Questioning the New Normal

There has always been a nagging doubt somewhere in the back of my mind about the mainstream response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It started when a friend pointed out that when China locked down Hubei province, the violations of human rights were condemned quickly by the likes of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others. Yet when western nations began imposing lockdown in much more extreme ways, human rights advocates appeared to remain silent.  I put it to the back of my mind because surely if our government tell us we must lockdown, then I should trust them and follow their instructions.

Then the mask debate began and I was shocked to hear “wearing masks in public” becoming a normalised thing, despite the fact that the science of how medical masks work has never changed. Apparently if I went to some parts of the world and refused to wear a mask because the science tells me there is no need, I could be shunned at best, and even punished. Some places are now imposing laws regarding the wearing of face masks in public. For months, like most of us, I have obediently followed instructions and trusted mainstream advice despite the nagging doubts that lingered. I have argued against apparent conspiracies criticising the mainstream response. But in recent weeks the talk of maintaining closed borders has begun to resonate very strongly with me, as a seemingly insane idea. How will we ever return to normal? Covid-19 is here to stay, there is no magic wand that is going to suddenly see it disappear. Even if and when a vaccine becomes available, the virus will remain just as influenza remains with us despite availability of effective vaccines.

Instead of remaining fearful and reacting to every new case with the reinforcement of extreme measures, we need to start living again. If not for our own sake, then for the world’s most vulnerable who have no social protection and who are dying, not from Covid-19 but from the global response to Covid-19. New viruses enter the human transmission chain not-infrequently. Some go unnoticed because they do no harm; others, like HIV in the 1980s, create grave fear and panic, and often lead to enormous harm unrelated to the virus itself but rather the human response such as discriminatory laws and communal stigma. In today’s pandemic, social and economic lockdown is the culprit.

Months of lockdown is surely not going to run into years and lifetimes of lockdown because of one single virus entering the human transmission chain? Bankruptcy, starvation, inaccessibility of diagnosis and treatment for people with conditions as serious as cancer and tuberculosis in places as far flung as London to Phnom Penh, rising suicide rates and rising disease incidence of the world’s biggest killers, cannot be considered less important than one virus?

So I looked for a hint that others must be having the same thoughts as me. An English friend said he’d been listening to Oxford and Stanford specialists who are dissenting from the mainstream message. I searched for them and came across the Medical Professionals for Health, Freedom and Democracy at http://www.mshfd.org/. They state a commitment to transmitting scientifically sound information to the public. A YouTube link on their website shows the following summary page:

I then found a link to an interview with Professor Sucharit Bhakdi, infectious disease specialist and one of Germany’s most cited and respected medical research scientists, who in summary states the following.
Coronaviruses co-exist with humans and animals around the world and cause very common, mild diseases of the respiratory tract. Disease is usually subclinical without symptoms. Severe disease occurs almost exclusively in elderly patients with other underlying illness, especially of the lung and heart. When patients have other concurrent illnesses, an infectious agent cannot be held solely responsible for a lethal outcome.

He then goes on to state that as many as 100 people die per day who, if tested, would have positive coronavirus (non-Covid-19) results, but that this is a case of dying “with” rather than “from” a coronavirus. This points to the message from other specialists, that someone who tests positive to Covid-19 at the time they die of (for example), a heart attack, is counted in the numbers of Covid-19 mortality, and that this claim is untrue where that person was going to die regardless of their Covid-19 status.

Yesterday a friend forwarded me an excellent article written by Dr Carlo Caduff, Medical Anthropologist at Kings College in London, titled “What Went Wrong: Corona and the World after the Full Stop“. He explains the series of events leading to global lockdowns becoming an accepted normal response despite lack of evidence as to their effectiveness. Firstly, the Chinese government imposed lockdown on Wuhan and some other cities in Hubei Province in January 2020. At the time World Health Organisation distanced themselves from this decision, claiming it to be an unprecedented action and simultaneously many critics across global media outlets sounded alarm bells.

Two months later WHO declared Covid-19 as a global pandemic and Italy became the first country to impose a national lockdown. This was despite evidence from South Korea and Germany that standard public health measures (testing, isolating infectious cases and contact tracing) were effective at preventing Covid-19 mortality. A few days later, Britain’s Professor Neil Ferguson and colleagues at Imperial College London published a report titled “Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce Covid-19 mortality and health care demand“. Caduff describes that this report, which was not peer-reviewed (a standard approach to ensure that research claims are valid and reliable) “garnered a lot of attention, creating a sense of urgency that amplified the political pressure because the numbers were alarming”. Those numbers, based on mathematical modeling, have proven to be extremely exaggerated, but they are the reason, in the chain of events described, that global lockdowns have been imposed.

What Went Wrong: Corona and the World after the Full Stop can be downloaded for free here.  It describes eloquently and intelligently how the world ended up in a state of lockdown, the extreme harm that lockdown is causing to many millions, why we were vulnerable to such an error in public health action, and why and how we should now reorient our response.


7 thoughts on “Questioning the New Normal

  1. Thanks Helen. Now we need those knowledgeable scientists to show the way through the maze of suffering & economic gloom. Criticism from political Groups is not particularly helpful. Even less the media hype which adds to the confusion.

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  2. I’m worried that you are under-estimating the risk of this Coronavirus.
    Large scale excess deaths this year are shown here:
    https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/04/16/tracking-covid-19-excess-deaths-across-countries

    I acknowledge this isn’t the global picture but clearly shows that COVID is killing thousands and will kill thousands more who would not have died had this pandemic not occurred, not just elderly who were going to die anyway.

    It’s not clear to me that Carduff has an effective alternative response, especially when you consder countries such as Brazil and USA which have denied or under-estimated the potential impact of this disease. Their poor are the worst affected.

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    1. Hi Rosalie

      There’s a difference between acknowledging risk and identifying appropriate responses.

      You have studied public health. What evidence did you ever learn about mass lockdowns and their effectiveness? I remember very well, learning about identifying the organism, isolating cases, contact tracing, systematic processes, vaccination programs, well resourced and coordinated health services, etc. I really don’t remember ever learning that locking down whole regions, nations and multi-nations was an effective preventive measure.

      There’s certainly a body of informed thought, that it a) doesn’t work; b) is counter-productive; c) can cause (as the world is now experiencing) mass suffering.

      If you told me we had to go into global lockdown over an increase of TB cases (which is now happening), I would also argue against that. But that would not mean I didn’t appreciate the impact of TB. I just think that we need to follow evidence based public health practice and veer away from mass hysteria and group thinks.

      If I’m missing something about evidence for lockdown, I’m happy to learn more. I haven’t been able to find any evidence based papers on this at all. What I have found is stories of extreme suffering, inability to access services for killer diseases, and evidence that better resourced and coordinated services experience better outcomes without lockdowns. Lockdowns seem to be a domino reaction steeped in historical events rather than having any evidence base? We’ve run with it due to our fear, rather than because it’s an evidence based public health intervention. Quite honestly, video footage of Indian police beating people who dared to be outside during lockdown, as a single example of many, give me the intuition that this definitely isn’t a public health intervention with any merit.

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  3. “Bridging a false dichotomy in the COVID-19 response: a public health approach to the ‘lockdown’ debate”
    https://gh.bmj.com/content/5/6/e002909.full

    This comprehensive framework highlights different responses to the pandemic, taking into account human rights, health systems and the social determinants of health. Communities require autonomy, not a one-size-fits-all ‘lockdown’.

    “The term ‘lockdown’ has gatecrashed into our vocabulary and imaginations, and its all-encompassing militaristic scope seems to crowd out a diversity of contexts, locations and vulnerabilities. Its stringent implementation by local administrations through ‘curfews’ and ‘sealings’ has converted a lockdown that was initially premised on a public health logic into one with a significant law-and-order component.”

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  4. It feels heartless to call that article interesting. But thanks for sharing it. I feel sure that the gap between direct Covid-19 deaths and so-called indirect “distress deaths” will widen, with distress deaths taking over exponentially. The one-size-fits-all approach is killing people.

    This article is UK specific but I’d like to see other nations learn from their mistakes and not drive over the same cliff.
    https://thecritic.co.uk/issues/july-august-2020/ignoring-the-covid-evidence/

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  5. Rosalie

    Here’s an interesting investigation into causes of excess deaths in this Covid Manic time. So the public health crisis is impacting people everywhere, not just in the poor world.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/investigations/coronavirus-excess-deaths-heart/

    The analysis of data from March 1 to May 30, using a model previously developed by the Yale School of Public Health, shows heart disease is the major driver of excess deaths, excluding those officially attributed to covid-19.

    …………..

    In many cases, experts said, patients suffered through cardiac events, strokes, hyperglycemia and other health difficulties at home, likely fearful of seeking care in hospitals where large numbers of people suffering from covid-19 were receiving treatment.

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