woman-wearing-mask-in-melbourne
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

With every passing day, the foolishness of your author’s earlier hard lockdown approach is becoming clearer. The initial calamities in northern Italy and New York provided the world with an inflated sense of the lethality of COVID-19. This mistake could very likely mean that the cure will become worse than the proverbial disease.

While it is significantly more contagious than influenza (even where social distancing is enforced), it appears the virus is far less lethal than most experts, especially the WHO, initially suggested.

Last week, NSW chief medical officer Kerry Chant referred to a blood test study from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance and the Kirby Institute at the University of NSW, which found that between 250,000 and 500,000 Australians may have been infected by COVID-19.

Let’s take the mid-range of the estimate and the death count as of last week (150) — that equates to a fatality rate of 0.04%. While that’s only one study and certainly can’t be relied on in totality, there have been other studies overseas which highlighted a fatality rate of 0.50% (here and here). The data is showing a very different picture of the lethality to what many people have been led to believe.

Now let’s assume a “worst case” scenario, where 60% of the population contracts COVID-19 (the number generally accepted as being needed to achieve herd immunity). Assuming the fatality rate remains constant, even taking a 0.20% fatality rate, that’s around 30,000 deaths.

As bad as that worst case would be, that’s half the fatality rate of the Spanish Flu. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be anecdotal evidence that the infection level will get even close to the mooted 60% level.

Sweden, the anti-lockdown poster child, has reduced its death rate to virtually zero, with minimal social distancing measures. So far in Sweden, despite a disaster in their nursing homes, 0.06% of the population has died.

It appears that COVID-19 is similar in lethality to the 1968 “Hong Kong Flu”, or the forgotten pandemic, which killed one million worldwide, mainly elderly. Based on relative populations, that’s around two million global deaths based on current population (on the current trajectory, it seems possible that the COVID-19 death rate will reach around those levels).

Correct or not, no countries “locked down” their citizens during the Hong Kong Flu.

COVID-19 kills people, that is without doubt — and I’m not seeking to trivialise the pain of those suffering from the disease, who in many cases die a horrific, lonely death.

But as John Kehoe of The Australian Financial Review observed, any holistic account of a long, strict lockdown needs to take into account all the costs and benefits, not just the benefits of reducing the number of deaths:

A holistic analysis must take into account the long-term mounting impact on small businesses, jobs, incomes, mental pressure on people and families, suicide, substance abuse, domestic violence, loss of education to young people, “collateral” deaths from COVID-19 caused by people skipping medical appointments and missing medical diagnoses, health consequences of community sport being cancelled and the “opportunity cost” of governments directing finite public resources and taxpayer funds to a single cause. How many schools, hospitals and roads will be underfunded over the next decade as a result?

To take just one of Kehoe’s examples, stage four lockdown is forcing domestic violence victims to be imprisoned in the same residence as their abusers, barely able to leave their house for six weeks. In Victoria, in 2015-16, there were 78,012 incidents of domestic violence. Meanwhile, a total of 136 people in the state have died from COVID-19.

Then there’s the increase in depression and mental illness. As Victoria went back into lockdown in early July, Lifeline reported a 22% surge in calls. Likewise, calls to Beyond Blue doubled.

There’s no doubt some restrictions (especially with regards to the vulnerable and elderly, as well as mass gatherings) must be taken. But with the length and breadth of the lockdown, especially in Victoria, it seems mathematically likely that the lockdown will end up killing more people than we save.

Was it a mistake to lockdown as hard as we did? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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