Risk aversion and worst case scenario planning govern our lives

This is an interesting article in the Telegraph about the way that each time the government promises “freedom” from Covid restrictions then soon seem to find another reason not to in fact “grant freedom”. The goalposts keep moving. I was struck by this piece of analysis:

What seems to be going on is that every one is covering their backs. Ministers want to pass the buck to the scientists. They want to be able to say “What a triumph for our policies” if things turn out fine; and “We followed the science” if they turn out badly. The scientists don’t like being made to carry the can for what is basically a political judgment. They want to be able to say “These were only scenarios, not predictions” if things turn out fine; and “We told you so” if they turn out badly. Each group is trying to manipulate the other. Balanced assessments based on actual evidence are sadly missing.

That is – both sides are risk averse. Each side is trying to avoid being in a position where they can be accused publicly of having made a mistake. The result; the scientists produce a range of models including some at the very “pessimistic” end. This way – if the government picks a more optimistic model they can still say “well; we gave you the pessimistic model and it is the government’s fault that they chose to use the optimistic model”. And the government chooses to base policy on the worst-case model so that if things go wrong no one can say : “it was your fault; you should have used one of the more pessimistic models”. Everyone is risk averse and the public ends up with a bad outcome.

Continue reading “Risk aversion and worst case scenario planning govern our lives”

Why is the liberal media suppressing the Chinese lab theory for the origin of Sars-Cov-2?

A likely candidate for the origin for Sars-Cov-2 is the Level 4 Bio secure lab in Wuhan where scientists were conducting research into Coronaviruses from bats from several hundred Km away and where a previous research project had involved a gain-of-function experiment – (manipulating a virus to make it more infectious to humans for valid but controversial research purposes).

A second theory is that it could have jumped from bats to humans almost certainly via an intermediary animal. (Bats are so far genetically removed from humans that an intermediary animal is much more likely than direct transfer). Wuhan animal market has been canvassed as a likely source though there is some evidence which seems to suggest that it was not the epicentre of the epidemic. The supposed intermediary animal has yet to be identified credibly though there was an organised effort in China to point to pangolins (but this is not accepted as established).

Attentive and scientifically literate readers will note that I am discussing theories. No one knows – these are just theories and one can weigh them up, consider which way the evidence tends and come to a provisional conclusion. The fact is that right now there isn’t much concrete and definitive evidence for either the lab theory or the transfer from bats via an intermediary animal to humans theory other than from genetic analysis. The majority of virologists seem to believe that Sars-Cov-2 does not show signs of having been engineered in a lab. But not all. [2] I am struck by the coincidence of the outbreak occurring just a few Km from a lab where controversial research had been previously conducted into just this type of virus, which occurs naturally some hundreds of Km away, and by the existence of well-documented efforts by the Chinese authorities to prevent a free investigation into the origins either by journalists (a BBC team was interfered with) or by scientists (some scientists on the WHO mission have said that they were not provided with full data).

Other significant voices have argued for the likelihood of the lab origin. This is David Asher a US official who investigated the matter for the State Department. He says that there was an early cluster – workers from the Biolab. He raises the possibility that the virus was part of a military research programme. Sky News also reports (not David Asher) that a key database from the Wuhan Institute of Virology was taken offline in 9/2019. The Institute claims that this was due to hacking attempts. Alternatively it reflects an early crisis at the lab. The US State Departments belief that there was an early outbreak amongst lab staff is also reported by the Daily Telegraph. The full State Department document is here.

I’m interested in how the liberal press is working so (so) hard to squash the lab theory and I wonder why this is. This, is an example of this in the Guardian:

The origin of the pandemic has become a political football with some, including Dr Robert Redfield, a former director of the CDC, suggesting without evidence the virus escaped a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

The phrase here “suggesting without evidence” is the one they have settled on to try to discredit this theory. It is widely used and deployed against anyone who suggests the lab as the origin for Sars-Cov-2. Let’s look at what Dr Robert Redfield actually said. (After all, he is a former director of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and a former University professor of virology, so not some kind of fringe loon). He said: “I am of the point of view that I still think the most likely aetiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory, escaped. The other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out” [1]

He didn’t “suggest without evidence”. He simply expressed his view that of the competing theories for the aetiology of Sars-Cov-2 the lab theory is the most likely. Scientists deal with theories and Dr Redfield is simply saying that this is the theory he favours – explicitly acknowledging that he could turn out to be wrong. I.e. he demonstrates that he understands how science works.

It is possible that the Guardian simply doesn’t understand how science works. (How theories can be be developed. How a scientist can favour one theory while still being open to an alternative theory being proved when all the evidence is in). But the systematic insistence with which they try to misrepresent all such theorizing tells me that it isn’t just intellectual clumsiness but that someone at a political-editorial level has decided that the line must be to suppress the lab theory. I’m interested in why. (And who is behind it).

One highly unlikely theory for the origin of Sars-Cov-2 is something to do with it being imported into China in chilled food. This theory has even found its way into the current WHO report – advocated for by Chinese members of the ‘investigation’ team. Its function is to spread out and dilute the lab theory. The Guardian plays the role asked of it by China:

While concluding that the two least likely hypotheses for the emergence of the deadly virus – a leak from a lab (pushed by senior Trump officials) and being introduced via frozen food from outside (promoted by China) 

Chinese officials will be delighted with the Guardian’s reporting. They have equated the highly credible lab theory with this highly dubious claim about chilled food and thus managed to discredit the lab theory.

In the same report the Guardian also claims that Mike Pompeo – who has raised the possibility of the lab origin – has done so “without evidence”. But this is not true – unless ‘evidence’ means a signed confession and a vial of the engineered virus. The State Department in the dying days of the Trump Presidency published a detailed paper (also linked to above) in which they raise the possibility of the lab being the origin. (The paper remains on the State Department web site under the new President). It is worth noting that no direct accusation is made; simply the two leading theories (lab origin and animal origin) are discussed. “The virus could have emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals, spreading in a pattern consistent with a natural epidemic. Alternatively, a laboratory accident could resemble a natural outbreak if the initial exposure included only a few individuals and was compounded by asymptomatic infection.” The document reviews the evidence of cover-up and other factors such as the early cluster of sick lab workers. Together these factors do indeed give rise to serious questions. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence here.

One possible reason why the liberal press is working in overdrive to squash the lab theory may be that it is associated with Trump. [2] Though for me that explanation doesn’t seem to quite explain everything.

Notes

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/26/science/redfield-coronavirus-wuhan-lab.html
  2. https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/03/18/1021030/coronavirus-leak-wuhan-lab-scientists-conspiracy/

How the UK was held hostage in the pandemic

Some countries have controlled the virus more or less successfully. Some common factors seem to be: a willingness to lockdown and quarantine early, effective tracing, strong social compliance – and a lack of fat people.

The UK is notorious for having a lengthy and debilitating lockdown leading to huge economic damage alongside one of the worst death rates in the world. There are various reasons for the UK’s very high mortality rate. They include: high rates of obesity, a grotesque blunder (in fact a deliberate policy) in releasing Covid infected people into nursing homes early on in the crisis (alone causing 18,000 avoidable deaths), a lack of social compliance with restrictions, and a tendency throughout the crisis to bring in lockdown and border quarantine measures too late – especially relevant is the way that even as Italy was being engulfed in crisis in March 2020 people were still being allowed to travel to France and Italy for holidays and bring the virus back with them. The disaster has been partly due to ineptitude on the part of the country’s leading scientists e.g. Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty (going for ‘herd immunity’ as the first response) and partly a result of the Prime Minister’s inability to ever be seen to be taking an unpopular decision. A decision to outsource the contact tracing to private companies seems also to have played a part. It turns out, predictably enough, that local officials are more effective than untrained call centre operatives at obtaining compliance with quarantining measures. The figures for the numbers of people who have caught Covid while in hospital are shocking.

The restrictions continue and look set to continue for a considerable period. But it remains a fact that for people outside the high-risk groups Covid 19 is a low-risk disease. Not fun, more serious than flu, but nonetheless one which probably doesn’t justify abandoning normal life and living in caves for 5 – 10 years.

The UK’s response has not been rational. It has been controlled by various shibboleths. These are: the tendency to fetishize the NHS; surveillance and punishment as the primary resource of government; and ‘greed and capitalism‘ as a solution to all problems.

The NHS has very little space capacity. There are not very many empty ICU and acute care beds even at the best of times. The controlling principle (after the early herd immunity gambit was abandoned) has been to control the number of cases reaching hospital. This is still the guiding principle. This has been done by lockdowns and an attempt to trace contacts of those who are infected – simply to supress overall infection rates and control the flow into the very limited number of spare beds in the NHS. 60 million people are being controlled because of a lack of some tens of thousands of spare beds in hospitals. [1] The regime has been brought in by legislation. There are fines for non-compliance. The police have enthusiastically embraced their role of lockdown policemen – in many cases exceeding their lawful authority and fining people for not obeying guidance. The rate of cases arriving at hospital is being controlled by the kind of surveillance and punishment system outlined as the paradigm of modern societies by Foucault. It isn’t particularly effective it seems (even after weeks of lockdown the UK’s R number is barely below 1 in March 2021 – 0.7-09. on 29/3/21) but it is the paradigm so the solution has been done in these terms.

A second shibboleth of contemporary UK society is the ideological principle that all social problems can be solved by giving enormous sums of money to (often US) multinationals to ‘deliver’ solutions. Test and Trace cost billions and made a ‘marginal’ difference at the height of the pandemic. More recent research has shown that it is isolating by infected people and not by contacts of infected people which makes the significant difference to transmission – thus further calling the whole Test and Trace operation into question. But the important principle was maintained – shovelling huge amounts of public money (in this case borrowed) into private hands.

As Ivan Illich would certainly have understood the actual and needed solution was not one which can be ‘delivered’ in a top-down approach. Sars-Covd-2 is a respiratory virus. How to reduce transmission of such viruses is well-known and simple. While the virus does transmit for a certain period during the course of an infection asymptomatically nonetheless the single key factor would be for symptomatic people to self-isolate. A simple campaign to encourage this – together with financial support for those on low-incomes would probably have been as effective as the entire lockdown and Test and Trace systems in reducing transmission and overall case numbers. But the automatic reflex is a punishment and surveillance system because this is the paradigm of the day. Despite the fact that the rhetoric about reason and democracy – the ostensible values on which UK society is found – would propose instead cooperation and voluntary consent.

The problem of limited bed space in NHS hospitals has an obvious solution: build and operate special field hospitals. We were told (after huge sums had been spent building them – guess what) that there were no staff to run field hospitals. But this isn’t true. They could have been run by a combination of army medics, trainee nurses, fast-trained auxiliary nurses, volunteers, and imported professional nurses (e.g. from New Zealand – were cases are very low). Keeping Covid cases in dedicated large field hospitals would a) have more or less completely removed the rational for lockdown (controlling the flow of cases into the very limited ICU and acute care units in NHS hospitals) and b) massively reduced case numbers of people catching Covid in hospital, thus reducing overall deaths. Why didn’t this happen? Probably because the NHS is a closed shop and it would have horrified the leadership (in Public Health England) to have had a very public demonstration that the NHS is not indispensable, and cannot in fact cope with an epidemic. There is no rational reason why it should be able to cope with an epidemic. But the imagery and mythology – the fetish around the NHS – requires that the illusion of an all-encompassing capacity to save be maintained.

A rational approach to the virus would have been a) to rely on infected and symptomatic people to self-isolate voluntarily, financially supporting those on low incomes b) to have used testing discriminately e.g. to protect nursing homes c) to have built field hospitals and d) to have imposed border controls at the start of the epidemic to reduce the initial wave. Such an approach of course would not have enriched large numbers of people who already have quite enough money. And it would have (and this is the worse horror) and shown people that self-reliance and voluntary cooperation is more effective than top-down solutions involving large state and private corporations at solving problems.

The scale of the disaster in the UK is directly the result of irrational clinging to various fetishistic and totemic poles of the modern paradigm. There is no sign at all that this is going to change in the near future. (Though if Foucault is right – we can expect paradigm shift at some point).

Notes

  1. https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/healthcare

Western agit-prop on Russia

Dominic Raab the UK Foreign Secretary is denouncing Russia for arresting ‘peaceful’ protestors for ‘merely expressing dissent’.

In the same article linked above the Guardian reports that protestors are blocking traffic.

In the UK last summer hundreds of people were arrested for blocking the roads in London in Extinction Rebellion protests. They face more serious penalties than many of those arrested in Russia.

This so often heard call about ‘peaceful protests’ is imperialism. Apart from the indisputable fact that people in the UK are arrested for ‘peaceful protests’ the fact is that these people are breaking Russian laws. Why does Raab think that ‘peaceful protests’ trump Russian law? Who is he to rewrite Russian law?

And, to make Raab’s calls for Russia to allow “peaceful protests” even more absurd we can note that as of now political protest in the UK – even a single-person protest – is completely illegal. Any political protest. Russia is also in a Coronavirus epidemic: the logic is that Raab thinks that in the UK the epidemic justifies a total ban on political protests, but in Russia large demonstrations should go ahead. It turns out that Raab doesn’t care a jot about ordinary Russians and whether they catch Covid. In fact he is all for it if it will lead to a political change and a more privatised Western-friendly business environment.

These people are absolutely despicable.