OPINION: Coronavirus 'crisis' is an unjustifiable situation

Speaking at Wednesday's council meeting, Pete Harrison argued that closing facilities and services was an overreaction to coronavirus.

Comparing COVID-19 to other respiratory illnesses, the QPRC councillor believed severe measures were unjustified, but worried that job losses and social isolation could cause an economic and human disaster.

Dr Harrison received his PhD (ANU, 1981) in chemistry (synthetic organic photochemistry), then worked in the IT sector, most recently designing communications infrastructure throughout the Asia/Pacific region.

His speech follows.

A world crisis in government?

"As a scientist by profession," Dr Harrison said, "I find it impossible to accept the justification for the situation that we currently find ourselves in.

"I accept an obligation, at one level, to respect the decisions of the government of the day, but I also feel a responsibility to point out that, in my professional opinion and based on the information that I've accessed to date, there is in my view no justification for the measures being implemented throughout New South Wales or indeed more broadly.

"I cannot see this 'crisis', as it's being described, is anything more than crisis in government on a global scale...

"I would simply like to point out some of the most basic facts - not opinions, models, or forecasts - just the facts that are available on this matter from official sources.

How COVID-19 compares to other illnesses

"Take the simple observation that, as acknowledged by the World Health Organization, 290,000 to 650,000 people die, globally, from influenza every year. Since last December, on average around 150,000 people would have died from influenza. Today, the global death count for COVID-19 is around 15,000 - still only 10 per cent of the number of deaths that might be expected, on average, from this type of infection if no one had even heard of COVID-19." [As of Sunday, March 28, more than 27,000 people had died worldwide.]

"I also point out that, according to one report I read in TheLancet, lower respiratory tract infections, more broadly, accounted for 2.74 million deaths worldwide in 2015. (I quote the 2015 figure simply because that was the one referred to in this particular report, although I would note that these sorts of figures often lag a year or two, because it takes that long to collect and analyse the data properly.)

"We're also coming out of the Northern Hemisphere flu season into conditions one might expect would be less favourable to the spread of a virus, and by most accounts death rates at the apparent source in China have plateaued, if not begun to decline.

"On this basis, if the COVID-19 virus had never been identified, the current deaths attributable to this disease would never have even registered above the baseline count of the number of deaths expected from respiratory related illnesses in a normal year.

"COVID-19 would simply be one of the responsible agents, along with pneumonia, the various strains of influenza, and lesser known viruses, warranting no special attention at all.

Italy: An elderly population is at greater risk

"Now when Italy popped up as a new hot spot, I simply entered "COVID-19 why Italy?" into my browser, and was immediately presented with a range of commentary on the subject. There are indeed several reasons why no one should view the situation in Italy as necessarily typical, or maybe even surprising.

"Perhaps the most significant is that Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world - second only to Japan by one account. Respiratory related illnesses also account for 10 to 20,000 deaths per year in Italy, every year.

"And where are we now with COVID-19 in Italy? I think we managed to get to around 7,000 today. Now, perhaps this may be cause for concern in Italy, where older family members are less likely to be separated from younger ones as they are in many Western countries, but it still doesn't even rate as a bad year for respiratory illness there, nor is it any indication of what might be expected globally."

NOTE: According to a report last week by the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, the leading technical-scientific body of the Italian National Health Service, the average age of the 3200 Italians who died from coronavirus by March 20 was 78.5.

Many of the Italians who died from coronavirus also had pre-existing health conditions. Data was available on 481 patients who died in hospital (15 per cent of the sample). Nearly half (48.6 per cent) of these had three or more comorbidities (other illnesses / health conditions); more than a quarter (26.2 per cent) had two; nearly a quarter (23.5 per cent) had one.

The most common comorbidities included hypertension (73.8 per cent), diabetes (33.9 per cent), ischemic heart disease (30.8 per cent), atrial fibrillation (22.0 per cent), chronic renal failure (20.2 per cent), or an active cancer in the last five years (19.5 per cent). Few (1.2 per cent) had no other diseases.

Only 1.1 per cent (36 people) under 50 died. Of the nine under 40 who died, seven had serious health conditions (cardiovascular, renal, psychiatric pathologies, diabetes, obesity).

"You can make all manner of forecasts about infection rates," Dr Harrison continued, "but given the fact that the main problem appears to lie with the older members of the population, it might be argued that we could achieve a far more beneficial result if we simply focused on protecting them, rather than assuming that they will all contract the virus at some point in time, and that the only solution is to let this happen slowly so our hospital system can cope with the load.

"And we'd be much more able to do this with a healthy economy and a community that didn't also have to deal with the psychological, if not physical, impact of being locked out of something that might approximate a normal daily routine.

Are projected mortality rates valid?

"There is much focus in the media on mortality rates. Talking about mortality rates in the present context is completely fallacious, because no one is even claiming to have identified all the cases of virus, or having tested a random population sample. So at best you're looking at mortality among vulnerable people, not the population at large. There is then an entirely invalid attempt to compare this data with data for other viruses that has been collected in a statistically valid fashion across the entire population.

"Our own Chief Medical Officer has advised from the outset that most people who do contract this virus - and I see no hard evidence to indicate that this would amount to any more than the number who would normally contract a virus like influenza - would experience little more than mild symptoms. So, at best, some 2020 hindsight (if you'll pardon the pun) will be required to ever appreciate the real mortality rate of the COVID-19 virus.

"On this basis, in my view, there is no reason to take any notice of the ridiculous charts most often presented by sensationalist elements within the media that forecast catastrophic increases based on current reported cases.

An economic disaster in the making

"To be perfectly honest here, I truly hope that people will be in a position to rub my nose in my comments before this situation is resolved, because it's shaping up to be an economic disaster of our own making, and it'd be really nice to believe that this was warranted.

"Based on the information that I've been able to access to date, however, I fear no such opportunity will arise. And if some media reports are to be believed, the U.S. President is on the verge of providing us all with a 'control' that will at least give us some idea about what might happen if we were all to continue on as normal and manage the COVID-19 virus just like any other...

"I think far too little consideration has been given by high levels of government to the broader impacts of job loss and social isolation, and I believe that a move like this will just compound the sorts of problems that might arise as a result.

"All that is required, across the board in my view at a community level, is to encourage people to be cognisant of the prevailing conditions, avoid unnecessary contact with those who might be vulnerable, and to practice good personal hygiene - precisely what we should all be doing during any flu season."