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The dangerous myth of coronavirus ‘mitigation’

Sketch by Aliran member Wong Soak Koon

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Bear in mind that the number of cases requiring ICU care could outstrip the capacity of healthcare systems to provide ventilators to those who need them, writes Jeyakumar Devaraj.

I just received a video this morning featuring an Israeli minister making an argument supporting “mitigation” as a strategy for combating the coronavirus.

He explained that since mortality rates are lower than 1% for the young, society just needs to isolate those above 70 and allow the infection to spread through the rest of the population so that, after about 80% of the total population have recovered from infection, the population will have herd immunity, and this will protect the older members from getting infected.

Misconceptions about mitigation

There are many misconceptions underpinning this line of argument. The first is that the 1% mortality rate for coronavirus infection is achieved when infected patients receive optimum treatment.

We now know from the experience of Wuhan and Italy that about 10-15% of the coronavirus-infected patients develop respiratory difficulty and suffer a drop in their blood oxygen levels. Many of them can be managed by giving them oxygen.

However, 5% of all coronavirus patients deteriorate even with oxygen therapy, and they require intubation and ventilation in an intensive care unit (ICU) setting. Only when you can provide this level of care to all patients who need it, can you achieve mortality rates of about 1%.

But in both Wuhan and in Italy, the number of cases requiring ICU care has outstripped the capacity of the healthcare system to provide ventilator support to all who need it.

Bear in mind that ventilator support is not for a day or two only. On average, these 5% of the most ill patients need prolonged ventilation for two, three or more weeks, tying up many ventilators in the process. That is why the mortality rate for Wuhan was about 3.4% and that for Italy seems to be around 5% and rising.

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So, blithely arguing that mortality is low for the young is a very dangerous misconception. Anyway, even the quoted 1% mortality rate is about 10 times higher than the mortality rate for influenza.

Those still advocating the mitigation strategy have now changed tack a bit and are now advocating “flattening the curve”. By this, they mean that the country should practise social distancing to allow the infection to spread through the population, but at a rate that the healthcare system can handle. Meanwhile the elderly should be shielded. This is another ill-conceived idea.

Lets look at the maths:

The UK has a population of about 67 million. If you want 80% of the population to get the infection naturally so that the population develops herd immunity, that would mean allowing 53 million people to acquire the infection naturally with the caveat that the curve should be “flattened” so that it does not swamp the healthcare system’s capacity to give ICU care to those who need it.

We know that with only 40,000 cases, Italy’s healthcare services have been swamped many times over, and that the situation there is quite grim. Assuming that the UK system is more robust and can provide optimum care to 50,000 new coronavirus patients a month, it would take the UK 89 years (53 million infected divided by 50,000 patients per month divided by 12 months per year) to develop herd immunity!.

It would make much better sense to wait for the vaccine, wouldn’t it? Hopefully, we should have one by the end of the year. That would confer us “herd” immunity much more painlessly than exposing 80% of our population to natural infection.

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Suppression strategy

Luckily, Malaysia is following the other strategy of coronavirus management: suppression of the outbreak by isolating all active cases and tracing and quarantining all contacts, thus breaking the transmission. This is the strategy being followed in Wuhan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.

To me, this seems to be the most sane and humane way of handling this epidemic. Wuhan has demonstrated that it can work: they managed to stop the epidemic there with only 70,000 cases out of a population of 60 million in Hubei province.

The downside to this approach is that it does not create herd immunity. In Hubei only 0.12% of the total population was infected, far short of the 80% required to give herd immunity. Imported cases can restart the epidemic quite easily if vigilant surveillance and quick action in damping down any recurrence is not implemented religiously.

This suppression strategy is quite different from the tactic of “flattening the curve”, and we should not confuse the two (as some people in Malaysia are doing).

Suppression means we aim to bring the coronavirus transmission down to zero if we can.

Flattening the curve means that the epidemic is permitted to spread through the population, but at a “controlled” rate.

The latter approach is a dangerous route to follow. The UK and the US seem to be particularly enamoured with the mitigation strategy, and they are going to find that it is not easy to maintain a controlled spread of the coronavirus epidemic through the population. It is like talking about a controlled wild fire. It is sad that many thousand citizens in these two countries will pay the price for this deeply flawed policy.

Neoliberal underpinnings of migitation strategy?

It is always interesting to try and figure out the ideological basis of differing policies. Is it just a coincidence that the countries that subscribe most to neoliberal theory – the UK, the US and Israel – are the ones most taken up with the “mitigation” strategy?

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You see, the “suppression” strategy is not a final solution to the coronavirus problem – you need to wait for the vaccine and that might take a year to materialise.

In the meantime you have to keep disrupting production by quarantining contacts, encouraging workers with respiratory tract symptoms to stay at home with full pay, minimising travel overseas and tourism, and discouraging mass events such as concerts and sales. All these are measures that reduce economic activity and corporate profits.

If somehow you could get herd immunity within four months by letting the epidemic rip through your population, yes, you would suffer horrendous casualties (deaths), but you emerge with a population that can go back to work without worrying about quarantining people and allowing sick leave.

You would then have an economy that is more lean and efficient than the sissies who mollycoddled their population with the “suppression” approach. You would be more “competitive”, and could expand your export market.

With unemployment high in so many other countries, you could always import some labour if necessary – after all you no longer need to worry about “importing” the coronavirus as you have the herd immunity.

Another bonus of the “let-her-rip” approach is that the dependency ratio would be less. It would lead to lower pension and social security expenses as, after all, the mortality rate is higher in the elderly.

Am I being overly cynical or could this be the reason why certain political leaders are drawn to the “mitigation” approach? I will let you decide.

Meanwhile, whether we like the present administration or not, we should all fully support the movement control order and other follow-up steps that the government takes to bring down the spike in the infection rate.

The health of our people as well as our own depends on it. We all need to work together and for each other to get over this difficult period.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, a long-time Aliran member and contributor, served as Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput from 2008 to 2018. A respiratory physician who was awarded a gold medal for community service, he is also a secretariat member of the Coalition Against Health Care Privatisation and chairperson of the Socialist Party of Malaysia.
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Politi Scheiss
Politi Scheiss
23 Mar 2020 4.48am

Good rebuttal of the herd immunity versus suppression argument by that Israeli defense minister.

I suppose it’s a tacit strategy to reduce the number of Palestinians, especially in Gaza.

On the other hand, it could backfire and adversely impact the dominant Jewish population of Israel.

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