SCIENTIFIC MISINFORMATION IN THE AGE OF COVID-19
There is an Irish blogger, Rowan Croft, active on You Tube, who goes by the handle of Grand Torino (link). An ardent supporter of the herd immunity school of thought, despite having no obvious scientific or medical expertise in his background, he posts videos of himself on his Grand Torino channel demanding the removal of all lockdown measures with immediate effect. They are, he states with breath-taking bravado and a dense Dublin brogue, an affront to human rights and the Irish constitution. His videos give me a headache; today he sang for the first section of his 1 hour long post – I had to watch this for my research.
For the record, Alex Jones, a widely discredited and somehow hugely popular (and rich) American extreme conspiracy progenitor (link) is his mentor, muse, and idol. The vast majority of the people Croft interviews on his Grand Torino channel are fringe activists and disaffected (though many are quite prominent and well known – such as Gemma O Doherty and John Waters: link, link). Their views are mostly, at varying degrees, along the spectrum of the political and social right. Impartial and qualified experts in the issues they discuss are not among them. Balanced debate it is not.
Croft is aided in his quest by other bloggers and vloggers in Ireland such as Dave Cullen (link) and the more extreme Donegal based Niall McConnel (link). They in turn network with what seems to be a global web of activists who are beevering feverishly for a series of end games that include hyper-nationalism, fascism, anti-globalism and anti-government agendas (link).
All of them are a significant force in the propagation of alternative facts, conspiracy theories, and pandemic misinformation. It is of considerable concern.
I do not believe that a lot of these guys believe what they say but their followers on their blogs, and vlogs certainly do, to judge by their associated comment threads.
There are pretty much no comments in these thread-worlds that contradict the main jumpy narrative. What you will read is a monoculture of paranoid reasoning, and often deluded world views. It raises the highly disconcerting suspicion that many of these followers are not well. And that there are many thousands of them in this country (Ireland) alone. It almost seems as they are being harnessed to be fired up for some reason (a Handsome Mug anyone? – link), while dissenting or more sensible views and comments get screened from the threads.
Through online vlogging and blogging, street demonstrations (link), challenges in the courts (link), and even, incongruously, by storming government buildings with assault weapons (link), they are campaigning to have all COVID-19 restrictions lifted. To them, the restrictions are part of the leftist politically correct (or deep state, depending on how confused they are) agenda to subdue free speech, dismantle constitutions and erode national identity.
They have garlanded the concept of herd immunity as an alternative approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Now actually, there are a few (arguably) valid arguments for allowing herd immunity to develop among our populations. However, the approach is extremely dangerous. With a less virulent virus it probably would be the way to go. But with this one, it is clear the death rates would be horrific – they already are (almost 30,000 deaths in the UK as of 6 May 2020, in a 6 week period – a country that initially embarked on a strategy of herd immunity).
The idea of the herd immunity COVID-19 strategy is to allow the population at large to carry on as normal and leave schools, bars restaurants, open, etc. As the virus moves through the population those who get sick will recover, after which they are immune. Meanwhile the vulnerable and sick and the old (those most susceptible to the more severe forms of COVID-19 infection) are cocooned until either herd immunity is achieved and viral circulation is limited to an acceptable degree, or until a vaccine or other treatment is found.
The problem is that the logistics of this are most likely almost impossible. And this virus appears also to kill some healthy young people. It kills a lot more healthy middle age people. And of course the elderly and those with other serious conditions are hit the worst.
So, who do we cocoon? Who do we allow to die? The obvious answer, and borne out by reality, is that the strategy would clearly swamp national health systems and result in war-time like coping mechanisms where medical staff make decisions on who to treat on the basis of their chances of survival (see Italy – link).
Therefore, it is probably safe to state that the concept of herd immunity is scientifically valid. In the cold impartial eyes of science the sick and old will die faster, many others will die too, but the population will eventually endure and with prolonged immunity. It is also safe to state that the concept is medically irresponsible, to the highest degree. For the same reasons. And furthermore, to pursue it as a public health strategy is morally repugnant.
The lockdown measures are indeed a blunt and non-discriminatory way of limiting the viral infection rate. And they are going to be extremely economically damaging.
But this virus strain was unknown to science six months ago. Its behaviour cannot be predicted. Falling back on comparisons that it is no worse than a flu is highly irresponsible. In January it might have been excusable to say its like a flu, but given what we know currently, the data clearly shows that this is far worse than flu. Lockdown was, and remains, the only effective way to suppress the virus in lieu of a vaccine or other treatment.
1) Being a new virus, humans have no innate (herd) immunity and this allows it to run rampant through us.
2) It is clearly highly contagious, to an unusual degree.
3) It can cause very severe and fatal illness in a high proportion of those infected, though this depends on how one looks at the stats, and the particulars of the data (link).
4) The symptoms at the severe end of the illness are horrific and kill slowly by suffocation.
5) We have no full idea of the future behaviour of this virus and whether it will “cooperate” in the development of herd immunity. Certainly, it appears to have a low mutation rate which would help allow a host herd develop some effective immunity (link), but this is not definitively proven.
6) Currently no vaccines or anti-viral drugs have been proven be effective in treating COVID-19 infection inside a human – not hydroxychloroquine (the principle study on this is discredited – link) or chloroquine (unproven and maybe harmful– link), or remdesivir (unproven – link), not Dettol (ridiculous), or bleach (stupid) or UV (again, stupid).
Concerning a vaccine there may be some small hope with BCG vaccinations (link).
7) We don’t even know how the virus can behave or survive trans-seasonally – will the elevated UV levels and high humidity of summer limit it’s spread, or will the drawing in of dark nights in September bring on successive waves of infection?
8) The only thing that is absolutely sure, is that we do not know anything definitively.
The process of learning about COVID-19 is really one giant worldwide science experiment, which everybody can see in real time. We see results garlanded one day as encouraging, only to be rebuffed a few days later by scientists, or by a different study. The process is familiar to any science PhD students anywhere – the process of “lets see if this works, oh maybe did does, nope it doesn’t, yes it does, well it does if I do this, but not this. Lets think about it this way, maybe calculate the numbers that way. Nope, OK nothing works at all, start again” But three years later the PhD student has a successful finished product, which by educated trial and considered error, is a published body of verifiable work that adds to the world of knowledge. This is pretty much how the search for knowledge to beat the COVID-29 virus is playing out. There will be an agreed upon consensus on Sars-Cov-2 someday, the process we see is science at work.
It is complicated and uncertain and scary, but we will get there. But in the meantime, people, please, stop believing in the untruths and the silliness and the dangerous disinformation spread by the dishonest or the seriously misinformed. Try and understand that the world and everything in it is far from simple; that we must engage with its inherent complexity in order to understand it and work with it. In terms of COVID-19 I mean the complexity of biology, epidemiology, medicine, sociology, and sensible politics all working together.
These are our tools that we need to fight it. Not tedious self-promoting and misleading You Tube rants, or court challenges, or men with paramilitary fatigues and heavy assault rifles, or xenophobia or dangerous pseudoscience.