George Orwell – one of the 20th century’s great enemies of authoritarianism and bureaucratic lies – famously observed that ‘saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent.’ It was with this quote firmly in mind that I read the excessively glowing front page of Brisbane’s Sunday Mail on Dr Jeannette Young, Queensland’s Chief Health Officer. Her claims and recommendations have certainly for far too long escaped proper journalistic scrutiny.
Take her cringe-worthy and condescending statement ‘thanking Queenslanders’ for following the restrictions she has imposed on us over the last six months (which by law we will be fined heavily if we do not obey). These had been justified because: ‘if Covid-19 had impacted the state, as modelling suggested it might, some 1 million could have been infected. An estimated 200,000 would have been hospitalised. And 10,000 people could have died.’
For starters, these numbers are a significant and unexplained downward revision to a figure of ‘30,000 deaths’ used back in April for locking down the entire state. It would have been nice if Queensland’s tourism industry and small businesses had been destroyed on the basis of a bit more certain foundation, thank you, Jeannette. But the new figures provided are no less wrong and misleading. We now no longer have to rely on highly dubious computer projections. We no longer have to argue about serology tests or T-cell immunity and similar. We have ample real-world data which proves this is the case.
Sweden was famously held up as an example of the carnage that would result if we did not listen to Dr Young’s diktats. The fact that many of Sweden’s epidemiologists are genuine world leaders in their field and far more experienced in this area than Dr Young oddly produced no doubt that she had the superior approach.
Yet despite having twice our population, a more frigid climate and no ‘lockdown’ policy, the Nordic nation has experienced only around 6,000 deaths attributed to Covid-19 and nowhere near 200,000 hospitalisations. How the Sunshine State was going to exceed these numbers remains a statistical mystery.
Sweden is interesting for other reasons as it has functioned as the control in the grand scientific experiment which the world has suffered through in 2020. Yet despite the abuse it received, the reality is that country has now successfully flattened its curve, has few new Covid-19 deaths, few Covid-19 hospitalisations and limited new cases. Far less, for example, than Melbourne this week. It achieved all this without a vaccine, without any experimental treatments, without closing bars and cafes, without keeping primary school kids out of schools and without mandating masks. Mobility data show there was no ‘voluntary’ lockdown as some like to spuriously claim. But even if we assume that both the numbers cited by Dr Young are exaggerated (as they are) and Sweden now has the virus under control (which it has) wouldn’t the Queensland course of action still have been justified even if it saved a couple of thousand lives?
The answer is no. And no, that is not because I’m a monster who secretly wants to kill your grandma. The reason is if you want to assess the true impact of a disease you need to look at its effect on the normal death rate in a country. You cannot just look at the deaths from a particular disease in isolation. While every death is sad and personal the harsh truth is the vast majority of Swedish ‘Covid deaths’ would have likely died within this year anyway. The median age of these deaths in Sweden was 86. Around 80 per cent of these had serious existing serious ailments. In other words, if this season’s bad flu had not got them it is highly likely that something else would have. That is not heartless, that is simply reality.
At any individual level we should, of course, do all we can to save a person’s life. We could certainly do more generally to protect the elderly at all times. But it simply makes no public policy sense to shut down the country and ban international travel lest someone in a nursing home die of a respiratory illness. We certainly never did this previously. If you tune out the hysterical media, you will also see that Sweden now has a below average death rate for this time of year. Even the bad months of April-May were, on a per capita basis, still not exceptional compared to previous bad flu seasons.
Overall, this year Sweden is likely to have an only slightly higher than average death rate. Interestingly, last year that country experienced its lowest death rate since 1977, so the elevated number this year is explained in part by a reversion to the mean. That is the thing with averages – sometimes numbers are above the average, sometimes below.
What we can now say with absolute certainty is that Sweden will not experience exceptional excess deaths compared to its past recent bad flu seasons. This is now irrefutable. You will struggle to find a country that will. Sweden while an interesting test case is not unique – places that we once used to hear so much about like Italy, the UK, France, Switzerland and even New York now have close to normal or below average death rates.
Covid-19 is nothing like the Spanish Flu. At a stretch it is comparable to the Asian Flu of 1957-58 or the Hong Kong Flu of 1968-69 – neither of which we shut down the global economy for. Most people who lived through those times can’t even remember them. Given we now have this hard data, why do we still expect that Australia (unlike anywhere else) would be likely to suffer exceptionally high deaths compared to our own recent bad flu seasons? If the virus does not produce exceptionally high death rates why the exceptional overreaction?
Orwell was no stranger to a variety of respiratory illnesses and he wrote 1984 while suffering from tuberculosis. He eventually died from it. But I am in absolutely no doubt he would have been far less scared of this virus than he would have been by the ineptitude, misuse of statistics, and simple-minded sloganeering which has characterised our response to it. In fact, he would have been appalled.
The Queensland Chief Health Officer stated on the weekend she believes it is ‘unlikely we will return to life as we know it’. If she wants a change, she is, of course, welcome to ask for a reduction in her overly generous $600,000+ salary. But for the rest of us, that is not her decision to make. Indeed, the very idea she thinks it is proper to make such pronouncements suggests delusions of grandeur. What should be now abundantly clear is that Queenslanders can no longer continue to live docilely and ruinously under the mad rule of Saint Jeannette.
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Dan Ryan is a director of the Australian Institute for Progress
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