger at the government’s flagrant abuse of evidence in the use of the lockdown mantra and trying to grasp the contrasting elements of critiques of this strategy. The ‘herd immunity’ strategy seems to be very much a hypothesis at this stage – the two doctors in our co-housing community say that there is still a huge amount of ignorance about how the virus behaves.

    In getting us to ‘all pull together’ in a blitz spirit they are clearly, as you say, drawing attention away from the chronic state of health care here (and of course elsewhere in the world – I feel terrified for those in ‘less developed countries’ and those in places like occupied Palestine where Israel has recently demolished a health clinic in the West Bank).

    What comes to my mind is that this softening up through the propaganda of a creeping narrative about the NHS has been going on for a long time. When my mum worked as a medical secretary in a Croydon hospital in the 70’s (no ‘Trusts’ then), I well remember there being talk from government about the ‘waste in the NHS’ and how this needed to be eliminated; moving on from there through ‘reducing unnecessary bureaucracy’ and ‘increasing efficiency’ to the severe cuts of the past decade+, we arrive at now with no spare capacity in the system to deal with the pandemic and the cynical call to ‘Protect the NHS’.

    No wonder it’s so hard to challenge the dominant story when the media have also bought into all of these narratives along the way.

    • the two doctors in our co-housing community say that there is still a huge amount of ignorance about how the virus behave

      That’s my understanding, Paul. The two broad groups I’ve been engaging with are those who fear the threats to liberty, and those who denounce capitalism’s failures along lines you sketch out. (All should read the Mike Davis interview, linked from my subsequent post, Pandemic, super-capitalism and struggle.)

      In principle the two positions can co-exist but neither camp seems willing to hear the other. Speaking broadbrush, as one with a foot in both, the denouncers of capitalism ignore the likes of Professor Bhakdi and Professor Wittkowski while the libertarians (a) overstate the extent to which such voices play down CV-19 – Bhakdi opens his letter to Merkel by stating that “it is expressly not my intention to play down the dangers of the virus” – and (b) ignore voices less convenient to what is often a singleminded focus on the drift to authoritarianism. Alarming as that drift is, it’s not the only thing going on here. I may be way off the mark but I see the cherry picking as more epistemological naivety than mendacity. Only this afternoon I read this on FB:

      I’m lucky enough to know Dr Bill Kirkupp and this is largely his take.
      He worked for previous governments and is entirely apolitical, btw.

      Well that settles everything of course! Follow the link but expect to be underwhelmed.

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