Covid-19’s not the main problem; it’s our response

Triumph of the germophobes. What more could go wrong?

Mark, my neighbour, and I shared beers the day before all this started. I deliver goat’s milk daily and collect his empty bottles. Must this end? Today I chatted with family for next to an hour on Zoom. Is this ‘the shape of things to come’?

I fear it might be, which is why I believe we must take careful stock and self-correct before it is too late. To this end, these are the facts as I see them, as of now:

  • the chances that Covid-19 will take you out are probably in the same ballpark as that of flu, TB, heart, cancer (related, please see the note right at the end)
  • the lockdown has served its purpose
  • our choices today will determine our future

Coved-19 is going to run its course, like it or not

Because the current version of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, tagged as Covid-19, is novel (i.e. new) experts are struggling to understand how it works.

What is however becoming abundantly clear is that original predictions of millions dying from the virus were way-overinflated. Apropos, watch Dr Ioannidis’s early cautionary (embedded link below), and that of Dr Sucharit Bhakdi.

Instead it seems that young people will mostly shake off the virus while the elderly and those with secondary health issues (obesity, diabetes, heart, etc.) must take particular care.

South Africa – with its young population (60% of South Africans are less than 35 years old), higher immunity levels given our ‘third world’, developmental status where the majority roughs it, and a sizeable population group receiving the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin vaccine to fight TB, which reportedly seems to be playing an inhibitory role when it comes to the virus – has less to fear than, for instance, countries such as Italy with its aging population (including their doctors) and the US with high obesity, diabetic and hypertension levels and a largely germophobic population which, according to the germ hypothesis, leaves individuals immunologically compromised.

The lockdown has served its purpose

Lockdown was a holding operation to win time while authorities prepare for what is to come. Now, however, it seems that the original intent has morphed into the taken-for-granted assumption that it’s the cure. It isn’t. That’s a year or more down the line with a vaccine, by which time the virus will most likely have mutated into Covid-21 or 22. In the meantime there’s the real world where the problems are piling up.

For instance, the millions who ‘have seen their livelihoods shattered by lockdowns, by collapse of tourism’ and, in the developing world ‘by an end to remittances coming from relatives abroad’ | Kristof, N. (2020). This Pandemic Is Bringing Another With It. New York Times, [online]. Available here.

Dori (a neighbour with a spousal visa) and countless others, locked out of their countries far from loved ones, essentially stateless.

In Groote Schuur outpatients in Cape Town, John Smith (not his real name), who works in admission, reports that they now turn away everyone who doesn’t answer to a Covid-19 infection except stabbings and gunshot wounds.

Those who need care are staying clear of hospitals for fear of the virus. Apropos, see the eNCA interview below with one of 19 South African doctors who signed an open letter to Ramaphosa pleading for the hard lockdown to be ended and a return to normality.

Watch the 06:20-minute interview below. You’ll weep.

‘While we’re preparing (for the corona virus) we’re taking heavy losses on the other fronts and we have to get in the game’ | Dr Ebrahim Kader

The future we choose

Ioannidis (referenced above) articulates what are for me some of the most worrying consequences of our response to Covid-19 (my emphasis):

I think we have no clue how a society would work if you need to build it around a construct where everything is done from a distance … but thinking of a society that is entirely imprisoned and telecommunicating is a very different beast. I’m not even sure it is tenable. It creates a very different environment for our ethics, for our ability to socialize, for democracy, for what it means to be human and our perception of risk and how to deal with risk.

Perspectives on the Pandemic | Dr John Ioannidis of Stanford University | Episode 1, . Watch, below

The above video was taken down by YouTube thereby confirming this take.

Already we see his concerns start playing out:

  • ethics: as in individual, as opposed to public good
  • ability to socialize: as in how to exercise our humanity within a context of curfews, shutdowns, social distancing, surveillance
  • democracy: as in ‘where does the constitutional state stop and the dictatorship start’ (Daily Maverick) and
  • how to deal with risk: as in whether to hide from one another or embrace risk, and in so doing developing herd immunity

And then there are the politicians, corporates, vested interests and ordinary people who, in a Naomi Kleinian Shock Doctrine kind of way, attempt to capitalise on crises, which then set us all on a course which, before we know it, becomes the new normal. To avoid shock-doctrine outcomes we must therefore remain hyper-alert for any potential inflection point, for instance, any which might result in the triumph of the:

  • Zumarites: now that Moody’s has cut us adrift, there must surely be some temptation, given our predicament, for Treasury to start printing money as an anodyne or antidote to the escalating unemployment crisis exacerbated by the extended lockdown which, if it comes to pass will, in a sense, mean the Zumarites have triumphed, which if so might mean we can all kiss our futures goodbye
  • surveillance state: China’s vast surveillance powers must be the envy of every closet dictator, and we seem to have one or two in Government and in the South African Police Service right now. Therefore we should be vigilant that location tracking isn’t also rolled out to ‘protect us’
  • germophobes: germophobes will now add masks and hand sanitizers to their arsenal which already contains insect killer sprays, antifungal-this and antibacterial-that which then becomes further license to turn every household or restaurant into a dead zone
  • AgriChem industry and factory farming: natural, organic and unpasteurized might soon ‘fall’ as the call for ‘food safety’ results in general acceptance of, if not demand for GM, meat raised in sterile environments where animals and chickens never feel the earth or see the sky, nuked vegies, meat shot through with antibiotics and ultra-pasteurised milk as the new norm
  • junk food industry: strategies to combat the virus are paying no attention to the fact that our best line of defence is a healthy immune system which can only come about through whole foods, exercise and exposure to the virus. Consequently obesity, diabetes, heart and related lifestyle conditions are increasingly taken as givens instead of recognised for what they are: unwitting enablers of the corona, flu, and other viruses
  • Borg: if our response to the virus further estranges us from nature and, instead, we find ourselves living sequestered, germ-free lives hermetically-sealed in our respective cocoons, all huddled behind our webcams, our every keystroke registered by the panoptic other (or Other) which controls every aspect of our lives, then consciousness, as we know it, will no longer be nourished by soul (by ‘soul’, I mean deep, or Deep nature), and, instead, be shaped by and merge with the machine (or Machine) thereby finally severing the God-loop (as an example of the ‘God-loop’ I think back to the reverence Bushmen experienced for animals – particularly those they hunted), which will then signify that the commodification of the planet, including Homo sapiens, is final.

Underpinning most of the above is fear – as in fear of the virus, fear of one another, and now fear of the police – and its talisman: denial, self-deception or obedience.

And so we remain locked down day after day, conscientiously following the latest set of regulations having faith that it’s keeping us all safe and that sometime in the future the economy patiently awaits our return, without maybe fully comprehending that we are that economy and that without us it isn’t going to happen; while running parallel with our obedience there is maybe only a vague awareness of and concern about patchy, inept or downright dangerous leadership which could quite suddenly (we’re locked down – remember) become rule by diktat, by which time God help us.

It obviously won’t come to the following although it does illustrate our natural propensity to cooperate when under duress:

… one of the most astonishing human traits that came to light (during the extermination of the Ukrainian and Belarusian Jews) at that time was obedience. There were cases of huge queues being formed by people awaiting execution – and it was the victims themselves who regulated the movement of these queues. There were hot summer days when people had to wait from early morning until late at night; some mothers prudently provided themselves with bread and bottles of water for their children …

Grossman, V. (2011:198). ‘Life and Fate’. London, Vintage.

Freddie Sayers concluded in an analysis of two separate interviews he conducted with epidemiologists on how to respond to covid-19 (first, Swedish professor Johan Gieseck, the realist, who argued that because life entails risk we should not forfeit normal, and, second, UK Professor Neil Ferguson, the idealist, who expressed excitement at the prospect of finding a cure for the virus, which he believes lockdown provides) that:

Whether you’re more Giesecke or Ferguson, it’s time to stop pretending that our response to this threat is simply a scientific question, or even an easy moral choice between right and wrong. It’s a question of what sort of world we want to live in, and at what cost.

Sayers, F. (2020). Which epidemiologist do you believe? ‘Unherd’, [online]. Available here

My choice of world would be the one posited by Giesecke in which I embrace hazard. These would be the costs as I see them:

I would need to shake myself out of my lockdown torpor or faith, and, instead, take control particularly of my health in the knowledge that if I do not exercise and eat properly I jeopardise my immune system thus increasing the risk of becoming victim to the virus. It would mean risking infection but in the knowledge that were I to become infected, given my health, which I’ve conscientiously nurtured, I’ll not only survive but also build immunity for whatever the virus has in store for me next time round.

If, however, I did have an underlying medical condition then I would quarantine myself during which time I would adopt a radical natural health regime.

I would also make it my business to question and maybe even badger authority, respectfully.

Finally, I would make a stand against what I experience as dystopian tendencies we all seem to have to varying degrees that would sacrifice a human future on the altar of technology.

When submitted for possible publication the editor felt uncomfortable with the numbers as far as they pertained to the influenza virus and felt, instead, that it would be better to compare to TB, HIV/AIDS, Malaria etc.. He might be correct as my prognosis was gleaned from the two Ioannidis interviews referenced in the text. A further useful gauge are the following statistics:

The average mortality in South Africa due to Covid-19 is currently three per day, a total of 206 since 5 March [at the time of writing this on 12 May]. If we compared that to some other causes of death, we see that 194 of the 7.7 million people living with HIV-AIDS in our country die daily, 80 daily as a result of TB, 69 as a result of diabetes, and 26 as a result of influenza | De Villiers, W. (et al). (2020). President Ramaphosa’s latest announcement on the lockdown is too little, too late Daily Maverick [online]. Available here

De Villiers, W. (et al). (2020). President Ramaphosa’s latest announcement on the lockdown is too little, too late ‘Daily Maverick’ [online]. Available here.

10 thoughts on “Covid-19’s not the main problem; it’s our response”

  1. I like your style, Hendrik, if not all that you propose/claim.
    The pandemic IS serious, though, and will kill God knows how many people globally once it’s done. But, and here I am in full agreement with you, humanity’s response to it could turn out to be a much more serious threat. Especially. in SA, where I see exceedingly troubling trends within the ANC.
    Be well, and be there.
    Billy Gild

    1. Thank you for reading, Billy, and taking the trouble to comment. As an anaesthetist you know hospitals better than I do although the overall sense I have is that even the experts are floundering. Ioannidis, whom I reference, is under intense scrutiny given his early questioning around numbers and also because, as an academic, he has, I understand, in the past critiqued and found certain (epidemiological?) research studies lacking. He is also in the firing line because the Tucker Carlsons of this world (Fox News) are using him to promote Trump’s back-to-normal call. The aforementioned is largely referencing the following Undark interview which also speaks to how Ioannidis believes we need to understand numbers given the global meta-context of Covid-19: ‘The Undark interview: John Ioannidis responds to his critics’.

  2. As always, a thoughtfulaAnd measured response to a complex problem.
    I liked Dr Ioannidis’s point thY we need to gather as much information about the virus as possible – and while it is being gathered he was practising Social Distancing.
    The idea of moving beyond the initial extreme Lockdown in an organised manner makes sense – as well as the need to guard against using the pandemic as an excucse to follow “hidden agendas”.
    Continued isolation for vulnerable people is a luxury not open to all – especially in over crowded “sub standard” housing – but taking reasonable care us not a hysterical reaction. Wearing cloth masks to prevent speading droplets and washing one’s hands is hardly extreme germophobia
    Reopening businesses and factories is probably. overdue, but perhaps it might be as well to wait before filling sports stadiums and concert halls.
    A gradual return to normal life, coupled with reasonable vigalence might well be a way forward.

    Hopefully the realisation that the homeless need to be housed and the informally housed need water and sanitation and that the unemployed need to be employed …and need to eat while job seeking, will not be forgotten once the fear of the pandemic is no longer foremost in our minds.

    1. Alan, ditto! Thank you for a thoughtful and measured response which reminds me from whom I learnt the art of essay writing decades ago. Thank you also for following up on the links and references. I like your argument for a purposeful yet cautious return to normal. I agree with your final point diplomatically couched (unless I’m misunderstanding your intention) that the underpinning tragedy – if not crime! – is that we still have large swathes of our population without water and sanitation.

  3. I think firstly its difficult to formulate an enlightened point of view in times of trouble, secondly more difficult to convince the general public of this view. Thanks for articulating one..

  4. Thanks, Hendrik, for a timeous comment.

    It seems that the information at the disposal of the medical fraternity referenced here and generally available seems to suggest that the virus is lethal when it has the assistance of specific allies.

    It was obviously, we now know, prudent to err on the side of caution. Arrogant regimes have provided lessons we seem to be following with mixed attention.

    Decades of less than reliable service delivery despite vote-garnering promises have brought about a cynicism among voters and a cavalier if not an entrepreneurial approach to rules and regulations.

    The business class is still seen to be of a certain hue, and as employers now seeking to trim their expenses, are ripe for targeting as unfeeling, exploiters of the masses. Seems the only secure class are government employees.

    Many people are clamouring to take their chances at economic survival even if at the risk of the virus. Perhaps some governments employees are less enthusiastic not only because of potential comorbidities.

    I don’t believe we can go back to our carefree lives. The social fabric is, I’m hoping, not torn beyond mending, given the marvellous compassion so many are showing.

    So compassion simply cannot be allowed to end and economic activity must be allowed to get moving again.

    Thanks for the opportunity, sir.

  5. Dearest H,

    What a pleasure reading your article

    Yes I agree with you, Lockdown is good for a certain amout of time, but now people are starving no job no food. 

    As all the plagues  we have had this one will fade out. If we know we are fragile we stay home keep the immune system strong as well.

    Masks are essential protect yourself and eveybody else . We, have no idea where we are headed but it will be ok

    Take care and keep safe.  Loved the

    Dr. from Stanford 

    1. Your warm response is highly appreciated, Jeannie. I’m also encouraged that it’s your sense that this will all fade away. I do hope so. I’m so glad you valued Ioannidis as he seems to evoke ire in some hearts. Why I do not know. You too (as in care and safety).

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