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The world’s COVID-19 response is a shocking farce: Time to bell the cat

In 1847, a young Hungarian medical doctor called Ignaz Semmelweiss started a new job in Austria as a Director at Vienna General Hospital’s obstetrics clinic. One of the first things he observed was a markedly higher rate of the deadly puerperal fever (then known as childbed fever) among pregnant mothers in the doctors’ wards, as against those in the midwives’ wards. The numbers showed that those in the doctors’ wards were in fact up to three times more likely to get infected than those in the midwives’ wards, which puzzled him.

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Over the next few months, Semmelweiss worked through a painstaking process of elimination to determine what was causing this. Eventually, he pinned it down to one thing – unlike the midwives, doctors who treated pregnant women also carried out autopsies and were possibly transferring particles from infected corpses to healthy mothers. His solution to fix this problem was that all doctors on the ward must immediately begin washing their hands with soap and sterilising their equipment in a chlorine solution in between visiting patients. The results were staggering.

From an infection rate topping 20 percent, childbed fever at the hospital fell to an incidence rate below 1 percent. This was almost half a century before germ theory and the discovery of microscopic pathogens, so Dr Semmelweiss was quite literally a genius who was ahead of his time. Instead of integrating his groundbreaking handwashing theory into mainstream medical practise, however, the medical establishment of his time got angry that anyone would dare to challenge the conventional medical wisdom of their time by suggesting that doctors could transmit diseases. 

His work was discredited and scorned, his medical license was revoked, and he was later committed to a mental asylum where he was beaten to death. After the handwashing requirement was removed, childbed fever infections and deaths at Vienna General Hospital soared once again, but nobody cared. The important thing was that nobody must ever be allowed to challenge the status quo, and if they did – even if what they said was undeniably true – the establishment must teach them a lesson. Nearly 200 years later, the world’s response to a different kind of deadly pathogen shows that despite the lip service we now pay to Dr Semmelweiss’s work, humanity is yet to pick up the real lesson from his story. 

Scientism and actionism: The false prophets of Lockdown-and-Inshallah

Last week, it was reported that a new WHO antibody test study on COVID-19 distribution suggests that up to 3 percent of the world’s population has been infected with the virus and showed no symptoms. Assuming that the world’s population is 7.7 billion people, that means that roughly 233 million people have already had COVID-19 and had no symptoms. More importantly, it means that while official figures continue to insist that the worldwide infection figure stands at 2.71 million with 191,000 deaths – a 7 percent mortality rate – the true mortality rate according to the WHO’s own study is closer to 0.08 percent.

Just as importantly, it also means that – as many have said before being shouted down – the infection rubicon has already been crossed and using lockdowns as a means of “flattening the curve” is completely ineffective. Essentially, the horse had already bolted long before the stable was “locked down,” so the world needs a new strategy. Amazingly, despite this important piece of information bouncing around for close to a week, the global scientific consensus remains the same – “lockdowns are working, and should continue to be extended ad-infinitum.”

At this point I need to define the first of two words that best describe what is actually going on within scientific and political circles around the world. The word is “scientism,” which is best described in these words by 18th century French philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon who said “A scientist, my dear friends, is a man who foresees; it is because science provides the means to predict that it is useful, and the scientists are superior to all other men.” Philosopher Tom Sorell also describes scientism as “A matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.”

Science and scientism are not the same thing. Science is what Louis Pasteur did when he created and proved his germ theory despite opposition from the same medical establishment that persecuted Dr Semmelweiss half a century before. Scientism was the establishment’s reaction to Dr Semmelweiss’s suggestion that they did not know everything. Scientism is also what the global scientific establishment is doing with COVID-19. Where the science says very clearly that it is a virus that nobody knows a whole lot about, and that it is already out there on a scale much larger than we are aware of – which would make lockdowns redundant and even destructive – scientism insists without evidence that if we lockdown-and-Inshallah, we shall be saved.

If 233 million people around the world already have COVID-19, that would mean that the whole purpose behind a lockdown – geographically isolating the virus – has already been defeated. That would then mean that a new plan for living with the virus needs to be made. Probably for fear of admitting that the virus is already much bigger than they thought, or fear of the daunting task of coming up with a plan to deal with a virus that has disrupted a century’s knowledge of preventative healthcare in just a few weeks – the white lab coats continue to insist that “wash your hands,” “stay at home” and “stay safe” are some kind of magic spell that will make COVID-19 go away as they recite it. Clearly it is not working, but governments continue to run with it. Why?

This is where the second word “actionism” comes in. Actionism is defined as “an excessive emphasis on action, activity, or change in lieu of continuity, stability, and permanence.” In governance, inaction in the face of a crisis is political suicide. Governments are under immense pressure, so they must be seen “doing something.” In the face of shouty headlines and decontextualised social media videos of overflowing Italian mortuaries, people want their government to take action and do so NOW! Under these circumstances, a lockdown ticks all the boxes. It is suitably dramatic and visible, it pacifies the scientific community and the middle class opinion-havers, it makes the task of governing in a crisis relatively simple, and it encourages the people to give the government powers that they normally would never dream of handing over. 

Thus, while people self-isolate, looking forward to when their sacrifice of staying at home will be rewarded with freedom and normalcy, they are also living in close proximity to asymptomatic neighbours with COVID-19. Staying at home will do virtually nothing to “flatten the curve,” which is what the numbers say, but the twin forces of scientism and actionism combine to ensure that lockdown-and-Inshallah continues being recognised as the solution to a problem it is already irrelevant to.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently stated openly that the current strategy is unsustainable and the world will have to come up with a way of restarting the economy while coexisting with the virus. South Korea and Japan offer a very clear insight into what that alternate route could look like, but that is not what this article is about. What this article seeks to do is to explain to any interested “stay home and stay safe” purveyors why their strategy is a waste of everybody’s time and could end up becoming a much bigger problem than the one it purports to be solving.

Long term consequences are deadlier than COVID-19

In 1928, the German National Socialist party was little more than a fringe political formation with just over 100,000 registered members, led by a charismatic but kooky little Austrian called Adolph Hitler. Just a year later on October 29, 1929, following the Wall Street crash in the US, Germany changed forever. The Deutsche Mark became famous for a true story where thieves robbed a woman with a wheelbarrow full of mark notes, and they ignored the money and stole the wheelbarrow instead. Germans began eating out of dustbins and in their desperation they turned to the man who claimed he had the answer.

By 1933, Hitler’s Nazi party swept more than a third of the Reichstag seats in the national election, recording over 13 million votes in the process. Over the next 12 years including six years of World War 2, millions of Jews, gypsies and disabled people were murdered. Over 85 million people died in the war itself. The fallout of the war created a polarised Cold War world, which led to the Korean War, the Vietnam War and several similarly bloody proxy conflicts in Africa and South America. It is no exaggeration to say that the German economic disaster of the 1930s is what created most of the deadly geopolitical problems that still persist today.

I raise this point because something I have noticed while having conversations about the economic fallout of poorly-fashioned “lockdown-and-Inshallah” COVID-19 response strategies is that many people genuinely think that the economy is not as important as “fighting the virus” (whatever that means). They think that the economy is some kind of extraneous entity that can be ignored while we “fight COVID-19,” and then life will afterward return to what we knew as normal two months ago. Putting aside the fantastical notion that a virus that has infected at least a quarter of a billion people in five months can be tackled by staying at home and waiting it out, this is also an incredibly naive and illiterate idea of how the global and local economy works.

The entire world as we know it today is a function of economics and the interaction of politics with it. Everything about our lives as we know them is dependent on the economy. The device you are reading this article on and the internet service provider that gives you access to the BusinessDay website is a function of the economy. The breakfast you ate this morning is a function of the economy. The electricity that powers the device you are reading this on is a function of the economy. The clothes on your back are a function of the economy. The much-needed COVID-19 medical supplies and their shortage thereof are functions of the economy. 

The Zoom/Skype lessons your child attends while schools are closed are products of the economy – if the instructors do not get paid, the lessons will no longer happen. The job you are hanging on to or hoping to return to after the lockdown is a function of the economy – if the recession becomes a depression, you can say goodbye to it. The status your job gives you is a function of the economy – if the economy collapses like in 1930s Germany, “Digital Marketing Expert” and “IT Systems Analyst” will have lower status and valuation than “canoe fisherman in Makoko.” The money you have saved in the bank only has as much value as the economy gives it – as depressed oil prices look to be the new normal if Nigeria’s economic productivity continues its lockdown-enforced flatline, guess whose millions of naira in the bank will become 2009 Zim dollars? 

Get the point?

It would be monumentally foolish to think of the economy as some kind of secondary issue that we can deal with after we finish dealing with COVID-19, which we will presumably do by waiting inside our homes and playing chicken while it picks us off anyway. The longer the economy remains beached, the more difficult it is to maintain the semblance of normalcy that we still enjoy. Even in a rich country, which Nigeria absolutely is not, the government can keep signing stimulus cheques for only so long before lack of production eventually renders the money worthless. A flatlining economy will affect all of us and reduce all but an infinitely tiny minority to miserable, subsistence-level poverty. That is exactly what happened in Germany.

I keep referencing 1930s Germany as an example because with 67 million people at the time, it is the closest example there is to what will happen in Nigeria if 200 million people fall into poverty simultaneously in a relatively short period of time. The key difference is that unlike the Germans who were able to leverage their common national identity and focus their angst through war on perceived external enemies, Nigeria would instead focus its rage inward and explode into a series of deadly regional and ethnic conflicts.

A country like the US, whose 2019 federal budget worked out at just over $13,000 for every one of its 328 million people could – at least on paper – probably afford to keep its economy on the beach for a whole year if it wanted. A country like Nigeria, which cannot now realistically fund its 2020 budget – $175 per head for 200 million people – should think very carefully about why it thinks that following the lead of countries that to all intents and purposes exist in a different world is a good idea. After just under four weeks of lockdown, Nigeria’s major cities are already recording serious incidents of large scale civil disturbance. Do we really want to keep poking this tiger in the eye with a stick just to see what happens?

Lest we forget, Nigeria is statistically one of the easiest places on earth to obtain illegal small arms. Last year, the BBC reported that the Nigerian military discovered a factory in Benue that had been illegally manufacturing unregistered AK-47s for 20 years. It doesn’t take a betting man to predict that there are dozens of such facilities scattered around the country still functioning. We live in a tinderbox that just needs a spark to do what it is itching to do. For the sake of our own self-preservation, we must stop careering blindly toward the abyss, motivated by a misguided and self-righteous need to adhere to a nonexistent scientific and political consensus that we saw on TV. 

The economic IED we are currently fumbling with will inflict death in numbers that are far greater than whatever COVID-19 could theoretically manage. The CNN-watching signalers and the new class of COVID-19 contract millionaires have had their day in the sun. Now it is time for logical reasoning, common sense and actual science to come to the fore in interacting with this virus going forward. Personally I choose information, proper planning and bold execution over the blind hysteria, naked profiteering and lack of basic foresight that make up the farce that is Nigeria’s lockdown-and-Inshallah.

You need not agree, but I am quite sure that time will vindicate this position.

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