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The unspoken reason for lockdowns

Governments cannot openly admit that the “controlled easing” of COVID-19 lockdowns in fact means controlled progress toward so-called herd immunity to the virus. Much better, then, to pursue this objective silently, under a cloud of obfuscation, and hope that a vaccine will arrive before most of the population gets infected.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the first major global crisis in human history to be treated as a mathematical problem, with governments regarding policy as the solution to a set of differential equations. Excluding a few outliers – including, of course, US President Donald Trump – most political leaders have slavishly deferred to “the science” in tackling the virus. The clearest example of this was the UK government’s sudden shift on March 23 to an aggressive lockdown policy, following a nightmarish forecast by Imperial College London researchers of up to 550,000 deaths if nothing was done to combat the pandemic.

Such modelling is the correct scientific approach when the question debars experiment. You can test a new drug by subjecting two groups of lab rats to identical conditions, except for the drug they are given, or by administering it to randomly selected humans in clinical trials.

But you can’t deliberately insert a virus into a human population to test its effects, although some Nazi concentration-camp doctors did just that. Instead, scientists use their knowledge of the infectious pathogen to model a disease’s pattern of contagion, and then work out which policy interventions will modify it.

Predictive modelling was first developed for malaria over a century ago by an almost-forgotten English doctor, Ronald Ross. In a fascinating 2020 book, the mathematician and epidemiologist Adam Kucharski showed how Ross first identified the mosquito as the infectious agent through experiments on birds. From this fact, he developed a predictive model of malaria transmission, which was later generalized as the SIR (Susceptible, Infected, and Recovered) model of contagious-disease epidemics.

The question that interested epidemiologists was not what triggers an epidemic, but what causes it to end. They concluded that epidemics end naturally when enough people have had the disease so that further transmission rates decline. Basically, the virus runs out of hosts in which it can reproduce itself. In today’s jargon, the population develops “herd immunity.”

The science developed from Ross’s original model is almost universally accepted, and has been fruitfully applied in other contexts, like financial contagion. But no policymaker is prepared to allow a killer epidemic to run its natural course, because the potential death toll would be unacceptable.

After all, the 1918-19 Spanish flu killed some 50-100 million people out of a global population of two billion: a death rate between 2.5% and 5%. No one knew for sure what the COVID-19 death rate would have been had the spread of the coronavirus been uncontrolled.

Because there is currently no COVID-19 vaccine, governments have had to find other ways to prevent “excess deaths.” Most have opted for lockdowns, which remove entire populations from the path of the virus and thus deprive it of hosts.

Two months into the European lockdown, however, the evidence suggests that these measures on their own have not had much medical effect. For example, Sweden, with its exceptionally light lockdown, has had fewer COVID-19 deaths relative to its population than tightly locked-down Italy and Spain. And while the United Kingdom and Germany have both been aggressively locked down, Germany has so far reported 96 deaths per million inhabitants, compared to 520 per million in the UK.

The crucial difference between Germany and the UK seems to lie in their respective medical responses. Germany started mass testing, contact-tracing, and isolating the infected and exposed within a few days of confirming its first COVID-19 cases, thus giving itself a head start in slowing the virus’s spread.

The UK, by contrast, is hobbled by incoherence at the centre of government and by what former foreign secretary David Owen (himself a medical doctor) has called the “structural vandalism” inflicted on the National Health Service by years of cuts, fragmentation, and centralization. As a result, the country lacked the medical tools for a German-style response.

Science cannot determine what the correct COVID-19 response should have been for each country. A model may be considered validated if its predictions correspond to outcomes in real life. But in epidemiology, we can have confidence that this will happen only if a virus with known properties is allowed to run its natural course in a given population, or if there is a single intervention like a vaccine, the results of which can be accurately predicted.

Too many variables – including, say, medical capacity or cultural characteristics – scrambles the model, and it starts spewing out scenarios and predictions like a demented robot. Today, epidemiologists cannot tell us what the effects of the current COVID-19 policy mix will be. “We will know only in a year or so,” they say.

The outcome will, therefore, depend on politics. And the politics of COVID-19 are clear enough: governments could not risk the natural spread of infection and thought it too complicated or politically fraught to try to isolate only those most at risk of severe illness or death, namely the 15-20% of the population aged over 65.

The default policy response has been to slow the spread of natural immunity until a vaccine can be developed. What “flattening the curve” really means is spacing out the number of expected deaths over a period long enough for medical facilities to cope and a vaccine to kick in.

But this strategy has a terrible weakness: governments cannot keep their populations locked down until a vaccine arrives. Apart from anything else, the economic cost would be unthinkable. So, they have to ease the lockdown gradually.

Doing this, however, lifts the cap on non-exposure gained from the lockdown. That is why no government has an explicit exit strategy: what political leaders call the “controlled easing” of lockdowns actually means controlled progress toward herd immunity.

Governments cannot openly avow this, because that would amount to admitting that herd immunity is the objective. And it is not yet even known whether and for how long infection confers immunity. Much better, then, to pursue this goal silently, under a cloud of obfuscation, and hope that a vaccine arrives before most of the population is infected.

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Jasenovac, the forgotten extermination camp of the Balkans

At the invitation of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, over 40 presidents, prime ministers, royals, and parliamentary leaders from Europe, North America, Russia, and Australia attended the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, which is organised by the World Holocaust Forum Foundation and in cooperation with Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

The commemoration marks the day when the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland, where the Nazis murdered more than 1.1 million people, 1 million of which were Jews, was liberated by the Soviet Red Army in 1945.

Auschwitz was one of the more than 1,200 concentration and extermination camps that Hitler’s Third Reich established across Europe between 1933 and 1945. Much has been written and published about infamous camps at Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Treblinka, but few, outside of the Balkans, have heard about the Jasenovac extermination camp in Croatia, which was never liberated, but instead saw roughly 1,000 inmates escape in the hope that at least one of them would live to tell the world about the horrors of being imprisoned by the Ustase, the Nazi-aligned puppet government that was appointed to rule a part of Axis-occupied Yugoslavia.

Only about 100 survived of the escapees survived and the story of Jasenovac remains one of the lost tragedies of the Second World War.

Israeli professor Gideon Greif, an expert on Auschwitz, researched the history of Jasenovac, which resulted in his book Jasenovac: Auschwitz of the Balkans. The Ustase-run Jasenovac extermination camp was the size of about 150 football pitches and was established on April 10, 1941, four days after Nazi Germany invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

The wartime Independent State of Croatia, or NDH, was a Fascist satellite that was created by Nazi Germany and Hitler’s closest ally, Mussolini’s Italy. Under its leader, Ante Pavelic, the NDH wholeheartedly adopted Nazi racial theory and set out to exterminate the Jews, Roma, and Serbs who lived in the areas that were under their control – the Jasenovac camp was built to serve this purpose.

What made Jasenovac particularly cruel was the existence of a special camp for children where an estimated 20,000 Jewish, Roma and Serb children were brutally murdered. The methods used by the Ustase guards to kill and torture the inmates were reportedly so barbaric that even SS chief Heinrich Himmler is believed to have suggested to the Ustashe that industrial killing, i.e. gas chambers, was a “cleaner way” to liquidate victims so that the guards wouldn’t need to use knives, axes, and other handheld weapons against those that they were sending to their deaths.

Menachem Shelah, a historian with the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, wrote in 1990 that “the crimes committed in Jasenovac are among the most terrible in the entire history of humanity.”

Historians have estimated that between 700,000 to 1,000,000 people were killed at Jasenovac. The Nazis, themselves, recorded up to 750,000 deaths. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, the Croatian government has continually insisted that only 83,000 people were killed at Jasenovac. Croatia’s first post-Yugoslav president, Franjo Tudjman, an unabashed nationalist and the man responsible for restoring the Ustase-era flag as the national symbol of Croatia, insisted until his death in December 1999 that a mere 3,000-4,000 people died while imprisoned at Jasenovac.

The total number of deaths that occurred at Jasenovac may never be known as concerted attempts to suppress the extent of the horrors of the camp continue to this day. This, however, is not a new process. Immediately after World War II, Yugoslavia’s Communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, played down the crimes that were committed at Jasenovac as they were seen as a potential threat to the “brotherhood and unity” doctrine of Tito’s Yugoslavia.

The result of that policy was that several generations of Croats were never forced to face up to the Ustase’s dark legacy. From the time of the end of the war until the moment when the Socialist Federated Republic of Yugoslavia ceased to exist, Croatian was allowed to adopt a policy of silent deniability and to view its role in the war as simply being on the side who lost rather than having taken an active cog in the extermination of whole populations.

Croatia’s post-war and post-Communist vow of silence regarding the crimes of the Ustase has allowed much of today’s Croatian society to countenance the regular cries of “Za dom spremni” (“Ready for the Homeland” in Serbo-Croatian), an Ustase slogan from World War II that is the rough equivalent to the Nazi’s “Sieg heil”.

That same Ustase salute was engraved on a plaque installed in 2016 by a veteran’s organisation at the memorial complex in Jasenovac, which was later unveiled by Croatian politicians for the Croat soldiers who fell in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. This was, of course, an extremely bitter insult to the memory of the tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs, and Roma who perished here.

Both Jewish and Serbian organisations, which include survivors and their descendants, have boycotted the annual commemoration at Jasenovac since 2016, largely because of the Fascist slogans on the memorial and the fact that the Croatian government continues to play down the truth about its Nazi-aligned past.

Neo-Facisct groups from Croatia annually gather for their biggest meetings in Beliburg, Austria, but the Austrian government has finally forbid the use of Ustase iconography. Unlike in Austria, however, the Croatian government still allows radical groups to openly use Fascist symbols at their rallies. This is, of course, unacceptable for a country that is a member of the European Union, particularly one that only recently chaired the presidency of the EU council.

In December 1970, Willy Brandt, then-West Germany’s chancellor, travelled to Warsaw, Poland where, before the the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, he dropped to his knees and, in effort to repent, he begged for forgiveness for Germany’s crimes during the Nazi era.

To this day, not a single Croatian official has ever knelt before the Jasenovac monument and either repented or asked for forgiveness for the heinous crimes against humanity that were carried out by Pavelic and his Ustase followers.

That act of denial on the part of Croatia’s government is a reminder that the Holocaust, and all of its horrors, must never be trivialised or forgotten.

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