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Covid-19 compounds existing public distrust

As Italy quarantines a quarter of its people and the Business Post claims 1.9 million will get it in Ireland, it’s not just the disease that is viral

By David Langwallner.

“There comes a time in human history when the man who says 2 plus 2 equals 4 will be sentenced to death.”

– Camus, The Plague.

In his seminal ‘The Plague’ (1947) Albert Camus uses the historical plague effecting Oran in Algeria to spotlight the heroism of  engagement, and humanity in difficult times.

Any perception of public emergency risks collapse of our modern universe. After hurricanes, flooding or even manifestations of police brutality riots often occasioned by urban disenchantment or inequity lead to viral barbarism.  And we have still never been deprived of the crucial two meals.

There is a famous book by the recently deceased Portuguese novelist José Saramago,  called ‘Blindness’ (1989) where blindness has become a communicable disease and an epidemic. The effect is escalating panic. Individuals are quarantined and dehumanised. Human nature descends to Hobbesean  brutishness. The concepts of fairness and the rule of law disintegrate. Inept authorities run wild. Asylums are created for those quarantined.

A cautionary tale for 2020. 

History groans with destructive plagues. Over 3 percent of a much smaller humanity died in 541 in the Justinian Plague exported by Byzantium and named after one of the Roman emperors the same way the Americans give kitschy names to hurricanes or snow storms.

 The most famous plague – exported by Mongol warriors – was the Black Death which killed 50 million people in Europe in the years around 1347 and is vividly captured in the seminal film by Tarkovsky called Andrei Rublev (1989). London’s Great Plague of 1665-6, like the Black Death an eruption of the bubonic plague pandemic, was transmitted by infected rat fleas and killed about 100,000 people, a quarter of its population, in 18 months. 

The most infamous flu virus hit in 1918.  Of course more people died in that Spanish flu epidemic in the immediate aftermath of the first world war than in the entire war itself – some 50 million. They included the legendary Austrian painter Egon Schiele and the poet Apollinaire. The artists did not just die in the trenches but often afterwards. In 1918 it mainly took young adults. Those aged 75 and above had the lowest death rate of all.

Such pandemics did not destroy humanity, or reach the tipping point.

Of course the reason for the scale of deaths then was a lack of vaccination and the overall susceptibilities to first infection and second death was considerably higher than with the Coronavirus. But it is the rates of infection and death combined that make Coronavirus the most dangerous epidemic in 100 years.

As of 7 March 2020, there have been more than 105,000 cases with the most significant outbreaks in central China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran. The number of confirmed cases worldwide is more than 10 times higher than the 8,100 known to have been infected by SARS, a related virus that caused a six-month epidemic in 2003. 

 More than 3,500 people have died: around 3,100 in mainland China and around 450 in other countries. As of 3 March 2020 WHO data show the percentage of patients dying after infection with COVID-19 is 3.4% globally (1.6% outside of China perhaps reflecting Western failures to diagnose all cases, but also its superior healthcare).  By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1% of those infected;  measles 0.2%; but SARS and 1918’s Spanish flu 10%.

The chances, surprisingly low perhaps, are that the average victim will pass the disease on to 2.5 others; though China brought that number down.

3D Medical Animation Still Shot graph showing Case Fatality rates by age group from SARS-COV-2 in China.

There is no question but that the ratio of death to infection is nowhere near as high as in the historic pandemics. Survival is highly probable for the young and the healthy. In China around 80% of deaths recorded were from those over the age of 60, and 75% had pre-existing health conditions including heart  diseases and diabetes.

But in our present universe it is increasingly difficult to disentangle fact, expertise and what is really going on.

Certain Australian experts are very unclear about whether it will be numerically insignificant amounts of deaths or the appalling vista of 1919.  Italy, China and Australia are reacting with what might be externally perceived to be excessive and disproportionate measures. A day after thousands of its citizens flooded the streets of Dublin, Italy is to quarantine a quarter of its population. The Business Post is reporting as fact that 1.9 million Irish people will contract Covid-19.

The present evidence from China is that the threat is diminishing and the numbers lessening. The host province Hubei is now free of new cases.

But China implemented draconian, often vicious, restrictions. By 6 February 2020, four Zhejiang cities with combined populations of 30 million people were operating a “passport” system, allowing only one person per household to leave home every two days. Authorities in Wuhan city went door to door checking temperatures, rounding up suspected Coronavirus patients for forcible quarantine in stadiums, exhibition centres and the like.

In London the crowded tubes and trains have become more like skeletal ghost ships. There are also very evident food runs in parts of England. I begin to sound like The Shipping News.

Now the Dunkirk spirit is intrinsic to the British personality. And doubtless Johnson in his Churchill light-way will appeal to the open-minded. That is in principle good.

Camus shows in ‘The Plague’ the way authorities seek to downplay a situation when they have lost control. What do they really know about the morphology and trajectory of new diseases? 

We should also be wary of shamans and snake oil, and face-mask, salesman.

We live in a world of despotism, lies, climate change and pestilence redolent of science fiction and we are a rapacious and destructive species enthralled by economics.

Biotechnological research where innovation and funding is prized at the possible expense of morality or the public safety is very dangerous.

When profits and cost-benefit analysis are the bases for decision-making then the Habermasean principle of modulating technocratic goals with ethical outcomes is undermined. A very pertinent example of this is the Dutch scientist Fouchier who, in an effort to learn more from the disease, in 2011  modified the deadly avian H5N1 influenza virus so that it spread between ferrets. By enabling the bird virus to more easily spread among mammals, the experiments  raised fears that the pathogen could jump to humans.

Scientists in the biotechnology industry would do well to remember Oppenheimer’s invocation,  after the unleashing of the atomic bomb, of the Hindu Bhagavad Gita: Now I am become death, the  destroyer of worlds.

Coronavirus is a major threat and draconian measures are justified.  Globalism, commerce, human ingenuity for the first time are as much causes for pessimism as optimism. 

Camus evokes those who honestly get on with dealing with the Plague, in duty not glory, part of our absurd existence.

We do not trust our leaders.

The new normal is frightening.