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Coronavirus: a look at the numbers that matter

28 August 2020

1:34 PM

28 August 2020

1:34 PM

If there is one thing that has been missing from the public discussion on Covid-19 it’s a meaningful interpretation of the numbers.  

Day by day we are getting daily statistics involving the number of infections and fatalities. But in the broader context, what do they mean? In simple terms, exactly how lethal is coronavirus, and how big an impact is it having upon the health of the nation? 

As it happens, we don’t need to be either a doctor or an epidemiologist to answer this question. We can answer it simply by looking at two numbers –- the age at which people with Covid-19 die, and how this compares with life expectancy. 

It’s important to note that the government statistics do not distinguish between “with” and “from.” That is, if a person dies and they have Covid-19, it is recorded as a Covid-19 statistic. This is no doubt because if a person that died with Covid19 also had the flu, or emphysema, or asthma, or something else that affected their lungs, the question of what actually killed them is a semantic question. By using “with” as the criteria, however, we can simply correlate it with the normal mortality statistics to determine its influence on mortality. 

To understand the normal mortality rate, we simply look at the data for life expectancy. As it happens, it varies between men and women. According to the government website we have numbers of 80.7 for men and 84.9 for women. These numbers are current as of 2018, with a slight upward trend.  


If we look at any parameter, then, we can then simply correlate the relevant statistics with these numbers to determine its effect on mortality. 

If, for example, we were to ask the question of whether your preference for ice cream flavour influenced your mortality, we would arrive at the obvious answer that it didn’t. In other words, regardless of whether you prefer chocolate or strawberry, or anything else, we’d expect that your life expectancy would still be 80.7 for men and 84.9 for women.  

And so with the case of Covid19, we can simply compare the average age of mortality for those that had it with the life expectancy. This will give us a direct measure of the effect of the virus on mortality. 

Fortunately, these statistics are available from the government website 

When we process the data, we arrive at some astonishing, and given the current panic sweeping the nation, counterintuitive numbers: the average age at which men that have Covid-19 die is 81.1, and the average age at which women that have Covid-19 die is 85.2. 

In other words, the average age at which people with Covid-19 die correlates within half a percentage point to the life expectancy. And given that the most recent life expectancy data is 2018, and it is slowly trending upwards, to all intents and purposes the average age at which people with Covid-19 die is the same as the average age at which they were going to die anyway. 

Consequently, it is a factual statement to say that in Australia, whether or not you have Covid-19 has as much effect on your mortality as your preference for chocolate or strawberry ice cream. 

It is a little difficult to know how to conclude an article such as this, other than to ask an obvious question: why are peoples’ livelihoods, businesses, families and futures being destroyed, and people being driven to suicide, to protect them from a disease that is having no measurable effect on mortality rates? 

Dr Mark Imisides is a scientist and OH&S advisor. He Tweets at @DrMarkImisides.

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