Skeptic News:  COVID, Vaccines, Space Debris and more

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Welcome to the NZ Skeptics newsletter.

COVID vaccine rollouts continue to happen, and the more at-risk people here in New Zealand/Aotearoa are starting to get theirs. Still, there’s opposition from the usual suspects detailed below.

The battle against misinformation is ever on-going!

Wishing you a great week...
Craig Shearer

COVID's worst places

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the situation in India with COVID and how bad it was there. It turns out that it’s not the worst place in the world to be (though certainly not anywhere near the best either!). There’s an interactive map hosted by the New York Times that shows, per country, the rates of infection per capita.

As expected, India and Brazil are doing badly, but there are some countries that are worse. Interestingly, Canada currently has a much higher number of infections per day than the US does - probably as a result of the impressive rollout of the COVID vaccine by the US. 

South America, overall, seems to be particularly bad - with Uruguay coming in at an average of 73 new cases daily per 100,000 population.

But almost as bad is Sweden, darling of the Plan B crowd, with 47 daily new cases per 100,000 population. 

Of course, the infection rate is just one dimension of the pandemic. The environment in which infections occur and how they're handled and managed makes a major difference to the outcome of cases - and in India’s case, their health systems are overloaded resulting in deaths that might have been avoided in countries with better-equipped systems.

Voices for Freedom (again!)

I’ve been watching the Facebook page of Voices For Freedom. To me it’s staggering the output of their page, with their frequent posts. often several a day. They have over 7,000 people following the page.

At the moment it’s all about discouraging people to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Their latest post is complaining about the joint statement issued by the New Zealand Medical Council and the Dental Council concerning the professional obligation of practitioners to responsibly promote the COVID vaccine to their patients, and not to promote and encourage vaccine hesitancy (which we applaud).

Given social media’s efforts (half-hearted, it seems) to shut down COVID conspiracy theories, VFF appear to be anticipating their own demise, and are encouraging people to sign up to their mailing list, which would be much more difficult to shut down (or monitor, unless there's some sneaky skeptics signed up to it!). 

This weekend they’ve been promoting the online summit “Truth over Fear” - subtitled “COVID-19 and The Great Reset”.  Here they claim that “big tech” is trying to shut them down, though I’m not sure I understand why that would be the case. That page is truly astounding! They claim that you’ll get “unbiased answers to your questions”, that you’ll have “will have access to 100% unbiased information”.

The presenters at the summit should be very familiar to anybody who’s been following the conspiracy theory/vaccine denial industry - people such as Robert F Kennedy, Jr, Barbara Loe Fisher, Dr. Bob Sears, Dr. Judy Mikovits, and V4F’s own Claire Deeks (also social media influencer and doTERRA multi-level marketer). I think their claim that you’d be hearing 100% unbiased information is pretty laughable, if it weren’t so scary.

Who is considered a critical health worker?

NZ Skeptics were recently contacted by a journalist in response to an Official Information Act request which revealed the numbers of people and their occupations entering the country under the guise of being a critical health worker.

Shockingly there were eight people who were listed as osteopaths and two chiropractors. Our concerns are that alternative health practitioners are considered critical health workers! 

While we are disappointed that these practitioners are being let in, we don’t find it surprising. It seems unlikely that the Department of Immigration is going to be au fait with the subtleties of which categories of medical providers actually have scientific evidence as a basis for their practice. We would hope that the Department of Health would provide robust guidelines as to which workers truly are critical, but this is probably not the case.

This time last year, in the early stages of NZ/Aotearoa’s response to the pandemic we saw chiropractors offering to be essential health workers. My reading of this is that is that the press release reads like a plea by chiropractors to retain some relevance. Chiropractors, who are largely a hands-on service, would have struggled with the reduced demand for their services during that time.

Of most concern in the era of COVID-19 and the vaccination rollout is that osteopaths and chiropractors often express vaccine hesitancy and outright anti-vax views.

It does seem that organisations representing these vocations are doing some back-pedalling when it comes to vaccination. Indeed, we’ve recently seen a very good paper written in the International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine that expresses exactly that concern:

"However, we are concerned with the negative sentiments, ill-formed views and in some cases frank scepticism regarding vaccines amongst what appears to be small sections of the osteopathic profession. There is global concern at the growing 'anti vax' sentiment that is expressed on social media and within other intra-health professional groups and settings”

To our mind we see this as a case of osteopaths telling their own to get their house in order. We wonder whether any osteopaths in NZ are paying attention to this warning.

Ultimately this issue falls to government policy, and appears to be a product of the less than stunning job that successive governments have done protecting Kiwis from alternative medicine practitioners making dubious, unsupported claims.

As mentioned above, the Medical and Dental councils have issued guidance to their practitioners. NZ Skeptics would challenge the respective organisations for chiropractors and osteopaths to issue similarly strong guidance to their members.

Long March 5B

The Chinese launch vehicle - Long March 5B has been in the news over the past week. The rocket was launched at the end of last month to carry the living quarters of China's independent space station into orbit. 

While the launch of the rocket was controlled, its fall back to earth was not. The concern was that, with uncontrolled descent, it might land on a populated area. 

As I write this on Sunday afternoon, it has been reported that the rocket has crashed down near the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, though there were tracking predictions that it could come down on Australia or New Zealand. 

From a skeptical perspective, it’s interesting to consider the concerns expressed about this, and the attention that it has captured. 

As most of the world is uninhabited (with much of the population being clumped into dense spots) the chances of it hitting an inhabited area are extremely low. The lifetime odds of a single person being hit by space debris are more than a billion to one. 

However, the law of large numbers kicks in, and while the chance of being hit by falling space debris is very low, it has happened. Lottie Williams, of Tulsa Oklahoma was walking through a park at 4am back in 1997 when she was hit by a piece of a falling Delta II rocket!

Of more concern about space debris is the large number of small pieces of space junk in low earth orbit that could cause catastrophic damage to satellites or to rockets being launched into space. NASA has estimated there’s in excess of 23,000 untracked objects that have the potential to wreak havoc. It’s counter-intuitive but even a tiny piece of metal, because of the energy it has due to the speed at which it’s orbiting, is capable of causing a lot of damage. 

At present there’s over 3,000 satellites in orbit but that number is set to increase immensely with the launch of systems such as Starlink which plans to put 12,000 satellites into orbit. What will be the fate of all these satellites at the end of their lives? And what happens if a piece of space debris hits an existing satellite setting off a “chain reaction”? This is the space debris we should really be worried about!
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