By Sanjeev Sabhlok
The COVID pandemic has perhaps been the biggest tragedy of errors in human history. I call it the Great Hysteria in the title of a book that I wrote in 2020 to reflect the unimaginable loss of the most basic elements of civilization.
Grown up men and women in positions of power forgot during this hysteria the elements of arithmetic that they had learnt in school. Proportionately, adjusting for population growth, had COVID-19 been as deadly as the Spanish flu, it would need to have killed 220 million people worldwide. Instead, COVID has so far killed about 6 million. That brings it well within the range of the Hong Kong or Asian flu – for which the world never shut down.
As early as February-April 2020, analyses by epidemiologists like John Ioannidis suggested that COVID is not very severe. On 10 March 2020 in its official pandemic plan for COVID, the Victorian government in Australia wrote: “COVID-19 is assessed as being of moderate clinical severity”.
The overall Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) for COVID according to the UK government’s statement in its Parliament on 27 August 2021 is 0.096%, which is exactly the same as that for seasonal flu. In an interview I took of Prof. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University on 20 January 2022, he said that the IFR for COVID could be slightly higher: maybe 0.2%, but it is nowhere close to that of the Spanish flu. So let’s for a moment even assume that COVID has been twice as deadly as the flu. Would that justify the hysteria we have seen across India – hysteria that continues even today?
The other amazing thing that the hysteria has done is to cause almost all epidemiologists to forget the repeated warnings of the greatest epidemiologist of the 20th century, Donald Henderson, against taking any drastic measures to stop a respiratory virus – for such measures only cause harm and cannot stop the virus. He said in a 2010 conference that “this idea that in this day and age one is going to intercept people coming across the border and you’re going to stop the spread of the disease is a concept that was antiquated a very long time ago”.
Moreover, Dr Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University has demonstrated how international travel and intermingling across nations is hugely beneficial because it strengthens the immunity of people against severe disease. International travel is the panacea for dealing with pandemics, not a cause.
At the beginning of the Wuhan lockdowns, Gauden Galea, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) representative in China made it clear on 24 January 2020: “trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science. The lockdown of 11 million people is unprecedented in public health history, so it is certainly not a recommendation the WHO has made”. On 24 June 2020 Sweden’s State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell exclaimed, “it was as if the world had gone mad, and everything we had discussed was forgotten”. Tegnell also said, consistent with the science: “[c]losing borders, in my opinion, is ridiculous, because COVID-19 is in every European country now”. Stefan Baral, Professor at John Hopkins School of Public Health tweeted on 16 August 2020: “I spent a decade in public health training and do not remember the lockdown lecture”.
On 20 January 2022 Prof. Jay Bhattacharya said to me in an interview: “The kind of lockdowns we have imposed on the world for the past two years is unprecedented in history. I do not know of any pandemic plan that proposed anything like the policy that we followed. It is improvisation as public health policy”. The WHO’s comprehensive and well-researched pandemic guidelines of October 2019 rejected quarantines, let alone recommend society-wide lockdowns.
Not many people are aware that there is sinister underbelly to these policies: the role of China that is hiding in plain sight. In January 2021 I co-signed along with nine others including a senior US General an Open Letter to the world’s major intelligence agencies providing them with unambiguous evidence about China’s orchestration of the Great Hysteria through fake videos and fake computer models, and by getting the WHO to change its October 2019 warnings against lockdowns. China’s propaganda and stealth warfare skills exceed those of Goebbels.
In the midst of the Great Hysteria, only one nation followed the science: Sweden. It did not lockdown. It did not close borders or have any quarantine. It did not close down the lower classes in schools – high schools and universities were encouraged to switch to online classes for part of the duration of the pandemic. It recommended voluntary social distancing but not masks (in fact, parts of Sweden banned masks). A few large events and gatherings were stopped. But no hysteria: the entire focus of Anders Tegnell was to calm down the people and encourage them to carry on their normal life.
I wrote many articles for my Times of India blog to warn India against lockdowns. It was known from February 2020 onwards that the risk of death from COVID is disproportionately high for the elderly, so I wrote a piece on 6 March 2020: “Age-based risk management of coronavirus”. That idea also underpins the 4 October 2020 Great Barrington Declaration by some of the most eminent epidemiologists. The idea is for the elderly to take extra precautions but for the young to carry on their normal life. Coincidentally, on the morning of the day that Prime Minister Modi declared India’s lockdowns (24 March 2020) I wrote the piece: “Lockdowns won’t defeat the virus but will definitely destroy us all”. I sent all my pieces and much other information to Rajiv Gauba, India’s Cabinet Secretary and my batchmate in the IAS. To no avail. Everyone had shut their minds – and their minds remain shut till today.
Like with everything else in life, there are never any “solutions”, only trade-offs. With lockdowns the trade-offs were clear: that children and the young would suffer hugely even as we would inevitably fail to prevent most of the elderly from catching the virus.
Over the past few months I have been supporting Professor Gigi Foster of Australia on a cost-benefit analysis (CBA) of Australia’s COVID policies. The draft CBA confirms that Australia’s policies have caused havoc. A recent study from John Hopkins University has found that globally, lockdowns have prevented only 0.2% of COVID deaths, but their harms are so great it will take decades just to account for them.
No one has prepared a CBA for India as far as I’m aware, but estimates of harm for India are so huge, probably no country was harmed more than India. I don’t think a single COVID death was prevented in India by lockdowns, not even 0.2%. Instead, more COVID deaths must have occurred in India since people were forced indoors, thereby reducing their Vitamin D levels, making them more vulnerable.
In economics we value the life of a child around 80 times (roughly speaking) that of an elderly person who is in their last year of life. If such a calculation is applied to India, the harms caused by lockdowns will exceed any benefits by an order of tens of thousands, if not more. The damage to children continues: schools remain closed in most parts of India. Mask mandates continue.
To calculate the damage from lockdowns we need to count many other things, as well: e.g. the loss of happiness and mental illness due to loneliness from social isolation, the crowding-out of healthcare for problems other than COVID, the long-term costs to the earning capacity of our children and university students from disrupted education, the economic losses of millions of small businesses, the starvation of the families of daily wage labourers who only eat if they earn on a given day; the early deaths from causes other than COVID since people did not get their cancer or heart issues diagnosed in time; increased inequality in society; the damage to the government’s revenues which means there will be less money to spend on everything from roads to hospitals for years to come.
Sweden managed its pandemic with aplomb. As Reuters reports, Sweden “emerged from 2020 with a smaller increase in its overall mortality rate than most European countries”. No harms to children, no harms to the youth. On 9 February 2022, Sweden will return to complete and total normalcy. The people of Sweden are blessed.
(Sanjeev Sabhlok (PhD, Economics) is an advisor to Swatantra Bharat Party and former Commissioner to the Meghalaya Government).