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‘The real cost of the coronavirus’


There is an easy way to stop the coronavirus: Stop the world.

Football matches, festivals and concerts are banned. Shut down schools, offices and shops. Travel is cancelled. Touching is cancelled. People are confined to their homes and if they leave them they are penalised and forcibly returned.

By now you’re probably reeling back on your isolation lounge and yet these are all measures that are already imposed in Australia or elsewhere or under active consideration. Soon we will be left to wonder if there is a society left to save.

Of course the government is right to take measures to slow the spread of the virus and of course we should all take precautions as individuals but there will eventually come a point where we have to decide whether the cure is worse than the disease.

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First, a disclaimer: I am a relatively healthy man in his mid 40s. This coronavirus will not kill me or my wife or children and so it is easy for me to be calm.

However my best friend is a quadriplegic, for whom pneumonia – the ultimate symptom of the virus – is the deadliest killer. And my mother suffers from lupus, an auto-immune disease that also places her in the highest risk category.

And so I understand that for many, coronavirus is literally a matter of life and death. And they understand that for far many more the hysteria around it has been literally insane.

As it happens my quadriplegic best mate is also a business intelligence analyst – risk assessments and modelling algorithms and that sort of stuff – and so for a bit of black humour he crunched a few corona numbers on the back of a beer coaster this week.

Based on the 81,000 tests conducted in Australia at the time of his noodling, he predicted 1,852 deaths – a number he triumphantly declared was only one 67.4998 millionth as fatal as the efforts of the galactic supervillain Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.

Now this isn’t exactly the most rigorous scientific study and, to be fair, Thanos wiped out half of the world’s population. The corona death toll is certain to rise and many experts believe it will explode exponentially.

But it is also important to remember that we are not Italy or Iran or Indonesia. We acted early and fast with travel restrictions and quarantine measures and we didn’t stick our fingers in our ars singing la-la-la while the virus was already sweeping through the nation undetected. We are also an island continent and a first world nation with a first class health system – not to mention some of the best medical minds on the planet. We are in a uniquely blessed position to fight this thing.

The only question is how hard we fight it and at what cost.

We don’t expect police to shoot shoplifters on sight and we don’t chop people’s legs off just because they have an ingrown toenail. And nor should we destroy our entire economy and way of life to stop a disease from which the vast majority of people will suffer only the mildest of symptoms and whose vast majority of victims will already have lived very long lives.

This is not to be flippant: Of course if you are a doctor or public health officer concerned only with saving lives in the here and now you will naturally want to take every step necessary. But shutting down economies also has fatal consequences because poverty, joblessness and homelessness can also be extremely deadly.

I noted two weeks ago a study conducted by the Imperial College London that found an extra 500,000 people may have unnecessarily died of cancer during the global financial crisis because they couldn’t access treatment. As I write this the global coronavirus death toll is around 10,000 and in Australia it is seven, overwhelmingly among the elderly and those with existing medical problems.

Another example: A study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology found there was a major spike in suicides among people left jobless during the GFC of 2007-09.

People in crisis don’t need a virus to kill them. They will do the job themselves.

Now note that Westpac has predicted the fallout from corona measures will cause the jobless rate to surge to 7 per cent, an almost 40 per cent increase. In America there are reports the government is bracing for a potential jobless rate as high as 20 per cent.

And another: Bill Crews’ Exodus Foundation has had to shut down its free restaurant for the homeless because people can no longer gather together. To their great credit they are – like KFC – still doing takeaway, but the most lifesaving purpose of services like these isn’t to provide plates, it’s to provide people. Human contact and human connections that bring the forgotten back into the fold. That capacity is crippled for now.

Likewise a homelessness outreach service run out of Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital has been forced to suspend services because it relies so heavily on selfless elderly volunteers.

As the economy plunges into what will almost certainly be a recession, the number of people made homeless will likewise almost certainly skyrocket just as services for them are crippled. Now consider that the average life expectancy for men who experience chronic homelessness is between 45 and 47 years of age. Yes, that first number is a four.

This is the cost of fighting corona and it is a bill that will be paid by the poorest among us.

And there are other harsh realities we have to be honest and mature enough to face. Certainly we have to protect our most vulnerable – that is the measure of any civilisation that dares to call itself civilised – but it is equally absurd to categorise the death of a person aged in their 90s as a life tragically cut short. Indeed, people in their 90s will tell you this themselves.

Last weekend, after the gathering bans were announced but before they were imposed, my mother-in-law took her own mother to a stage show.

“Gosh,” my wife asked her mum, “wasn’t that a bit risky?”

Naturally, my beloved mother-in-law had asked her own mum the same question.

“For God’s sake darling, I’m 96 years old,” Nan replied. “If I go, I go!”

Now I am certainly not in favour of bumping off our elderly – indeed, unlike many of the corona catastrophists, I am not even entirely comfortable with euthanasia – but it is a simple fact that after you have entered your tenth decade on the planet you are probably going to die of something.

And you are also probably old enough to know how ridiculous the corona panic is. Another 96-year-old called Fred Birks was moved to even write a piece he titled “AUSTRALIA GONE MAD!!” or “HOW SCARED CAN YOU GET?” which he passed on to me.

Fred noted that he had lived and served in World War II without seeing the hysteria that has hit Australia over the past week or two.

“It is unbelievable that a virus can scare so many so they become anything other than Australians,” he wrote.

“One wonders what they would do if we had the same situation as occurred in 1939 – I bet they would use all the toilet paper they had stored in one week!”

And so the key, as always, is balance. We have to make sure that in our desperation to kill off a global virus we do not end up killing off the host – which is to say all of us.

The aviation, tourism, hospitality, sport, entertainment and arts sectors are already beyond crisis point. Farmers may not be able to get enough backpackers to pick their crops. Universities are being starved of funds from foreign students. Many small businesses will never recover. Workers are already losing their jobs and many could lose their homes.

In short, even the bare minimum we need to do to avoid the collapse of our health system is going to choke our economy and push people to breaking point. Further measures – like shutting down all schools or shops or gatherings or transport – would crash it altogether. The mass catastrophe of that – even down to the number of lives it could cut short – may well make the coronavirus itself seem merciful by comparison.

But none of this is to say that we should do nothing because life is cheap. On the contrary, life is the most precious thing on earth and we need to make sure that by stopping the virus at all costs it doesn’t end up costing the lives of even more people whose deaths will go silently uncounted.

Joe Hildebrand is the editor-at-large of news.com.au and co-hosts Studio 10, 8.30am weekdays, on Network Ten | @Joe_Hildebrand





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