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British Roulette

“I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose their loved ones before their time.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 11 March 2020

“Just stay calm. It will go away.”
President Donald Trump, 10 March 2020

The contrast between the two major populist leaders of the English-speaking world could not have been greater. Trump, who spent two months dismissing the Covid-19 virus as a “hoax” cooked up by his opponents to crash the market and scupper his re-election chances, finally did an about-face on 13 March and declared a “National Emergency”. But on Sunday he was still fantasizing that “we have tremendous control” over the virus.

Johnson, on the other hand, assumed a grave manner as he delivered the bad news. It’s serious, many people will die, but we do have a plan. The problem is that the plan may kill a great many Britons for nothing if he is wrong – which most experts think he is.

“When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire,” epidemiologist William Hanage of Harvard University told the Guardian on Sunday. But it is deadly serious. Boris Johnson, unlike Donald Trump, listens to scientists, but the ones he listens to most, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical adviser Chris Whitty, have a plan that most other experts think is crazy.

‘Herd immunity’ occurs when a large majority of the community has acquired immunity to a disease. That breaks the chain of transmission for the virus in question, and even those without immunity are fairly safe so long as their numbers stay low. So this is Boris’s cunning plan.

Let the coronavirus spread until around 60 percent of the population has acquired and survived it. Then the dreaded ‘second wave’ of the epidemic will not happen, because herd immunity will protect everybody. Alas, there are a few flaws in this plan.

Sixty percent of the British population is about 40 million people. Only 0.2% of adults under 40 who contract Covid-19 die from it (and those under 10 don’t get sick at all). The death rate goes up steeply for older age groups, but even for those in their 60s it’s only 3.6%. So for all the under-70s it’s only – hang on a minute, that’s 445,000 deaths. More than British military deaths in World War Two.

That’s assuming that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) can give intensive care to all the severe cases of Covid-19. If the UK follows the pattern in China, around one in five coronavirus patients will need intensive care to recover. One in five of 40 million people is eight million.

The number of beds in intensive care units (ICUs) in British hospitals is 4,300. Maybe the NHS can improvise 10,000 more, but it still wouldn’t go far if up to 8 million severely ill patients need ICU beds this year, each for weeks at a time. Many more than 445,000 would die. The whole scheme is lunacy – and we still haven’t got to the plan for the over-70s.

The death rate from Covid-19 for people in their 70s is 8%. For 80 and over, it’s at least 15 %. So while everybody under 70 takes their chances with the virus, all those over 70 must self-isolate for four months. Those who venture out can be fined up to £1,000 (US$ 1,230) or even jailed.

Moreover, there may be unknown after-effects of having Covid-19, like getting shingles decades after you had chickenpox. There are reports of lung damage in many survivors. Re-infection may be possible: infected people have tested positive again after being discharged negative. Why don’t we give Covid-19 to 40 million people and see what happens?

Now, it’s possible that Boris Johnson’s advisers are right and everybody else is wrong. Maybe there is a devastating ‘second wave’ coming next winter, and this bizarre plan is the only way to stop it. But we don’t even know if Covid-19 will have a second wave. There wasn’t with SARS, a similar coronavirus. As William Hanage said, “vulnerable people should not be exposed to a virus right now in the service of a hypothetical future.”

Elsewhere, there’s a dramatic fall in the number of new infections in Asian countries that started testing, contact tracing and social distancing early on. China has had 81,000 cases, but on Monday reported only seven new cases. No official will say this aloud, but Britain is deliberately neglecting all that and letting the infections rip.

Testing, contact tracing and social distancing may turn out to be ineffective: infections may pick up again in other countries when the rules are finally relaxed. (280 million Chinese went back to work on Monday after two months of lockdown). But that strategy is certainly worth a try, whereas Johnson, in the words of Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of leading British medical journal ‘The Lancet’, is “playing roulette with the public.”

Why is he doing it? Perhaps it’s just arrogance (aka the ‘Brexit spirit’): Britain knows best, and should always steer its own course. But he probably just prefers a policy that does not cripple the economy, and doesn’t understand the implications.

So not all that much difference between the mini-Trump and the real thing after all. And the ‘herd immunity’ nonsense probably won’t last long once the British public realises what Johnson’s government is actually planning.
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THIS ARTICLE is a bit longer than usual. To shorten it to 850 words, omit paragraph 12 (“Moreover…happens”). To shorten further to 750 words, omit also paragraphs 14 and 16. (“There has…rip”; and “Why…implications”)

Pangolin Balls Erectile Dysfunction Chinese Wet Market Virus

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has run afoul of the language police. Last Thursday he publicly called the ‘coronavirus’ that has already killed 0.000013% of the world’s population the ‘Wuhan virus’. When challenged about this criminal violation of linguistic propriety on Friday he just said it again. The World Health Organisation (WHO) was shocked.

I know how Pompeo must feel, because my innocent suggestion that we call it the ‘Pangolin Balls Erectile Dysfunction Chinese Wet Market Virus’ got an equally hostile reception. It broke the WHO’s rules on naming new human infectious diseases.

The WHO guidelines, issued in 2015, say that names must avoid geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), people’s names (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), species of animal or food (swine flu, monkey pox), cultural or occupational references (legionnaires’ disease), and terms that incite fear (e.g. ‘fatal’ or ‘epidemic’).

So you may die of it, but nobody’s feelings will be hurt. COVID-19 may be boring, but at least nobody will think it has anything to do with China. In reality, however, everybody knows that China made a mess of this.

First of all, the age-old Chinese cultural tradition of blaming the messenger, reinforced by the Communist Party’s very hierarchical structure, delayed public acknowledgement that there was a dangerous virus active in Wuhan for several crucial weeks.

Dr Li Wenliang, the first person to raise the alarm about a viral outbreak on social media, was warned by the police not to spread rumors. (He died recently after being infected with COVID-19.)

The mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, admitted last month that he had delayed taking public action to slow the spread of the virus – like banning Wuhan residents from travelling elsewhere for Chinese New Year, for example. Why? Because local government had to get permission (from Communist Party headquarters) before fully disclosing information about the virus.

Secondly, the Chinese version of the internet is now seething with stories about how the United States developed the virus in its secret labs and deliberately planted it in China. There are conspiracy theorists everywhere, but in China the hundreds of thousands of censors who man the Great Firewall instantly take down posts that deviate from the official line. They aren’t doing it this time, which tells you all you need to know.

Indeed, while the Chinese Communist Party initially accepted that the outbreak began in China, denial is growing even in official statements. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian complained last week that by calling the outbreak ‘China virus’ or ‘Wuhan virus’ “and thus suggesting its origin without any supporting facts or evidence, some media clearly want China to take the blame and their ulterior motives are laid bare.”

Zhao insisted that no conclusion has been reached on whether the coronavirus originated in China, and the Chinese military’s online portal Xilu.com recently published an article claiming that the virus is “a biochemical weapon produced by the US to target China.” But behind all the bluster and denial, China is actually doing the right thing.

Folklore, superstitions and ‘old wives’ tales’ abound in every culture, but beliefs about the power of’jinbu’ are unique to China, and explain why eating specific wild animals plays a major role in traditional Chinese medicine. The exotic meat ‘fills the void’, allegedly enhancing sexual performance in men and beauty and fertility in women.

Yi-Zheng Lian, former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, noted in a recent Washington Post article that eating bats, thought to be the original source of both the current coronavirus and the SARS virus, is said to be good for restoring eyesight. Bile and gallbladders harvested from live bears are good for treating jaundice; tiger bone, or snakes and bulls’ penises for the impecunious, are for erections.

Small wild animals are often the intermediaries that transmit the new coronaviruses to people. The ground-up scales of pangolins supposedly cure cancer and asthma, but are also implicated in passing the Wuhan virus to human beings. Palm civets, suspected of having transmitted the SARS virus to humans, are said to cure insomnia when stewed with snake meat.

China’s ‘wet markets’ sell a wide variety of these animals– and they often sell them live, because that supposedly makes the ‘jinbu’ stronger. China is not the only source of new viral diseases, but it certainly produces more than anywhere else. Yet in all the previous epidemics, the Chinese regime did not dare to shut down the trade in wild animals. Popular belief in jinbu was just too strong.

Now it has finally done it. Late last month all the enterprises breeding wild animals were shut down permanently, markets have been forbidden to sell them, and even eating them has been banned. They’re closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, you might say, but it will help a great deal in the future.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Dr Li…COVID-19″; and “Yi-Zheng…erections”)

Germany, Japan and the War on Rationality

Germany and Japan are finally winning a war together. Unfortunately, it is the War on Rationality.

Coal, as everybody knows, is by far the most damaging source of energy we use, in terms of both the harm to human beings and the impact on the climate. It’s twice as bad as natural gas, and dozens of times worse than solar or nuclear or wind power. Yet both Germany and Japan have been building lots of new coal-fired power stations. Why?

Would it upset you if I said it’s because they are, despite their apparent sophistication, superstitious peasants at heart? Well, go ahead and get upset.

Germany still gets more than a third of its energy from burning coal, and most of it is ultra-polluting lignite or ‘brown’ coal. If most of Germany’s seventeen nuclear power had not been shut down after 2012 (the last are scheduled to close within two years), then at least half that coal would not have been needed.

There had been an active anti-nuclear power movement in Germany for some time, but what triggered the 2012 decision to shut the entire sector down was the Fukushima incident of the previous year.

I am deliberately avoiding the words ‘calamity’, ‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe’, because while the Fukushima tsunami killed 19,000 people, the subsequent problem with the four nuclear reactors on the coast killed nobody. Yet the German people, or at least a large number of German anti-nuclear activists, insisted that any nuclear reactor anywhere was a mortal danger, and the government agreed to shut all the German nuclear plants down.

The same thing happened in Japan. The Japanese planners were foolish to put four reactors on the coast in a region where earthquakes and consequent tsunamis were to be expected from time to time, but what needs to be condemned is Japanese planners, not nuclear power. Nevertheless, all fifty Japanese nuclear reactors, which supplied 30% of the country’s electrical power, were immediately shut down.

The Japanese are not as blindly dogmatic as the Germans: two of those nuclear plants reopened in 2015, and seven more reopened recently. A further seventeen are in the lengthy process of restart approval, so by 2030 the Japanese government hopes to be getting 20% of its electricity from nuclear power again.

But that’s only half the amount of nuclear power that Japan originally planned to have available by 2030, and the gap between 20% and the planned 40% of the country’s energy needs will be made up by burning coal. Japan recently announced that it plans to build 22 new coal-burning power plants in the next five years.

This is deeply irresponsible behaviour, and the worst thing is that the decision-makers know it. They are just deferring to public opinion, which in this instance is entirely wrong. The ‘superstitious peasants’ should really be frightened of global warming, for which coal-burning is a major driver, not of relatively harmless nuclear power.

That’s not to say that nuclear power is the solution to all our problems, or even most of them. It is generally the most expensive option because it is costs so much to build the reactors and the associated controls and safety devices. Indeed, nuclear is no longer cost-competitive with other ‘clean’ sources of power like wind and solar.

So there is a case for not building any more nuclear power stations, at least in regions and countries that have ample resources in terms of sun and wind. But there is no case for shutting down existing nuclear stations and burning more coal to make up the difference. That is so stupid it verges on the criminal.

Other countries can be idiotic too. Due to an administrative glitch, Chinese provinces are currently building hundreds of unnecessary coal-fired power stations that may never be used, since the central government expects the country’s coal use to peak this year – and most existing Chinese coal plants already sit idle more than half of the time.

At least China is also building nuclear plants as fast as it can, and last year accounted for more than half the world’s output of solar panels. (On the other hand, it is providing work for the Chinese construction industry by building a planned 300 coal-fired power stations in other countries, presumably on the unspoken assumption that carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere won’t affect China’s climate.)

But nobody is as crazy as the Germans and the Japanese, who have been shutting down nuclear plants and replacing them with coal-fired plants. France will close its last coal-fired station in 2022, and Britain will do the same in 2025, but Germany says 2038 and Japan just says ‘eventually’. That’s far too late: by then the die will be cast, and the world will be committed to more than 2 degrees C of warming.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14. (“This is…power”; and “At least…climate”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Is the ‘Devil Virus’ a ‘Black Swan’?

China officially went back to work on Monday, after an extended two-week Lunar New Year holiday, while the authorities struggled to get the spread of the new coronavirus under control. But a lot of Chinese are not going back to work yet, and the spread of the ‘devil virus’ (as President Xi Jingping called it) is manifestly not under control.

This virus has already killed over 800 people – more fatalities in two months than the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2002-03 caused in seven months– and it’s accelerating. The last few days have seen more than 80 deaths a day, and the death rate in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, the point of origin of the disease and still its epicentre, is now 4% of those infected.

The death rate is still only 2% nationally, but infections elsewhere are generally more recent than those in Hubei province and may not reflect the final death rate. And it’s still spreading fast within China: four large cities in Zhejiang province on the coast are now also locked down.

Significantly, President Xi is no longer claiming that he is “personally commanding” the anti-virus fight. If this is going to be a complete disaster, somebody else should take the blame, and the man in charge of the national campaign against the virus is now vice-premier Sun Chunlun.

Well aware that he is now the designated fall guy, Sun immediately visited Wuhan and declared that the city and country now face ‘wartime conditions’. Waxing full-on hysterical, he warned: “There must be no deserters, or they will be nailed to the pillar of historical shame forever.” But mere rhetoric won’t save him if the epidemic goes nationwide.

It probably will: the two or three weeks that were wasted after the virus was first detected cannot be recovered. But the enforced holidays, travel curbs and lockdowns, belated though they are, may still limit the spread of the virus beyond China.

Or maybe not, but even if the virus is largely contained within China the risk of financial infection is high. High enough, in fact, to qualify as a potential ‘black swan’.

A ‘black swan’ is an unforeseen event that has a huge impact on the normal course of events. The SARS epidemic in 2002-03 was a black swan: it knocked about two percentage points off China’s economic growth that year. However, that epidemic did not cause a global recession, because back in those days China was only a small part of the global economy.

Now the Chinese economy is the world’s second-biggest. It takes up four times the space in the global economy that it occupied in 2002, so a 2% fall in Chinese economic growth translates into at least a half-percent hit to the entire global economy. Which would not be a big deal if the global economy was in good shape, but it isn’t.

Indeed, twelve years after the 2008 sub-prime financial crisis the global economy is still in the intensive care ward. There has been no return to the pre-crisis high growth rates, and interest rates, except in the United States, are still at rock-bottom. That means the banks have no room to cut the cost of borrowing and stimulate demand if the economy is starting to tank.

This applies in particular to China itself, where the banks have been forced by the government to finance huge amounts of unproductive investment as the regime continuously ‘primed the pump’ in order to ward off a recession.

It worked, in the sense that the loans financed a further orgy of construction that has now equipped the country with 100,000 km of under-used expressways and four half-empty 60-storey apartment towers at all four corners of every major intersection in each of the country’s hundred biggest cities. China was the only major country to avoid a recession after 2008 – but it left the banks staggering under a mountain of bad debts.

By now China has a Potemkin economy where the official economic growth rate is 6% a year but the true number, as measured by electricity use or megatons of freight carried by the railways, is between 2% and 3%. Knock 2 percentage points off that and you have no growth at all – and a crisis of survival for the regime.

That would be the biggest black swan you ever saw, but remember that the lies and official incompetence that surrounded the Chernobyl disaster played a big part in making the Soviet public ripe for regime change a few years later. Could the coronavirus have a similar effect? It’s not likely, but it is conceivable.

The immediate and short-term deaths from the Chernobyl melt-down amounted to sixty people. The Wuhan coronavirus has killed a dozen times as many Chinese citizens already.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“The death…down”; and “It worked…debts”)