#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 3°C Tuesday 13 April 2021
Advertisement

FactCheck: Misleading Covid-19 claims in a leaflet made by three political parties

The leaflet was produced by Renua, the Irish Freedom Party and Direct Democracy Ireland.

For Covid factchecks (3)

A LEAFLET FROM three fringe political parties in Ireland has made a number of misleading and false claims about lockdowns and the pandemic. 

The two-sided leaflet which was sent to some households in Dublin over the past few months was released by Renua, the Irish Freedom Party and Direct Democracy Ireland. 

All three are registered political parties but none have elected representatives at any level. 

A sample of the claims refer to Covid-19 deaths, underlying conditions and mild cases of the disease. The leaflet was originally produced in October last year. 

Let’s take a look at the leaflet in more depth.

IMG-20210206-WA0001 (1)

One side of the leaflet contains a number of claims about Covid-19. This page is topped with a graph showing Covid-19 cases and deaths in Ireland.

When questioned about a number of the claims in this leaflet, the parties referenced a number of articles and studies from largely outside of Ireland in places like the US and the UK.

Claim: The average age of a Covid fatality is 82.4. This is higher than the average life expectancy in Ireland of 81.9.

This is not an entirely accurate claim, but it is not far out from the real figure. 

In terms of the average age of Covid-19 deaths, the most recent report from the HPSC shows the mean (average) age of deaths among people with Covid-19 was 81. A report from mid-November shows the mean age was 81 at this time as well. The median age was 83 in both reports. 

According to a 2019 report from the Department of Health, the life expectancy in Ireland stands at 84 years for women and 80.4 years for men. 

The average of these two figures is 82.2, a higher number than that referenced in the leaflet. Going by this, life expectancy is slightly higher than the average age of Covid-19 deaths in Ireland. 

The age range of those with Covid-19 who have died is between 16 and 105. More than one-fifth of the total number of deaths occurred in people aged 74 and under.

Renua Ireland posted a thread on Twitter about these claims after the party was contacted by TheJournal.ie for comment.

On this point, Renua referenced October figures from the UK Office for National Statistics of the average age of people with Covid-19 who died, rather than using the Irish figures, which are available from the HPSC and the Department of Health, and which were available at the time the leaflet was produced. It is misleading to conflate figures from different countries.

Claim: 93% of Covid fatalities had underlying conditions such as heart disease, obesity or dementia.

CSO report on Covid-19 cases and deaths between 28 February and 30 October 2020 did find that 93% of people with Covid-19 who died had underlying conditions.

At this time, a total of 1,679 people were confirmed to have died with Covid-19. A total of 62,415 cases had been confirmed at this time.

However, the figure for the percentage of Covid-19 deaths among people with underlying conditions has since reduced. 

When contacted for a previous article on Covid-19 deaths, a spokesperson for the Department of Health told TheJournal.ie: “It is true that the majority of people in Ireland who have died as a result of Covid-19 have had an underlying medical condition.

“It is important to note that a third of people in Ireland (32%) have a long-standing health condition. This is a significant part of our society. Every single person with an underlying medical condition is important. Their lives matter.

“Those with underlying medical conditions who have died from Covid-19 may have continued to live for a long time if they had not contracted it.

“It should also be said that death from Covid-19 is the worst possible outcome, but other adverse outcomes are possible. Many people, both those with and without pre-existing conditions, who have contracted Covid-19 have experienced a long period of recovery after their acute illness. Post-Covid-19 syndrome is an area of active research.”

The most recent HPSC report on the epidemiological situation of the disease in Ireland showed that out of 4,137 Covid-19 deaths, 3,454 of these people had underlying conditions. This is 83.5% of all deaths. 

Underlying conditions monitored in positive Covid-19 cases include: chronic heart disease, chronic neurological disease, chronic respiratory disease, chronic kidney disease, chronic liver disease, hypertension, asthma requiring medication, immunodeficiency, diabetes mellitus, having a BMI ≥ 40, cancer/malignancy, pregnancy and/or other comorbidities.

report found that one quarter of people who tested positive for Covid-19 from the start of the pandemic to 12 December last year had an underlying condition.

Claim: Most cases are mild or “asymptomatic”. In other words, people who have tested positive but are not sick.

The World Health Organization said in March that 80% of people have either no symptoms or mild symptoms of Covid-19.

However, mild and asymptomatic are two different things. Mild cases of Covid-19 can still involve symptoms like cough, fever, loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath, and fatigue, while asymptomatic people have no symptoms at all. 

Asymptomatic cases account for around 20% of Ireland’s total case numbers (when close contacts receive testing). 

When close contacts with no symptoms were not offered tests after a surge in cases at the end of last year, this led to just 10% of cases being asymptomatic in the week ending 1 January. 

This level has now risen to 21.5%, according to the most recent HPSC report. However, it is important to note that it’s unknown for 16.5% of cases whether they are symptomatic or not.

According to the most recent HSPC report on Covid-19, 62.1% of people who tested positive in a recent on-week period were symptomatic. 

Out of the roughly 20% of people who experience more severe symptoms, it’s estimated 15% end up in hospital requiring oxygen, and 5% will end up on a ventilator.

However, even if a person has mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, they can still transmit the virus to other people. A positive asymptomatic case could infect other people who could become sick and spread the virus to others. 

It is not accurate to say that most Covid-19 cases are “people who have tested positive but are not sick”.

Claim: The average person in Ireland (age 37), is 4 times more likely to die in a car crash than from Covid.

This is a difficult one, but from the data available, this doesn’t appear to be true. 

Responding to this claim on Twitter, Renua said that there were “no age range stats easily available” for the Republic of Ireland so data was used from the UK. This is despite the fact that the leaflet claim specifically references Ireland.

Renua claimed on Twitter that both of these data sets from the UK were “likely similar here”, but this is misleading to the reader and this was not said in the leaflet itself. 

The Great Britain road death figures used by Renua are not broken down by age, while the Covid-19 deaths are. 

Let’s take a look at the available Irish figures to see if this claim (that the average person in Ireland – age 37 – is 4 times more likely to die in a car crash than from Covid) could be true. 

To start: the average age of a person in Ireland is indeed 37.4, based on the most recent census in 2016. The Road Safety Authority said it doesn’t have a figure for the odds of an “average person dying in a road traffic collision” as it doesn’t report the risk in that way. 

Road deaths are reported using a metric of deaths per 100,000 population. Covid-19 deaths have also been reported in this way. 

The most recent population estimates from the CSO date up to April last year. They show an estimated 4.98 million people in Ireland. 

Both RSA road traffic collision deaths and Covid-19 deaths have been grouped into age brackets, so we’ll look at the bracket of 35-44 as this includes the average age. There are 780,200 people aged 35-44 living in Ireland, the CSO said last year. 

148 people died in road traffic crashes last year in total, and 21 of these were aged 35-44, RSA data shows. 

This works out as a rate of 2.69 deaths per 100,000 people in this age category last year. 

In terms of Covid-19 deaths, a HPSC report published last year with figures up to midnight on 28 December said that 13 people aged 35-44 died of Covid-19 in 2020. 

This means the Covid-19 deaths among this age group were 1.66 per 100,000 people. 

So based on these figures, it’s not four times as likely, it’s not even twice as likely for the average person in Ireland to die in a road traffic accident than to die from Covid-19 last year. 

Claim: School age children are at greater risk of being struck by lightning than dying of Covid.

Cambridge University is credited in the leaflet as being a source for this claim.

The claim stemmed from analysis by David John Spiegelhalter who is a statistician and chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communications at the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, which is based in the University of Cambridge.

Spiegelhalter used data from the Office for National Statics to figure out the risk of children dying from Covid-19. This found that the Covid-19 fatality rate for five to 14-year-olds in England and Wales was one in 3.5 million. For those aged under five, it is one in 1.17 million. 

It was the Telegraph newspaper who linked these statistics with the data about lightning.

The newspaper used data from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA). ROSPA said that 30-60 people are struck by lightning in Britain each year, which leads to a similar risk for those under 14 in Britain getting struck by lightning than dying of Covid-19.

This was worked out as a risk of between one in 2.21 million and one in 1.1 million of being struck by lightning.

However, these lightning statistics are not broken down by age category. ROSPA said that just 5-10% of these lightning strikes are fatal. 

So this was a true claim based on UK evidence during the summer.

Ireland does not have any readily available data on lightning strikes to compare, but as nobody under the age of 16 with Covid-19 has died in this country it’s likely to apply here too. 

Claim: NPHET’s prediction of mass fatalities has proven totally WRONG. 

The term “mass fatalities” doesn’t appear to have a universal meaning. 

4,319 people have died so far as a result of Covid-19 infection. 

It was reported in November that Covid-19 was listed as the fourth most common underlying cause for registered deaths in Ireland in the first 10 months of last year.

In an update from the Central Statistics Office (CSO), based on deaths registered with the General Registrar’s Office, it said that a total of 22,416 deaths were registered from 1 January 2020 to 31 October 2020 across the country. 

Covid-19 accounted for 1,462 of the total registered deaths, or 6.5%. 

TheJournal.ie can find no evidence that NPHET ever predicted “mass fatalities” as a result of the pandemic. 

Other side of the leaflet

IMG-20210206-WA0000 (1)

The other side of this leaflet focuses on lockdowns, and makes a number of claims about their effectiveness (many of which we have seen before).

A lot of these claims about lockdowns are subjective, and as a result it’s difficult to determine their accuracy. However, they reflect an anti-lockdown narrative that can be taken to extremes.

Renua Ireland, the Irish Freedom Party and Direct Democracy Ireland were all contacted ahead of this article’s publication.  

In its response the IFP referenced a number of articles from countries outside Ireland. The party said that “all stats in our leaflet were double checked and accurate on going to print”.

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

Direct Democracy Ireland also said the information was “correct at the time of publishing” and referenced a number of other reports linked back to some of these claims. 

As mentioned previously, Renua was contacted for comment but responded in a thread on Twitter instead. 

This side of the leaflet begins with an out-of-context quote from Dr David Nabarro, one of the WHO’s seven special envoys on Covid-19, saying: “We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus.”

This comment was made to The Spectator’s The Week in 60 Minutes programme in the UK on 8 October last year. 

After the above quote, he says: “The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but by and large, we’d rather not do it.

“We really do appeal to all world leaders: stop using lockdown as your primary control method. Develop better systems for doing it. Work together, and learn from each other, but remember, lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never, ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer.”

Nabarro’s comments and phrasing here is quite clear – and in line with WHO’s previous narrative on this – saying that lockdowns shouldn’t be used as the primary control method of the disease.

Hygiene and social distancing count as the primary defence, while other defences include contact tracing and vaccination.

This quote has been used before by some people on social media as meaning the WHO does not advocate for lockdowns or that countries should avoid them entirely.

The Poynter Institute’s factchecking website PolitiFact followed up with Nabarro on how his comments were being championed by those who oppose lockdowns.

This is his reply in a piece published on 15 October:

“My comments were taken totally out of context.

“We’re saying we really do have to learn how to coexist with this virus in a way that doesn’t require constant closing down of economies, but at the same time in a way that is not associated with high levels of suffering and death.”

Other claims about lockdown

The leaflet further claims that lockdowns:

  • Discourage sick people from visiting doctors
  • Delay seriously ill people getting vital treatment 
  • Rob people of their “natural rights” to travel, work and see their families. 
  • Increase social isolation, loneliness, depression and suicide 
  • Result in religious worship being banned 
  • “Weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to illness”
  • Destroy jobs, close businesses and trigger recessions
  • Cost taxpayers billions in extra debt 

Renua said on Twitter that the “evidence is all around us” for the different impacts of lockdowns. 

Claims about the different impacts of lockdowns are often presented as fact, without including the reasons lockdowns are implemented by governments. 

At the weekend, 23 people were arrested after a protest against lockdown measures turned violent in Dublin. 

The Taoiseach Micheál Martin said this event posed an “unacceptable risk to both the public and gardaí”. The gathering, he said, showed a “complete lack of respect to the people who have made huge sacrifices during this pandemic”.

Ahead of that protest, an online campaign over recent weeks called on business owners to open up non-essential retail and hospitality businesses in defiance of public health laws.

Writing for TheJournal.ie last September, Ciaran O’Connor (a researcher and investigator with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue) said that beliefs that face masks don’t work or wider concerns about the effect of restrictions “usually stem from genuine places of anxiety”. 

He said that people are often seeking absolutes in a time of uncertainty, but these answers can “often take the form of conspiracy theories and misleading information that offer simplistic solutions to complex situations”. 

Since the start of the pandemic, the advice from the the World Health Organization has been consistent: Lockdowns are not the best way of controlling the virus, but are sometimes necessary to bring the number of cases under control again and within the reach of a country’s health service and contact tracing capabilities.

Last April, the WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said:

“So-called lockdowns can help to take the heat out of a country’s epidemic, but they cannot end it alone. Countries must now ensure they can detect, test, isolate and care for every case, and trace every contact.”

Some criticisms can also be tied back to simply living in a pandemic. The impacts of the pandemic on mental health have been widely flagged for months. For example, in August the Psychological Society of Ireland warned in a study that the mental health impacts will likely be with us for a long period of time.

“Living through a catastrophe,” the report said, “significantly increases risk of anxiety, stress, post-traumatic stress, depression, and substance use”.

GPs on the ground have already noticed the impact. An Oireachtas sub-committee on mental health was told in December that fear and anxiety about the spread of Covid-19 is the “overwhelming predominant” feature among the public

As it stands, these subjective claims about lockdowns are presenting one side of an anti-lockdown narrative. 

This narrative has been seen throughout the pandemic, and will likely continue to reappear while restrictions remain in place. 

********

There is a lot of false news and scaremongering being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

Read next:

COMMENTS (17)