A Fog of Pandemic-Induced Chaos Makes the Facts of the Chinese Virus Hard to Uncover.
One thing that’s glaringly obvious about the Chinese virus pandemic is how differently it has affected different countries. China was hammered (how badly, no-one really knows, thanks to Beijing’s secrecy and lies), yet Hong Kong and Taiwan, even Japan, have been barely touched.
Italy has become the poster-child of COVID-19 horror-stories in the West. Excluding China, Italy leads the world in COVID-19 deaths.
France has recorded barely half the rate of fatalities as Italy. Germany, less than a tenth. While the US has now outpaced Italy in raw numbers of infections, its infection rate is just a quarter of Italy’s. It’s fatalities barely one-fifth*.
So, why was Italy so devastated by the Chinese virus – and was it really hit as badly as we’ve been lead to believe?
The mayors of cities in Italy’s worst-hit areas were leading social media campaigns, well into the outbreak, which now seem blindly irresponsible, to put it mildly. Soccer matches also went on – including a match between Italian and Spanish teams in Milan which has been described as “the detonator of a “biological atom bomb”.
Medical systems were also blindsided. Early cases in mid-February, were treated in small regional hospitals without testing or safety precautions. Worse, when a concerned doctor sought to test Italy’s “patient one” for the novel coronavirus ravaging China, she had to battle “medical protocols”.
Meanwhile, probably-infected patients were unwittingly treated alongside the general hospital population, exposing already ill people to the virus.
Other critical factors in the Italy’s disaster scenario are the fact that it has the highest number of particularly-vulnerable over-65s in Europe. High rates of smoking and notoriously poor air quality probably also contributed.
There is also Italy’s large population of Chinese national foreign workers. Some 300 000 Chinese nationals work, often illegally, mostly in Italy’s garment trade, largely concentrated in Milan and Prato, the very regions hardest hit. Many would have traveled home for the Chinese New Year at the end of January – blissfully unaware of the disaster unfolding there.
Some experts are starting to question whether Italy’s pandemic disaster is being inflated further by unconscious statistical exaggeration.
After all, Germany also has an older population and high smoking rates, yet its mortality rate is a tenth of Italy’s.
One Italian authority, Prof Walter Ricciardi, scientific adviser to Italy’s minister of health, suspects that Italy’s death rate from COVID-19 may appear higher than it is because of how Italian doctors are recording deaths.
“The way in which we code deaths in our country is very generous in the sense that all the people who die in hospitals with the coronavirus are deemed to be dying of the coronavirus.”
Ricciardi points out that only 12 percent of death certificates show direct causality from COVID-19. Almost all patients had “at least one pre-morbidity – many had two or three”. In other words, the Chinese virus may have served as a “harvesting effect”: meaning that people who were probably at death’s door already were simply knocked off their perch a bit earlier. Doctors, especially in the chaos caused by a surge of patients swamping hospitals, may also have been quicker to sign off cause of death as COVID-19.
This does not mean that Italy has not suffered an extraordinary blow from Xi’s plague. But it does mean that Italy should not be the model for the rest of the world to base its assumptions and responses on.
Current assumptions about COVID-19’s virulence and mortality rate are mostly based on incomplete information. Like many countries, especially in the early phases of the pandemic, Italy did not test widely for the virus. Instead, only the obviously sick were tested. It is almost certain that vast numbers of undetected, mild – indeed, asymptomatic – infections are being missed in the absence of widespread testing.
“We do not have detailed sero-surveillance of the population,” say prof Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
If further testing finds large numbers of previously undetected asymptomatic cases, the mortality rate from COVID-19 will drop. Perhaps dramatically.
COVID-19 is currently assumed to have a mortality rate of 2-4 percent. But other researchers argue that the true infection rate in Wuhan has been underreported 30-fold. Meaning that its mortality is at least ten-fold less than assumed. In fact, the mortality rate of COVID-19 could be just one-tenth that of the seasonal flu.
If this is correct, researchers say, “then measures focused on older populations and hospitals are sensible”. In other words, the Taiwan approach. The current approach in many places, universal quarantine, “may not be worth the costs it imposes on the economy, community and individual mental and physical health”.
*Infection and mortality numbers will no doubt have altered since this piece was first written.