For whom the bell tolls: a Small Farm Future COVID-19 special

Since nobody seems to be talking about anything except COVID-19 at the moment I thought I’d join the crowd and, in a change to my published program, write a blog post about the pandemic.

Of course, there’s a lot to be said for the Jürgen Klopp gambit of refusing to talk about things you know nothing about, but I propose to take the opposite tack on the grounds that (1) while indeed I know very little about anything, as the proud owner of a 25 year-old master’s degree in health planning with a quarter-helping of epidemiology in the mix, I humbly submit that I’m at least as well qualified to talk about it as most of the other blowhards who’ve been weighing in online; (2) the outbreak bears directly on many themes of relevance to this blog, and; (3) if the blogosphere was designed only for the dissemination of expert knowledge, it would be a very different beast to its present shape. Possibly a better one, but that’s another story.

So, without further ado, here are Small Farm Future’s five take home (and stay there) messages concerning COVID-19.

1. What if we only ate food from local farms? This was the title of a recent post of mine, in which I critiqued TV botanist James Wong’s view that in this scenario, we’d starve. I argued in that post that if we continue to romanticize global trade we’d be more likely to starve, sooner or later. And now, all of a sudden, sooner seems more of a possibility than later as the precariousness of long global supply chains in the face of even minor system perturbations begins to bite.

True, COVID-19 isn’t directly a food crisis – though it may turn into one if the rather elderly cohort of people still foolishly involved in the underpaid business of growing food for humanity succumbs disproportionately to the virus, or if our much-vaunted ‘just in time’ automated supply chains turn out to be less automated and not quite as in time as we thought. Perhaps the proof of the pudding is in the eating – and on that front our small market garden has been inundated with new customer enquiries in the last week from people who’ve clearly come to a view that local supply mightn’t be such a bad way to go right now.

Good news for us, I guess, except where I live – and where most people live in the rich world – we’re not remotely capable of meeting current food or other needs renewably from local supply at present, in large measure because we’ve resolutely championed the ‘efficiency’ of global supply chains and enthusiastically undermined local land-based skills and infrastructures. Meanwhile, most of us live crowded together in vast cities which can only be kept healthy by large inputs of (fossil) energy – maybe we can ‘self-isolate’ briefly in these circumstances, but not long-term. For numerous reasons long expounded on this blog, long-term we need to create predominantly rural societies that are geared to renewably skimming their local ecological bases. Maybe COVID-19 might prove the shot across the bows we need in this respect?

Like many long-term advocates of such localization I’ve had to put up with a certain amount of scorn over the years for my errant views. I don’t want to peddle too much reverse scorn right now, and I want to do what I can personally to help see us all through this crisis. But I’m hoping that COVID-19 might encourage some folks to be a little more open-minded about small farm localism in the future. What if we only ate food from local farms? Maybe James Wong might now consider amending his tweet thus: “We’d starve – it’s as simple as that. So let’s see what we can do to rebuild local agricultures.”

2. Follow the money. After the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the government introduced strict containment legislation that outlawed feeding livestock anything that had been in a kitchen, however it was treated, apparently on the grounds of potential contamination from imported food bearing the infection. A more reasonable and energy-efficient policy would surely have been to accept the low possibility of infection by this route, promote good biosecurity and contain local outbreaks (which would be easier with local foodsheds and farm infrastructures). I can’t help feeling that this didn’t happen because the more stringent policy created financial benefits for large-scale meat exporters, fodder producers, middlemen and tax collectors, while the main losers were small-scale farmers with no political voice.

Then with COVID-19 the government’s initial response was the exact opposite – it’s going to be endemic, so let’s not overdo containment and isolation, but build herd immunity through letting the infection run its course. The problem with this is that it meant a lot more people would probably die, and that health services would be overwhelmed. When this became apparent, the government dramatically changed tack and adopted drastic containment – but probably not soon enough to avoid deaths that seem preventable had they been more willing to learn from other countries. Herd immunity is hard to sell to the herd when it means a significant proportion of its loved ones will die. And whereas small farmers don’t have much political voice (livestock even less), the human herd does still have some call on political decision-making.

While the government chose the opposite strategy in the two cases, the common thread is that both were the options that least disturbed the economy’s capital-accumulating dynamo, despite the negative human impacts – minor in the former case, probably major in the second. Of course, these decisions are difficult, and a smooth-running global economy is itself a human benefit – though to some people far more than others. Ultimately, though, what seems to have happened in this crisis is, to put it crudely, that human society has trumped the human economy. I think the consequences could be profound, and I hope people will notice this and try to work it through.

***Addendum: farming minister George Eustice has just warned that “buying more than you need means others may be left without”, neatly encapsulating a universal truth that goes curiously unrecognized in orthodox economic theory and in the standard case for the superiority of the capitalist political economy undergirded by private market solutions. Eustice’s easy distinction between needs and wants as something that’s apparently self-evident is worth cutting out and keeping for when the orthodoxy has regained the confidence to reassert itself ***

3. OK, boomer – our problems are structural. Coincidentally, just as the discussion under my last post on population highlighted the point that a considerable part of our ‘over-population’ problem stems not from the fact that too many babies are being born but from the fact that people are living to much older ages, here comes a disease that disproportionately fells the elderly. At the same time, as William Davies has elegantly argued, trends in employment and property prices in the rich countries have effectively created a class divide between entitled older generations and disinherited younger ones. Generationally, compared to a fiftysomething like me, I’d say people coming into adulthood today have a rougher time of it than I did (yes, I know the world is supposed to be getting better and better all the time, but that’s another chart-topper I’ve never been able to dance to).

I’ve seen a bit of online schadenfreude at the plight of the elderly with respect to COVID-19 – not especially pretty, yet maybe understandable in small doses in the light of these generational inequalities. Clearly, though, moving wealth down the generations a little sooner than it might otherwise have happened doesn’t materially alter the nature of our class divisions. Which underscores another point I took some pains to make in my previous post – we badly need to stop thinking about the problems we face as aggregates of our individual decisions and behaviours, and think about emergent system structures instead. Our ecological problems won’t be inherently eased by a smaller population. Our economic problems won’t be inherently eased by old, rich people dying sooner. And so on. Please.

4. Will the real tough-talking politicians stand up? In recent years, global politics has thrown up a series of divisive, showboating, self-aggrandizing politicians who talk tough to camera – Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to name but two. To me they seem like media constructions who lack the moral fibre to deserve to be called ‘tough’. Real toughness involves telling citizens hard truths they may not want to hear, but empathically, organizational ability and shouldering responsibility rather than trying to offload blame onto ‘Chinese viruses’ and the like. But maybe that’s just me. If figures like Trump and Johnson manage to bluster their way through a crisis like this with their popularity intact, I think it’ll be time for me to give up and tend my own garden … well, I hope to tend it either way, but you know what I mean. But maybe a silver lining of COVID-19 might be that the tangible physical crisis prompts a rethink among electorates about the kind of people we want leading us, and the kind of issues we need them to confront.

5. No wo/man is an island. This is a time when I think we’d do well to remember John Donne’s ageless wisdom: “No man is an island, entire of itself … Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

But how we best enact this is more open to question. Inevitably, many of us will see in COVID-19 the mirror of our preferred politics – as in those right-wing commentators pointing to the empty supermarket shelves and economic misery as exemplary warnings of what would happen under socialist or green regimes, while ignoring that, actually, they’ve happened under right-wing, capitalist ones. But I’m no exception. I think the crisis underscores that old saw of green politics – ‘think global, act local’. The first part is maybe easier – no more talk of ‘Chinese viruses’ – but the acting locally raises intriguing issues. In times of crisis, especially in urban situations, a lot of the usual individualist concerns drop away and people create ingenious new commons to get by, ‘paradises built in hell’ in the resonant phrase of Rebecca Solnit. But I’d argue the longer and larger task is to dwell less on this transient commoning and focus instead on building the conditions in which people can create their own livelihoods renewably and locally as individuals-in-communities. So we need a sense of subsidiarity from the global to the local and thence to the household and the individual. More on that shortly…

Well, more on that shortly, I hope. If I don’t make it through the epidemic, let me just say that it’s been a pleasure writing this blog over the years and interacting with its readers. Santé!

63 thoughts on “For whom the bell tolls: a Small Farm Future COVID-19 special

  1. Thanks Chris. And I dearly hope your diet of fresh veg, good labour and what passes for sunshine in the UK keeps you strong through this.

  2. First – I’ll second Ruben’s thoughts above.

    I need to go back and reread William Davies LRB piece you’ve linked here (and thanks for putting it here BTW). I see some value in pieces of his argument. But I also notice some liberties taken with certain interpretations. As someone firmly planted within the boomer generation it may well be personal bias that is coloring my view. So to give Mr Davies a little room to run I’ll have another peek.

  3. Chris,

    Best wishes to you, your family & all at Vallis Veg

    This article is interesting

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/18/politics-public-covid-19-tobacco-johnson

    What is particularly interesting is that The Government held a 3 day exercise in , Exercise Cygnus to see what would happen in the event of a Pandemic Flu outbreak

    https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/health/2020/03/government-documents-show-no-planning-ventilators-event-pandemic

    Where it became clear that the UK could not cope.

    However despite both the reasonably high likelihood of such an outbreak, and of course the significant economic effects no action was taken to address the weakness’s that the exercise uncovered.

    At the moment we are enjoying ‘Make it up as we go along’ policymaking which has bailed out the richest in society, financially at least and only helps those lower down the income scale because the other option is Social Unrest.

    But the question that needs addressing right now is Harvest 2020. Winter crops have suffered because of the wet weather, undoubtedly farmers are replanting but especially given the average age of farmers in the UK & USA and I see no plans to ensure that the harvest can be gathered in, especially the labour intensive fruit and vegetables.

    So should we be bringing back the Land Girls (And Boys!) and Digging for Victory

  4. Hopefully something good will come out of it.
    It may well be the start of a massive economic crisis with global demand deconstruction and depression. While I do advocate degrowth and the fall of captialism, I am not convinced that the anticipated sequence of events will be the right kind of degrowth and societal r(evolution).

    But we must just continue sowing the seeds, it is soon spring.

  5. We won’t starve. But growing food alone may no save the farm.

    Very few in the self-sustainability movement are truly above it all. There’s always property taxes. And often a mortgage. And if a mortgage, you don’t have the option of ignoring the usury insurance industry.

    Our farmers market — responsible for at least 30% of our income — has been shut down indefinitely. Hosting international students, about 20% of our income, is probably coming to an end soon. (One of the two is leaving prematurely tomorrow.)

    Another 20% of our income is rent. Our renter’s income is from the oil industry, not exactly a thriving place these days. With various forms of rent deferral or forgiveness being talked about, that portion of our income seems shaky.

    So, take away 70% of our income, and we’d be laughing — if it weren’t for mortgage, insurance, and property taxes.

    Luckily, the remaining income is mostly wholesale to grocers, which if anything, should do well. We are adjusting our planting accordingly to try to shift emphasis from direct market sales to wholesale.

    A huge problem for small farmers in general is systemic bias in the system toward large food processors. We are highly vertically integrated, with an extensive line of value-added products — which, due to public health regulations written by Big Food™, can only be sold direct! We cannot sell our value-added goods to the grocery store or institutions, as we can our produce. Probably about 50% of our market revenue stream is value-added, which we cannot simply shift into the wholesale stream.

    Bottom line, the wolf is not at the door, but we can hear him howling, not too far off in the distance.

    • just as a bye , farmers markets have been shut down here in the USA ,
      my pigs have half a ton of veggies to munch their way through , they should have been sold last weekend in Austin .

      • farmers markets have been shut down here in the USA

        Same here in BC.

        The grocery stores remain open, though. The industrial food system uber alles.

        To add insult to injury, we do a lot of value-added processing, in order to tide us over before produce hits. According to BC Health rules, artisanal and farm food processors don’t have to follow industrial regulations on “low risk” foods, such as fruit preserves, dried fruits and vegetables, and baked goods — as long as the producer is the one selling it!

        So that means that we cannot sell a living-room full of value-added goods that we’ve been making all winter. We can sell tomatoes to the grocer, but not tomato sauce, for instance.

        I wrote my MLA (like a State Representative in the US), noting that if the rules were relaxed so artisanal and farm value-added producers could wholesale to grocers, we might be able to make it without direct government assistance. I got a polite form letter back about how hard they were working on the CoViD-19 crisis.

        We can still eat, but we might not be able to pay the mortgage.

  6. Thanks for the comments. Indeed, if and when the history of this is written it’ll be interesting to see if the more collective state and dirigiste model of mainland Europe so despised by Brexiters and Anglo-American free marketeers will prove to have better protected their citizenries than the pallid versions of ‘liberty’ propounded by the likes of Johnson and Trump.

    I agree with Gunnar and Jan that, broadly, while COVID-19 may prompt degrowth, the chances aren’t high that it’ll be the right kind of degrowth. Perhaps I’m more hopeful than Jan that some of the economic realities he mentions that trap small-scale farmers will have to be reconfigured in the light of the crisis. Then again, there’s a fair chunk of history to suggest that when economies are reconfigured it’s rarely to the benefit of small farmers … though most of the counter-examples bear on times when securing the local food supply rises to prominence, which may be the case in present circumstances.

    Bottom line is, as Gunnar rightly says: it’s spring – sow seeds.

  7. Thanks Chris for this latest installment, written with the usual clarity, reason, and heart. The closing paragraph calls for this response: If either of us doesn’t make it through the epidemic, let me just say that it’s been a pleasure reading (and learning from) this blog over the years…

  8. There’s likely going to be a lot more focus post-COVID-19 on resilient systems including supply chains. And a recognition that offshoring manufacturing, food-production etc in the pursuit of “efficiency” defined against narrow criteria might not be such a great idea after all.

    Perhaps we’ll see the inspirational sight of a flying squad of neoliberal economists, policy makers, small government muppets etc bravely stepping into the breach to care for COVID-19 patients without PPE, diagnostic tests etc; unavailable due to offshored manufacturing in countries now reserving production for local use.

    I’ve been following the progress of COVID-19 since some friends mentioned it early in January. One of them works in healthcare and his son has a compromised immune system so my friend – who is also an avid amateur historian – was very concerned about a pandemic. Sth Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have done an excellent job of containing the initial spread from China. This is held to be largely due to lessons learnt containing and eradicating SARS back in 2002-3. So these countries had aggressive initial testing, contact tracing and quarantine/isolation amongst other measures.

    What I find very sad is that the Anglophone and European nations could have learnt from this experience but didn’t. Why not will be an interesting study for the social scientists.

  9. just as a bye , farmers markets have been shut down here in the USA ,
    my pigs have half a ton of veggies to munch their way through , they should have been sold last weekend in Austin .

  10. Clem has previously mentioned here (four years ago) the work of evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace, of the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota. Wallace is the author of “Big Farms Make Big Flu,” published in 2016, and he connects the dots between capitalist agriculture and outbreaks such as Covid-19.

    “The real danger of each new outbreak is the failure –or better put—the expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production…”

    “Capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities…”

    “Growing genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes whatever immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Such crowded conditions depress immune response. High throughput, a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptibles, the fuel for the evolution of virulence… As industrial production–hog, poultry, and the like–expand into primary forest, it places pressure on wild food operators to dredge further into the forest for source populations, increasing the interface with, and spillover of, new pathogens, including Covid-19.”

    https://www.grain.org/en/article/6433-capitalist-agriculture-and-covid-19-a-deadly-combination

    • Building a factory farmed future, one pandemic at a time
      (another article from GRAIN)

      “A wave of African swine fever outbreaks has been wreaking havoc on global pork production over the past decade, with ripple effects across the whole meat industry. Luckily this livestock disease is not a direct threat to human health, but a quarter of the global pig herd may have already been wiped out and the economic costs are running well into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet while small farmers have been decimated, the outbreaks are a windfall for transnational meat companies, and the companies that supply them…”

      “GRAIN began working on global livestock diseases in 2006, when we launched a report on the global bird flu pandemic. That report punched a hole in the accepted wisdom, promoted by meat companies and international agencies, that the disease was mainly being spread by wild birds and backyard farms. It exposed the rapid rise of factory farms in Asia as the likely source of this highly pathogenic virus, and the global meat industry as the principal conduit for its spread. We wanted to help the small farmers and wet market traders challenge the punitive measures that they were being unfairly subjected to, and to push for an effective global response to the disease that would also prevent the industrial meat system from producing more such lethal diseases. Unfortunately this has, for the most part, not happened, and more outbreaks have occurred, notably the swine flu outbreak in Mexico in 2009. Sadly, our investigations into today’s ASF pandemic read like a déja vu of the work we began over a decade ago.”

      “Some of GRAIN’s reports on livestock diseases:
      Fowl play: The poultry industry’s central role in the bird flu crisis, 2006
      Viral times – The politics of emerging global animal diseases, 2008
      A food system that kills – Swine flu is meat industry’s latest plague, 2009”

    • Thanks for the Grain link Steve – Robert hasn’t posted anything on his own blog since last December. I’m guessing he’s been pretty busy of late.

  11. Thanks for the further comments – much good stuff to ponder…

    Bear in mind that one reason there’s fewer hospital beds now is because average lengths of stay are much shorter. Or were…

  12. Yes, readmission rates may be significant. The problem with hospital beds as an indicator of anything is that they’re places nobody wants to be except when all the other options are worse.

    National food protectionism is a fascinating issue which maybe has a similar structuring about it – a really bad idea until suddenly it becomes a really good idea. I hope to write more about that soon.

  13. As a by Chris there is now a shortage of ddg distilers dried grain , the colapse of petrol use means the ethanol plants are shuting down hense no ddg , six rail cars ordered one delivered with no expectation of yhe rest , plus because if the lousy summer last year soy bean meal is also in short supply ,

  14. “maybe a silver lining of COVID-19 might be that the tangible physical crisis prompts a rethink among electorates about the kind of people we want leading us”

    I think there may well be that silver lining, Chris, but perhaps not in the way people are currently expecting.

    As several epidemiologists are pointing out, it’s a bit early to say that there even is a tangible physical crisis (other than the one caused by the panic) because, so far, there doesn’t seem to be any data that demonstrates that COVID-19 is more of a threat than the other coronaviruses that have been around for years.

    Official data is never up-to-the-minute but the latest figures from the UK’s Office of National Statistics show that, up to the 20th of March, overall mortality in England and Wales was normal for the time of year, and the proportion of it that is attributed to influenza and pneumonia (including Covid-19) was actually a couple of percent lower than the 5-year average. From the reports I’ve seen, that’s true across the whole of Europe, including Italy – local spikes quite likely being due to the atmosphere of panic and other factors (for example, an exodus of foreign care home workers after the initial, very localised, lockdown was imposed on the 22nd of February).

    That might change over the next two or three weeks, if this virus is indeed as dangerous as the projections have suggested. But the foundations of those projections look fairly tenuous to me and, until we see clearer evidence, I’m tending to the view that the whole panic stems primarily from the once-in-a-century narrative around the 1918 pandemic, putting public health officials around the world on a hair-trigger alert.

    If that’s the case, I imagine the summer will be dominated by arguments over whether the relatively low death toll is because of the lockdown or in spite of it. If it does turn out that governments around the world have wrecked their economies because of a bogeyman, I think it will indeed prompt a rethink among the public about how politics work.

    • Hmm, well all this seems somewhat heterodox within the public health discourse around Covid-19. I’m not sure exactly what you find tenuous about the projections but it’s hardly surprising that overall mortality was normal on 20 March because there’d only been 357 Covid-19 deaths at that point. But there were 1681 deaths in the next 10 days … which is kind of how these things work … hence the half million figure of the Imperial report. It may turn out to be the case that most of the victims are elderly or have co-morbidity, but it seems clear that the do nothing approach is going to mean a lot of people dying unpleasantly because the health services lacked capacity. Some people may be happy to trade that off against wrecking the economy – but I suspect not many, and not me. Either way, the politics will get quite interesting – but they’ll be especially interesting to me if they move in a ‘society trumps the economy’ direction. No doubt the lockdowns will prompt a deep recession, but the economy was already a wreck. Just as was the case before the pandemic, the real challenge is to reconfigure it.

      • “it’s hardly surprising that overall mortality was normal on 20 March because there’d only been 357 Covid-19 deaths at that point. But there were 1681 deaths in the next 10 days … which is kind of how these things work”

        Bear in mind, Chris, that a) those are figures of people dying with the virus, not from it; and b) they can only be understood in the context of the testing regime. If you test a hundred people one day and get 10 positives, that indicates a 10% infection rate. If you test a thousand people the next day and get 100 positives, that also indicates a 10% infection rate. But if you just look at the raw figures … Oh my god, it’s increased ten-fold just in one day!

        Basically, if the number (and criteria) of tests being done has stayed the same then those figures do indeed reflect a significant rise but, if the number of tests has risen significantly, and/or the criteria for testing have been broadened (geographically for example), it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything at all about any rise in infections or death rate.

        The Office of National Statistics note that, in that week, ‘The number of deaths involving COVID-19 increased, while the number of deaths from “Influenza and Pneumonia” decreased compared with the previous week’. So, is it that covid-19 deaths are rising exponentially, as many people are claiming, or is it that deaths which were previously being attributed to a more general category are now being attributed to a specific one? As various professionals are pointing out, we have no idea how prevalent the virus is in the broader population, so how can we make any meaningful assessment of its lethality or its contagion rate?

        This is at the heart of why I find the projections tenuous. As I understand it, they rest on an assumption that, if it is true, was an incredible stroke of luck*. And the carelessness with which they’ve been presented doesn’t inspire confidence – the Imperial College analysis didn’t mention that their projected mortality figures would overlap with expected mortality, by half to two-thirds apparently. (Or maybe 90%, or 10% – who knows?). You mention the half million figure in that report. But what does that estimate actually mean? Does it equate to (say) 15 million years of active life lost or 1 million (i.e. average age at death 35, with life expectancy of 30 years, or average age 75, with life expectancy of 2)? Should governments treat the first scenario as no more serious than the second?

        I find it bizarre that a report which was supposed to be analysing the potential impact didn’t attempt to quantify it in those terms – even though they described it as “the most serious seen in a respiratory virus since the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic”. In 1918, though, most of those who died were between 20 and 40 and, as I understand it, were in fairly good health before the flu struck. In other words, they were the very people whose everyday activity creates the economic surplus that allows a society to look after its sick and elderly.

        I think you might have misunderstood what I meant by ‘the economy’. I wasn’t talking about the big business, profit-centred aspect of it; I was talking about the social framework within which the majority of the population engage in activity to sustain themselves and their families. It might be highly imperfect (and I seem to have poured an awful lot of energy into trying to change it over the years) but it has been a functioning system. Shutting down most of the discretionary economic activity that takes place normally has thrown millions of people’s lives into turmoil and will have massive knock-on effects that governments apparently made no attempt to analyse in advance.

        And what’s it all for? You say ‘the do nothing approach is going to mean a lot of people dying unpleasantly’ – is the sacrifice everybody’s making going to prevent that? Or will it mean (for most of them perhaps) that they die unpleasantly in the next flu season, or the one after that, instead? I don’t know whether there is any correlation between how individuals die and the maturity with which they’ve faced up to their own mortality during their lives but, personally, I’m inclined to believe that, in general, those who are comfortable with the prospect of dying of natural causes, at the end of a reasonably long life, probably slip away quietly; while, for those who are determined to cling to life to the bitter end, a bitter end is all they can expect. Underlying all this, in my view, is a cultural failure to come to terms with our own mortality.

        * Regarding the stroke of luck I mentioned above: as I said previously, Public Health officials have been on high alert for years, anticipating a recurrence of 1918. So, when a completely new strain of coronavirus was identified, they were very quick to jump on it. And – how lucky is this? – circumstantial evidence suggested the mutation allowing human-to-human infection could have happened just weeks earlier, at an animal market in the very city that (I’ve heard) has the largest virus research laboratory in China. That assumption allowed them to infer a contagion rate that meant … Oh my god, this is it! This is the big one!

        But if, in fact, the virus had been quietly spreading for some months, hardly affecting most people, and being treated as a normal, albeit severe, flu in those who were affected … until, in a city said to have some of the worst air pollution in the world, a cluster of cases connected to an animal market (an environment where respiratory issues might well be more common than usual) prompt some testing … where does that leave the inferred contagion rates that modellers are basing their projected mortality rates on?

        • Malcolm Ramsay wrote:
          “The Office of National Statistics note that, in that week, ‘The number of deaths involving COVID-19 increased, while the number of deaths from “Influenza and Pneumonia” decreased compared with the previous week’. So…”

          This is misleading. In a “normal” year (5-year average), the deaths from “Influenza and Pneumonia” would have significantly decreased (by 9%) compared to the previous week. Yet, the deaths from “Influenza and Pneumonia” barely decreased (by less than 1%) compared to the previous week (in contrast with the “normal” 9% decrease).

          [That week, there were only 103 deaths involving COVID-19, compared to only 5 deaths the week prior, and zero deaths before then.]

          https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsregisteredweeklyinenglandandwalesprovisional/weekending20march2020

          • Thanks for pointing that out, Steve. I’d seen that the ‘normal’ and ‘current’ lines were converging but, given that nobody is denying there’s an epidemic, I didn’t see it as significant – particularly since the overall numbers for the year to date are still below ‘normal’. The issue for me is whether there was any real evidence, at the time these extraordinary measures were introduced, to suggest that this epidemic is likely to be significantly worse than the ones we see every two or three years.

          • Malcolm Ramsay wrote,
            “The issue for me is whether there was any real evidence, at the time these extraordinary measures were introduced, to suggest that this epidemic is likely to be significantly worse than the ones we see every two or three years.”

            Based on the accumulating evidence, the WHO declared a pandemic on 11 March (after declaring a global heath emergency on 30 January). This evidently suggests that the epidemic is likely to be significantly worse than the ones we see every two or three years.

      • But bear in mind, Malcolm, that absolute mortality figures have nothing to do with the testing regimen as you imply.

        No doubt there are ambiguities about ‘dying of’ vs ‘dying with’, though the fact that the dying seems to be so strongly associated with lung pathology suggests to me that ‘dying of’ is a closer approximation to the truth than you’re allowing.

        Years of life lost or healthy life expectancy measures were developed to draw attention to simple and effective public health interventions, not to imply that the deaths of old or ill people don’t matter very much.

        There are various other points of some interest in your response, but I think our views are too far apart for fruitful engagement.

        • The number of people dying with the virus certainly has nothing to do with testing, Chris, but our knowledge of that number undoubtedly does – without testing we wouldn’t be able to distinguish those with covid-19 from those with other flu viruses or other forms of pneumonia. The numbers being reported for this virus have to be understood in the context of what we would expect to see if we suddenly introduced widespread testing for an endemic virus, with the numbers of tests rising exponentially over a period of a few weeks. I’ll let you do the maths on that.

          As you say, analysing scenarios in terms of years of life lost does not imply that the deaths of old or ill people don’t matter very much. It merely reflects the fact that a) a host of other things also matter (including society’s ability to care for its sick and elderly in the future, as well as the present), and b) that governments sometimes have to decide whether the importance of one set of interests outweighs the importance of another. For those of us who believe our ability to care for vulnerable people depends on there being a surplus generated by healthy people’s economic activity, the current policy looks grossly irresponsible, even if there were some firm evidence that the projections underlying it are soundly based. In the absence of that evidence, it looks like a descent into madness.

          I’m sorry you feel there’s no prospect of fruitful engagement but so be it. If you are interested in what some of the more thoughtful professionals are saying, the Spectator has a well-balanced and very readable piece, How to understand – and report – figures for ‘Covid deaths’, and the site I linked to previously has links to a wealth of more academic material which calls the dominant narrative into question (though only about a third of them are in English).

          • For sure, Malcolm, there are ambiguities around the numbers, but your continual muddying of numbers with rates doesn’t suggest to me you have a firm grasp of this.

            For sure too, there’s an important debate to be had about the appropriate response. A starting point for engagement might be to avoid conflating the opinions of people with whom you’re inclined to agree with being ‘more thoughtful’.

          • Malcolm,
            Thanks for the Spectator piece. While checking that one out I found out Boris Johnson was taken to hospital for increasing complications from Covid-19.
            Whether one likes or dislikes his politics, I have to hope for his recovery… and I’m not a Brit… merely a fellow human walking my path.
            I bring up the PMs health condition as way of wondering how you imagine this turn of events will play among the “more thoughtful professionals” you’ve spoken about?

          • I don’t think an individual case is likely to shed much light on how prevalent the virus is already or how fast it’s spreading, Clem, so I wouldn’t expect medical professionals to take any account of it.

            I don’t like the thought of anyone dying unpleasantly (or living unpleasantly for that matter) but very few of us seem to be willing to think about how or when we want to die. Effectively, we’re demanding that the gods make the decision for us and … well, they have their own lives to live: I don’t think we can expect surgical strikes that give each one of us the death we deserve.

            But obviously I would like to see Boris Johnson recover, not least so that (after the political upheaval I’m hoping for) he can be judged on whether he has exercised the power delegated to him with the integrity the public can reasonably expect.

        • Malcolm –
          Agreed, an individual case isn’t going to (shouldn’t) overwhelm the global conversation.

          But my thought (as poorly presented as it was) was Mr Johnson’s situation rises above the level of an individual case. And not because of his celebrity – (Tom Hanks tested positive… gained plenty of attention for it… and now lives among the recovered) – no, for me it is Boris’ role as a very high profile politician who the public might well expect to serve a couple roles – one as a leader who can marshal the troops, the supplies, the best science… and in an equally significant role serve as a good example.

    • Malcolm Ramsay wrote:
      “…the latest figures from the UK’s Office of National Statistics show that, up to the 20th of March, overall mortality in England and Wales was normal for the time of year, and the proportion of it that is attributed to influenza and pneumonia (including Covid-19) was actually a couple of percent lower than the 5-year average.”

      The latest figures actually show that, up to the 27th of March, overall mortality in England and Wales was 10% HIGHER THAN NORMAL for the time of year, and the proportion of it that is attributed to influenza and pneumonia (including Covid-19) was actually 5% HIGHER than the 5-year average.

      https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsregisteredweeklyinenglandandwalesprovisional/weekending27march2020

      • Those figures only go to the 27th of March, at which time there were only 647 deaths related to Covid-19 in England and Wales (and less than 800 recorded for the entire UK).

        Eleven days later, the recorded UK deaths (Covid-19) are now up to 5373.

      • Yes, Steve, the figures are going up. This week’s are considerably higher than the ones I referenced and next week’s will undoubtedly be much higher again – and the following week’s will probably be higher still. That’s not at all unexpected; it’s what happens in all epidemics.

        If the figures keep going up steeply after that, then it will begin to look out of the ordinary (though, even then, there’ll be the question of how much is due to the intrinsic effects of the virus and how much is due to the panic). But the analysis I’ve been seeing suggests that the curve is totally consistent with this being a fairly normal epidemic (and quite likely not consistent with the high contagion and infection fatality rates that the Imperial College projections are based on).

        If the load on the health services is abnormally high, that may have more to do with the fact that this epidemic has hit at the tail-end of a flu season in which deaths have generally been well below average, so there’s possibly a larger pool of vulnerable people than ‘normal’. Plus, of course, the atmosphere of panic which has increased demand, while the policy of standing down asymptomatic staff has reduced the number of health service staff available to deal with it – within a system that has been under-resourced for years and which I believe has recently lost a lot of EU staff who have returned to their own countries.

        From the governance perspective, I’d say the question of how it turns out is secondary (though no doubt from the political perspective it’ll be crucial). What matters is whether the policy decisions which have been taken can be justified by the evidence available at the time, or whether they were essentially based on speculation that didn’t properly consider all the possibilities.

        • Malcolm Ramsay wrote,
          “From the governance perspective, I’d say the question of how it turns out is secondary… What matters is whether the policy decisions which have been taken can be justified by the evidence available at the time, or whether they were essentially based on speculation that didn’t properly consider all the possibilities.”

          Like it or not, the World Health Organization bases its public health actions (such as declaring a pandemic) on the precautionary principle, considering the evidence available at the time.

          I would think that wise governments also use the precautionary principle, especially in response to the WHO declaring a pandemic.

          • That seems quite a narrow view of the precautionary principle, Steve. A broader view would incorporate the need to avoid embarking on a potentially disastrous course of action on the basis of advice that might be the result of partial analysis.

            The WHO haven’t simply considered the evidence available at the time, they’ve also made assumptions about the evidence that isn’t available. They have to do that, of course, but they are as human as the rest of us and not immune to self-deception. Wise governments would take that into account and judge for themselves how realistic the underlying assumptions are – as the Swedish government has done. As far as I can see, the WHO’s panic rests on an assumption that the new virus was detected quite soon after it emerged. However, the circumstantial evidence they based that on was already being questioned in late January and seems to be incompatible with what’s known about the earliest confirmed case.

          • Here is the Precautionary Principle, as it appears in a document published by the WHO in 2004:

            “The precautionary principle states that, in cases of serious or irreversible threats to the health of humans or ecosystems, acknowledged scientific uncertainty should not be used as a reason to postpone preventive measures.”

            It’s broad enough to consider what is vital: the health of humans and ecosystems (not stock market portfolios or big banks).

            If the preventive measures taken by a wise government (such as social distancing) happen to pose other threats to human health (such as hunger), then wise governments can choose to address and prevent those additional threats, prioritizing the people (instead of bailing out corporations).

            The situation in Sweden (and other countries) is obviously still playing out.

            By the way, the repeated mentions of “panic” (such as “the WHO’s panic”) seem to be logical fallacies of some sort — Fallacy of Presumption? Begging the Question? Straw Man?

            (The Oxford dictionary defines “panic” as “a sudden feeling of great fear that cannot be controlled and prevents you from thinking clearly”)

          • I use the word panic because it expresses what I see happening, an overwhelming fear that overrides reason (albeit arising from the collective unconscious rather than from any external cause). I imagine your repeated use of the term ‘wise governments’ similarly reflects your perception of the world. You can characterise it as begging the question if you like but, as far as I’m concerned, expressing things in terms that reflect how you see things is just a normal aspect of dialogue.

            I’m not sure what relevance your mentions of stock market portfolios, big banks and corporations have to the discussion. I certainly don’t have any interest in protecting that aspect of our current world; I’ve spent much of my life looking for ways we might break their hold. What I’m concerned about is the damage current policies might do to the broader public. You believe that ‘wise governments can choose to address and prevent those additional threats’; I believe that wise governments would recognise that preventing those additional threats would be well beyond their capabilities.

            As you say, the situation in Sweden (and other countries) is obviously still playing out. There, at least, is something we can agree on.

          • Some clarifications:

            Unlike the use of the word “panic”, my use of “wise government” was largely hypothetical and wishful. My actual perception of governments is that their policies tend to unwisely favor stock market portfolios, big banks, and corporations instead of the general public.

            Like Malcolm, I am concerned about “the damage current policies might do to the broader public.” Regarding whether or not the government has the capabilities to prevent “those additional threats”, I believe it’s an open question, best approached using the Precautionary Principle.

        • I can see this as a reasonable stance up to the last paragraph – actually, the final sentence:

          What matters is whether the policy decisions which have been taken can be justified by the evidence available at the time, or whether they were essentially based on speculation that didn’t properly consider all the possibilities.

          When insufficient evidence exists, policy decisions still must be made. Waiting for all the evidence to materialize is just plain stupid. If a life or death decision must be pronounced at a moment shy of clear consequences, then I for one vote in favor of saving life and preventing as much suffering as possible. On the suffering side of the equation I would note that losing out on a potential bonus or a dandy vacation on the yacht vs. spending a couple weeks on a ventilator with family and friends wondering if I might ever come back… just keep the bonus.

          Severe injury to an economy does have longer term consequences which may involve more suffering than a missed vacation. But those consequences will be dealt with in due course. If the house is on fire it’s no time to wonder whether you’ll have the deductible to go along with the insurance settlement.

          With incomplete information to hand and I have to choose between life and health on one hand, and a dollar or a euro on the other… the money doesn’t bleed.

          • I’m not sure what you object to in that sentence, Clem. I’m saying the action has to be justified by the evidence; that doesn’t mean the evidence has to be complete. As you say, waiting for all the evidence to materialize is just plain stupid … but so is jumping to extraordinary conclusions on the basis of evidence which is equally consistent with ordinary conclusions.

            It’s interesting what you choose to focus on in the suffering side of the equation – ‘losing out on a potential bonus or a dandy vacation’. I wonder why you picked those things out rather than, say: the potential increase in domestic violence, with the impact that might have on children whose education, and freedom to play, has been put on hold; or the possible increase in suicides of people whose ability to provide for themselves has been abruptly curtailed (at a time when the food banks many people had already been relying upon are seeing donations fall); or the many small businesses which have provided their owners with a precarious living for years but will never re-open. I wonder how you envisage those consequences being ‘dealt with in due course’?

            As you say, if the house is on fire it’s no time to worry about minor concerns. But, when the house isn’t on fire, setting light to it because you’re worried Granny might die of cold isn’t very wise. As far as I can see, the Imperial College projections would see overall mortality for the UK this year at maybe 1.2 to 1.5% of the population instead of 1%, with it then probably dipping below average for the next two or three years. It’s hardly the Apocalypse*.

            * That’s not due until early November.

          • Given the ongoing experiences of folks I communicate with (up to this moment in the pandemic anyway) I think my particular focus on the difficulties side is justified. There have been increased donations to food banks in Central Ohio. There are moves afoot to help small businesses. There are attempts to aid folks forced from their jobs. And this going on while the house is still burning. Perhaps this is not the situation in the UK. If so, I’m sorry for you.

            There are people lying in hospital, infected with Covid-19 who may never go home. There are many who have already died who will never need a bailout or another meal from a food bank. Most of the folks I hear complaining about the “misery” we are going to suffer from all the economic distress are very comfortable and appear to be miffed they might miss some of that comfort downstream. Folks living close to the edge before this had few illusions of such future comforts.

            Now we have morons like Glenn Beck suggesting they’d rather die than kill the country.

            From your complaints about the estimates from the Imperial College projections I’m pushed to wonder… do you have an acceptable price for the value of a human life?

          • Thank you for clarifying why you chose those examples, Clem. I’m sure we have many people in the UK who would also fit that profile but I don’t have much contact with them myself. Good to hear that your governments can be relied upon to get all the social consequences under control.

            “Folks living close to the edge before this had few illusions of such future comforts.”

            No, and they probably also have no illusions now about how timely, or complete, the safety nets governments are promising will be. Many of them will also not be very surprised that their governments have chosen to push them over the edge.

            “There are people lying in hospital, infected with Covid-19 who may never go home. There are many who have already died who will never need a bailout or another meal from a food bank.”

            Yes, Clem, but something similar could be said every year about seasonal flu, or every two or three years about other epidemics. This year is clearly different but it remains to be seen whether the difference derives from the intrinsic lethality of this virus or from the fact that it is being tested for on an unprecedented scale, and being given an unprecedented level of publicity.

            Do I have an acceptable price for the value of a human life? I’ve certainly never tried to quantify one but governments certainly do – though they seem not to have done on this occasion. For me, the key principle is ‘First do no harm’; I see a fundamental difference between failing to save people from harm that threatens them from elsewhere, and actually causing harm through your own actions.

            I never had a child run out in front of me when I was driving but I did kill a pheasant and a squirrel that way and, in retrospect, the questions those incidents raised in me quite likely played a significant part in my decision (getting on for ten years ago now) to give up my car – as did my memory of the time I saw an old lady slowly crossing the road ahead of me, casting fearful glances towards me in case I didn’t slow down, as I was driving into my home village.

            When I was coming to that decision, I did try once or twice to engage with people on the issue: what right do we have to put others in danger, and in fear, simply to make our daily lives that bit more convenient? But the hostility I encountered put me off; these days, if anyone asks, I just say that hurtling around in a metal box feels like a violation of the landscape.

            I’m guessing you’re a driver, so what price are you putting on the value of a life, when you drive at high speed?

  15. The mortality rate is meaningless. The number of deaths is those who die even after all of the aggressive care that an ICU can provide not the number of people who get infected and die.
    It seems to me you would have to test absolutely everyone and not treat anyone to get a true mortality rate. What we are getting for a rate is the number of those tested which has no rhyme or reason, vs the number of people who die. We don’t even have specifics on whether they died after full ICU care, basic hospitalization, died at home or somewhere else.
    What is clear is that without all the ICU intervention the death toll would be 5 times higher and possibly 10 times higher. Also clear is the fact that without all the efforts to “flatten the curve” there would be a lot more infected and dead due to lack of ability to treat.
    Sorry if I just stated the obvious.

  16. You certainly haven’t stated the obvious, Jef – there seem to be plenty of medical people who think that, so far from reducing the number of deaths, the aggressive care is actually increasing them. You might be interested in this article on the contrasting policies and outcomes of two neighbouring regions of Northern Italy.

  17. Well, thanks for the debate. I guess we’ll know soon enough whether the present imbroglio reflects a dangerous pandemic or merely a run-of-the-mill seasonal epidemic accompanied by inordinate ‘panic’, as Malcolm is guessing – implausibly IMO.

    Either way, the short-term economic picture indeed is grim and the health consequences of lockdown aren’t great. But, Malcolm, your evidence seems to be culled mostly from right-wing political periodicals and written by people with no conspicuous learning in public health or infectious disease epidemiology, which is perhaps informative. Much as Clem says, if I were deeply invested in the economic status quo and fearful of alternatives like community self-organization for local benefit, I’d probably leave no stone unturned searching for reasons to criticize present policies and get people back to work – with the arguments that it’s in their own best interests and that it’s not really a pandemic given pride of place.

    But I’m not deeply invested in it – the real ‘panic’ seems to me in the kind of journals you’re citing, and to me that’s telling, and possibly one small silver lining in this whole affair. But time will tell, so can I suggest that we now close this thread until the facts are plainer?

    • Thanks for agreeing to me posting the comments I’d been working on, Chris.

      As I said in my email, most of my evidence has come from medical professionals (including a number who specialise in infectious diseases) that I came across through the site I linked to in my original comment (another site has since consolidated their links into two lists of the most prominent of them).

      As you say, time will tell.

    • I’d find a visualization like that of interest if it compared like with like – i.e. if it compared what’s happening now with comparable data for previous epidemics – but this one is contrasting a (probably) short-lived outbreak with the daily average of a number of perennial, year-round causes of death. It’s hard to see how it could help anyone get a clear perspective on what’s happening currently.

      • Comparing with previous epidemics would only show its severity vis-a-vis those previous ones, without any comparison to background mortality. This visualisation shows how the flaring of this epidemic has quickly exceeded background mortality – which seems to be the main problem, in terms of the ability of health systems to cope. It’s not clear to me why this should be less interesting than comparisons with previous epidemics – except for people who, for whatever reason, are anxious to downplay the pandemic. Presumably at some point the pandemic will burn out and the primacy of the other sources of mortality will then reassert itself. That will also be interesting to see, when the data are available.

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