The virality of stupidity

My mother took me to several "chickenpox parties" when I was a youngster growing up in Cape Town. These were arranged by mutual agreement amongst the parents of the 27 children in my kindergarten class who didn't have chickenpox and the parents of the one who did.


Like most concerned parents in those days, my mother was desperate for me to get the dreaded pox so that I'd get immunity and avoid the horrific consequences of suffering from it later in life. And there was another purpose: get everyone infected as quickly as possible, together rather than child-by-child, so that the whole disruptive episode would be over and done with.


My mother is now 94 years old and I have come to the dawning realisation that – in order to protect her life – I need my family to get this virus and to get it quickly. I need my family to attend our own "chickenpox party".


Why?


Having looked at the growing body of evidence, I reckon my two sons (aged 14 and 17) have more chance of drowning in a barrel of beer than they have of dying from COVID-19 (and they're both outstanding swimmers). In New York, those odds are around 0.02% and, even then, require a co-morbidity (which neither of them has). On the other hand, I don't fancy my mother's chances.


I don't need any government to tell me what she should or shouldn't do (and what type of slip slops she can buy). We have made a family decision to ban her from leaving her house (much to her chagrin) other than in a dire emergency. Under no circumstances must she come into contact with another human. Home deliveries and grocery drop-offs are subject to a 48-hour quarantine of the potentially offending items. Her Malawian gardener and domestic worker (a member of our household for 38 years) have been furloughed (at full pay, funded by yours truly) for the foreseeable future. My version of social distancing for my mother is not two meters, it's two hundred meters.


Her only risk of dying from this virus is if she catches it from one of her children or grandchildren. Hence my conclusion that I need my family to acquire their own version of herd immunity. Yes, I need my sons (and my wife and myself) to get infected – and get the resulting immunity – to protect her. A lot like one of those "chickenpox parties".


This analogy illustrates my point: In order to save the lives of the vulnerable, we need to isolate them and allow the virus to infect the young and healthy as quickly as is possible. And the advantages of this strategy stretch way beyond the protection of those vulnerable to the virus: our economy would fire up again, protecting millions from the slow, steady, invisible and devastating destitution, depression and death that this prolonged lockdown will cause. 


We need people to get infected, not to design measures to avoid them getting it. But crucially, we need the right people to get infected so that those who are at-risk do not to get it.

The Virus of Stupidity


Governments around the world are making a historic and tragic error of judgement. We are witnessing decisions predicated on a climate of fearmongering amid epic political self-interest and cowardice. The virus of stupidity will condemn us to suffer the awful consequences for decades to come.


It is their decisions – not this dastardly virus – that will kill hundreds of millions of people. Those who die in the years ahead will suffer death by a thousand cuts – through joblessness, bankruptcies, recession, poverty, hunger, malnutrition, depression, and suicide. Not to mention the collapse of global GDP and economic activity, the profound hit to tax collections, the underfunding of essential public services (especially healthcare) and the shrinking of pensions. This list of miseries is a long one. I'll leave it to the economists to demonstrate the correlation between it and the mortality rates we are storing up.


Having backed themselves into a corner with catastrophic (and ill-advised) lockdowns, politicians seem incapable and unwilling to admit their mistakes. It is always thus, as culpability is not in their DNA. They'd rather see millions of people dying slowly than facing up to some nasty headlines now. Any U-turn would imply they'd got decisions wrong and see their prized popularities plunge. The press would have a field day.


I can understand these political calculations, but feel zero sympathy for them. These politicians would rather save their own skins and their careers than the lives of millions in the future.


Our cowardly politicians have blood on their hands.

The Evidence


We could – possibly – cut these politicians some slack for their early decision-making. They got royally spooked when they were fed some wild and (as it now turns out) over-zealous predictions by the medical and scientific community about global mortality rates. (They should have been wary. Remember, these guys don't get fired for overestimating death rates and counselling caution. But their careers are toast if they're found to be underestimating them).


Hindsight is the exact science. The evidence that I'm seeing (from New York's figures and Worldometer.info) shows the following:

  1. The global Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) is around 2%;



  1. Of those who have died, around 92% were older than 60;



  1. Of those who have died, around 89% had one (or more) underlying medical condition; AND



  1. The global Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) for those who are young and healthy is around 0.02%. Let me put that another way: out of 10,000 such people, 9,998 survive an infection.


This is a nasty virus and it can kill a lot of people, but these numbers reveal its Achilles Heel. It thrives when it is infecting the elderly and the sick. It loves care homes and old-age homes. But it doesn't like young, healthy people very much.


It was Einstein who said that genius doesn't come from finding the right solution, it lies in asking the right questions. Now I'm no genius, far from it – I'm not even an economist, nor a mathematician nor an epidemiologist. I'm just an accountant with an inquisitive mind and a healthy suspicion of government. But something's not right here. Have the hard questions been asked?

  1. We're wanting to "flatten the curve". Which curve? And why?



  1. We're implementing a lockdown. What sort of lockdown? And why?



The Two Curves


There are two curves – a bad one and a good one. The bad curve – and we should avoid it like the plague (so to speak) – is the Death Curve, measuring new deaths over time. This happens when the elderly or the infirm get the virus and die. The good curve – that eventually leads to the virus dying out in the community through the concept of herd immunity – is the Infection Curve.


To date, there's been a direct correlation between the two curves, albeit with a three-week delay between infection and death. The politicians – and their complicit stooges in the media – obsess about the bad news of increased infections. It makes a great headline and it sells advertising. It also produces a cowed populace terrified of setting foot outside their homes. And so the Big Lie continues – infections are bad.


But are they?


Think of the Infection Curve in a different way. Imagine if only those who are young and healthy (i.e. those under 60 who don't have a co-morbidity) get infected. That's a good thing, right, because very few of them would die (so the stats tell us). If that continued, we'd get herd immunity in double-quick time with a limited number of deaths. We shouldn't mind, then, if this curve is short and steep – in fact, if we can keep the Death Curve (the bad one) flat, then we want this Infection Curve as steep as possible.

The Lockdown


We all find ourselves stuck in the wrong type of lockdown trying to flatten the wrong curve. We're locking down young, healthy people who won't die of COVID-19, as well as those who've already had the infection and recovered. And by keeping this economically-active segment of the population indoors, we're cratering the economy.


It's like using a sledgehammer to crack open a nut and wrecking everything around it. It's not necessary and it doesn't make a great deal of sense.

A Solution


A vaccine is a hope, but since when has hope been a good strategy? It could be a long time coming if the history of vaccines is anything to go by. It may not even work. We simply don't have the luxury of time. Here's what we should do now:

  1. Impose a smart, targeted lockdown. Design policies that shield those at risk from infection –  the over 60s and those with an underlying medical condition (hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, atrial fibrillation, obstructive pulmonary disease, renal failure and obesity). Impose a lockdown on them. Do not let them get this virus because they will die in droves. No exceptions.



  1. Open up the economy –  the shops, bars, offices, factories, airports (and yes, the hair salons). Everyone who considers themself young and healthy – and immune – should carry on with their lives as they did before. They know who they are, now let them loose.


I cannot emphasise this enough. We need people to get infected, not design measures to avoid it. But crucially, we need the right people to get infected and the at-risk not to get it. Herd immunity will kick in after several months –  just like with most seasonal flus –  and then we're done with this awfulness.


Australia and New Zealand have been spectacularly successful in solving the wrong problem. They have eradicated the virus in a world that still contains it. As a country, they'll have to keep self-isolating until a vaccine is discovered. That could be a long, long time. South Africa, on the other hand, faces an entirely different challenge.

South Africa


As a passionate South African, I despair at my country's predicament. Vast swathes of its local, poverty-stricken population live check-to-jowl in cramped social and living conditions. Many live in informal settlements that make social distancing and (the government's bizarre version of) lockdown a complete and utter waste of time, money and effort.


There can be no effective flattening of either curve in these communities, so let's stop pretending that we can.


We are badly served by a government that is as inept as it is uncaring. To subject our people to a pointless lockdown only results in a crippling double-whammy: economic Armageddon and a steep Death Curve. Why the ANC government is opting for both is quite beyond me. A smart, targeted lockdown is its only solution, but even that is going to be a struggle.

In Summary


The UK government's instruction to its people has morphed into #StayAlert #ControlTheVirus and #SaveLives. I consider myself reasonably well-educated, and I don't understand what they're asking of me.


How about #ShieldThoseAtRisk #LiveOurLives and #SaveLives as principles to adopt? As I've argued above, those will avoid an unspeakable number of deaths in the future.


I'm reminded of another of Einstein's famous quotes: "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. I'm not sure about the universe".