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People queue outside a Centrelink office in Bondi Junction (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

The issue of locking down a city or state has become increasingly divisive. In 16 years of writing, none of my articles have elicited a more emotional response than my recent suggestion that locking down a city may cost more lives than it saves.

Alas, citywide lockdowns seem akin to Queensland’s decision, in 1935, to introduce cane toads to control beetles — well intentioned, but ultimately flawed.

To assess the success of the strict and seemingly never-ending Victorian lockdown, we need to answer two questions. First, if regions don’t lock down, how many incremental deaths will occur? Second, when lockdowns do happen, how many incremental deaths will occur as a result of the lockdown?

Advocates of the hard lockdown (the majority of people) have been focussed almost solely on question one. But let’s first consider question two, the answer to which is less obvious as state premiers don’t provide daily updates on such data points — like how many people take their own life as a result of the pandemic.

Professor Patrick McGorry, who is on the front line dealing with youth mental health issues, told the AFR that “another six weeks of a much more severe lockdown, people losing their jobs and youth unemployment, the consequences are severe on mental health”.

University of Sydney modelling suggested COVID-19 could lead to a 25% increase in the suicide rate if unemployment reaches 11%. Royal Children’s Hospital director of emergency medicine Stuart Lewena said that mental health presentations were up 36%, while Kidman Centre director Dr Rachael Murrihy warned that “the hospital figures are quite frightening”, with a 10% increase in self-harm presentations in Victorian hospitals, including a 33% spike for people aged under 18.

And it’s not just the lockdown that’s a concern, but the depression that can result from stagnation and long-term unemployment. When JobKeeper — which is paying the salary of around 20% of Australian workers — ends, there is likely to be a significant increase in unemployment as zombie firms shut.

A study of the 2007 economic downturn found that “in times of recession, unemployed males commit suicide at 4.62 times the rate of employed men, and women 8.44 times more compared with employed females”. 

Perhaps sensing the urgency, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced that the federal government will spend $31.9 million to open 15 mental health clinics in Victoria for a period of 12 months.

The impact of the lockdown on domestic violence is potentially even more widespread. As reported by the Nine papers, a study of 15,000 Australian women by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that “one in 10 Australian women in a relationship have experienced domestic violence during the coronavirus crisis, with two-thirds saying the attacks started or became worse during the pandemic”. The AFR reports that urgent applications to the Family Court increased by almost 200% between March and July.

Then there’s the less deadly — but still concerning — economic impacts of the continued lockdown. The Productivity Commission found that “young workers could face long-term consequences in the form of occupations lower on the jobs ladder and lower salaries than they might have expected in the early part of the century”.

Now let’s turn to question one. The obvious positive of hard lockdown is that fewer people will die from COVID-related illnesses. But the question here is incrementality — and as I noted last week, epidemiologists have consistently overstated the virus’ impact.

In April, the Doherty Institute and Monash University released modelling (used by the Victorian DHHS) which claimed that “without the measures put in place, Victoria’s potential death rate would have averaged 70 a day, and up to 650 deaths a day at its peak. Under this modelling, up to 36,000 Victorians would have died.” We’ll go back to this claim shortly.

What makes COVID-19 such a difficult virus to model is that it’s relatively contagious and highly asymptomatic. A Stanford University study of the Diamond Princess cruise ship reported more than 50% of cases were asymptomatic.

And as I discussed last week, University of NSW blood testing suggested that Australia’s case fatality rate is currently around 0.1%. (The gold standard, Singapore, has suffered 27 deaths and has a reported case fatality rate of only 0.04%.)

In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) claimed the case fatality rate was a concerning 3.4%. Two weeks ago, it released a new study noting a far lower rate of only 0.5% to 1%.

So it seems COVID-19 is less deadly than everyone initially thought. But to determine incrementality, we need to understand how many lives lockdowns saved. Pointing to a country like New Zealand or Israel and saying lockdowns aren’t needed is fallacious. Instead, we need to look at the few regions that didn’t aggressively lock down. 

Anti-lockdown poster child Sweden (about 40% of the population of Australia), has recorded 5700 deaths. However, Sweden’s death rate was inflated due to initial incompetence — 90% of Swedish aged care residents who succumbed to COVID-19 were never moved to a hospital.

Florida, which has a similar population to Australia and which reopened businesses just weeks after belatedly locking down, has recorded 9452 deaths. Belarus, whose colourful leader Alexander Lukashenko called COVID-19 “mass psychosis” and where soccer was played in front of fans throughout the pandemic, claimed 607 deaths (out of a population of 9.5 million).

While the expert narrative suggested that COVID-19 would ravage the population, actual results show something different — regions that didn’t lock down didn’t seem to suffer anywhere near the deaths that we were warned about.

Remember the suggestion that 36,000 people would die in Victoria alone if lockdowns weren’t enforced? Sweden, with almost double the population of Victoria, suffered fewer than 6000 deaths.

Questioning the number of net lives saved from lockdowns is not to suggest we shouldn’t be taking measures to protect the vulnerable. Rather, it is understanding that there are human costs to closing down a city for months — more suicides, more domestic violence, more long-term unemployment, more loneliness, more marriage breakdowns.

To simply ignore the damage caused by lockdowns, while clinging onto overstated claims of COVID-19’s lethality, is no different than suggesting the virus is caused by 5G towers.

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636.

Peter Fray

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