Witch-burning cure will be deadlier than the virus.

RJ SMITH

Italian soldiers wait for coffins they took from the Bergamo area are unloaded at a cemetery near Milan in Northern Italy. Picture: AP
Italian soldiers wait for coffins they took from the Bergamo area are unloaded at a cemetery near Milan in Northern Italy. Picture: AP
  • 12:00AM APRIL 2, 2020

We are in the midst of the strangest event of our lives. Societies have shut down. Families and whole nations face financial ruin. Walking the streets is now a crime from Paris to Sydney to Mumbai. And all of this has occurred not despite the will of the people but because of it.

The reasons are well known. There is a virus on the loose. It is transmitted by humans and is killing tens of thousands. It is an existential threat at which all resources must be thrown and all energy expended.

This is the popular mantra. And if true it would justify the incredible events we are witnessing. The problem is that it appears not to be true, a fact few are willing to entertain amid the hysteria that prevails. Yet its falsity is indicated on a cursory review of the best available data.

That data is provided by Italy, an early epicentre of the virus with many deaths recorded.

On March 26, the country’s peak health organisation — the National Institute of Health — published a report with details of the 6801 deaths the country had recorded to that point. This is a considerable sample size, and the figures are revealing.

The first statistics of note are those about the average age of casualties, which is 78. The median is 79. A little more than 95 per cent of victims were over 60, and zero deaths were recorded for people under the age of 30.

Then there is the method of designating the virus as the cause of death, which includes anyone who had tested positive for it before dying. In other words, many were said to have died from the virus when in truth they merely died with it.

Third, 98 per cent of casualties of a random sample of patients had a pre-existing chronic illness, or comorbidity, at their time of death. About 21 per cent suffered from a single comorbidity, 26 per cent from two, 51 per cent from three and just 2 per cent with none.

Walter Ricciardi, scientific adviser to Italy’s Health Minister, recent­ly reported: “On re-evalua­tion by the National Institute of Health, only 12 per cent of death certificates have shown a direct causality from coronavirus.”

The overwhelming majority of Italy’s deaths involved chronically ill and elderly patients.

This is not to diminish these tragedies. But the questions arise: why are we surrendering our hard-won civil liberties and committing economic suicide when this virus poses a danger to only a small portion of our society? Why do we not pour all of our resources into protecting the vulnerable?

The answer is that a 24-hour news cycle, with its morbid tallying of deaths, images of corpses and sensationalist reporting of outlier cases has whipped the public into a frenzy that politicians have had to take extreme measures to appease.

And anyone who questions the collective unreason is denounced on social media as a bloodthirsty mercenary who favours the economy over human life.

History shows time and again the reaction to a perceived crisis becomes the true catastrophe. Like the execution of witches until the mid-18th century or the scapegoating of Jews for poisoning wells during the Black Plague, evidence and logic are of no use to us now. There is an existential threat, and anyone who denies it is not just a denier but the cause.

None of this is to say this virus is not dangerous. It is. But the level of threat it poses is being exaggerated, and the response to it exaggerated as a result.

This is especially true in Australia, where infection rates appear to be relatively low and the government containment methods are among the most draconian worldwide.

If the government has compelling data to support this strategy, it should release it. But there seems to be no correlation between the scale of the threat and the economic and social damage we will suffer responding to it.

There is a disaster afoot. But it is not the COVID-19 virus. It is the putative remedy, a fact we will not appreciate until it’s too late.

RJ Smith teaches law at Paris universities I (Pantheon-Sorbonne) and X (Nanterre).

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