This was the first article I had drafted after my resignation on 9 September 2020. I sent it to The Australian and thereafter (after receiving no response even to a reminder) to another paper. There has been no response from either of them.
In the meantime, the AFR accepted and published my second article which was then picked up in a few news outlets. I don’t want this first article to go waste, so publishing it here, so at least some people will see it.
To treat the coronavirus as the only thing that matters is not hard. Anyone can do that.
But to steer the course so Australia can face the vast range of threats to its future, including geopolitical threats such as from China but also maybe another pandemic or even a coronal mass ejection or the resurgence of Islamist terrorism – with composure, takes hard work.
I came to Australia 20 years ago after quitting a senior executive role in the government of India, tired of India’s corruption and bad policies. I took Australian citizenship 15 years ago, working as a professional economist in the Victorian government.
But this year something has gone very wrong. By 9 September 2020 it became clear that the Victorian and Australian governments have lost their way. We are seeing some of the most self-destructive policies mankind has ever imposed, including mass restrictions on liberty without the slightest scientific reason. So, to fulfil my duty of citizenship and to defend our shared future, I have resigned my public service role to be able to raise the alarm.
No one in Australia should try to claim that this situation has been caused only by the coronavirus. No, the situation reflects the most extreme over-reaction imaginable.
First, this virus is around two orders of magnitude less lethal than the Spanish flu, a fact that can be readily ascertained now – almost a year after the virus first emerged in China.
The Spanish flu killed at least 50 million people worldwide in 1918 when the global population was 1800 million. Proportionately, to be as lethal as Spanish flu, a virus would have to kill at least 210 million people today. Instead, only around 0.9 million have died so far (compare this also with the 60 million who ordinarily die each year).
What about a second wave? There has never been a second wave that is hundreds of times bigger than the first, so we can be confident that this virus will never become a Spanish flu. Instead, also based on the dramatic tapering off of pandemic deaths in most countries, we know that while this virus will create further ripples, its ultimate magnitude will end up in the range of the 1957 Asian flu.
To be doubly sure we can look at much-maligned Sweden where covid deaths rapidly declined from mid-April and came to a grinding halt from late July. Over the course of an average year, around 90,000 people die in Sweden. This year, around 6,000 have died of coronavirus but because many were those who would have died this year anyway of old age, the overall impact of the virus on Sweden’s total deaths this year is hard to distinguish when compared with the past five years.
But even if this pandemic had been as big as the Spanish flu, lockdowns could never have been justified.
Science rejects outright the idea of lockdowns for a flu-type virus. The WHO’s October 2019 report, “Non-pharmaceutical public health measures for mitigating the risk and impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza”, recommends face masks and internal travel restrictions for major pandemics but says that contact tracing and quarantine of exposed individuals is “not recommended in any circumstances”.
Lockdowns can never eradicate flu-type viruses, only limit their short-term spread. A recent cross-country study has reconfirmed that “full lockdowns, border closures, and high rate of COVID-19 testing were not associated with reduced number of critical cases or overall mortality”.
Worse, by increasing other types of morbidity during the lockdown, we end up with much higher mortality in the long-term, as Professor Martin Kulldorff of Harvard Medical School has pointed out. We are seeing signs of that in data from across the world. For example, suicides in India more than doubled in some of its cities during the lockdowns.
There can be no reason why public health regulation must be exempt from the analysis to which all other regulation is subject. Pandemics do not constitute an emergency. It is possible to contemplate various scenarios and prepare for them in advance.
We know this because Sweden has managed this pandemic without the slightest panic and without brutalising its people. The Swedes were provided relevant information and chose their preventative actions voluntarily. And while Sweden’s economy has suffered a little (it will still likely escape recession), the police was never used against its citizens.
The Victorian Guide to Regulation states: “It is not possible for governments to provide a completely ‘risk free’ society, or to prevent every possible event that might cause harm”. Further: “the direct and indirect costs imposed by regulatory approaches may not be … immediately obvious. Risk regulation that is poorly targeted or costly will divert resources from other priorities”.
For 15 years I have advised governments in Victoria based on these long-established principles but this time around they have been trashed, as if they did not ever exist. Neither in Victoria or anywhere else in Australia have we seen any signs of risk-based regulation, evidence-based policy or cost-benefit tests. I must add that epidemiological models do not constitute policy analysis. Policy analysis considers an enormous range of trade-offs and unintended consequences.
From day 1 of the pandemic we needed detailed analysis (updated regularly) that considered the implications of regulatory options under a range of scenarios, for example, scenarios in which a vaccine is found and others in which it is not. But we have only seen ad hoc prescriptive rules which make no sense either from the health or economic perspective. Public policy practitioners always caution against knee-jerk reactions; this time we’ve seen mind-bending, society-destroying over-reaction.
Underpinning the civilised approach of Sweden is its Constitution which does not allow the suspension of liberties except in war. As Behrang Kianzad has explained, “the Constitution protects Swedish citizens from blanket limitations of freedom of movement or general stay home orders”.
The use of emergency powers in peacetime can never be justified. I call upon Australia’s political parties to commit to a constitutional amendment to prohibit peacetime powers that diminish our Constitutional liberties. The executive’s actions must always be reasonable, proportionate and justiciable in the court of law. Else we will end up – as we have done this time – with tyranny, not just a recession.