COVID-19: When data is suspect, only choice is to use good judgment

Protestors took to the streets in Michigan to demand an end to the virus inspired lockdown.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

~ Mark Twain

Do we have reliable enough data to make the case for either keeping our economies open or closed?

That’s the burning question confronting policymakers this week.

Arrayed on one side are those who argue that the severity of disease is such that any move to return to a semblance of normality would risk a disastrous second wave.

On the other side are those who argue that remaining in lockdown risks sending our economies into a deep depression with all its attendant risks to our health and livelihoods.

Each side brings to bear numbers.

Hundreds of thousands will die if we re-open, argue proponents of shutting down, until the disease is clearly defeated.

That is countered by those who would like to see people working that millions have lost their jobs and there are consequences, both economically and physically attached to that.

Data. It’s always about data.

Unfortunately, the data about this disease is suspect.

The death rate, for example, is quite literally all over the map. Belgium is recording 568 deaths per million population. Spain is recording 474. The United States, at 147, is doing far better. Canada, at 53, is better still.

Why the disparity?

This will be the subject of numerous studies in the months and years to come as researchers attempt to understand what happened.

None of which, of course, helps us in the present.

One thing is clear, though, the death rates cannot be trusted.

The simple reason being is that anyone who has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 or is presumed to have the virus is listed as having died of the virus which began its life in Wuhan, China.

Now, this is troubling because it makes any debate about the merits of staying locked down or opening up nonsensical.

Yet the attribution of all suspect deaths to COVID-19 by doctors and hospitals is being done worldwide at the direction of public health officials.

This is a concerted effort and I’m assuming it is at the direction of the World Health Organization which is recommending caution in reopening.

It’s puzzling, if not outright bizarre that the WHO should be advising caution now when it was so slow to react to the dangers of the virus when it was first discovered late last year.

Then again the WHO has not shown great judgment in the past few years. Its lack of decisiveness and failure to adhere to accepted protocols is plain for all to see.

So what are policymakers to do?

Listen to science?

Well, science has failed us. The models which forecast deaths in the hundreds of thousands and even millions have been unmitigated disasters.

This disease is killing the elderly trapped in nursing homes and other middle aged people with underlying health issues.

In Canada, close to 60 per cent of deaths have been associated with senior facilities of one kind or another.

It is much the same in other countries.

If this pandemic teaches us anything it is that we do not care for our elderly properly.

That said,  protecting the elderly and other compromised individuals can be done without forcing everyone into self-isolation and lockdown. Proper protocols, training and a commitment to care are what’s needed.

But what does the experience in the field tell us about moving forward?

Looking at all the inane videos of nurses and doctors doing dance routines on social media, it’s clear that most hospitals are doing fine and are hardly taxed with ambulance after ambulance of patients at death’s door.

Again, there are hospitals where staff are working 24-7 to save lives. New York, for example, has fully half of all severe cases and associated deaths in the United States.

Elsewhere that is not the case. Most hospitals have empty wards. The disease hasn’t swamped the health care system in the least.

That tells us the disease is nowhere as deadly as was first feared and that we can start getting back to work provided we do so cautiously and remain vigilant.

What I would like to see is legislation protecting workers who stay home when ill. Too many people go to work when ill and infect others for fear of losing pay or even their jobs. Surely we can come up with ways of dealing with these situations that benefit everyone.

Now, where does all this leave the poor policymaker?

Sadly, he or she is stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, praised by some or damned by others no matter which course of action they take.

That is life. It is all about assessing risk.

We would like to think that given enough data we can always make the right decisions, but when the data is simply not there or is suspect, we have to rely on our judgment, experience and, yes, our gut instincts. Time will prove us right or wrong.

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