Truth is said to be the first casualty of war. I don't know about that, never having lived in a country at war. But this pandemic has put the country on a kind of war footing and its first casualty it seems to me was not truth, it was debate.
New Zealand was locked down in March before anyone here had died of Covid-19. It was a hard lockdown and it was early. Jacinda Ardern appealed to the national spirit with such success that to question the wisdom of her response was regarded by many as treachery. Those "Unite" posters are still everywhere. Today's Lord Kitchener.
Last Monday an online seminar was run by a group of academics who call themselves Covid Plan B. I thought it might have got news coverage but it didn't, not in the media I hear, watch and read. Instead, I read how wild characters are seeding social media with ropey information and conspiracy theories. The seminar, said its moderator, would not welcome them.
On screen, the Plan Bees looked and sounded like dusty scholars who would struggle to electrify a lecture theatre let alone lead public opinion. They were simply mystified and troubled that we are were being led by fear and emotion to accept restrictions and costs out of all proportion to their understanding of the available facts and figures on this virus.
The webinar featured an Oxford professor of theoretical epidemiology, Sunetra Gupta, who noted fatalities of Coivid-19 have not been evenly distributed across age groups. There are very large numbers of people, she said, who are not susceptible to the virus or, if they are infected, their symptoms are hardly noticed because they are similar to a cold. On that same evidence, she called it a "myth" that we are nowhere close to herd immunity.
That "myth" was later affirmed by the World Health Organisation this week but she called it "very irresponsible because it is based on a model that reflects no heterogeneity of vulnerability to infection. For a variety of possible reasons a proportion of the population appears to be innately resistant to this virus. The herd immunity threshold can come down very rapidly when people have innate resistance."
She pointed out that already in the life of this virus the number of confirmed cases (now more than 20 million worldwide) has been rising exponentially faster than the number of deaths (not yet 1 million), "so herd immunity might be at a much lower level than you would expect if we were all equally susceptible to this virus."
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If she is right, an increase in the number of confirmed cases, which is always reported in ominous tones on TV and in newspapers, might not be such a bad thing. If a large enough number of people have or develop antibodies to a disease, they help protect susceptible people from it. She acknowledges that the antibody response to this disease is still uncertain but herd immunity has been considered "as basic as gravity", she said. "I am disappointed it is being treated as heresy to the religion of lockdown."
Another speaker, New York medical doctor and preventive medicine specialist David Katz, regarded rising case numbers without more deaths (that's us in the latest lockdown) as good news. But he classified countries with low case counts and low casualties (New Zealand) as "hiding" from the virus. The countries in his "winning" category had high case counts with low hospitalisation and death rates.
Dr Katz suggested risk assessments be made of groups within the population, not just age groups but those with conditions such as uncontrolled diabetes, chronic heart and lung diseases and obesity that make them vulnerable to the virus. People under 50 with no adverse conditions could go about normal life and work. Schools could reopen. "For children the risk is lower than riding a school bus," he said. Efforts to block the virus could then be concentrated on groups vulnerable to it.
That plan B implies internal passports, which invites easy criticism and presents practical problems. It would also mean less contact with grandchildren than I've enjoyed under level 3 lockdowns. But at least the kids wouldn't have missed nearly a quarter of their school year so far.
Back in March most Western governments locked down their economies on the basis of new epidemiological modelling at Imperial College, London. Gupta said its model assumed the virus had only recently appeared, had infected very many people and a large proportion of them had died. "But an equally possible scenario was that the epidemic had arrived much earlier, in January and a significant proportion of the population was already infected and not many had died."
Either way, the worldwide consequences of that model have been chilling - and not just for debate.