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The Real Reason for the New Cold War with Russia

The Real Reason for the New Cold War with Russia  Interview with Vladimir Pozner by International Man, 4 April 2020

…….and What it Means for the Markets and World Peace

 
 
 

Editor’s Note: Vladimir Pozner is Russia’s most influential TV political-talk-show host, journalist and broadcaster.

Pozner has hosted several shows on Russian television, where he has interviewed famous figures such as Hillary Clinton, Alain Delon, President Dimitri Medvedev and Sting.

Pozner has appeared on a wide range of networks, including NBC, CBS, CNN and the BBC. In his long career, he has been a journalist, editor (Soviet Life Magazine and Sputnik Magazine) and TV and radio commentator, covering all major events in Russia.

Pozner has appeared on The Phil Donahue Show and Ted Koppel’s Nightline.

He co-hosted a show with Phil Donahue called Pozner/Donahue. It was the first televised bi-lateral discussion (or “spacebridge”) between audiences in the Soviet Union and the US, carried via satellite.

In 1997, he returned to Moscow as an independent journalist.

Doug Casey’s friend Mark Gould sat down with Pozner in Moscow to help us better understand the relationship between the US and Russia.

International Man: Naturally, Americans have a lot of misconceptions about Russia. The US government and media offer an overly simplistic and unfavorable view of the country.

What does the US government and media get wrong?

Vladimir Pozner: That’s a very difficult question to answer. It’s not only what they get wrong, but what they deliberately say that is not true.

It’s a combination of things.

It’s one thing not to understand another country.

For instance, I was in Japan, and it took me a very long time to begin to understand things because the Japanese do things very differently—not good or bad, just different.

It’s another thing to have a prejudice about another people or another country and to present things in a negative light.

Broadly, the relationship between Russia and the United States has been a difficult one for most of the 20th century, starting with the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. It was very threatening to the United States and to capitalism.

The goal of having a world revolution and having socialism everywhere initiated things like the Red Scare in the United States back in the 1920s.

These things evolved over the years all the way up to the postwar period when you had Joe McCarthy and all of those things.

There was a deep ideological difference between the USSR and the United States, that pretty much, in my opinion, formatted the way people looked at “Russia,” because for most Americans, the USSR and Russia, was exactly the same thing.

Although, the USSR consisted of a lot of other countries that were not Russian at all, like Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, what have you.

So that’s one side of it. The negative attitude over a 70-plus-year period became part of the American outlook.

Then things changed. Suddenly the USSR became a different country. Suddenly the USSR became a different country. Gorbachev, Glasnost, and Perestroika… we were going to be friends.

Everyone was overjoyed on both sides of the fence. The American side was saying, “Now they’re going to be like us, finally.”

That was the average view.

The view at the top was that Russia had better behave now and do what we tell them to do. They lost the Cold War. They are no longer a superpower, and so they just better do what we tell them and shut up.

That attitude, which wasn’t evident immediately, gradually became more evident. It really broke out with the bombing of Yugoslavia in the late ’90s when Boris Yeltsin—who was supposedly a great friend of America—said, “No, this we will not stand for.”

The problem from that point on was that Russia was no longer willing to follow the American lead. This led to tremendous anger on the part of the American establishment, which was reflected in statements and in the media.

When Vladimir Putin came around, he initially wanted to be a member of the West. He officially proposed that Russia join NATO and that Russia become part of the European Union.

He was officially told, in politer terms, to go do “whatever.” In fact, he was told that Ukraine and Georgia would become part of NATO well before Russia.

This is official. This isn‘t something that I‘m dreaming up.

Ultimately, in 2007, in Munich, Putin made a famous speech, saying that we no longer agree to be treated like a second-rate nation. We have our global aspirations and interests, and we are going to protect them.

From that point on, Putin became monster number one, and Russia became negative.

So, it‘s not so much that there are misconceptions. It‘s that there are certain views that have been repeated time and time again in the media.

After all, where do people get their information about another country? Basically from television and newspapers.

If you take a good, hard look at US media over the past 12 years, try to find anything positive about Russia. I mean anything, like there are good restaurants in Moscow, for example. You‘re going to have a real problem.

So, it’s not surprising that the average American and even not-so-average American has a very negative view of Russia.

When I go to America, and I say I have a show on Russia’s Channel 1 in which I have criticized Putin more than once and said that I don’t agree with some of his policies, they say, “You mean you’re still alive?”

They have this view of today’s Russia being the Soviet Union under Stalin when people were shot, put in the gulag and God knows what.

That is the kind of image that gradually has been reinstated in the United States.

International Man: As an esteemed journalist in both countries, you’ve had visibility into the unique dynamics and intricacies that very few people have. 

How have US and Russian relations changed since the Cold War?

Vladimir Pozner: Here are the major points, in my opinion—and everything I say is my opinion.

Let’s say that the Cold War ended with the bringing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

I would say that was pretty much the end. Certain agreements were made. There was a certain understanding that was reached. For instance, the US Secretary of State, James Baker, told Mikhail Gorbachev that if he allowed the taking down of the Berlin Wall, he could promise that NATO would not move one inch to the East.

That was not written on paper, but it was written down by secretaries who were listening to his conversation, and you can find that. It’s not someone’s imagination.

That was one very important thing for the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union saw NATO as an aggressive military force. So the fact that it would not move eastward was extremely important for the feeling of safety on the part of Soviet leadership. That was one thing.

The second thing was that your average Russian felt that now we could be friends, arms spread wide open, because “we are the ones, we took down communism, not you guys.”

“We, in our own country, did it. We’ve changed the system.”

So, we’re buddies now? Are you going to like us?

When that didn’t happen in Russia proper, a kind of resentment gradually grew.

Why aren’t we being treated like everyone else?

Why has NATO moved in our direction? And against whom is NATO then moving?

Are we still considered the enemy?

So, what we’ve seen is a gradual downhill movement from the apex of the Berlin Wall coming down. We’re friends. We’re going to work together.

From that, gradually the graph went down with hardly any positive movement—hardly anything was achieved realistically.

Now with the Trump administration, some extremely important arms agreements have been pretty much cast aside.

As I’ve said before, I’m not a big fan of President Putin, but given the possibility, Putin would have worked to have a close relationship with the West.

He was told in no uncertain terms that there was no interest in that, and his reaction was as follows.

About a year and a half ago, I was invited to lecture at Yale University, and the title of my lecture was How the United States Created Vladimir Putin.

It’s true. That’s what happened. That’s really the tragedy of it because working together, the United States of America and Russia—having their own interests but still working together—could achieve phenomenal things both in the area of fighting climate change as well as in the area of putting an important amount of opposition to China.

In fact, there is very little the two countries could not do together.

As I see it, it’s a tragedy. Because of the Wolfowitz Doctrine in 1992—which basically said that the US is now the only superpower—the US has to see to it that other countries do not challenge it, including Western European countries, and we have to keep Russia down.

That was a way of looking at it, and the other way of looking at it is to say, “We have a window of opportunity here. We can evolve a kind of Marshall Plan as we did after World War II.”

We can not just give Russia money, but we can direct it in a certain way to see to it that democratic institutions are developed in a country that had none whatsoever.

Ultimately, the choice was made by President Clinton to enlarge NATO with Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

That was the first signal that we’re not going to go the way of a Marshall Plan. We’re going to go in a different direction. With all due respect, I find it very hard to blame Russia for any of this.

International Man: After the Cold War ended, the expansion of NATO continued. It certainly caused greater tensions between Russia and the US.

How has US foreign policy in eastern Europe and Ukraine impacted relations between the two countries? How do Crimea and the idea of Russia’s near-abroad factor into this? Are we headed toward or into another Cold War?

Vladimir Pozner: Not immediately, but it did.

I think we already are in a certain kind of Cold War.

One of the things people often say about Putin is that he called the collapse, the disappearance of the Soviet Union, a huge catastrophe, and so on — not his exact words, but something like that.

Immediately, it was said that he wanted to go back to the Soviet Union. He said that the disappearance of the Soviet Union was a terrible calamity.

What he was referring to was the fact that 25 million ethnic Russians suddenly found themselves living in foreign countries — in the Baltic States, in Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan.

Not only that, but their families are separated because some were living in Russia proper, and they were living in one of the Russian republics or the Soviet republics—now, this was all gone.

It was a tremendous shock. It was a global catastrophe for them.

Do you just forget about 25 million people?

Do you just say, “Well, too bad,” or do you try to do something to make their lives somehow more comfortable, or at least to protect them in some way?

When we talk about Ukraine, Crimea, what have you, I’m going to have to remind you about 1962.

In 1962, Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev agreed to deploy Soviet missiles on Cuban soil. Now, they were two independent gentlemen representing their countries, and they completely had the right to make that agreement.

However, when the United States discovered that this was going on, President Kennedy made it very clear that either the Russians would turn their ships around and sail back (and pull out whatever they’d already installed), or they would be attacked by the United States. If World War III was the result, then so be it—and we were on the very brink of World War III. Thank heavens the two men had the intelligence not to push it.

The Russians pulled out their missiles and so did the Americans, who had missiles in Turkey.

Of course, they didn’t make a lot of noise about that, and most Americans don’t even know that that was the case because there was a loss of face.

What I’m saying is, President Kennedy infringed on international law. These two countries had the right to agree to place their missiles where they wanted on their own soil.

Yet the president of the United States said, “No, we won’t allow it.”

Why?

Because he saw this as being an existential threat to the United States, and when a country or its leadership sees an existential threat, it will do what it needs to do to protect itself, regardless of international law.

Okay, now we come back to this situation with Ukraine.

Ukraine has a very large border with Russia, on the south-western side of Russia.

Crimea, which was part of Ukraine, has the city of Sevastopol, which is the naval base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Imagine for a moment that Ukraine becomes a member of NATO. Very realistically, that means that you’re going to have NATO forces on Russia’s border in the Southwest, and instead of having the Russian Navy in Sevastopol, you’ll have the Americans’ Sixth Fleet.

For the Russian leadership—and I’m not arguing whether they were right or wrong—that was seen as an existential threat.

Putin said, “We will not allow it.” Was he infringing on international law?

Yes, he was—but it’s the same kind of reasoning. We will not allow Ukraine to become a member of NATO, and if we have to put our soldiers there, we will. They will not allow Sevastopol to become a base for any Western fleet, especially the US.

That is basically what happened.

Let alone the fact that the vast majority of people in Crimea wanted to be part of Russia and, historically, it’s part of Russia. I’m not even going to argue about that. That’s a whole different story.

What do you do when the majority of the people, like the people of Kosovo, didn’t want to be members of Yugoslavia, and with the help of NATO, they became “independent?”

That seemed to be okay. I’m not going to go into that part of it, although one could. The basic story here is an existential threat to the security of a country. That’s what the whole Ukrainian and Crimean issues are about.

It’s very simple, really.

If you put up a map of the United States and Mexico—and I’ve done this with Americans—you see the border.

Let’s imagine that tomorrow there’s a revolution in Mexico and that the people who come to power are not friends of the United States.

Imagine for a minute that fearing the US government is a bit threatening to them, the new Mexican government invites 10 Russian military divisions to protect their border. Do you think the United States will allow that?

That’s what I always say.

International Man: In 2016, then-candidate Trump repeatedly said, “wouldn’t it be a great thing if we could get along with Russia.”

Trump seemed genuinely interested in ending the antagonist relationship that his predecessors had with Russia. What’s your take on why there has been no meaningful policy change toward Russia?

Are sanctions the main issue? Do you see these as acts of war? If these were done away with, how would relations be between the two countries?

Vladimir Pozner: Question number one about what Trump said during the presidential campaign. Certainly, that was appreciated in Russia because his opponent, Hillary Clinton, compared Putin to Hitler.

When one candidate says your president is Hitler, and the other said it would be good to have better relations, it’s obvious what your choice will be.

One of the things that was used immediately after the election—to everyone’s surprise when Hillary lost—was that Trump had won because the Russians had somehow infiltrated the system and interfered in the elections.

That was a big feather in the Russians’ cap. Imagine how extremely powerful and influential Russian propaganda is to get a guy from Kansas or Iowa to vote for Trump instead of Hillary Clinton and using no money whatsoever.

Who are the Americans to complain when you consider how much the United States has interfered in elections all over the world, including by use of military force?

We’re not going to even talk about that. However, this whole story made it pretty impossible for Trump to do anything pro-Russian because immediately, it would be, “See, he’s in collusion. He is doing this.”

The whole story with Mueller, and all of that. Finally, Mueller comes out saying that they found no collusion, but how long did it take? It took two years, and even so, they’re still talking about it.

I think he honestly would have preferred to have normal relations with Russia, not that he’s madly in love or anything, but it would be better for the United States, and for the rest of the world. Obviously, he couldn’t do it with the situation he had.

That’s point number one.

Point number two, the sanctions that were introduced. Have they hurt?

Yes, they have. Is it an act of war? No, it’s not. They’ve hurt economically, in Russia—people’s standard of living has gone down in part because of that.

Real wages have fallen in part because of that. Russia cannot get credit from foreign banks because of that. Without that credit, Russia cannot buy the kind of modern machinery it needs to modernize its own industries. So yes, the sanctions have hurt.

Have the sanctions had any positive effect?

Yes, they have. Russia’s agriculture is now booming precisely because nothing could be imported. Today, Russia’s agriculture is number two in terms of the amount of funds that it brings into Russia—after gas and oil and more than the arms industry.

So now the farmers in this country say, “Please keep the sanctions” because they’re doing great with all of that.

The sanctions have given the Russians more of a sense of independence. “See, we can do it, we can do it, we can take it.”

Russians are pretty good at living in hard times. They’re much worse at living in good times than in bad times. Russians are very tough.

If tomorrow the sanctions were removed, there would have to be a reason; and if the reason was that the sanctions were counterproductive, the world has become too dangerous of a place. There is no trust. The danger of a nuclear mistake is very great. Let’s try to sit down and find ways to cooperate.

I think the initial reaction would be, can we trust them, or is this another one of those ploys?

But, by and large, of course, the vast majority of Russians would be overjoyed.

It would be good not only for Russia but also for all the Western European countries who want to export to Russia and are currently unable to.

Editor’s Note: There are so many momentous events unfolding right now, including a stock market crash and a global pandemic. 

The biggest financial bubble in human history has popped… and the coming financial volatility will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

It will be an increasingly dangerous time for retirees, savers, and investors.

That’s why legendary speculator Doug Casey just revealed an urgent message about what is happening and what you should do right now. Click here to see it now

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The Biggest Fraud in History is Happening Right Before Our Eyes

The Biggest Fraud in History is Happening Right Before Our Eyes By Gary D. Barnett, LewRockwell.com, 1 April 2020

“When I consider Life, ’tis all a cheat;
Yet, fooled with hope, men favour the deceit;
Trust on, and think to-morrow will repay:
To-morrow’s falser than the former day;
Lies worse; and while it says, we shall be blest
With some new joys, cuts off what we possesst.” 
~ John Dryden, Aureng-Zebe

More and more evidence is forthcoming daily that this new coronavirus called Covid-19, is not only being blown out of proportion, but is purposely being manipulated to show many more deaths than are actually caused by this mystery virus. In some cases, as in Italy, the so-called current epicenter of this falsely identified pandemic, the obvious deception is easy to identify, but it goes on none the less; this due to the perpetrators of this fraud understanding that fear sells, and allows for the unimpeded ease of population control. This is partially due to a weakness of mind, but also to the fact that the American public is no longer independent and free, but is beholding to the state as guardian of the flock.

Much of the hype surrounding this ordeal has been refuted, and those responsible for making magnificent and unsubstantiated death claims early on have not only backed off, but have ratcheted down their initial warnings exponentially. This was done quietly and without fanfare of course, unlike their mass fear mongering, but nonetheless their claims were patently false. This is why the continued tyranny due to this hype is so ridiculous, as the false basis for the initial fear has been exposed, but the political class and its media continue on as if their lies were not noticed. In the meantime, millions of Americans are without a job, without savings, and without any way to support their families, all due to forcible government interference into their lives in the name of “safety.” The economy was shut down, and is still shut down, with no apparent end in sight.

The salacious headlines continue, and read as if Armageddon is already here, but by some legitimate estimates, the actual numbers being reported of death due to this virus could be ten times too high. There should be no doubt at this point that this entire episode of viral panic has either been purposely staged, or used to accomplish nefarious political agendas, or both. All this for a pneumonia-like sickness that is minor compared to the common flu, but a very convenient tool if control of the masses is sought.

Much of this began due to governments’ around the world, especially in the U.S. and UK, listening to one man, a supposed coronavirus “expert,” Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson. He projected 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. and over 500 thousand in the UK if extreme actions were not taken. After the first day of the UK lockdown, he lowered those estimates by a factor of 25 down to 20,000. After this was properly scrutinized, he made a statement in an attempt to cover his own incompetence, but was not successfully in my opinion. But did things change after his fraudulent model was exposed; a model used to close down entire countries? Of course not, because that would never fit the agenda sought by the ruling class.

The worst case of abuse of the truth concerning this virus has been in Italy where over 88% of alleged deaths due to coronavirus were misattributed. In other words, 9 out of every 10 deaths in Italy stated as due to coronavirus are likely false. For more information about the Italian scam, see these links hereherehere, and here. If things continue as of late, the U.S. will be the next country to completely shut down, claiming death numbers that are also extremely misleading, and in fact could be outright lies.

Much of the economic damage is already done, and the continued devastation due to the extreme measures taken under the guise of protecting all of us will linger for an unknown amount of time. GDP in this country is estimated to fall 35% in just the second quarter alone, but with much of the economy completely destroyed, and possible unemployment up to 30% or more, even when these restrictions are lifted, the damage already done will prove to be unbearable. With this comes extreme psychological problems as well, and sickness and despair at every level will not only increase, but will be deadly. When all is said and done, this virus will seem tame compared to the horrible consequences of the state’s version of a cure.

The next menacing government threat of this plotted response is coming, and that is a coronavirus vaccine that will be demanded or even forced on the public. As the screws of surveillance and control get ever tighter, mandated vaccinations are in our future. Long after this virus has disappeared, the vaccines will still be with us, and most likely very dangerous. First, vaccines are questionable when all is done correctly, and over a long period of time, but a coronavirus vaccine is already being tested. Vaccines normally need at least 18 months or more to be tested properly before being used on the public. The risks and potential side effects could be deadly, and certainly could cause much harm. Beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing called the government and the CDC. False claims about this new vaccination coming will abound, but caution is warranted.

This is about power and money, lots of money. Pharmaceutical companies, the CDC, and those like Bill Gates and his ilk, stand to make fortunes, and with mandates for vaccination, also will have a seemingly endless market, all due to government interference and enforcement. This is a dream for these evil people and corporations, and safety is the last order of business in a fiasco like the one unfolding.

Fear and panic have driven this monstrous response, and although government and the mainstream media knowingly fed this fear from all angles, the people at large accepted the fraud hook, line, and sinker. As I have mentioned many times previously, the death toll from the state response of shutting down the country, isolating people and families, forcing those most at risk into seclusion which is the equivalent to a death penalty, and destroying the economic activity that sustains the lives of all will certainly be responsible for many more deaths than the so-called threat of any virus. The toll on Americans from this madness perpetrated by government will be the real pandemic, and one that will continue for years to come. What a travesty, and what an exposé on the horrendous and vile nature of government and media today. Evil is as evil does, and government’s evil deeds during this manufactured crisis have laid bare the wickedness that is the political system and its criminal representatives at every level of rule.

The state is God, deifies arms and prisons. The worship of the state is the worship of force. There is no more dangerous menace to civilization than a government of incompetent, corrupt, or vile men. The worst evils which mankind ever had to endure were in?icted by bad governments. The state can be and has often been in the course of history the main source of mischief and disaster.
~ Ludwig von Mises, Chapter III: Etatism

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The Great Hysteria Pandemic

 

The Great Hysteria Pandemic  By John Lee, from AntiEmpire.com, 29 March 2020

 A Fantastic Recap of Everything That Is Wrong With the Official Hysterical Corona Spin by One Hell of a Scientist. Slowly, slowly the truth is coming out — not everyone is ruled by hype, emotion and images

 

Highlights:

  • “We risk being convinced that we have averted something that was never really going to be as severe as we feared.”
  • “If we tracked flu or other seasonal viruses in the same way, we would also see an exponential increase.”
  • “We have yet to see any statistical evidence for excess deaths, in any part of the world.”
  • “When drastic measures are introduced, they should be based on clear evidence. In the case of Covid-19, the evidence is not clear.
  • “Much of the response to Covid-19 seems explained by the fact that we are watching this virus in a way that no virus has been watched before. The scenes from the Italian hospitals have been shocking, and make for grim television. But television is not science.”
  • “We have decided on policies of extraordinary magnitude without concrete evidence of excess harm already occurring, and without proper scrutiny of the science used to justify them.”
  • “Above all else, we must…look for what is, not for what we fear might be.”

In announcing the most far-reaching restrictions on personal freedom in the history of our nation, Boris Johnson resolutely followed the scientific advice that he had been given. The advisers to the government seem calm and collected, with a solid consensus among them. In the face of a new viral threat, with numbers of cases surging daily, I’m not sure that any prime minister would have acted very differently.

But I’d like to raise some perspectives that have hardly been aired in the past weeks, and which point to an interpretation of the figures rather different from that which the government is acting on. I’m a recently-retired Professor of Pathology and NHS consultant pathologist, and have spent most of my adult life in healthcare and science – fields which, all too often, are characterised by doubt rather than certainty. There is room for different interpretations of the current data. If some of these other interpretations are correct, or at least nearer to the truth, then conclusions about the actions required will change correspondingly.

The simplest way to judge whether we have an exceptionally lethal disease is to look at the death rates. Are more people dying than we would expect to die anyway in a given week or month?

Statistically, we would expect about 51,000 to die in Britain this month. At the time of writing, 422 deaths are linked to Covid-19 — so 0.8 per cent of that expected total.

On a global basis, we’d expect 14 million to die over the first three months of the year. The world’s 18,944 coronavirus deaths represent 0.14 per cent of that total.

These figures might shoot up but they are, right now, lower than other infectious diseases that we live with (such as flu). Not figures that would, in and of themselves, cause drastic global reactions.

Initial reported figures from China and Italy suggested a death rate of 5 per cent to 15 per cent, similar to Spanish flu. Given that cases were increasing exponentially, this raised the prospect of death rates that no healthcare system in the world would be able to cope with. The need to avoid this scenario is the justification for measures being implemented: the Spanish flu is believed to have infected about one in four of the world’s population between 1918 and 1920, or roughly 500 million people with 50 million deaths. We developed pandemic emergency plans, ready to snap into action in case this happened again.

At the time of writing, the UK’s 422 deaths and 8,077 known cases give an apparent death rate of 5 per cent. This is often cited as a cause for concern, contrasted with the mortality rate of seasonal flu, which is estimated at about 0.1 per cent. But we ought to look very carefully at the data. Are these figures really comparable?

Most of the UK testing has been in hospitals, where there is a high concentration of patients susceptible to the effects of any infection.

As anyone who has worked with sick people will know, any testing regime that is based only in hospitals will over-estimate the virulence of an infection. Also, we’re only dealing with those Covid-19 cases that have made people sick enough or worried enough to get tested. There will be many more unaware that they have the virus, with either no symptoms, or mild ones.

Any testing regime that is based only in hospitals will overestimate the virulence of an infection

That’s why, when Britain had 590 diagnosed cases, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, suggested that the real figure was probably between 5,000 and 10,000 cases, ten to 20 times higher. If he’s right, the headline death rate due to this virus is likely to be ten to 20 times lower, say 0.25 per cent to 0.5 per cent. That puts the Covid-19 mortality rate in the range associated with infections like flu.

But there’s another, potentially even more serious problem: the way that deaths are recorded. If someone dies of a respiratory infection in the UK, the specific cause of the infection is not usually recorded, unless the illness is a rare ‘notifiable disease’. So the vast majority of respiratory deaths in the UK are recorded as bronchopneumonia, pneumonia, old age or a similar designation. We don’t really test for flu, or other seasonal infections. If the patient has, say, cancer, motor neurone disease or another serious disease, this will be recorded as the cause of death, even if the final illness was a respiratory infection. This means UK certifications normally under-record deaths due to respiratory infections.

Now look at what has happened since the emergence of Covid-19. The list of notifiable diseases has been updated. This list — as well as containing smallpox (which has been extinct for many years) and conditions such as anthrax, brucellosis, plague and rabies (which most UK doctors will never see in their entire careers) — has now been amended to include Covid-19. But not flu. That means every positive test for Covid-19 must be notified, in a way that it just would not be for flu or most other infections.

In the current climate, anyone with a positive test for Covid-19 will certainly be known to clinical staff looking after them: if any of these patients dies, staff will have to record the Covid-19 designation on the death certificate — contrary to usual practice for most infections of this kind.

There is a big difference between Covid-19 causing death, and Covid-19 being found in someone who died of other causes. Making Covid-19 notifiable might give the appearance of it causing increasing numbers of deaths, whether this is true or not. It might appear far more of a killer than flu, simply because of the way deaths are recorded.

If we take drastic measures to reduce the incidence of Covid-19, it follows that the deaths will also go down. We risk being convinced that we have averted something that was never really going to be as severe as we feared.

This unusual way of reporting Covid-19 deaths explains the clear finding that most of its victims have underlying conditions — and would normally be susceptible to other seasonal viruses, which are virtually never recorded as a specific cause of death.

Let us also consider the Covid-19 graphs, showing an exponential rise in cases — and deaths. They can look alarming. But if we tracked flu or other seasonal viruses in the same way, we would also see an exponential increase. We would also see some countries behind others, and striking fatality rates. The United States Centers for Disease Control, for example, publishes weekly estimates of flu cases. The latest figures show that since September, flu has infected 38 million Americans, hospitalised 390,000 and killed 23,000. This does not cause public alarm because flu is familiar.

The data on Covid-19 differs wildly from country to country. Look at the figures for Italy and Germany. At the time of writing, Italy has 69,176 recorded cases and 6,820 deaths, a rate of 9.9 per cent. Germany has 32,986 cases and 157 deaths, a rate of 0.5 per cent. Do we think that the strain of virus is so different in these nearby countries as to virtually represent different diseases? Or that the populations are so different in their susceptibility to the virus that the death rate can vary more than twentyfold? If not, we ought to suspect systematic error, that the Covid-19 data we are seeing from different countries is not directly comparable.

Look at other rates: Spain 7.1 per cent, US 1.3 per cent, Switzerland 1.3 per cent, France 4.3 per cent, South Korea 1.3 per cent, Iran 7.8 per cent. We may very well be comparing apples with oranges. Recording cases where there was a positive test for the virus is a very different thing to recording the virus as the main cause of death.

Early evidence from Iceland, a country with a very strong organisation for wide testing within the population, suggests that as many as 50 per cent of infections are almost completely asymptomatic. Most of the rest are relatively minor. In fact, Iceland’s figures, 648 cases and two attributed deaths, give a death rate of 0.3 per cent. As population testing becomes more widespread elsewhere in the world, we will find a greater and greater proportion of cases where infections have already occurred and caused only mild effects. In fact, as time goes on, this will become generally truer too, because most infections tend to decrease in virulence as an epidemic progresses.

One pretty clear indicator is death. If a new infection is causing many extra people to die (as opposed to an infection present in people who would have died anyway) then it will cause an increase in the overall death rate. But we have yet to see any statistical evidence for excess deaths, in any part of the world.

Covid-19 can clearly cause serious respiratory tract compromise in some patients, especially those with chest issues, and in smokers. The elderly are probably more at risk, as they are for infections of any kind. The average age of those dying in Italy is 78.5 years, with almost nine in ten fatalities among the over-70s. The life expectancy in Italy — that is, the number of years you can expect to live to from birth, all things being equal — is 82.5 years. But all things are not equal when a new seasonal virus goes around.

It certainly seems reasonable, now, that a degree of social distancing should be maintained for a while, especially for the elderly and the immune-suppressed. But when drastic measures are introduced, they should be based on clear evidence. In the case of Covid-19, the evidence is not clear. The UK’s lockdown has been informed by modelling of what might happen. More needs to be known about these models. Do they correct for age, pre-existing conditions, changing virulence, the effects of death certification and other factors? Tweak any of these assumptions and the outcome (and predicted death toll) can change radically.

Much of the response to Covid-19 seems explained by the fact that we are watching this virus in a way that no virus has been watched before. The scenes from the Italian hospitals have been shocking, and make for grim television. But television is not science.

Clearly, the various lockdowns will slow the spread of Covid-19 so there will be fewer cases. When we relax the measures, there will be more cases again. But this need not be a reason to keep the lockdown: the spread of cases is only something to fear if we are dealing with an unusually lethal virus. That’s why the way we record data will be hugely important. Unless we tighten criteria for recording death due only to the virus (as opposed to it being present in those who died from other conditions), the official figures may show a lot more deaths apparently caused by the virus than is actually the case. What then? How do we measure the health consequences of taking people’s lives, jobs, leisure and purpose away from them to protect them from an anticipated threat? Which causes least harm?

The moral debate is not lives vs money. It is lives vs lives. It will take months, perhaps years, if ever, before we can assess the wider implications of what we are doing. The damage to children’s education, the excess suicides, the increase in mental health problems, the taking away of resources from other health problems that we were dealing with effectively. Those who need medical help now but won’t seek it, or might not be offered it. And what about the effects on food production and global commerce, that will have unquantifiable consequences for people of all ages, perhaps especially in developing economies?

Governments everywhere say they are responding to the science. The policies in the UK are not the government’s fault. They are trying to act responsibly based on the scientific advice given. But governments must remember that rushed science is almost always bad science.

We have decided on policies of extraordinary magnitude without concrete evidence of excess harm already occurring, and without proper scrutiny of the science used to justify them.

In the next few days and weeks, we must continue to look critically and dispassionately at the Covid-19 evidence as it comes in. Above all else, we must keep an open mind — and look for what is, not for what we fear might be.

John Lee is a recently retired professor of pathology and a former NHS consultant pathologist.

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