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Media fails to report truth – success in Ireland’s handling of Coronavirus. The ICUs and graveyards will not be swamped. We’re looking at 500-1000 deaths, not 68,000; and c19,000 infections not 1.9 million – the projections were out by a factor of 100. By Michael Smith.

Those who predicted swamped ICUs, scandalous shortages of equipment and overflowing morgues in Ireland were utterly wrong. If you haven’t realised that, you’re not following.  The Irish Times, Irish Independent, RTE and other media in Ireland have failed  their democratic duty to keep the public aware of the significance of the evolving pattern of Coronavirus cases in Ireland over the last three weeks. There may indeed be “the darkest days ahead” as the Taoiseach intoned, to media head-nodding,  on Easter Sunday, but there is no evidence for it. I am not saying this to be provocative but because it is the truth.

There is a pattern of reported cases it is just that the media have not followed it, or conveyed what the pattern indicates as the probable outcome of at least the first wave of Coronavirus cases and deaths in Ireland. Their job was not to convey this as a certainty but as the probability, based on the curves – the data.

Instead they have plied, and continue hour after hour to ply, pictures of improvised morgues, invitations to submit stories about deceased love ones, pieces about our non-existent devastating shortages of PPE and ventilators, and of rockstars still organising emergency imports of it,  and po-faced pieces about how funerals, so central of course to Irish life,  will never be the same again. 

The catastrophism is compounded by the fact that many countries and in particular the two countries from which we draw most of our external news, the US and the UK, genuinely face shortages of equipment and rampant deaths. Unlike here, in these countries the media are doing their best to reflect the context of the reality of cases and deaths. 

On the other hand if we remove centres of infection like greater New York, Wuhan, Lombardy and Madrid, the rates of infection and indeed of death are really quite small (73 deaths per million in Ireland). 

It is also the case that in Ireland 65% of cases come from three sectors, healthcare workers in hospitals, nursing homes and residential institutions like Direct Provision centres.  

The incidences of people outside particular hotspots of this type catching Covid-19 have been low. And 90% of deaths have been of people over 65 (with the median age of death 82), mostly with underlying health conditions, “comorbidities”.

The limited range of the incidences have not been reflected in reportage. And that’s apart from the numbers which we’ll come to later.

So why the pessimism in optimistic Ireland?

Let’s start by looking at the sequence of what happened in Ireland.

The Department of Health oversaw a system underprepared for a pandemic and then specifically underestimated the dangers from China – on 20 February the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan ineptly faced a camera and said: “We don’t expect to see anything more than individual cases occurring that we believe we’ll be well-positioned to manage within the next couple of months”.  

Within a few weeks, however,  the official view had flipped the other way and by 8 March Paul Reid, CEO of the Health Service Executive (HSE) was endorsing a report in the Business Post which quoted the health authorities massively overestimating cases.  

The lead story in that newspaper on that day five weeks ago predicted 1.9 million infected cases for Ireland which would have implied 68,000 deaths, since the death rate given by the WHO at the time was 3.4%. 

The report did not say there “might” or “would probably” be 1.9 million cases.  

Its best-selling headline on 8 March,  a date on which there had been no deaths in Ireland, was  “Irish health authorities predict 1.9m people will fall ill with coronavirus”; the subheadline was “Up to 50 per cent of cases projected in a three-week period, while the new figures raise fears of intense pressure on health service”.  The premise was that we would see 30% daily increases in cases. The smaller print of the report clarified that the prognosis depended on there being no lockdown measures. 

The debate in the country seems to be premised on the 1.9 million projection, though on one level the Taoiseach has acknowledged that the 30% daily increases lasted only a few days after it was used to justify the first phase of lockdown.  There is overall a vague (accurate)  sense of a battle being won despite (inaccurate senses of) turmoil in the ICUs and, somehow, the rolling probability of an imminent surge.

It is important to digest the consequences of the central countervailing fact that the daily increases in Ireland four weeks after the first salvo at a lockdown here on 15 March, when the pubs were closed, closely reflect those in China four weeks after the lockdown in China on 13 January.

Crucially, if we continue to follow China within a week we will have daily increases in cases of no more than three percent and then two percent dwindling to nothing over the following couple of weeks.  There may be a subsequent rise, if we choose to reduce protections, but that is a different matter.

The chart of Corona cases Ireland shows that the rate has already fallen to 8.5 percent or under for each of the last ten days, and is still reducing. It started at 30%. As a footnote, ineptly the Department of Health has excluded (as of 13 April) 2083 cases tested in Germany, though they all date from some weeks ago.  There is no advantage in including them since their exact dates remain unknown.  They do not change the pattern. As of 13 April total cases were 10,647; total deaths were 365.

Over the last three weeks I have written two articles for Village following the pattern of cases in China and transposing them onto the Irish situation  I said it looked like we’d be out of the woods by the middle of May with 35,000 cases and 500-1000 deaths. As of 13 April the cases look destined to be around half that number while the deaths seem around accurate. This is despite research by Seamus Coffey in Ireland, mirroring reports from the Economist magazine about the general experience in Europe, suggesting there has been an under-reporting of deaths so far.

Against a background where government had predicted 1.9m cases and implicitly 68,000 deaths. Both figures were out by a factor of 100.

Last week the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle, Washington, which  the Guardian calls “the best organisation in the world at collecting data on diseases”, predicted Irish deaths will be 400 and stated that Ireland has actually passed its peak of infections and of resource use of hospital and ICU beds. In fact it seems to have miscalled the peak by a few days but its thrust is still a probability, including about how we are positioned with capacity. Actually as of 13 March there are 148 Covid-19 patients in ICU and a capacity of around 800. This last figure is oft-under-represented. 

Remarkably, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer dismissed the IHME report as “unreliable” and the Irish Times, for example, suppressed the story.

 The initial story by Paul Cullen in the Irish Times on 7 April was headlined:

Coronavirus: Ireland’s infection peak has passed, but death toll could hit 400 by May, report says’.

Village immediately tweeted links to this story, emphasising its significance in vindicating Ireland’s approach.  By the time people clicked on the links the piece had been changed and featured dismissal the research as unreliable.  The online story was superseded by ones which were similar to the earlier one but editors had changed the headline and it now featured denigration of the IHME report as unreliable even though it, like Village, was looking only to the data.

The follow-up story was headlined:

Coronavirus: Republic sees record highest daily figure for new deaths at 36:

Dr Tony Holohan urges people to ‘stay the course’ with restrictions on movement’.

After the enthusiasm of the first article and its headline for the Washington report the thrust of the second one was disparaging. “’It’s not really a model. It just took existing case data and suggested that because things seem to have stabilised over a short number of days that perhaps we’ve reached a peak”, said assistant chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn’”. 

But the data have stabilised over a lot more than “a short number of days”.  They have stabilised at under 12% for 16 days and at or below 8.5% for ten days. 

According to the Irish Times, Dr Glynn added “It doesn’t take into account any changes over the coming days or the highest number of deaths reported this evening”. 

But really not taking into account any changes over coming days is a feeble criticism of any projection (and in any event the “coming days” have sustained the pattern) and not taking into account deaths is hardly surprising in a metric  that is about infections not deaths. 

“Placing ‘undue store’ in the US research could lead to complacency, he warned”, finally and unscientifically.

It is important to put this in context. The UK is still likely to suffer at least 40,000 deaths and the US at least 60,000. Annual deaths in Ireland from flu are 200 to 500. 

500-1000, or 400, deaths from Covid-19 in Ireland, though tragic, is at the extreme benign end of the predicted spectrum.  

Ireland’s has handled the pandemic relatively successfully due to those who imposed the lockdown efficiently (and of course those who observed it – and the healthcare services).  That means, and this is an epidemiological (obviously) not a partisan or political judgement, Varadkar and Harris, acting in the end on advice from experts. The politicians deserve more credit than their experts. The CMO has an impressive bedside manner but his trustworthiness was terminally holed by his silly early projection for the disease.

Of course there were foolish mistakes: maintenance of a dysfunctional health service (thought the inflated centralised HSE seems to have found its purpose in this pandemic); underpreparedness;  failures to obtain PPE, ventilators and testing reagent in time; general failures of testing and tracking, but they’re no worse than in other countries. 

It’s nevertheless appropriate here also to flag the deal for the HSE to rent private hospitals for an over-long four months from billionaires like Denis O’Brien and Larry Goodman at some ‘costs’ price, reputed to be €110 million monthly.  Since there is no market in a lockdown for  the elective procedures that are private hospitals’ staple, the hospitals may have been available at lowball prices. The deal, with costs to be approved monthly by EY accountants, will no doubt figure in a formal inquiry. 

Just as in the banking crisis the government had a legitimate duty to ensure confidence was not unnecessarily lost, so it is understandable that the government and its medical officers would downplay successes. Their job was to balance reducing the cases, treating the cases and ensuring the public stayed worried enough that they did not breach the terms of a reasonable lockdown.

The media’s job, as in the banking crisis, was different. The media, in this democracy, failed in their duty to the truth, even if ironically RTÉ touts that it is providing “reliable” programming and the Irish Times runs ads wedding itself to the facts. 

They should have explained how the pattern of cases was evolving from the initial 1.9 million projection.  They should have then explained that the improvement was because of the effects of social distancing.  That would have been the truth and have made the best case for social distancing. 

The media had a duty not to don the green jersey but to speak the truth,.  It is no part of the media’s role to cover the successes up.

The media’s job is to present the data and analyse it. Not follow a well-meaning consensus. 

The media in Ireland have failed to learn the lessons of the banking crisis. And clearly are not fit to provide reliable coverage of climate change which ultimately also depends on modelling and underlying science. 

Part of this is ineptitude,  none of the principal commentators seem to have statistical capability or even to be able to do maths, part of it is a desire not to generate complacency so people breach the lockdown, and part of it may be cautiousness not to either trust or publicise the possibility that the sometime-reviled Varadkar and Harris have done their job well.  

It is also probable that journalists and particularly the online rabble preferred to defer to the fashionable anti-government hysterics, buoyed by a post-election ‘mandate’, who made out that the facts that were being suppressed were all about deaths of hospital personnel, shortages of equipment, consequences of undertesting, unattended churches and overflowing graveyards. Rather than about successes.

It gave the government ammunition to announce cancellation of the St Patrick’s Day Festival (8 March), close schools, colleges, childcare facilities and State cultural institutions; and prohibit indoor mass gatherings of 100 people or more and outdoor mass gatherings of more than 500 people (12 March), close shops and pubs (15 March); restrict movement by requiring people to stay at home except for essential services and purchase of food, limited exercise and cocooning  for those over 70 and give the Garda power to enforce these restrictions (28 March); and to assign extraordinary powers to the Garda rendering a person who refuses to comply with an instruction applying social distancing rules  guilty of an offence with a potential prison sentence of up to six months (7 April). 

As of 10 April all of these powers are to be continued until 5 May, making a total of nearly two months of dramatic curtailments of civic freedoms.

Meanwhile, according to the Financial Times, “Governments across Europe have begun preparations to ease the lockdowns imposed across much of the continent to contain the coronavirus pandemic, even if restrictions that have paralysed the economy are expected to remain in force for several more weeks”.  Not here.

The debate on removing the lockdown, and all the benefits that would flow from that,  is tainted by contrived pessimism. The net effect is we are left with a demoralised public facing a shocking three further weeks of sunless lockdown.

Anyone who is following must also fear we have opened ourselves to draconian legislation that may persist.

But the worst effect is that the public can have no faith in the press which has definitively shown itself as incompetent and unreliable.  

When the state-owned media and all the established media in Ireland including the national broadcaster and the former newspaper of record purvey distortions on the most important event in a generation, it is, even for those of us who wake up in the night shouting at the concept and its abuse,  impossible to run from the truth that we live in the era of fake news.