What are our Chances?

Hard to calculate the probabilities, when you don’t know what dice are being rolled

Lies, Damn Lies and the Statistics of Denial

Truth is the first casualty in war: and the war against Covid-19 is no different. From the start it has been characterised by lies, misinformation and the suppression of truth; and although this has varied in degree from one place to another, the contagion of deceit has left few places uninfected.

Just before the pandemic broke, I began writing a novel about an alien virus taking over the world. It’s been educational to see that for many of our leaders, the instinctive response would be denial. Some go on to be systematically untruthful; some are selective with the truth for the best of intentions; and some cannot ever bring themselves to admit there is a problem. Each society puts a cultural stamp on its falsehoods: we can tell a lot from the different ways in which we dissemble.

The clearest trait is that totalitarian regimes announce death rates that are unbelievably low. The more authoritarian the regime, the lower the figures. They try to use that as evidence of the need for control, whilst open societies bemoan the vulnerabilities that go with freedom. This is a mistake: anyone who thinks that Russia doesn’t have a runaway epidemic, or that Iran has got things in hand, needs a cold reality bath.

The Chinese government, battered by accusations of cover-up, have recently amended their figures for the early stages of the epidemic in Wuhan. That 50% increase restores a shred of credibility; but the great unknown is the extent to which the severity of the subsequent lockdown and surveillance was effective. We can’t trust their figures, so we don’t know how well it worked.

In the UK, with no systematic testing, government and media cling to the only certainty they can find, which is the number of deaths in hospital. Although forced to admit that this is only part of the picture, they continue to downplay deaths elsewhere, stating them as 10% of the hospital totals despite evidence that 40-50% is a more likely range. This bumbling around the data reflects a British establishment who generally gave up maths so early in their school careers that they never developed a grasp of statistics.

The most open and well educated societies have either combined strong, early measures with excellent campaigns of public information, thus preventing the disease from getting a hold (e.g. New Zealand), or have challenged the whole scientific basis of lockdowns (e.g. Sweden).

To understand the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches, we first need to acknowledge that everyone is confused about what’s really going on. The epidemiologists are almost as lost as the rest of us. Why do death rates vary so wildly? How many people have been infected? Do they then gain immunity? After six months of pandemic, our ignorance still exceeds our understanding.

One mystery of Covid-19 is why its impact varies between ethnic communities. In the USA, 30% of identified cases are Afro-Americans, who form only 14% of the population. In the UK, three quarters of the healthcare workers who have died are from BAME backgrounds. The reason is unlikely to be genetic but a consequence of lifestyle, poverty, associated conditions like obesity – and the fact that they also provide roughly half of our frontline heroes.

Early on, the Chinese thought only 17% of those infected showed no symptoms. Yet when whole communities have been tested, like the crew of the USS Roosevelt, the real figure appears to be almost 60%. Iceland has tested 15% of its entire population and reckons the figure at near 50%. Incidentally, cooping people up in a confined space like an aircraft carrier demonstrates that in similar circumstances, most of us would get infected.

Testing in most developed countries is between 2% and 0.5% of the population and suggests that the total number of infections may be 50 to 70 times the number of identified cases. On this basis, over a hundred million people already have the virus, maybe a third of the population in some countries. Together, these statistics call into question several aspects of the lockdowns.

Big events cause big disasters: Italy and Spain owe most of their pain to a single football match in February. Big egos are worse: super-idiots like Trump and Bolsanaro facilitate contagion more than super-spreaders.

What policy guidance can we draw from all this? Firstly, in countries that have failed to contain the virus it’s likely that most of us are going to get infected whatever we do, so the main purpose of any policy is to manage the flow rate of cases through the health service.

Secondly, viral load is a major factor in determining whether someone lives or dies, so PPE for all frontline workers really is vital.

Thirdly, Sweden was probably right with its approach of focusing on social distancing rather than lockdown, at least once the disease was already present. 

Unless Covid-19 mutates into a more deadly form, it is probably going to kill about one of us in every thousand, mostly the old and sick. Balancing this against the human and economic cost of lockdown is a tough call. 

In any event we need to become more pragmatic in our policies. Crowding together in a confined space is bad; sunbathing in a park is not.

We also need to recognise that most of us have been very lucky. A flu-like pandemic was top of the risk register for decades: Covid-19 is probably the least deadly disease that could have forced us to make such huge changes.

This will not be the last pandemic. Will we learn the right lessons, before the next one? It would certainly help if we could clarify the truth of what is actually happening. Yet irrespective of the statistics, one lesson is clear. Our chances depend on how we load the dice. Minimising surplus capacity in emergency services is a false economy; but money spent on boosting our disaster preparedness is the wisest investment any politician will ever make.

China’s Great Wall of Silence

In my forthcoming novel, After the Event, different governments respond to an alien virus in very different ways. In this respect I’m finding it highly instructive to watch how the Covid-19 pandemic plays out around the world.

In the middle stages of the original epidemic, when Chinese officials briefly stopped trying to suppress the truth, there was a deluge of reportage coming out of the country. It’s not surprising that this has now reduced, given the tight lockdown, the evacuation of foreign journalists and the media’s shift of attention to the impact of the pandemic elsewhere. Yet if one scans the international media, the coverage of what is happening in China is now so limited that it is hard not to be suspicious. 

The official line is that the draconian measures imposed by the government of Xi Jinping have been extraordinarily successful. According to this narrative, China has gone in the space of six weeks from having a runaway epidemic with 60,000 confirmed cases in mid-February, to reaching a plateau of 80,000 at the beginning of March and a recovery to just 1,863 active cases now, most of them caused by people coming into the country from abroad. There have really only been two stories from China in the past week: a travel ban against foreigners, to prevent a “second wave” of infections; and the lifting of some internal restrictions so that people can re-enter Wuhan and start going back to work.

Really? Even given the omnipotence of the Chinese state and its instruments of control, is it credible that a lockdown could be that successful, that quickly, in a country where tens of millions of people had been moving between regions for the New Year festival during the epidemic’s early growth period just two months earlier? If experience from Italy and Spain is anything to go by, even the most rigorous of lockdowns could not have achieved such a fast turnaround.

The countries that have managed to contain the epidemic, at least for now, did so with a comprehensive programme of testing and tracking. This was also the approach in China: but can we believe that it was achievable on the vast scale necessary there, especially in light of emerging evidence that their tests have a high error rate? Spain and Turkey have found that tens of thousands of the test kits sent to them by China are unreliable (the batch in Spain were accurate only 30% of the time). Meanwhile the Dutch authorities have recalled 600,000 Chinese face masks as being unsafe.

We should also recall that during the epidemic, the Chinese authorities ran a massive programme of censorship against anyone who tried to highlight uncomfortable facts or question the official line. Some of the bloggers involved were forcibly put into quarantine and have not been heard from since. So there is really no other lense through which to view the situation in China today, except that of the government.

Given this background, let me pose some questions about what is really going on in China. Is it possible that the death toll is far higher than the 3,318 officially cited? Could it be that the authorities have suppressed the real number, for instance by ensuring that death certificates cite other causes? (This is easy to do when most people who succumb to Covid-19 die from multiple causes, such as heart failure and pneumonia, or else die without ever being tested.) Perhaps a new outbreak reported yesterday in a region near Hubei is evidence that new infections are still occurring at a higher rate than has been admitted? And is it conceivable that the ban on foreigners has been instituted not just to prevent new infections being brought in, but also to stop the rest of the world from discovering the true situation?

The Chinese communist party can only justify its grip on power if it is seen to be solving the country’s problems and leading its people to a better quality of life. Failure to overcome the Coronavirus epidemic, or a prolonged economic downturn, both hold more terrors for Xi Jinping and his minions than they do for western democracies. In a democracy, even the people who hold power don’t regard losing it as the end of the world. But for members of the Chinese regime, failure could be fatal.

No doubt they will use every trick in the book to manipulate the truth and strengthen their grip, just as they did after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Covid-19, however, personally touches a far larger proportion of the country’s 1.4 billion people. If the recovery being presented by China is a matter of smoke and mirrors, it will be interesting to see how long they can keep up the illusion.

In my novel After the Event, the alien infection is seen by many as beneficial: and efforts to stop it rebound on those who try. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your initial mindset and whether or not you’ve been infected. You’ll have to wait for the book to be finished to find out just where that leads.

Humanity, Version 2

Marc Quinn’s sculpture, “Planet”, in Singapore

Watching the reruns of Westworld has confirmed my opinion that it’s the most intelligent television series ever made. The questions it poses, about the nature of sentient life and the point at which machine and human intelligence become indistinguishable, have been considered many times before. The best examples are probably Blade Runner and Alex Garland’s equally brilliant Ex Machina. Both morally and practically, those questions are complex and fascinating (rather like Westworld): but what lights my fire is not so much how we might one day treat androids, as the implications for our own evolution.

My limited understanding of the evolution of species leads me to believe that it mostly happens in relatively sudden bursts, with slower and more incremental changes in between. Those bursts probably have external causes (e.g. changes in the environment) rather than just the random mutations that drive a lot of the lesser advances.

In Westworld, the minds of the artificial humans start to develop independently of any human intervention. The original cause is a mix of meddling by their creators and some unforeseen malfunctions but their progress becomes self-driven. I’m not sure that this possibility has ever before been presented as such a dynamic evolutionary process. These are not really androids but a hybrid species whose minds, entirely human in origin, evolve quickly through the interplay between their own logic and some natural processes that are beyond their or anyone else’s control.

Bearing in mind that these Westworld “hosts” are reflections of us, this raises some really interesting questions about how our own human intelligence will evolve as a result of interacting with and attempting to manage artificial intelligences that are rapidly becoming greater than our own.

If ever there was a likely external cause for mankind’s next evolutionary leap, surely this is it. Will we merge with AI to create true hybrids (something that is already starting to happen)? Will we compete with AI, stimulating our own mental abilities in an effort to keep pace with the genie that we have let out of the bottle? Above all, will we come to understand the parts of our thinking that are free will, versus those that are pre-programmed, bio-chemical processes? This is the essence of the struggle that the Westworld characters go through and it lies at the core of our own existential questioning.

I can’t wait to see what the inspired script writers Nolan and Joy make of these issues in Season 3. They wound up the last season by having some key Westworld characters escape into the outside world, so they’re pretty much bound to address them. Meanwhile I’m working on related issues in my new novel, After the Event, where an alien intelligence is infecting humanity rather like a virus, upgrading us despite our best efforts to stay dumb and primitive. It’s spooky but convenient that COVID-19 is happening at the same time, providing a real-world model of how humanity tries frantically to contain the uncontrollable.

In giving birth to AI, we have done more than to create the next great leap forward in science and technology. We have produced a baby Titan that may well evolve into the next version of humanity. I can’t help thinking that it will have to be a big improvement on Homo Sapiens v1.0, if we are to survive.