One year ago, I wrote my first article on COVID-19 where I celebrated the Top Ten Good Things about COVID-19. While I suspected my choice of words would be controversial, people then needed a shake. I’m in no way new to the pandemic game and I saw clearly then what was going to play out. I had just returned to Brussels from Asia and had noticed a real disconnect between how different cultures were preparing for the pending disaster. Most Western authorities were pretending it would not be a problem and were doing nothing to prepare and I had forecast a valuable policy lesson would soon be learnt. I considered that a good thing since what we knew about this novel coronavirus indicated it would be bad, but not the big one. Several years back I had predicted something far worse (related to our ignorance of the rising levels of antimicrobial resistance) and I still hold to that dark prediction.
But what has changed in this dark year since this initial clarion blog? Most Western authorities still do not understand how to manage risks and still think precautionary measures like lockdowns are all they need to do. Hundreds of thousands of lives were needlessly lost, economies crushed with certain sectors gone for good. Regulators have grown even more precautionary with a rise in COVID-19 absolutism (with dangerous guarantees to a nervous public of safe lockdowns). The consequences of their actions have been unspeakable (economic and social decimation, mental health decline, increased domestic violence…) while at the same time liberties once taken for granted have been denied at the primary level: censorship and deplatforming have now become acceptable in once free-speaking societies. Meanwhile, in Asia, where I was at the start of the pandemic, the risks were managed and they have moved forward in a way that we, in the West should look on with respect and benchmark from. But we don’t!
Here are my top ten good lessons from a year ago, unfiltered, for your scrutiny (inset in italics) with my hindsight observations after each. Six weeks later, I did a Canadian Talk-Radio interview on this piece (good fun) for your listening pleasure (from the six-minute mark). While our knowledge has evolved (and positions have changed) dramatically since those early days in 2020, I feel I only missed on one point here: I had assumed our leadership would recognise the failure of their precautionary mindset and adopt proper risk management techniques – I would never have dreamt that our authorities, with full blinders on, would push ever deeper down that zero-risk rabbit hole.
1. Increased public awareness on hygiene
“Regularly wash your hands … well.” … “Avoid touching objects like door handles, handrails, money, buttons and other people’s mobile phones.” … “Shaking hands is as good as a French kiss.” … These are things I regularly remind people but now with the public focus on COVID-19, the message is getting out there loud and clear. If we adopted these practices and worked on better infrastructure (safer stairs, easier doors…), public health would increase remarkably and hospitals would free up significant space during flu seasons.
This was a missed opportunity. Authorities should have used this occasion of enhanced public concern to manifestly change public space infrastructure, designing different doors, social contact points and payment modalities. We have the technology to design far more contactless interaction points, but we lack the political will. That would assume our authorities understood risk reduction measures as part of their responsibility.
2. Face masks are becoming commonplace, even fashionable
I spent a good part of the early “outbreak weeks” in South-East Asia and I was impressed at how quickly the public donned face masks. Even young children were proudly showing off their designer Disney masks. (I wanted to find the bad-ass black face masks but they were sold out.) Now the reality is that only a certain type of tight-fitting mask reduces exposure risks (when combined with protective eye gear and surgical gloves) but face masks are still quite valuable in preventing the person from spreading viruses onto others. Coming back to Belgium where face masks are seen as anti-social, I looked in horror as people coughed and sneezed (and then shook hands). If Europeans could learn anything from Asians, it would be to be more considerate about infecting their neighbours. If fear of COVID-19 increases the use of face masks in Europe, that would be a good thing.
Sorry to blow my horn, but I was telling people to wear masks in February while the WHO was dithering and giving mixed messages until May (although a lot of my critics still think I am anti-mask). This is basic risk-management and it wasn’t a hard thing to implement. Wearing a face mask reduces risks of increased community exposure and are thus a good thing. Is it 100% safe? No, but nothing is. Anything that reduces exposure risks during a pandemic is a good thing … end of conversation. I chuckled watching debates rage in the US into the late autumn, with Trump and Biden representing the political poles: the right using the mask as a symbol against personal liberties while the left used it as an opportunity to virtue signal. There is nothing political, social or moral about wearing a mask – it is just basic common sense.
3. The WHO gets real-time risk communications training
The World Health Organization has had a horrible record on risk communications. SARS was an absolute debacle and Ebola resorted into a regrettable blame-game. This time around, I must admit, they are getting much better. The WHO avoided ringing the alarm bells too early; have been transparent in sharing information from their meetings; they have contextualised the risk from COVID-19 compared to common strains of influenza; and have suffixed most of their press interventions with quick reminders on basic hygiene efforts to reduce transmission risks.
The WHO info-graphics are clear and timely and they have been providing daily COVID-19 press briefings. See how the WHO Executive Director for Emergency Programmes, Michael Ryan, uses all the right risk-com phrases to contain an alarmist-hungry journalist. It is rare for me to commend the WHO but I bow in respect to Dr Ryan in particular!
I was impressed by Mike Ryan’s initial management of the communications and outreach and I stand by that today. Unfortunately his superiors (namely the media-hungry Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Soumya Swaminathan) have tragically expressed their their penchant for the limelight and this has proved not only regrettable, but also reputationally destructive to the WHO. Dr Michael Ryan should be promoted to lead the WHO (upon which time I will promise to hold my tongue and be positive about the the organisation).
4. People are reminded how deadly the flu is
While a couple thousand deaths in China can seem frightening, news of the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to remind ourselves of how many people actually die every year from the common strains of influenza. In the US, the CDC estimates the present flu season to have killed between 14,000 to 36,000 Americans (until 8 February). 2020 is forecast to be far lower than the 2017-18 flu season which took over 60,000 lives in the US. With this information, more Americans will likely get flu vaccines next year (when there will probably be a COVID-19 vaccine as well). While the present outbreak in China is showing mortality rates of around 2% (mostly among the elderly and those with pre-existing illnesses), COVID-19 appears to pale in comparison to SARS (9.6% mortality) and MERS (34%).
My mortality data still holds particularly given the infection rates however the level of societal disruption and media obsession has increased the impact of this pandemic beyond anything a bad flu season could ever do. Is that due to media over-reaction or morbidity force? One thing is for sure – in 2020-21, we seem to have forgotten about influenza mortality data. Is that due to relative death-rates or increased hygiene and social distancing being far more effective in controlling the spread of different . Recall how, in the 2019-20 flu season, the UK were recording overflowing NHS wards with patients sleeping on the floors. The British media only focused on this problem because of the election campaign but I suppose the UK has since fixed that problem. When I wrote this in February 2020, there were things I could not have known, in particular the coronavirus’ pernicious viral nature, the number of asymptomatic superspreaders and the variant strains but I believe, as we learn to live with COVID, it will be included with flu strains in our annual vaccine formulations. And as an added “good thing”, scientists have learnt so much about how respiratory diseases spread.
Some would argue that I am being insensitive to those victims of so-called long-COVID and that in comparing this to the flu is akin to being a COVID-denier. To the contrary, I have been battling post-COVID issues since I contracted the virus in October and I understand how unpleasant it is as inflammation issues to this day affect my comorbidities (heart disease and an organ infection) and has left me with a debilitating brain-fog and chronic pain. Then again, there are many types of flu viruses, respiratory diseases and infections, some with equally dreadful effects. A few years back, it took me four months to recover from mononucleosis but as that is not novel, nobody pays much attention to it.
5. Anti-vaxx opportunists and conspiracy theorists get outed
Naturopath-watchers like The Risk-Monger were curious to see how the public fear of COVID-19 might interrupt the anti-vaxx message. An early claim, that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created this coronavirus strain to increase vaccine sales, failed to gain traction even among the activists. Alternative medicines to treat the virus, like the Silver Solution (that “Totally eliminate it. Kills it, deactivates it.“), have been ridiculed rather than embraced. As public fear of the risks escalates and news of progress on a vaccine increases, the middle-ground audience the anti-vaxxers had been playing for is returning to reason, science and the authorities.
Unfortunately many science communicators have dropped the ball here. I have written a lot on how the vaccine vigilantes have made vaccines sacrosanct as the only way we will be able to get this pandemic under control (I have referred to this as the vaxalvation or vaxolution strategy- see here, here and here). By refusing dialogue, ruthlessly going after public figures who do not endorse their vaccine orthodoxy and deplatforming (censoring) anyone with contrary views, we have elevated and promoted many fringe conspiracy theorists. Also the rush to get vaccines on the market (often for political reasons) allowed vaccine hesitancy to breed as latent mistrust in our authorities resurged.
6. Social media is stepping up to confront ridiculous alarmism
In January, when I started reading reports on a SARS-like virus detected in China, I thought to myself: “Oh dear“. Not because of the inability of our health systems to cope, but because of the evolution in social media-based alarmism and the break-down in journalism ethics since 2003. Where SARS carried an over-reaction from traditional media sources, today’s age of fake-news opportunism, closed tribes and the rise of death-cult gurus suggested to me that facts wouldn’t have a chance this time around. My fears were unfounded. Few people were doing science communications in the early 2000s and today the sceptics have been quick to dispel the opportunists and fear-mongers. Furthermore, the big search and social media companies have quickly stepped up and their content moderators are taking down hoaxes, isolating the alarmists and opportunists, prioritising credible sites in searches and warning readers to seek reliable information from sites like the WHO.
I still think it is good to put a warning label on politically-charged websites or social media accounts while providing links to reputable sources to help people get an objective understanding on any issue. But it is a big step to move from that to then demanding that contrarians be deplatformed (censored). I shudder at the number of scientists demanding that sites of certain sceptics or anti-vax actors be closed. If you cannot convince others on the basis of facts, reason and evidence, then the problem is not with the sceptic but with you. Banning sites that challenge you does not make you better at your job; it just makes you a fascist. I am celebrating five years since our activist cancel culture shut my original blogsite down because I challenged a LeMonde journalist and IARC for behaving unethically and unscientifically in their coordinated attacks on EFSA’s position on glyphosate. It did not matter that I was proved right a year later. Like precaution, this deplatforming strategy pretends to be immune to the consequences – you ban something and then you move on.
7. Activists are awkwardly confronted with the public service of Big Pharma
When global pandemic scares create mass vulnerability, there is a call to trust. People search for solutions they can trust from reliable sources. The naturopath industry excels at providing medicine for the healthy, food for full bellies and answers for the ignorant. Naturopath gurus are not very good at providing solutions in times of crisis. Big Pharma has been providing solutions to those in need for more than a century while suffering relentless activist attacks by the healthy and the privileged (those evidently not in need). The fear of COVID-19 leading to widespread deaths and disruption has created a large-scale need. Big Pharma hasn’t changed to attract the positive public support; rather, the public has changed, growing hungry for a solution. Like the HIV crisis in the 1980s, the first pharmaceutical companies to roll out a COVID-19 vaccine will be treated as heroes (at least until the public grows fat and unconcerned again).
Ursula von der Leyen’s cabinet lost whatever was left of its credibility when it tried to bully AstraZeneca to cough up more vaccines, attempted to extract millions of doses from the UK, block vaccine exports and renege on their Brexit agreement before the ink had even dried. What a farce. Most Europeans though got the message. AstraZeneca, like Pfizer, Moderna and J&J, developed vaccines in record time, are producing them by the millions at cost and some, like J&J, have committed to work with GAVI to provide half of their vaccines to developing countries. Could governments do that? Let’s be serious – most are incapable of basic risk management skills. von der Leyen pathetically tried to blame the poor vaccine rollout on Big Pharma when the reality was that the European Commission was incapable of negotiating a proper contract in time and approving the vaccines they were so bold as to demand. Most Europeans would expect Ursula to acknowledge her colossal failures and resign (no one is calling for the head of the AstraZeneca CEO).
8. Global pandemic crisis networks show their effectiveness
I am impressed with how well the global health emergency system kicked in (compared to SARS, Zika and Ebola crises). COVID-19 was identified and tracked back to the wet-market source a day after detection (in the middle of flu season in China). Once it was clear it could be transmitted from human to human, a city of 11 million people was effectively quarantined and the virus largely contained. More impressive was the speed in identifying and tracking super-spreaders. Take the case of a British businessman who picked up the virus at a Singapore hotel before infecting other UK nationals in a French ski resort. Authorities were able to follow other infections from him to Spain. As social media tools grow, tracking movements of super-spreaders will become easier (although privacy issues are a concern).
I was very impressed with how the pandemic was managed in countries like China, Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan. When I wrote this in mid-February, I was astonished at their capacity to identify and isolate hotspots and the tracking tools that these countries quickly developed and deployed. When the pandemic hit Europe and the United States though, it became clear that our Keystone Kops in power were completely incompetent and unable to manage risks. To this day, we do not have tracking tools to isolate and control hotspots (and I can only assume it is due to the European GDPR regulations … because I cannot accept that our European leaders are all so stupid and irresponsible).
The pandemic could have been controlled in the spring if there were sufficient coordination and cooperation. Instead European Commission President von der Leyen gave speeches on her Green Deal while Bergamo’s morgues reached capacity and borders re-emerged across Europe, Donald Trump’s America First strategy meant essential PPE shipments were blocked at airports and vaccine nationalism has left countries scrambling and fighting rather than working together.
9. Anti-Chinese rhetoric exposed for its racism and prejudice
The anti-Asian bigotry from liberals in Western countries is embarrassing at best. China has been remarkably transparent, fast-acting and determined to keep a potential pandemic under control, shutting down large cities, effectively cancelling the Chinese New Year and taking an enormous hit to its economy. This is unprecedented. As numbers of new COVID-19 cases outside of the virus source, Wuhan, are presently declining, the Chinese authorities should be commended for their disciplined crisis mitigation. Instead the media are filled with quips like: “You can’t trust Chinese authorities and their data” or “The Chinese government denied free speech that delayed containment measures“. Asians living in western countries have suffered so much prejudice that they have turned to satire to deal with the racism.
A year of suffering (due to Western leadership and risk management failures) has led to a shameful increase in racism and prejudice (at the highest levels). What this year of pandemic has shown is how low Western civilisation has declined. As we continue to try to diminish achievements in Asia and refuse to benchmark their COVID-19 best practices, I am ashamed to admit that Europe and the United States have become havens of ignorant, arrogant rednecks (and that is just among our elected officials). When the WHO recently went to Wuhan, the European media were all searching for that “gotcha” moment. The very objective of that mission had bias built into it. And for the record, the Chinese controlled the outbreaks far more efficiently that our KeystoneCorona clowns in Brussels, developed a vaccine far sooner than Western researchers and have donated millions of doses to developing countries like Pakistan or Zimbabwe. The best the West can do is breed bias and ignorance (and not a single donated vaccine).
10. Precautionistas put their dramatic over-reactions on display
I have argued since time immemorial that those obsessed with the precautionary principle have no solution to any problem other than to cut and run and deny potential benefits to populations. In the midst of a crisis this may make sense, but cancelling the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was a knee-jerk reaction by people who seem incapable of risk management. Now the precautionistas are talking about cancelling the Tokyo Olympics. Why not prepare a public hygiene strategy, pursue research on vaccines and accept that the benefits from sport and wellness matter. In the end, we see cowardly policy-makers with only one policy tool in the face of a limited uncertainty: Run! The more our leaders cry “Wolf!” for something less of an issue than what the flu season throws at us, the less credibility they will have.
OK, I was totally wrong on this one. In 2019 I wrote that the only way for Western regulators to abandon their reliance on the precautionary poison would be for the bodies to start piling up. In 2020, amidst the precautionary lockdowns, the bodies were indeed piling up (remember: flattening the curve). Applying no other risk management tools but dragging their societies straight into failed lockdowns, destructions of economies and human well-being and needless loss of life should have been the wake-up call to ditch this reliance on the precautionary principle. In the end our leaders, in Europe in particular, are stuck with precautionary blinders. They cannot see any other means to manage the pandemic, no matter how high the bodies pile up. Even within scientific communities, the blinders were stunning. When a group of epidemiologists suggested a more risk-management oriented approach to reduce suffering with their Great Barrington Declaration, the outrage and name-calling from those who should be more distinguished than the enraged mob was, well, embarrassing. I expect history will not judge our leaders and their failures well.
There are many other reasons to celebrate how risk managers have handled this present crisis (more budget for preventative health care, rapid adoption of new technologies, a decline in chemophobia …). In any crisis comes opportunities, and COVID-19, during a brief moment in 2020, has provided just that. While I suspect many of my trolls will attack me on the basis of my headline alone (they admit they can rarely read more than a meme), there are still those in this social media Age of Stupid capable of acting responsibly, and that is perhaps the best learning from this crisis.
Indeed the best thing about the COVID-19 pandemic was how this was meant to be a learning experience for our regulators so that when the big one does come (sorry, this one was rough, but not the worst thing nature can throw at us), we would be better prepared. But I don’t think our leadership has learnt very much. If only Western authorities would have considered half of the points this site had demonstrated over the last year, if only they had implemented basic risk management tools rather than nothing more than precautionary lockdowns, so many lives would have been saved. This is not rocket science – it is basic risk management (something well understood by scientists, engineers and farmers but apparently not by our regulators, media and NGO activists).
A year ago this pandemic interrupted many projects I had been writing on. I saw this clearly as a case study in how precaution fails and destroys societal benefits (in real time rather than the delayed loss of benefits we have seen when precaution is applied to crop protection tools, chemicals, plastics and nuclear energy). I saw how activists were using the pandemic in their campaigns for more precaution and less science and technology. I saw how we needed to restore risk management in a post-COVID-19 world. It is a pity so few other people have seen this.