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Following an article published in the Daily Maverick, co-ordinator at PANDA (pandemic – data and analytics) has written a response to the piece that he describes as a ‘ tabloid-grade hit piece’. ‘The authors take aim at PANDA’s models. They criticise PANDA’s mortality model for supposedly predicting 10,000 confirmed Covid deaths in the first wave (PANDA’s model was in fact the most accurate model produced for South Africa and we estimated 20,000 deaths in the very first paper we produced). Yet, they make not a peep about government’s model of 351,000 confirmed Covid deaths (not “excess deaths”) in the first wave. Read Hudson’s right of response below.
By Nick Hudson
Hot on the heels of the Jacques Pauw fiasco, the Daily Maverick are at it again, publishing a flaky, conspiracy theory attack on PANDA (Pandemics Data & Analytics) (“Kung-Flu PANDA”). Although they were sanctioned by the Press Council only weeks ago for failing to grant a right of reply, Daily Maverick has refused PANDA a right of reply. Our reply is published below but before we get into the detail of the reply, we think it important that the reader recognise the broader context.
At stake is a crucial aspect of free speech. Though the Daily Maverick may consider that PANDA’s speech is inconvenient, it certainly does not constitute hate speech or defamation – two accepted limitations on free speech. Yet the clear intention of the Daily Maverick article is to silence PANDA’s voice. Publishing personal information about selected members and their employers knowing that it was irrelevant to the topic of the article can have had no other purpose. What would you do if you had to choose between your job and your volunteer work for a non-profit? Without PANDA’s voice, South Africa would be without any substantive counter to the government narrative. This would enable government overreach and the corruption of science in the perpetuation of novel, authoritarian and unsuccessful public health policies.
When Daily Maverick says that PANDA’s ideas are dangerous, they make a novel argument in favour of limitation of free speech. What they suggest is that the virus can only be beaten by lockdowns, the sustenance of which is only possible in an authoritarian environment in which pro-lockdown (government) propaganda goes unchallenged. What they are really saying is that if the public believes that the restrictions on their fundamental freedoms are irrational, they may resist such restrictions. It is a patriarchal view of the role of journalism in democracies.
One of the authors of the article, Rebecca Davis, recently admitted that she had been wrong about the risk posed by beaches. PANDA members fought hard to show that beach closures caused economic devastation with concomitant health outcomes (the Western Cape government put the cost at R120m a month) despite there being no proven risk associated with beaches. PANDA was right about beaches and Davis was wrong. There is a certain arrogance involved in assuming that you have a right, if not a responsibility to steer the public in the direction of what you think is the “scientific consensus”. Knowledge creation proceeds only by conjecture and criticism, so “scientific consensus” is itself an unscientific construct. When institutions like Daily Maverick choose to suppress information through de-platforming and cancel culture, are they conscious of the long-term impact of what they are foisting onto South Africa’s democracy?
Right of response – ‘Kung-Flu Panda’
By Nick Hudson, Pandemics Data & Analytics (“PANDA”)
The Daily Maverick’s Rebecca Davis has teamed up with a controversial blogger to write what can only be described as a tabloid-grade hit piece. The article is based on a post by Davis’ co-author, Nazeef Ahmed, so in effect the article is self-referential. It is interesting to note the company that Daily Maverick has chosen to keep. After he was described by Vanity Fair as engaging in “conspiracy mongering”, Ahmed’s penchant for publishing anti-Semitic lies got him fired from The Guardian. He then began popping up on “platforms” that apply less rigorous standards than mainstream media. Ahmed is not a neutral observer when it comes to lockdowns.
Although he has no epidemiological background whatsoever, he proudly submitted hoax signatures to the Great Barrington Declaration and encouraged his social media followers to do the same, stating that his intention was to cause embarrassment to the scientists who opposed the UK government’s lockdown strategy. Daily Maverick’s article is not balanced coverage. They have taken a pro-lockdown stance and are happy to bend the rules of responsible journalism to do their part to further the cause of lockdown doctrine. Clearly they see discrediting PANDA as part of their contribution to supporting lockdowns.
At the heart of the article are several weak innuendos—that any website with a link to PANDA’s, of which there are hundreds, must imply a conspiratorial association, that the fact that one of those sites links to a video on a service called BitChute associates PANDA with all the other material on that site, and so on. The implication is that PANDA is not about open science, but part of a conspiracy to mislead for some unstated purpose. Stooping to this kind of journalism is a blot on the reputation of the Daily Maverick.
The authors aver that PANDA has been amplifying ‘discredited and unscientific views and voices’. The authors’ views on lockdowns are, however, clear. Anyone who thinks differently is labelled ‘unscientific’ and ‘discredited’. In this supposed medical emergency, dissenting voices must be silenced to create the authoritarian environment required to implement lockdowns and journalists feel justified not only denying platforms to dissenting views, but actually undermining such views so that the State remains focused on lockdown. Before dealing with the specific allegations, let’s review PANDA’s key points.
In taking up the lockdown baton from China, the world was conducting a dangerous experiment. That experiment involved tearing up the public health policy guidelines for respiratory virus epidemics of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the US’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and many others. These guidelines specifically cautioned against ever locking down given the collateral damage that lockdowns cause. To be clear, the “pseudo-science” that PANDA is accused of “amplifying” is the same science deployed by the WHO, CDC, etc up until January 2020.
These guidelines were the result of a century of evidence and deliberation that was summarily ignored when the virus arrived. Detailed statements of principle governing the evidential processes required to revise them were also ignored.
The basis for all of this was the assurance of the WHO’s Bruce Aylward that China’s lockdown had contained its epidemic. This in turn was based on speculation that everyone was susceptible to Covid-19 and that, without lockdown, exponential growth of disease and death was inevitable. This was a curious assumption. Since February 2020, it had been known that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 in susceptible individuals, was very closely related to other coronaviruses, some widely circulating. The likelihood that immune systems would find it completely novel was low.
This radical shift to lockdowns was implemented by governments the world over without any sign of a cost-benefit analysis being performed. PANDA came onto the scene in May 2020 pointing out the prevailing “lives versus economy” narrative was fallacious. Economies mediate lives and it was always to be expected that draconian business closures and stay-at-home orders would translate into suffering and public health disasters on an unprecedented scale. Failure to demonstrate any due consideration of this reality has been made all the more scandalous by its persistence for more than a year. PANDA’s analysis of costs and benefits is to this day the only detailed analysis we have seen, although many others have made the same point.
To make matters worse, overwhelmingly, the data tell us that lockdowns don’t save lives. PANDA first noticed that lockdown stringency was not associated with reduced deaths in June 2020. This finding has since been echoed in dozens of papers. Indeed, in a recent paper, acclaimed authors Ioannidis et al find that most restrictive non-pharmaceutical interventions are associated with higher case growth. South Africa is a pro-lockdowners dream. Before anyone had died of Covid-19, our government announced one of the hardest and longest lockdowns the world has seen. If lockdowns work, we should have one of the lowest fatality rates. And yet, the authors now try to argue that 140,000 people have died of Covid-19 in South Africa, which would make our age-based fatality rate the highest in the world by a country mile, suggesting, on their own data, that lockdowns do not work.
Most shockingly, to those versed in basic epidemiology, this result is unremarkable. In the face of a disease that is sharply age graduated – mortality rates for the elderly being more than a thousand times those for the young—general suppression measures (such as lockdowns) are expected to shift disease burden onto the vulnerable, resulting in more deaths than would be the case if a focused protection strategy were to be followed.
To sum up, the guidelines that were thrown out were good, the basis for throwing them out abysmally weak and the tragic results of doing so concordant with the expectations of pre-Covid science.
All sorts of ludicrous arguments have been made in an attempt to apologise for the slippery slope from “three weeks to save the hospitals” to a year of sporadic lockdown. The idea that it is the epidemic, not the lockdowns, that caused the profound economic damage we have witnessed, which will surely lead to lost life years way beyond what Covid has delivered, doesn’t stack up against the eminently comparable ’57-’58 flu impact, or common sense. While the tech billionaires who champion lockdowns have scored massive increases in their wealth and state employees wallow in the luxury of full pay and benefits, the poor, the workers and the entrepreneurs of our societies have been handed a caning.
Journalists have benefitted too and of course have an interest in entrenching their privilege. Lockdown has been the single most regressive policy ever foisted upon an unsuspecting public, and it is a source of constant amazement to the members of PANDA that self-proclaimed progressives have been its most prolific promoters.
Sustaining the madness that is lockdown has been the work of a bevvy of corrupt scientists and inept politicians, cheered on by publications such as the Daily Maverick, who turn a blind eye to every conflict of interest, every overwrought government model and every false and misleading statement made by public health officials. For countries like ours to follow China’s model, institutions of democracy like free speech need to be crushed so that people fall in line behind a single government narrative. It is disappointing to see journalists joining the crushing in a rictus of cancel culture.
When South Africa’s Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, informed the nation that the new variant meant that ‘we are all equally at risk now’, he was wrong by a factor of a thousand. This spurred a panic, as parents all over the country, stressed by lockdowns and sustained mismanagement of risk, suffered the fear that their children were now at risk. Yet not a single mainstream news outlet called the Minister out on this bald lie.
The authors take aim at PANDA’s models. They criticise PANDA’s mortality model for supposedly predicting 10,000 confirmed Covid deaths in the first wave (PANDA’s model was in fact the most accurate model produced for South Africa and we estimated 20,000 deaths in the very first paper we produced). Yet, they make not a peep about government’s model of 351,000 confirmed Covid deaths (not “excess deaths”) in the first wave. PANDA forecast not only deaths but hospital utilization during the first wave of the epidemic to within 1% of what actually emerged. Government’s models and those of the Actuarial Society of South Africa, released no earlier than PANDA’s, were wildly wrong. In the case of the NICD, the overstatement of hospital demand was 13-27x too much.
This resulted in massive misallocation of scarce resources. The Nasrec Centre, built at a cost of some R350m ($20m), saw a grand total of 1,385 admissions throughout the whole episode, before it was quietly shuttered, having cost R250,000 per patient. A news report some time ago said the centre never exceeded 100 patients at any point. Similar stories emerged for the Telkom quarantine site (365 patients), Eskom quarantine site (24), Esselen Park School of Excellence (767) and the Hospital of Hope (1,306).
Returning to the article’s conspiracy theories, let’s start with some background. The article mainly rehashes points made by the BylineTimes article it references, which is authored by one of the same authors of the Daily Maverick article, Nazeef Ahmed. It is ironic that the target of the Byline Times article appears to have been far-right parties in the UK because Byline Times is funded by Max Moseley, famously involved in a sex scandal involving Nazi role playing and who is the son of an MP who was interned for being a Nazi sympathiser and fascist.
The Byline Times article attempted to make further connections, relating PANDA to a man who believes that lizard people rule the earth, funding from the Koch brothers and Nigel Farage! After its first instantiation, the article was modified to remove some of the whackier allegations, but with no editorial note provided. Curious friends the Daily Maverick has.
The article wades in with the opinions of three experts from fields unrelated to the central actuarial arguments of the years of life lost structure (not deaths as the “experts” allege) that PANDA’s seminal actuarial article deployed. These opinions are so chaotic that bringing clarity to them will be a lengthy process. In short, the “experts” appear at least as confused as the journalists. Our article received wide praise when it was published nearly a year ago, being cited by academics and journalists in several countries. Daily Maverick itself saw fit to publish a summary of the work in May 2020, hardly an indictment of the work’s perceived quality.
Reference is made to PANDA’s work on PCR. We have frequently made the point that it is medical malpractice to diagnose a case of Covid, the disease, with reference to PCR test results only. As a matter of absolute fact, PCR tests alone can neither determine whether a person is infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus, nor whether they are infectious, let alone whether they have Covid. Most infections do not result in disease. Four PANDA members were authors of the acclaimed Corman-Drosten Review, published in November, which highlighted a dozen grievous errors with the seminal PCR testing paper and the tests that were based on it. The WHO has recently agreed with this perspective, noting in two advisories that clinical signs are important, so that a case should not be registered on the basis of the test alone.
PANDA has relentlessly made the point that safe and efficacious vaccines are part of a focused protection strategy. The authors rely upon a reference in an article we put up on our website. The authors’ conclusion that PANDA has ‘strayed into anti-vaxxer disinformation’ because of this tangential reference in somebody else’s article reveals the hit piece dishonesty of their article. PANDA is not, and has never been, anti-vaxx.
PANDA’s lockdown skepticism has been shared by members of the scientific community, with the NICD’s senior medical epidemiologist, Harry Moultrie admitting that he never supported “enforcement” of restrictions, the SAMRC’s Pam Groenewald claiming that the SAMRC had been the first group to speak out against lockdowns, and the University of the Witwatersrand’s Prof. Shabir Mhadi saying on national television that lockdowns were inappropriate in developing countries. He, along with Drs Glenda Gray and Francois Venter were reputedly ejected from the Ministerial Advisory Committee for taking positions against restrictions.
PANDA’s Scientific Advisory Board is packed with eminent international scientists, and our volunteer membership includes many scientists at the very top of their fields. They too oppose the public health disgrace that lockdowns have always been.
The benefits of lockdown now exist only in a narrative – a narrative disconnected from reality, from pre-Covid science and from any world view that can even vaguely claim to be liberal. We find it surprising that such a tawdry hit piece would pass muster with the Daily Maverick’s editorial.
Pandemics Data & Analytics (PANDA) has long argued that lockdowns are morally unsound and fundamentally wrong and, furthermore, that no decision to lock down can be viewed as rational in the absence of a careful cost-benefit analysis. Yet not a single government perpetrating lockdowns has ever published any such thing, for the principal reason that any reasonable attempt to do so would expose lockdowns as obvious non-starters.
History will thus record lockdowns as the product of ideology, unprecedented mass hysteria and drummed-up fear. They will stand as reminders that we must always defend vital freedoms against panicking and power-drunk politicians, even if we find ourselves in the sorry position of lacking journalists who are up to the task.
(The two sets of answers PANDA gave to the questions posed by Ms Davis, as she floundered around for proof of a conspiracy that doesn’t exist, are available on our website. Readers will readily glean what this was all about.)
- PANDA: Busting myths about Covid-19 cases
- Meet Nick Hudson of PANDA, actuary, philosopher, disruptor: The Alec Hogg Show
- How PANDA drew deep thinkers to take on SA Covid-19 modellers: The Alec Hogg Show
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