Image: Reuters/Hannah McKay)

The world’s response to COVID-19 has largely reflected a complete misunderstanding, and at times a gross misrepresentation, of risk. Let me ask you a question. Without checking, what percentage of the world’s population has died from COVID?

Ten percent? Five percent? One percent?

The answer is 0.04%. Or let me put it another way: 99.96% of people have not died from COVID-19. Even in the world’s worst affected countries, like the US or Brazil, less than 0.20% of the population have been lost to COVID. (India, currently in the midst of a widespread outbreak, is tracking at a 0.014% fatality rate since the start of the pandemic).

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And of the 0.04% of the earth’s inhabitants who have died, the median age of death in countries is above that nation’s life expectancy. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, 80% of those hospitalised in the US are clinically obese. COVID-19 is a very targeted killer.

That is not to understate the tragedy of each of those 3,000,000 deaths, but to put the real risk into perspective. (It’s tragic when someone falls off a ladder and dies, but despite it killing 200 people every year in Australia, we keep using ladders because that risk across the entire population is so small.)

Fear of COVID has become like fear of flying in a commercial aircraft, which is far safer than driving to the airport. Or we compare COVID to the last great pandemic, the Spanish Flu, which killed 3.33% of people on earth (with many of those victims young). COVID-19 is not done yet, but it’s likely that the Spanish Flu pandemic was around 50 times (yes 50) more deadly than COVID-19. The Black Death, meanwhile, is estimated to have killed more than half of Europe’s population.

Despite COVID-19 being far less lethal than the Spanish Flu, the pandemic has led to unprecedented government interventions. Education for hundreds of millions of children has been significantly impacted (with disadvantaged children, who often can’t access basic technology or private tutoring, far more affected). Millions of businesses have been shuttered. More than half of people surveyed by leading youth mental health organisation Orygen believe the pandemic has worsened their mental health. The impact has been most significantly felt by the poor, the fragile and the young. The rich are able to escape to their holiday homes or super yachts while watching their share portfolios go up.

Australians, more acutely than most, have been happy to make that trade. Eliminate COVID-19 and remove the risk that around 0.15% of people will not survive, while at the same time worsening the lives of millions of others.

Shutting borders has meant that millions of grandchildren are not able to see their grandparents, for some ever again. Children have missed their parents’ funerals. Brothers and sisters have missed weddings. Mothers have been separated from their babies. A nation of migrants has happily coalesced to draconian border restrictions for a risk of death that is almost non-existent for most.

Then there’s the impact on countries who depend on our tourism: the people of Fiji and Bali have been decimated by border closures. As a nation we have decided it’s more important to eliminate a 0.15% chance of death than to ensure a family can afford food elsewhere. Australians have been conditioned by state premiers to ignore the well-being of our interstate neighbours, let alone those who live outside our national borders.

Those under 60 are far more likely to die of accidental poisoning, suicide or road accidents than from COVID-19. Eleven thousand Australians lost their lives to those causes in 2020.

The version pushed by governments (which have, conveniently, benefitted politically from the pandemic), repeated by struggling media organisations and believed by millions, is that living normally during a pandemic is an utterly selfish act.

But is it really?

Border closures and lockdowns are massively harmful to certain groups — the poor, migrants, the young and people overseas. The beneficiaries of these sacrifices are (often) the old and the wealthy — the latter of whom minimise their already tiny chance of death.

We have taken the advice of doctors throughout the pandemic. Doctors train for a decade to save specific lives. We have largely ignored the views of economists, who are focussed on externalities faced by society as a whole. In doing so we have greatly exaggerated the risks to the few and discounted the very real harm to the many.

Adam Schwab is a director of Private Media, the publisher of Crikey, and the co-founder of Luxury Escapes, a Melbourne-based travel company. He is also the author of Pigs at the Trough: Lessons from Australia’s Decade of Corporate Greed.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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