Covid 19: Folly to correct mistakes when heading the wrong way

Johannes Wessels (@johannesEOSA1) & Mike Schüssler (@mikeschussler)

When president Ramaphosa in his path-forward-to-lockdown-level-3-address-about-announcements-that-would-be-announced-when-central-command-will-be-ready-to-announce-these acknowledged some mistakes and promised that the government would rectify these, it invoked the fear of Russel Ackoff’s f-laws: correcting mistakes whilst pursuing the wrong strategy takes one further away from one’s goal.

Following a build-up of criticism that the severe lock-down was causing havoc to the economy with a GDP contraction in excess of 12% increasingly probable, Ramaphosa announced on 24 May the whole country would move on June 1 to Lock-down Level 3. 

The python of state control is still crushing our freedoms

Voila! Progress? The economy could now reboot. Rather déjà vu.

Instead of opening, the python of state control is not releasing its crushing coils around the economy and continues to squeeze the life out of our constitutional freedoms. Jogging on a beach or a family drive in a vehicle through the Kruger National Park is still considered as a far greater danger of spreading the virus than a church gathering of 50 people.

Marianne Merten’s assessment in the Daily Maverick

The management of the Covid 19-strategy has deteriorated to the level of a farcical comedy, comprising announcements by the president that are then (partially) revoked by members of cabinet.

Add the illogical utterances by Cele and Mbalula, the promotion of syndicate smuggling through prohibition measures on alcohol and cigarettes and the prescriptive diktats by Ebrahim Patel on what kind of clothing may be manufactured by textile factories and displayed and sold by stores, and it looks like another performance of the circus of incompetence.

True to form the new show revealed that the ban on cigarettes remains a key strategy in protecting the citizens from the voracious Covid 19 beast. Should the SAPS find at a roadblock (and Cele promised many of these) discover cigarettes, there will be problems: “if it is illegal to sell cigarettes, it is illegal to buy them“, he stated, adding that SAPS has the right to search for such invoices.

And whilst domestic air travel for business purposes appear to be allowed, the hotels or guest houses where business travellers would overnight, remain closed.

Is Covid 19 this government’s Vietnam?

No reshuffling of cabinet by the president, rather a confirmation of the collective nature of the decisions and more calls on the citizenry to obey the lock-down regulations and to persevere in unity that lives can be protected.   It reminds of the US leadership that had called for more commitment and perseverance whilst muddling on with the Vietnam war which they knew they could not win.

Is the government treating the citizens like mushrooms on “the Covid 19 pandemic” just as the US government had misled the American population about that war? 

Persisting with a policy and strategy of a nation-wide lock-down (at the outset there were alternatives available) amongst growing evidence that the assumptions on which they were based were, if not wrong, at least grossly off the mark, would amount to folly of disastrous proportions.  

Mid-February Covid 19 deaths became the central theme internationally.  The World Health Organisation declared Covid 19 as a pandemic on 11 March. Imperial College said their modelling indicated that 500 000 people in the UK and 2.2 million in the US would die if the governments would not take drastic action.

On March 23, the UK declared a national lock-down.

South Africa followed suit the next day, indicating that up to 350 000 Covid deaths could be on the cards and that all should be done to “flatten the curve” so that the health system can be prepared for what would come.

Sweden never went into lock-down whilst Germany, Austria and Switzerland introduced far more nuanced disease contagion measures, focusing on large events and businesses operating in confined spaces whilst maintaining largely freedom of movement and allowing citizens to exercise. Other countries followed a geographic differentiation between areas with high and low infection rates.

Fear more such improvements

After 5 weeks of a hard lockdown with implementation that the UN described as a “toxic lockdown culture”, the SA government “improved” the lockdown by introducing a curfew, by deciding when citizens can exercise, and by deciding which T-shirts can be bought or not.

It is improvements like this that invoke fear when the president promises to rectify the mistakes they have made: “Some of the actions we have taken have been unclear, some have been contradictory and some have been poorly explained… Where we have disappointed, we will make amends. Where we make mistakes, we will continue to correct them.”

As management guru Russell Ackoff said when formulating his famous f-laws: “Improving your performance whilst pursuing the wrong strategy will take you further from success.

Let’s revisit the original intent of the lock-down: the argument was to delay the spread of the virus “to flatten the curve” thereby enabling the health industry (public and private) to prepare beds and equipment for when the disease would strike in all its might.

Is the government shy of revealing their models?

There was never an indication – except for the president’s instruction in camouflage dress to the SANDF to “kill the virus” – that the disease could be prevented.  It was about a delay strategy to buy time to be better prepared for the worst.

To date we know some 30 000 additional beds for quarantine purposes have been prepared, but no detail about the required staffing and other support systems for operationalising these facilities, neither an indication of how many additional ICU beds and ventilators have been prepared where.

That data remains outside the public eye. And the argument to persist with lock-down, even in lighter phases, has changed from buying time to prepare the health system to “saving lives”.

Whilst the original modelling of Imperial College on which lockdown was based (at least in the UK) unraveled under scrutiny of review experts, the SA government still keeps their own assumptions and modelling about the spread of the disease away from scrutiny. They haven’t responded to the PANDA report by actuarial experts Nick Hudson and Peter Castleden that found the impact of the lockdown would be much worse than the health impact of Covid-19 virus itself.

In addition, apart from repeated comments about the damage to the economy, the briefing by National Treasury to Scopa, has been the only indication of modelling the economic impact of lock-down. 

Whilst the cost to the stalled economy increases daily and the rate of enterprise deaths curves upwards, it is important to revisit a few aspects of Covid 19 and the government’s strategy around it again.

Covid 19 punches way below its projected morbidity rate

The lethality impact of Covid19 is at this stage about twenty times lower than originally assumed by the WHO.  

Data: Worldometer

The Worldometer data of the 46 countries that each had on May 17 more than 10 000 Covid 19 cases, indicate a fatality rate of 0,00553% of the population. These countries with a combined population of 5,665 billion accounted then for 94% of the world’s Covid 19 infections and 97% of the Covid 19 related deaths. 

The highest fatality percentage was recorded in Belgium, namely 0.0784% of the population. South Africa’s current fatality rate based on 524 deaths is only 0,00088%.  This percentage will definitely increase when the peak is expected from end June to early August, but it has long been evident that the wolf-crying figure of 350 000 appears to be way out. Government now operates with a figure of 43 000 that would still be higher than double the current global ratio.

The virus is not as lethal as originally projected and this has been in the public eye for at least 8 weeks. The Imperial College model has been criticised as from day 2 after its release.

In SA, heart disease and murderers are more dangerous than Covid 19

In SA, heart disease and murderers are more dangerous than Covid 19

Expressed as the number of deaths per 10 000 of the population, Covid 19 is also far less lethal than heart disease, TB and the threat of murder.

Given the updated picture that emerge and that indicate a very different picture from the initial Imperial College model as well as the WHO estimates, the question should be asked whether a hard lock-down was really required, and if so, whether it was necessary to stretch it out so long as the government is doing.?

If Covid 19 was a person, it would have one leg in the old age home and the other in ICU

At the outset, the warnings came out that Covid 19 is lethal for persons of all age groups.  Whilst data capturing Covid infections and deaths in age groups is surprisingly difficult to obtain, where the information is available, it is clear that the fatality rate is well spread with the lowest percentages of infections below 20 years. But when looking at fatalities, the age groups below 20 hardly appear on the screen and it is the 70 years and older where the vast majority of deaths occur.

In a situation like coping with Covid 19, one has to assess the vulnerability of different categories of the population.  The current Media Hack figure of Covid 19 deaths (as on 26 May) looks frightening with the bulge in the age groups 40 – 90.

At first glance, it appears as if the population in the age group 40-49 is somewhat more vulnerable than those in the age group 80-89. However, it is a classic example of statistics as a bikini: it often conceals more than what it reveals.

When expressing the Media Hack fatality data in conjunction with those of other countries as a percentage of the number of the population in the respective age groups, it is clear that those in the higher age brackets are far more vulnerable than those of 40-49.  In fact, people aged 70 and older are 8.5 times more likely to die with Covid 19 than those aged 20 – 69.

Data: Worldometer, Media Hack & Statista.com

With a later onset of Covid 19 infections, South Africa is barely visible in the 70-89 age group and still lags way behind the other countries in the 90+ age group. Sweden with no lock-down fares much better England and Wales with their long and hard lock-down.

The government should come clean on why it had decided not to take measures to protect the 70 years and older population, rather than closing down the educational system and the economy. Were they motivated by the struggle conviction that “an injury to one is an injury to all” which also underpins Patel’s long objection to allow e-commerce?

Alfresco tuition

In fact: closure of schools and businesses (after the initial 3 weeks to prepare for the coming spike) was unnecessary, provided that they would apply hygiene and social distancing protocols. Denmark opened their schools with double shifts and even alfresco tuition.  The World Bank has pointed out that the closure of schools and the resultant impact on education will contribute to higher inequality.

In England, Covid-19 is not on the podium as a killer in own right

Data of the UK Office for National Statistics is much clearer, as seen in the next figure.  By far the highest rate of fatalities occur in the age group 90 years plus. In addition, Covid-19 is not the main instigator of deaths amongst Covid-19 related fatalities.  On its own, it only came in in fifth place on 9.6%, missing the podium places against Dementia and Alzheimer disease (20.4%), ischaemic heart diseases (10.8%), influenza/pneumonia (10.3%) and chronic lower respiratory diseases (10.2%).  This is based on all Covid related deaths in England and Wales for the months March and April.

South Africa has not to date differentiated between Covid 19 and other causes for the fatalities involving the virus.

The England and Wales data indicates that strategies to protect the really vulnerable in the age group 70 plus would even have enabled those above 70 without such serious conditions to still live their life to the full.

Norway admits lock-down wasn’t necessary and hurt the scholars

In an interview with The Spectator, the director of the Norwegian Health Authority (FHI) admitted that it was the wrong decision to lock down. They just published a report concluding the virus was never spreading as fast as had been feared and “was already on the way out when lock-down was ordered“.

Camilla Stoltenberg of the FHI reckons the academic foundation for arguing for a lock-down was simply not solid enough. It is important to admit this, since should infection levels rise again – or a second wave hits in the winter – one needs to be brutally honest about whether the lock-down proved effective.

The Norwegian statistics agency also found that every week scholars are not in school weakens their life chances as well as their earning potential.

Harming the economy whilst alternative avenues are available

It is clear that reasonable alternative strategies were available from the beginning (no lock-down, geographic differentiation, etc.) and that the scary wolf-crying of Imperial College was countered by several other epidemiologists. Why did the government persist in one of the hardest lock-downs in the world, even introducing a curfew?

It appears that fear-mongering scenarios based on suspect modelling had influenced their decisions and that the economy was dealt a damaging blow by adhering to a strategy that cannot prevent a far-less-deadly-virus than originally contemplated. 

Is the government persisting in making all South Africans poorer by a strategy that had reached its sell-by-date after 21 days, simply to save face?

And is the government running up debts culling its own stream of tax income, burdening those of working age, the young and the unborn for a virus that reaps in the main amongst those of 70 years and older that have other severe health impediments?  

Barbara Tuchman, twice winner of the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction, considered the US policy of war in Vietnam as one of the ultimate manifestations of folly. Year after year, despite a growing library of reports by special advisors and fact-finding missions that had indicated America could not win the war, the US Government continued to pour more and more resources seeking advice from advisers that would support their strategy. Well aware of the likely futility of doggedly pursuing their objectives, they sacrificed 58 000 American lives (with about 200 000 Vietnamese) and devoted $1 trillion (today’s values) to the war effort running up debts that future generations had to burden.

For years they slogged on, hoping on an outcome that would not boil down to them losing face.

A quarter million fewer arrests tell a story

Is this the situation with the Ramaphosa government?

Will they continue to ignore the cloud of witnesses, since they cannot be unaware of the data and evidence that had been around from the beginning, neither of the unfolding picture that has become clearer week after week whilst they prolong the lock-down.

But then, the president had been “surprised” and was supposedly “unaware” on many occasions before, including state capture that has to date seen almost a quarter million fewer arrests than the breach of the disaster regulations…

(One of the authors, Johannes Wessels, is not far from turning 70)

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