πŸ”’ Nick Hudson, PANDA actuary who tells it like it is: SA has more to worry about than Covid-19. MUST LISTEN!

Nick Hudson, an actuary at PANDA, gives an update on their projection models from an interview in June and on how South Africa has more to worry about than Covid-19. In this interview with Alec Hogg, BizNews founder, Hudson paints a frightening picture of the wall of “institutional destruction” that is looming for South Africa as more businesses are unable to survive Covid-19 containment. – Editor

It’s a warm welcome to Nick Hudson. He’s an actuary, he’s also the co-ordinator of PANDA. PANDA has been in the news for quite some time now because of the approach that it’s taken towards modelling. We spoke last month and the podcast that we did then was our top listened to a podcast. I can tell you that takes some doing, given the number of podcasts we produce at BizNews nowadays, for the whole month. With tens of thousands of people downloading and listening to it.

There’s a lot of interest in what you had to say then but you also said at that stage that you believed that we were going to peak probably in that month, and when we look at what’s happening in Covid-19 at the moment, it certainly doesn’t look like a peak from all of the other data that we get me in. I know you’re going to tell me the real stories so provide us with a little bit of an update if you would.

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We were surprised to see that it was such a well did broadcast just pity that it wasn’t being listened to by the right people.

I think they listened, but they might not have heard.

They might not have heard. The peak has been hit in the Western Cape. I said on that show, we would see a peak at the end of June, early July. We are a bit gobsmacked here as to what’s gone on in the last week. If you just go back to the beginning of that month. These are the things that PANDA’s has been saying.

We said, be careful, these lockdowns are going to be deadly. You can’t go lives versus money. There’s no such thing when you plunge people into poverty and turn the revenues off of businesses. That has a big impact.Β 

That was the first thing we came out saying very loudly. The second thing we said was that the virus curves that people were projecting these things that had deaths up to 351,000, peaks all the way out to November, didn’t look like anything we were seeing in the rest of the world. The models that were being used by NICD and all the national modelling teams were showing these peaks out many months ahead, Western Cape months, and we said that’s wrong. You can see from what’s going on elsewhere.

It was two big things, the number of deaths being massively overestimated and the entire shape of the epidemic curve being misestimated. Last week, when the Western Cape peaked, now it’s very clear. We said, OK, maybe somebody will start listening. We logged on to a podcast with the hits and get modelling branch to the NICD and couldn’t believe it. They showed a graph with this little peak happening and said, oh, what does this mean? And so on and so forth. They must be missing deaths. They go to the all causes of mortality curve for the country, and they say, look, it’s an increase in mortality. Here we are sitting all saying, well, that’s not surprising. There are things other than Coronavirus that kill people. This lockdown is one of them. We’re not surprised to see that, we’re not surprised to see this peak. Yet the guys are saying we still going to have lots of deaths in the Western Cape from Coronavirus, the peak is just going to be longer, further flatter. That was the term they used and oh look, we can’t possibly be counting all of the coronavirus deaths. It’s astonishing.

How has the lockdown killed people?

I get asked this question by people who say poverty doesn’t kill people. In fact, I’ve got this study from the Great Depression that says that mortality actually went down in the Great Depression in the 1930s. Never mind the missing wars and so on. Take an income away from yourself or from a friend and I don’t know if you have kids or whatever, put them in a position where they can no longer afford to send their kids to school. They don’t know where their income is going to come from.

For most of the people in our country, that kind of position is a very dangerous position. We haven’t got big social safety nets and poverty is not far away for a huge range of people in this country. We have destroyed jobs by the millions in this lockdown. Many, many people have been plunged into this position. You get the depths of despair. You get malnutrition. These are the things that are very real and which will be faced. They lag, they weren’t they’re not things that we’re going to show up in March when the lockdown is implemented but these things are real and they will be seen. The degree of institutional destruction and loss of jobs has only just begun to become evident. Companies held on as long as they could.

Small businesses, proprietors, hold on for as long as they could. Of course, that’s what people do that struggle to survive, but they can’t keep going forever. They’re still falling like flies. There is a wall of institutional destruction coming still, especially in the small businesses and your proprietors and entrepreneurs.

At a time when all we see are infections and I’ll actually put onto the green. The latest data from part of the International Coordination, and there you can see that the latest death yesterday 173 nationwide were the highest by far. Now we are sitting at more than 3,000 deaths and as this news permeates into society, you get more and more concerned.

There is a fantastic table or feature that the Financial Times of London offers. There you can see South Africa’s deaths. I remember last time we spoke, you said don’t focus on the infection, so I’m not, but even when you look at you can see that this curve is going in the wrong direction. When you get people fearful, they clearly would be staying at home more, and if you opened the economy 100%, it’s unlikely that they would all want to go back to work as they did before March.

So two things about that graphed. The first one, that number you showed, we need to just point out that that reflected 3 days worth of deaths for Gauteng, they didn’t report on Saturday and Sunday.

Seriously?

You’ve always got to watch out for that. I was caught out once, I called a peak and one of the countries too early because I got caught out by the weekend effect. Again and again, it’s just another example of when people are jumpy and scared, it’s just so easy for an overreaction, but that shot that you’re looking at right now is very important that you are looking at exactly the right one. You’re looking at the new deaths per day on a log basis. We are testing whether it is an exponential process going on. What that chart will tell a statistician, is that there isn’t an exponential vetting process as that curve flattens out. As you can see it’s doing, you’re approaching a peak. That’s precisely what these models have been saying since I went on the modelling symposium podcast on the 21st of May that these things do not exponential for months and months and months like the models in South Africa are projecting. It simply doesn’t happen anyway. You can see in all those curves, and then it starts flattening out.

The reasons for that, the model structures are wrong. They’re assuming susceptibility numbers that are just way too big. You also just have to think about where we’ve been taken here. We’ve been taken in South Africa to the level of approximately, I think it’s 54 deaths per million at the moment. As we never tire of saying every single death is a tragedy for somebody, but 54 per million is far from being an important cause of death in this country, far and contrasts with Belgium, the countries that we are being asked to compare ourselves to, which have around 850 deaths per million.

Given that the deaths are rising. Are we not likely to get but a much higher?

Yeah, it will definitely increase from 50, there’s no question. This is an important thing to understand, let’s just be blunt, with all the panic and the inability to confront problems rationally. What’s been lost in the noise is the following. The very clear reality about this epidemic in Western Europe and North America, this epidemic has featured with average death per million of around 300. In South America, it’s featured with an average death a million somewhat below that. In the rest of the world, there’s been very little. Asia, it’s negligible. You know what the story is in Australia, New Zealand negligible, Africa negligible, Eastern Europe negligible, Russia negligible. There have been 2 completely different stories, not talking about that Western Europe and North America have peaked and nobody else has. There more than 100 countries in the world that have peaked. So we get a very clear picture of what’s going on. Brazil has peaked for example and there, you heard the exact same thing. We’ve been talking to colleagues in Brazil and they say, we face the same problem. We’ve got these models are telling us that we’re going to have 1,500 deaths per million people, and guess what? They’ve peaked, they’re in the decline now for a couple of weeks and they’re at 300. It’s the same story, even though in Brazil is probably amongst the developing nations in the world, one of the worst in the top 2 or 3. It’s still at a third of the level of the worst in Western Europe.

If you then look at South Africa, everything that you’ve said to us now, are you still extrapolating from the 3,200 odd deaths that we have in South Africa that we’ll get to a significantly higher than that? I think the official number we last saw was 40,000.

It is a very worrying thing at that modelling symposium to watch 5 different teams all come up with a number within 10% of each other. So much for independence. We thought that was nonsense, we said there is no good reason to expect more than 10,000 deaths. We still have that, we haven’t changed our estimates. We’ve said the same thing for a long time, a peak that is much earlier than what they’re projecting and none of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th wave story, it doesn’t make sense in the context of, you won’t be able to detect it. The 2nd wave in South Africa if we come out at 150 deaths per million or something like that.

We’ve said the same thing, lockdown is going to be longer and harder and more deadly, the curves are wrong, our mortality is not going to be as high, we going to peak earlier and we must watch out this is not a business cycle. This is institutional destruction and the longer it continues, the deeper it gets.

In the president’s note that he sent out this morning. He did mention that this is a strong, positive idea for a national health insurance service. Given the distraction, as you said, it’s gone on to the economy. It is a very firm undertone here saying, well, we’ve had a pandemic, so now we need to prepare ourselves better next time, let’s bring in NHI. I will find that email in a moment, but what’s your thought on that?

I wasn’t aware that he’d made that announcement, but clearly that intent has been lurking in the background. Look, first of all, I think it’s wishful thinking, one of the things that this crisis and the way it’s been handled will do this little incapacitate the state. That’s the state which was already operating with low levels, both financial and administrative capacity. There’s no question that the state will be significantly incapacitated here. Just from that perspective alone, it’s not plausible. The second thing is the only thing that will dig this country out of the hole that it’s dug for itself and that’s what we’ve done, is to free up private business’. Innovation and growth only ever happen if there’s a free private sector that is unfettered by administration and bureaucracy. It is the only thing that works and as we put the brakes on the private sector in this country over the last 20 years, growth has fallen.

We’ve had zero per capita GDP growth for 10 years, something like that, 15 maybe. We’re going to have to liberalise this economy if you want it to grow. We need capital to form again. We need a lot of capital formation to rebuild all the institutions that have been destroyed and it’s going to take years. It’s not an overnight story.

I have highlighted the president’s message from this morning, which he sends out every Monday from the president’s desk. He says, “Among the many cases being made in for the National Health Insurance is that we will be able to mobilize the necessary resources to overcome the burden of these non-communicable diseases and improve the health outcomes of all our people, not just those who can afford to pay. Until we have overcome this pandemic, we all have to play it safe, for ourselves and those around us.”

It’s a bit of a mix of concepts, I wonder if that is not a mistake, he’s talking about non-communicable diseases. I think it’s probably just a speechwriter who was tired last night, let’s give them credit for that. I think he’s trying to say that we need to overcome communicable diseases and who can disagree with that. Let’s just put all this in context. We’re sitting on just shy of 300,000 Corona deaths. Maybe we get to 10,000. Every single year, HIV, how many? 68,000 is the number of reading of my information here. On average, cardiovascular disease 40,000. In terms of communicable diseases, tuberculosis is a much bigger killer, we should focus on that. What are we going to do about diarrhoea? That’s a much more significant killer, I’d say by the end of this year, you will probably be looking at diarrhoeal diseases, having killed maybe 3 times as many people as coronavirus and that happens every year, it will probably happen more and more. There are a lot of social problems to focus on in this country. We’re going about it the wrong way with lockdown, that’s for sure.

Nick Hudson is with PANDA. As we mentioned a little bit earlier, he’s an actuary. He’s been doing the numbers. He’s sticking to his guns despite the fact that many have criticised PANDA and you personally, Nick. The numbers that you are projecting are certainly not out of the ballpark at the moment. When do you think deaths will peak in the country? Can you give us a thought on that?

I’m very happy to say that will be close to today than where the NICD is projecting.

We think quite soon, we’d be very surprised if we see this month go out without a national peak. The Western Cape is behind us and just one thing to observe there is it very often happens that a national peak follows the peak in the first region quite closely.

We saw that with the United States. If we showed or we change our minds, we will do that. If somebody brings me or my team information today that says, look, you’re not considering X, Y and Z, we will change our mind. That’s all we are asking these modelling teams to do. The one crucial thing that’s being missed here, all their models forecast massive resurgence of deaths in countries that lift the lockdown. We now have dozens of countries that have lifted lockdown with resurgences. When that happens, a scientist should say, okay my hypothesis is wrong. I’m changing my model, I’m changing my mind and there’s no shame in that. The shame is in persisting with the model that’s been proven to be wrong. That’s what all these guys are doing and it’s mind-boggling.

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