🔒 PANDA’s Nick Hudson: Govt lockdown to save lives is a ‘joke’ – PREMIUM

Nick Hudson, the coordinator of Pandemic Data and Analytics (PANDA), a multidisciplinary initiative, has for some months now described the South African government’s mantra that the lockdown saves lives and that it is lives versus the economy to be a false dichotomy. In this fascinating excerpt from Monday’s Rational Radio webinar, Hudson shares PANDA’s latest analysis of South Africa’s lockdown with BizNews founder, Alec Hogg. Hudson maintains his conviction that – across the world – lockdowns ultimately had no effect at all and that ‘the curve just does what the curve will do’. On the topic of excess deaths recorded in South Africa recently, Hudson believes that we will soon know for sure that these are not are not coronavirus deaths and that we’re actually starting to grapple with lockdown deaths. – Nadya Swart

Hello, I’m Alec Hogg, and we are ready for our Rational Radio webinar today. It’s Monday – we do this every Monday at noon time. We’ve got Nick Hudson joining us now. Nick is the coordinator of PANDA. Always good talking with you, Nick. Thanks for joining us. 

When I read through your latest piece (Jackie’s in the process of putting it up onto BizNews right now) – you’ve come up with an adjustment to your forecasts. But you’ve also reminded us that South Africa’s lockdown was based on some very scary forecasts, and that the lockdown itself, according to the data that you have, hasn’t worked anywhere in the world and certainly hasn’t worked here. 

Just unpack exactly why you can make a statement like that, because the President of the country is continuously patting himself on the back for the lockdown that was implemented on the 27th of March.

Yeah. Hello, Alec, and hello to your listeners. Wherever you look in the world, you see exactly the same pattern for this disease in terms of the type of curve that is presented in any epidemic in any country.

And, you know, the lockdown theory proposes that there will be dramatic effects on the rate at which the infections will spread in the country. And it’s a very strong prediction that there will be step downs in the rate of infection, and when you release lockdown, there will be step ups. 

And we’ve gone through every single country in the world and every single lockdown event and every single release of lockdown – you can’t see these step downs and step ups.

The curve just does what the curve will do. We’ve also done it on an inter-country basis. We’ve looked to see if there’s any kind of correlation between the strength of a country’s lockdown and the number of days it takes to get to its peak or the number of people who ultimately succumb to the virus – and we find nothing. 

And this is not only research that we’ve done, this has been corroborated all over the world by other researchers like ourselves. So, it’s quite a strong finding. We long suspected that the curve flattening idea, the idea that you could push down the epidemic strongly enough to make a difference in terms of hospital capacity utilisation or to buy yourself a lot of time: we long suspected that that was an overwrought one, but we were quite surprised when we started getting into the analysis to see that there’s just really no sign that lockdowns have any effect at all. 

Nick, on your screen now, you can see a graph there – that I’ve actually pulled from Kevin Lings‘ report – about weekly deaths from all causes. And as you can see, there’s a very distinct increase in the deaths in South Africa. Now, if one has a look at the forecasts and projections that you’re talking about and what the South African Medical Research Council is saying: from their side, these excess deaths, as we call them, are a result of Covid-19. 

Nick Hudson PANDA

From your side, which I found very interesting: you don’t believe that it’s actually Covid-19 that is causing excess deaths – but the lockdown itself. Just take us through that argument. 

I think, to be fair to the SAMRC, they did correct the initial report in which they did have this somewhat ambiguous wording where it said Covid-related deaths, you know, not being too specific about whether it was people contracting the disease or affected by things like unavailability of treatment for other diseases or suspension of treatments for tuberculosis or HIV or things like that. So, slightly ambiguous wording, and we asked them to correct it and they have subsequently done so. 

And the jury’s out (I guess what would be fair to say) as to whether any of these deaths that are not recorded as coronavirus deaths are, in fact, from coronavirus or from the consequences of lockdown. We’ve also asked them to provide age-based breakdowns so that we can see – because if there are suddenly children dying or 25 year olds dying, then you know for sure that those are not coronavirus deaths and that we’re actually starting to grapple with lockdown deaths. 

But I don’t even think that getting that information is going to be required because, you know, the Western Cape is now already more than a third off its peak. It peaked more than a month ago, probably five, almost six weeks ago. And as its epidemic continues to decline, if those excess deaths stay there, then they are most definitely not coronavirus deaths and they are our first lockdown deaths. 

And you’ll remember the whole PANDA journey started with us saying: ‘Well, hold on a minute, people. What we’re forgetting here is that it’s not a trade-off between lives and money – that’s a silly way of looking at it. Money mediates life.’ You know, it’s just a transaction in the middle between the work you do and the food that you eat. 

And the main thing wrong with these models is not the number of deaths they’re predicting from coronavirus, which we thought was wrong anyway, but that they don’t take into account the number of deaths, loss of life that will result from plunging the economy into a multi-year depression, especially in a developing nation like our own, where so many people don’t have big reservoirs of savings and where we don’t have a big welfare safety net. 

Explain that, because a lot of people look at that graph and say: ‘Well, there it is – that’s evidence that Covid-19 is being underreported, as often happens in the Third World. But there are more people dying than there were in the past, so there is more to this Covid-19 story than what we’ve been told’. However, on your side, you’re saying that a lockdown actually causes deaths. Now, I’ve read your reports, I know your argument, but just explain that to those who haven’t read it yet. 

Read also: Lockdown could cause 29 times more deaths in long run than Covid-19 itself – Nick Hudson

So, it’s long been understood that there’s a strong relationship between your morbidity and mortality and your level of income – and that’s visible at many levels. So, wealthier nations have longer life expectancies. Pretty much everybody knows that. But even within nations, if you’re an insurance company and you’re trying to price a life insurance product: for many decades, probably even for more than a hundred years, the actuaries at insurance companies have observed that people in different income categories have different mortality rates. 

And, you know, the idea is if you drop a couple of notches in your income – and that’s what’s happening here – we saw today that formal sector salaries have fallen by 20% across the board. You know, these are very meaningful impacts on a society. And what comes with that – that level of destitution and worsening nutrition and stress and all those things – is a higher mortality rate. So, that’s how this manifests. 

We weren’t specific in that first report about the precise mechanisms. But other researchers have been quite recently: Shabir Mahdi, Glenda Gray and more recently,Prof Salim put out papers just warning, you know: look at what’s going on in TB, look at what’s going on in HIV, it doesn’t take much in terms of a drop off in treatment rates and so on to lead to a quick deterioration in those cases that they’re managing. 

All I would say is yes, I know, there are people out there who want to be able to say, look, we weren’t panicking for nothing, and they will go as hard as they can and fight as hard as they can to argue that those excess deaths are all coronavirus related and it has nothing to do with lockdown. 

We think they’re naive. We think that in a couple of weeks it’ll become clear. And as I say, the province to watch is the Western Cape, because within weeks from now, the coronavirus curve will have dropped off to negligible levels. And if those excess deaths are hanging around, then you’ve got your answer. 

You refer in your piece as well to Michael Levitt, Professor Michael Levitt from Stanford, South Africa’s living science Nobel Prize winner – who really has shaken up the world in presenting alternative theories to the status quo and is getting quite a lot of recognition for it now. But he refers to something called the Gompertz curve. Tell us about this Gompertz curve. I had a look through it and I wasn’t quite sure exactly what you guys were getting at.

The Gompertz curve is a family of statistical distributions that he observed to fit the epidemic distribution’s extremely well. And we went and verified this. I mean, we ran this curve against, I think it was upwards of 150 countries – and it fits like a glove. 

And what we’d observed before that is that these compartment models: the SCIR models produce curves that you don’t see anywhere in the world. You know, the models of the nature that the NICD has been using and the IMAG, Imperial College and so on. The curves that they produced you can’t see anywhere. They’re just textbook or a figment of the imagination curves – they don’t actually exist in the real world. 

And, you know, his fits are uncanny. They’re not just fits. They’re really hand in glove fits. And so, as soon as you pointed this out, we just started using them. We never had any cause to do anything else. We were trying to stay out of the modelling game, you know, we felt there were enough people in it and we were trying to make the high level points like: just acknowledge, people, that there’s a trade-off between, you know, managing the disease and managing life or the rest of your citizens. 

We tried to point out that, you know, the narrative that everybody was at risk to this horrible virus was simply not the case, that it affected a small proportion of every population and predominately old and very sick people. And we tried to point out that the lockdown impacts in terms of the costs: the negatives were going to be more strongly felt in developing countries than in developed ones. 

So, we try to keep our narrative in that space. But as the gap between these models and the real world started growing and we started getting phone calls from doctors and hospital administrators saying they’ve got this model – it doesn’t make any sense, it’s not what we’re seeing – can you guys give us some guidance? 

We started putting out these Gompertz curves and the one we put out for the Western Cape – on the same day that the NICD published their model – was uncannily accurate. We weren’t expecting it to be that good. We put it out on the same day and we haven’t touched it since. And it’s tracking in a much narrower confidence interval than the NICD provided. It predicted the peak correctly, and it predicted the decline correctly. It’s all just tracking in a very narrow range. And that’s the Western Cape for you. 

So what we decided to do on the weekend now is just to try and manage our own time, because we’re a small organisation – we can’t deal with all this inbound communication. We just miss half of it – our inboxes are just like totally overflowing. So, what we decided to do was put out curves for the other provinces that we’ve modelled so far, which are the major provinces – so experience in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Northern Province, in Northwest – it’s just too small and too light for us to do anything with at the moment. 

So we put out Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Western Cape, just in an effort to sort of try and give people some guidance as to what’s actually happening out there. So, the Eastern Cape’s past its peak. South Africa, we think, is probably also past its peak, although we’ll need a few days to confirm that. Gauteng is close. It’s not the October peak that then NICD is predicting.

So what you’ve done is gone into the modelling game yourself. 

You know, applying somebody else’s method. We tried really hard. What can you do? I mean, what else do you want us to do? Just let these people say no, sorry, we can’t help you, you know? We will update those curves as we go, but I think they’ll be reasonable. 

You get criticised roundly for just throwing bricks or just criticising, not offering a solution. Now you are showing your own models and they do appear to be somewhat different to everybody else’s. 

To what degree, though, how confident are you that administrators in hospitals, in provinces that are now preparing themselves for the pandemic or for the wave that is going to hit them, that they can use your models and not find themselves short of ICU beds? 

I think we are pretty confident that the broad trajectories are well described by those models. I mean, it would be an enormous departure for South Africa to do something that no other country in the world has done. And this is the nature of the point that we’ve been making all the way along. We wouldn’t put those models out if we had some doubt that they would be materially wrong, Alec. It would just be grossly irresponsible. 

But I just want to pick up on your earlier point, you know, this idea that we throw bricks. I mean, it’s simply not the case. I mean, from the very beginning, we’ve been recommending alternative policy ideas, you know, in the first place. We pointed out that this disease only poses a significant risk to a small portion of the population who are not economically productive. 

So you should be addressing your resources towards them and letting the rest of us get along with our lives and getting involved in the production that provides the state and private individuals with the capacity to respond to things like a viral threat. 

We’ve suggested techniques of dealing with old age homes and reducing the burden there – to try and avoid that situation that existed in the tristate area in the US and in Canada as well – where you just have this terrible rushing of the virus through nursing homes and so on. We’ve recommended that it was a good idea to, instead of spreading the resources so broadly, we suggested to take some of that R500bn and increase the state old-aged pension for a few months so that older people who are poorer can find the means to isolate themselves. 

We’ve had a number of policy suggestions along the way. We throw bricks at lockdown, make no mistake. We throw bricks at those models, because they’ve caused a panic. But the other thing we really criticise is this fear mongering, which the models are implicated in. 

You diminish people’s agency and their ability to get on in the world when you drive them into these positions of intense fear, irrational fear, and it’s still around us. I mean, I’ve got friends who won’t let their children outdoors after school and that kind of thing. There’s no relationship to the real risk involved here.

Read also: PANDA’s Nick Hudson: “Breathtaking failure” by scaremongering Covid-19 modellers – SA deaths to peak this month

The impact on small business of a lockdown and what’s happened – are you able to quantify it in any way?

I don’t have all the recent statistics at my fingertips, Alec, but my understanding is that close to 100,000 businesses have shut their doors. We do a lot of investigation into industry by industry and by size category of business, and what the guys are telling me is that the big wave of business impacts is going to come this month, in August, and then to a greater extent, even next month. 

That pretty much the owners and entrepreneurs have pulled every lever that they could to keep their businesses afloat, and now they’ve run out of options – and those business failures are going to come thick and fast over the next two months. So, with the epidemic in decline: this continuation of lockdown, the booze ban, all of these things – they just make no sense whatsoever and they should be terminated immediately. 

It’s a joke now. The government cannot possibly be maintaining that it has the interests of its citizens at heart if it is continuing with these lockdowns. They are going to cause death on a far greater scale than the virus. 

It’s not so much a case of the virus burning itself out. It’s just that there’s a big portion of the population who are simply not susceptible to a severe disease course. There’s been a lot of confusion around this concept of herd immunity, you know, only being attained when 60 or 70% of the population are showing that they’ve got antibodies – it’s a very textbook kind of version of the word. 

But now – in paper after paper – it’s become clear that what we thought was the case is, in fact, the case – and that is that, you know, anywhere between 50 and 80% of the population are able to fight the disease of using the first layer of the immune defence system, which is called your cellular immune system or your T cells. And if you fight a disease or the virus off with your cellular immune system – you may go on not to produce antibodies and then you will never test positive on a seroprevalence test. 

So, the majority of the population just shrug it off and they never even know that they had the virus in their cells – their bodies just deal with it. I like to replace the word immunity with resistance, because people understand it a bit more easily. Then what’s happening there is your body is recognising that something is foreign and it’s similar to something that you had maybe as a kid or in recent years you had another type of coronavirus that gave you a cold. 

And so your T cells are on the lookout for the proteins that are involved in this coronavirus. That’s called cross-reactivity. It’s one type of T cell immunity. It’s not like you’re immune in strict terms to this specific beta coronavirus , but you’re resistant.

Before we let you go, Charles Well’s wants to know, how do you explain the New York lockdown, which surely helped to stop the rapid spread versus the USA Today? The virus is like a wildfire.

There’s absolutely no sign that it helped at all. I don’t want to get too deep into the technical weeds, but you look at the rate of change of the daily deaths and that rate of change just follows this linear decline, and the inception of lockdown does absolutely nothing. And remember, you’ve got to look at a lag thing. You can’t say that lockdown was on day zero and the effect wasn’t day zero – people just stopped dying immediately – because it’s not that it stops death, it’s that it stops infections. 

And those infections take 20 or 30 days to wash through the system. So, you want to look at a time 20 or 30 days after the lockdown is implemented and then you look for a change, a step function, in what’s called the reproduction rate or the rate at which daily deaths are increasing or decreasing. And that natural shape that this disease follows – referred to as the burnout – the natural shape that the epidemic curve follows is just completely unaffected by lockdown inception or relaxation. 

And I want to remind people: this is where I get a bit cross with these epidemiologists – they make predictions and then when the predictions don’t come true, they don’t change their theories. OK, so everybody was shouting, all of the epi’s – the whole team – was shouting and shouting at Denmark and Germany: ‘Don’t end your lockdown. You’re going to have this wall of death. It’ll be there in two weeks, in two weeks!’ But what actually happens? They relaxed their lockdowns and two months later or however long it’s been (I think, even longer) – nothing. There isn’t even a jot. 

They predict catastrophe in Sweden, because it hasn’t done a lockdown. And there is no catastrophe in Sweden. The excess mortality there is below the average for Western Europe. It’s pretty much in line with other slightly bad flu seasons. So, they keep making these outrageous panic-stricken predictions. The predictions don’t come true – and they don’t change the theory. 

And then people shout at us for denying the lockdown theory, which is, after all, a novel theory – it hasn’t been tried before, right? We don’t know, there’s no experience of having done lockdowns and found that they are successful in dealing with viral epidemics.

We do know, though, that they hurt the economy a lot. Derek Christian wants to know, he says: surely a drop in income levels takes time – months, if not years – to have an effect on overall mortality rates? 

I think that would be true for high income people. And definitely, by the way, we never expect the whole impact to come upfront. But I just keep on reminding people, I mean, we work with a number of NGO’s. The level of stress and strain that comes with being taken from a low middle income job. You’ve got an income, you’ve got a family, you’ve got the extended family in South Africa. 

It’s a pronounced effect, what people sometimes refer to as black tax – where you, if you’re the person with an income, you’ve got unemployed, extended family, who rely upon you. That’s all real stuff. Now you lose your job and immediately everything just comes apart. There’s no social safety network. There’s no savings that have been built up and life comes apart, and it’s terrible. 

I think for listeners on your show – well, a lot of them will maybe have to think about it in terms of if they see other parents at the school whose businesses have gone under and those parents are now contemplating trying to sell a house: the trade-offs, do they keep the kids in school, do they pull them out of school. What are they going to do, you know. And you see the stress on those people’s faces. 

Now, multiply that by, I don’t know, whatever multiple you choose and you’re living in a lower middle income zone. This is profound stuff. It’s biting and it comes and it doesn’t take long. You know, if your protein content in your diet drops, you get pretty quick health impacts – because that’s what we’re talking about. 

People in that income level already struggle to keep reasonable balance in their diets. So, you take their incomes away and now their diet goes to hell in a handbasket. That kind of stuff starts affecting you. And you talk about 45 year old bankers and doctors telling them, listen, take it easy – you’re going to have a heart attack. That’s for real. OK, take that stress, multiply it by a factor – that’s what you’re dealing with in South Africa’s townships right now. 

Nick Hudson. Thanks very much, again, for expressing your opinion, as you always do – rather forcefully. Much appreciated.

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