Coronavirus: another folly in the making

The coronavirus epidemic has been fuelled by public hysteria with government doing little to damp this down instead putting in place measures likely to do massive harm to economic performance, says Dean Stiles, joint editor, www.globalcoldchainnews.com.

“Governments are prone to folly. When stupid decisions are made rarely is there any admission of mistake. Instead governments plough on regardless.

Brexit will also certainly prove to be another fine example of such folly dwarfed only by the coronavirus escapade.

Brexit, economists predict, will reduce British GDP by anything up to 3%. The measures to contain coronavirus could cause UK economic output to plunge by an unprecedented 15% in the second quarter of the year and unemployment to more than double, according to analysts at the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

The predicted slump would dwarf the 2.2% contraction in the fourth quarter of 2008 as the banking crash took hold, marking by far the worst three-month period since at least 1997. Goldman Sachs has revised its coronavirus projections for the USA predicting the jobless rate to reach 15% and GDP to fall by a record 34% in the second quarter.

Does curtailing the coronavirus epidemic justify such drastic consequences that in themselves carry health risks?

The coronavirus epidemic has been fuelled by public hysteria and government has done little to damp this down. Premature death caused by road traffic accidents are an accepted part of life. It’s now clear that vehicle pollution also causes death and likely on a larger scale. Yet measures to make cars safer and less lethal have been slow, and in the case of pollution, limited.

Yet when a virus arrives that rarely kills we are willing to spend billions and virtually stop all economic activity. Each day, we are told of more deaths from coronavirus. The death figures reported daily are hospital cases where a person dies with the coronavirus infection in their body. That’s because it is a notifiable disease and cases have to be reported. But what the figures do not tell us, is to what extent the virus is causing the death: is it a major cause, a contributory factor or simply present when someone dies of something else?

Most people who die with coronavirus have an underlying health condition, such as heart disease or diabetes, that may be more of a factor. The Office for National Statistics is now trying to determine the proportion of these deaths that are caused specifically by coronavirus.

Every year, about 600,000 people in the UK die. And the frail and elderly are most at risk, just as they are if they have coronavirus. Nearly 10% of people aged over 80 will die in the next year, Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, at the University of Cambridge, points out, and the risk of them dying if infected with coronavirus is almost exactly the same.

“Many people who die of Covid [the disease caused by coronavirus] would have died anyway within a short period,” he says.

Knowing exactly how many is impossible to tell at this stage but Prof Neil Ferguson, the lead modeller at Imperial College London, has suggested it could be up to two-thirds.

The key measure will be what is called excess deaths – the difference between the expected number of deaths and actual deaths. That’s a number closely monitored during flu seasons and during recent winters, there have been about 17,000 excess deaths from flu a year, Public Health England says. But there has been no mass hysteria, panic buying of food, wearing of face masks, or the “lock down” of the entire population.

If coronavirus turns out to be no more deadly than flu, the lockdown could limit the number of excess deaths to under 1,400 – more than 12,000 fewer than would have happened under the previous strategy of slowing its spread, before the decision was taken to move to lockdown.

The lockdown, itself, however could cost lives and health. University of Bristol researchers say the benefit of a long-term lockdown in reducing premature deaths could be outweighed by the lost life expectancy from a prolonged economic dip. And the tipping point, they say, is a 6.4% decline in the size of the economy – on a par with what happened following the 2008 financial crash. It would see a loss of three months of life on average across the population because of factors from declining living standards to poorer health care.

A balance will need to be struck between keeping it at bay and trying to control its spread to avoid a second peak, while allowing the country to return to normal.

But governments have a tendency to be very slow to remove measures or lift legislation that enhances its power. Like the steady stream of security measures enforced at airports these remain in place when it is patently obvious that limiting liquids to 100ml is of absolutely no safety value at all. Or checking belts and shoes. Yet these are dutifully enforced – or at least they were when people were still flying.

We can expect, based on current form, that whatever the outcome, the government will be sending out a steady stream of ministers armed with adjectives to sell their skill and dedication at dealing with an “unprecedented” crisis of wartime proportions. It’s unlikely that we will hear of the enormous price , in pound notes and well as in health, that has had to be paid for this action.”

Dean Stiles is joint editor of www.globalcoldchainnews and through age and underlying health conditions is classed as at risk from the coronavirus.

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