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Coronavirus gives no quarter to contrarians

Contrarian thinking can be provocative, interesting and amusing at the best of times – challenging our assumptions that life is running smoothly. But it can be downright dangerous, writes Peter Bale.

Entire countries are trying contrarian approaches to the orthodox epidemiological theory on how to manage a virus that grows exponentially and needs a constant supply of fresh meat (that’s you and me, kids) to live in and off in its genetic compulsion to spread.

From Sweden to Switzerland and Brazil to Mexico, leaders and medical authorities have, for reasons we shall explore, and sometimes apparently in the complete absence of reason, conducted a risky experiment on millions of their own people.

In the United States, a leader who denies scientific evidence and seems not to have taken advice from anyone since his father died, denied the risks from novel coronavirus and portrayed it as a foreign problem to be blocked at the border. Now New York is under lockdown and facing a crisis arguably greater than September 11, 2001.

In the United Kingdom – home of Fleming, Crick and Nightingale – a prime minister and his would-be polymath of a senior adviser – were entranced by the notionally beautiful idea that the crisis could be solved by herd immunity – the concept that if enough of a population attains immunity a disease will peter out.

That fact that half a million vulnerable people might not survive was just part of the calculus by the smart guys: “if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.

Britain changed direction pronto when the eggheads of Imperial College pointed out the holes – graves if you like – in the plan, as did the United States and apparently New Zealand, dramatically tightening up the lockdown epidemiologists say is necessary to starve the virus of fresh victims and arrest its extraordinary climb through the population.

Sweden's deadly game of Russian Roulette

Some, however, claimed to know better. Others just turned ignorance into a deadly art.

Sweden, not a country known for having a national death wish, has adopted a strikingly different approach to all its Scandinavian and Nordic neighbours – not blindly following a leader but taking its own official path very much like that original British idea of herd immunity and also trying not to kill the economy with the cure for the virus.

Johan Carlson, the head of Sweden’s public health agency, has Sweden’s approach, saying the country “cannot take draconian measures that have a limited impact on the epidemic, but knock out the functions of society” as The Financial Times reported.

Sweden has stepped up some restrictions on gatherings, but many businesses and educational establishments remain open even as neighbouring Denmark and Norway have closed their borders and imposed lockdowns similar to that in New Zealand.

So, how’s that working out for Sweden?

At a regional level as of Monday Sweden (population 10.1 million) had 3,700 Covid-19 cases, Norway (population 5.36 million) 4239 cases and Denmark (5.36 million) 2,564 cases. That’s from the John Hopkins University Covid-19 dashboard.

Marcus Carlsson, a mathematician at Lund University, has said the Swedish authorities are playing “Russian roulette” with the population. “The way I am feeling now is that we are being herded like a flock of sheep towards disaster,” The Guardian quoted Carlsson saying.

In a more moderately phrased take on the Swedish experiment from academics at Lund, Paul Franks, a professor of genetic epidemiology and Peter Nilsson, a professor of internal medicine epidemiology, noted the controversy and said the Swedish government was “seemingly assuming that overreaction is more harmful than under-reaction”.

The two academics wrote on The Conversation that Sweden was basing its strategy on expecting far less pressure on its medical system than neighbours were planning. It was unclear, they said, how Sweden might manage that.

“There are several arguments supporting the current official Swedish strategy,” they write. “These include the need to keep schools open in order to allow parents who work in key jobs in health care, transportation and food supply lines to remain at work.”

Britain's herd immunity U-turn

Those were very similar arguments the UK used before it shifted from the herd immunity plan.

“Ultimately, given the uneven and relatively modest spread of the virus in Sweden at the moment, its initial strategy may not turn out to be reckless. But going forward, Sweden is likely to have to impose stricter restrictions depending on how the virus spreads, especially in metropolitan areas or when the healthcare system is under severe strain,” they said.

It's exactly that sort of pressure in metropolitan areas and on the healthcare system that changed Donald Trump’s tune.

In other outliers such as Brazil, whose right-wing leader Jair Bolsonaro, called coronavirus “a little flu” state governors are defying him to build emergency hospitals, including converting the famous Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro into a hospital for Covid-19 victims.

Johns Hopkins records 3,904 Covid-19 cases in Brazil as of late on Monday evening.

'Confront it like a man'

“The virus is here, we’re going to have to confront it. Confront it like a man, not a boy!” Bolsonaro told supporters outside his official residence on Sunday, according to MarketWatch. “We’re all going to die one day.”

If you don’t find that reassuring then Mexico offers a lesson almost as sobering. Its left-wing leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has talked of Covid-19 as the disease of the wealthy and encouraged Mexicans to go on with their habits of hugging, shaking hands and kissing well-wishers. A much-loved leader of the poor, he reversed his message as the crisis became undeniable and his position became untenable if not ridiculous.

Mexico, a country with 126 million people, has 848 cases, according to official figures.

“Don’t go out into the street unless it is for something absolutely necessary,” López Obrador said before the weekend, The Los Angeles Times reported. “We have to be in our homes. We have to maintain a safe distance.”

And, speaking like the epidemiologists he previously ignored, he warned of what would happen if the science wasn't followed: “The number of infection cases will spike upwards and will overwhelm our hospitals. We won’t have enough hospitals, beds, even if we are prepared to receive thousands.”

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