aged care
(Image: AAP/David Crosling)

It has always seemed inexplicable to me that the Axis nations in World War II duped their populations in to turning a blind eye — or worse — to genocide and expansionist wars. But the people of Germany, Italy and other nations didn’t have data to work with. Facts were scarce, media censorship high, and propaganda a high art.

But what of now? We’re being duped and we DO have the data. We know that, putting aside people with comorbidities, you basically won’t die from COVID-19 if you’re under 70. (That’s not to wish the elderly any ill will — or wish for anyone to die from this terrible virus.)

And yet about half of us seem to be convinced we are in the gun.

An April survey by the Department of Neuroscience at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University in Turkey found that 44% of respondents were scared for themselves, while 80% were extremely scared that someone they knew would contract the virus.

A sentiment tracker from Travel Daily released on Monday found that 44% of people are scared to travel domestically, while health economist Stephen Druckett claimed in The Age over the weekend that without lockdowns “at least 40% of the population — those vulnerable Victorians identified by the government as being at higher risk from coronavirus — [would face] restricted movement and limited participation in community life.”

It seems around half of us are very scared of COVID-19.

But should we be?

Let’s take the high watermark of COVID-19, the United States. The US is heading towards 200,000 deaths from COVID-19. But even with New York’s aged care fiasco and the unwillingness of red states to lock down, well under 0.1% of the population will likely die from COVID-19 this year. Sweden had an almost identical death rate.

Looking at the other extreme, in Singapore, the death rate is approximately one in 250,000 people. In Australia, the death rate is 0.0024%, or around one in every 50,000 people.

So half the population are worried about something that kills one in 50,000.

But averages cloud the real picture. COVID-19 is a very discriminatory killer. Almost 75% of deaths from COVID-19 are from those aged over 65. Moreover, around 84% of people who die with COVID-19 have a comorbidity.

In Australia, 40 people under 70 have died — virtually all of whom had pre-existing conditions. If you’re under 70 and don’t have specific pre-existing conditions (especially diabetes or hypertension), your chance of dying from COVID-19 is less than one in a million. 

The chance of dying from a specific cause is measured in micromorts, which is equal to one in a million. Developed by Stanford professor Ronald Howard, it’s a useful measure for unusual causes of death.

If you match the conditions above — under 70, no pre-existing conditions — your chance of dying from COVID-19 is about 1 micromort.

Now let’s compare that to your chances of dying each year from some other things:

  • you’re more likely to die by sitting on a chair (1.3 micromorts);
  • you’re around 12 times more likely to die by drowning; 
  • you’re around 30 times more likely to die while driving a car;
  • you’re 170 times more likely to die during a Caesarean.

Cities around the world have cancelled marathons due to fear of COVID-19, even though the very fit participants of a marathon are far more likely to die from the race (seven micromorts) than the virus.

Micromorts for different activities are cumulative, so for most of us we’re racking up many micromorts of risk every day just by doing regular stuff like getting out of bed or going for a walk or drinking a glass of wine.

That’s not to suggest COVID-19 is some sort of hoax. It’s real, novel and highly contagious, and certain cohorts — like those aged 80 with diabetes — have a relatively high risk of death if they contract the virus. But for almost all of us aged under 70, doing almost any kind of activity presents a far higher chance of death than COVID-19 does.

This is why a blunt instrument like lockdown, which impacts the entire population, is so foolhardy. Forcing kids out of school (statistically zero chance of dying) and 25-year-olds out of work (also virtually zero chance of death) to protect those who are genuinely at risk (aged above 75 or with multiple pre-conditions) is utterly nonsensical.

Lockdowns do save some lives, but there are other ways to save those lives (as Singapore and Taiwan have demonstrated) that don’t involve such broad, untargeted measures. If we’d rapid tested everybody walking into a nursing home instead of locking down, a lot less people would have died.

Leaders like Dan Andrews would by now be well aware of this, but politically they’ve staked their reputations on lockdowns being effective. Changing tact now would be an admission they unnecessarily destroyed economies and ruined lives. 

It’s much easier to continue with the lie.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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