RAMESH THAKUR. Coronavirus data prove Australia is in Asia

Cross-jurisdiction comparisons are notoriously difficult and it’s almost impossible to prove lockdowns have saved lives, except by falling back tautologically on the epidemiological model’s own projections of mortality figures with no lockdown.

Yet, in most cases countries with different lockdown strategies show broadly similar coronavirus curves that reached its inflection point before lockdown measures began to affect it. Yinon Weiss, writing for RealClearPolitics (21 May), has a sharp and succinct summary of the Covid-19 story thus far:

In the face of a novel virus threat, China clamped down on its citizens. Academics used faulty information to build faulty models. Leaders relied on these faulty models. Dissenting views were suppressed. The media flamed fears and the world panicked.
That is the story of what may eventually be known as one of the biggest medical and economic blunders of all time. The collective failure of every Western nation, except one, to question groupthink will surely be studied by economists, doctors, and psychologists for decades to come.

For this article I am going to become a ‘graphodisiac’. Figure 1 depicts the lack of correlation between lockdown measures and coronavirus deaths in selected countries. The visually striking worst, despite having had a lockdown for two months, is Belgium with a Covid-19 death rate of 804 per million people. Over 56,000 Belgians have been infected and over 9,000 have died. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research examined the US states and concluded: ‘we find that optimal policies differentially targeting risk/age groups significantly outperform optimal uniform policies and most of the gains can be realized by having stricter lockdown policies on the oldest group’.

A Bloomberg article by Elaine He (20 May) crunched data from 17 European countries from 1 January to 15 May, looking at severity of restrictions and dates when they were implemented. According to her analysis, ‘the data show that the relative strictness of a country’s containment measures had little bearing on [success] … in containing the virus’. More important than the stringency of the measures is their timing and manner of implementation, with early preparation and adequate healthcare resources being especially critical.

‘R’ is defined as the mean number of people cross-infected by one case. It is the magic number informing all epidemiological models of the likely progression of the virus under different scenarios and how to keep it below 1, the threshold at which infections grow in the overall population. A good example of the R number falling below 1 before a lockdown was imposed and staying so throughout comes from Germany. This chart from the Robert Koch Institute shows that by 23 March, when the most severe lockdown measures were imposed, R was already below 1 and in the following weeks did not decline any further (Figure 2). That is, the lockdown made no appreciable difference to R.

Geography seems a far more striking feature of the variance than lockdown and other policy interventions. For reasons as yet unknown, coronavirus hit Europe and the US (especially New York) particularly hard, while Asia and the Pacific have so far been spared its worst ravages. Europe and North America combined host only 14% of the world’s population but make up 75% and 86% of the world’s total of the coronavirus infected and dead people. By contrast Asia (using the UN definition that includes West Asia), with 60% of the world’s population, accounts for just 16% and 8% of infections and dead, while Africa’s shares are 17%, 1.5% and 0.8%, respectively. One line of speculation looks at the possibility that Europe and the US were hit by a particularly virulent mutation of Covid-19.

No doubt the scientific explanation will come in due course. As a generalisation, it would appear that seasonal flu tends to be more lethal per infection in developing countries that do not have prophylactic vaccination programs, while Covid-19 has been deadlier in the developed world because of the greater cohort of elderly people already afflicted with other serious ailments.

Meanwhile the statistics point to an interesting geographical counterpoint to a long-standing geopolitical discourse about Australia’s national identity. Based on our low number of infections and deaths, we quite clearly belong to Asia rather than the North Atlantic community. Or deaths stand at 4.0 per million people. But when put into the Asian context, this is not quite so impressive as the politicians would have us believe, which is also the narrative that journalists seem mostly to have bought hook, line and sinker. Against Asian benchmarks, with lockdowns Australia and New Zealand are at the higher end of the spectrum despite the reality that very few of our Asian neighbours locked down their countries (Table 1).

More on this later, but for now let’s note another critical point of relevance. We have the massive advantages of being an island country well distant from the China-based origins of the virus, vast open spaces, sunshine as the best disinfectant, largely single family dwellings, low reliance on mass transit, etc. And unlike in the northern hemisphere where the pandemic’s full fury struck mid-winter at the height of the flu season, it arrived in Australia in the latter part of summer. By contrast Taiwan, which lies just 130km offshore from China, has 1.2mn people living or working there, and 3–4mn travel between the two territories annually. Vietnam too shares a border with China yet, as of 20 May, quite remarkably it had not recorded a single death from Covid-19. It’s worth reflecting for a few minutes on the relative geographical, seasonal, demographic and housing circumstance of Australia and Hong Kong. The comparison puts Australia’s sense of triumphalism into perspective.

There’s one other curiosity about Asia worth noting. On 25 March, when the lockdown began, India’s total Covid-19 cases were only 606 and deaths just 10. As at 23 May, India had 1131,423 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 3,868 deaths. Its rate of Covid-19 deaths is still well down at 2.9 people per million. But, worryingly, despite one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns in place since 25 March, its cases are still rising (Figure 3). That is, two months since the nationwide clampdown, there is absolutely no flattening of the curve. Like Belgium, then, it’s a demonstrable example of the ineffectiveness of lockdowns.  The government claims that by 20 May approximately, the lockdown had averted 1.4mn-2.9mn cases and saved 37,000-78,000 lives. But then they would, wouldn’t they?

Countries with lockdowns also face an exit trap of their own making. Having rejected a herd immunity strategy in favour of suppression and elimination, how long will they remain shut down, especially as a vaccine may never become available? Little wonder that governments are extremely nervous about being swamped with second and third waves of infections as they cautiously open up.

On 18 May, I received a mass email invitation from the managing editor of the journal Perspectives on Politics that began: ‘In late April 2020, declared US fatalities from Covid-19 exceeded American battlefield deaths in the war in Vietnam’. It was a call for papers for a special issue on ‘Pandemic Politics’. Now let’s put this in perspective. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) writes thus about the 2017–18 flu season in the US:

… the burden of illness during the 2017–2018 season was high with an estimated 45 million [11mn children, 28mn 18–64 working age, and 6mn adults aged 65 and older] people getting sick with influenza, 21 million people going to a health care provider, 810,000 hospitalizations, and 61,000 deaths from influenza.

Thus the 2017–18 flu season took more US lives than 18 years of Vietnam, but of course was never reported as such. How could the US media have missed such a big story? Meanwhile, Covid-19 as at 20 May: global confirmed cases 5mn, deaths 328,000; US deaths 93,439 (New York, 28,636; New Jersey 10,749). For most people, Covid-19 is not dangerous; only for the age-stratified with serious comorbidities. Covid mortality for people under 50 is tiny (Table 2). A fit and healthy person under 50 has a 99.9% chance of survival.

The worldwide death and damage to the economic and social health of peoples caused by the draconian lockdowns may in the fullness of time exceed the relatively modest toll of Covid-19, even by the standard of pandemics since the Second World War. It becomes clearer by the week that the world’s governments went into meltdown in an orgy of pandemic panic porn not justified by the science or the data but provoked by grossly flawed modelling. Yoram Lass, former director-general of Israel’s Health Ministry, believes the coronavirus has created worldwide panic because it got cross-fertilised by the virus of social networks. He said in a recent interview:

The government… implements draconian measures. The constituents look at the draconian measures and become even more hysterical. They feed each other and the snowball becomes larger and larger until you reach irrational territory. This is nothing more than a flu epidemic if you care to look at the numbers and the data.

Some day there will have to be a full Royal Commission into the modelling and the national responses to complement the distracting (deliberately so?) obsession with a global inquiry into the origins and spread of the virus from China to the rest of the world.

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Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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7 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. Coronavirus data prove Australia is in Asia

  1. Avatar Paul Malone says:

    Great piece putting Covid 19 in perspective. And here’s a thought for your Australian piece – The ABC has been running stories warning people of the Covid dangers of travelling on public transport and suggesting that they should cycle instead. As you point out, this disease mainly kills old people and people with a prior health condition. In Australia only one person under 50 has died from Covid 19 but in the past month two young men have been killed in bike accidents in Melbourne alone and a child is currently in an induced coma from an accident.
    Last year according to the ABS Causes of death Australia 2018 Influenza and pneumonia killed 3,102

  2. Avatar Richard England says:

    Lockdowns are effective only when they are done early, permitting early lifting. The kind of lockdown that occurs without government intervention takes effect when deaths cause enough fear for it to happen. It always comes too late and lasts too long. Early lockdown and early lifting can be achieved cooperatively when the government bases its authority on science, uses it, and allows scientists to speak, convincing the public that it is using its authority in their interest. The more science-aware the public is, the earlier and more effective its reaction to the disease will be. Success (in places like China, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand) comes with the rule of science supported by the authority of government. The balance in Australia was toward believing science rather than trusting the government, but the government has been given credit for allowing science to rule. The balance in China was probably toward trust in a government that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but the Chinese government in which engineers are heavily represented, is used to to deferring to science.

    No doubt many people object to the notion of the rule of science, but I don’t see the point in watering it down. They wouldn’t howl against the rule of common sense. The rule of science it a bit like that but better. The more science-educated the public is, the better is their common sense.

    • Avatar Laura Gail Robertson says:

      Has science not confirmed since the lockdown in Australia began that the virus is not as infectious or as deadly as originally thought? Why then is everyone still in a form of mandatory lockdown? Why has the Government not come forward and said, ‘hey science has now proven that the virus is not as infectious or as deadly as science originally predicted.’ Lets put other less onerous unmandated social distancing measures in place. Just following the science. Not sure that the Australian Government still is though. Speaking as at the time of publication of this article.

  3. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    Prof. Thakur sharp eyes have detected inconsistencies in the theory used to predict the nature of the covid-19 pandemic. Hopefully, with the passing of the WHO resolution to “evaluate” all aspects of the diseases, a better mathematical model will emerge and its prediction will have with less inconsistencies or anomalies. Empirically, with current knowledge, a future multi-factorial will arise and would include physical lock down procedures, use of PPE in public & hospitals, social distancing, virulence of the virus strains, genetic susceptibility of the population, seasonal effect, herd mentality, population density, level of sanitation, availability of health personnel and medical resources and the level of co-operation of the population to public health rules.

  4. Ramesh Thakur Ramesh Thakur says:

    Hi Jeff,
    There is just so much to unpack in this. I’ll be doing a series of self-contained but complementary articles. One will focus directly and solely on Australia.

    • Avatar Jeff Kildea says:

      Thanks Ramesh. I look forward to it. There’s been a discernible trend in recent commentary on Covid-19 to suggest that Australian governments have panicked unnecessarily. But, if one cannot explain Australia’s relative success compared to the US and Europe by its lockdown, then why is it so? And, if we had done nothing, would our governments now be trying to explain to an angry electorate why the country has a death toll per million such as those countries are experiencing?

  5. Avatar Jeff Kildea says:

    Ramesh, thanks for an interesting analysis. If, as the data you have presented suggests, the imposition of a lockdown is not the significant determinant of a low death toll, what would you suggest is the main factor? And what level of cases and deaths would Australia have been looking at if we had not imposed a lockdown?

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