Features Australia

Covid and culture cringe

Data tells us all we need to know about tackling the virus

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

Culture cringe seems alive in Australia. Speaking in parliament on 27 October, Labor’s deputy leader Richard Marles made a pointed comparison with the UK. On 30 July, he said, the UK had 846 and Victoria had 723 new cases. ‘Today, with zero cases in Victoria, we saw yesterday in Great Britain, 20,890 new cases of coronavirus recorded’. In his judgment, the Victorian government had been ‘a source of crystal clear decisions, at the heart of which has been the very best medical advice which has guided us from where we were back in July to where we are right now’.

Set aside the claim from the UK government that all its decisions have also been guided by ‘science’ as decreed by Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Put aside also the incontrovertible truth that both the Victorian and Commonwealth governments contributed to the shambles with their respective mismanagement of hotel quarantine and aged care homes. For my purposes the most telling rebuttal came from an emotionally charged Josh Frydenberg. The appropriate comparison for Victoria was not the UK or the US, he said, but other states like NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia.

Good policy choices require accurate data. Countries differ vastly in the methodology for ascribing Covid-19 as the cause of death, a point demonstrated in March in The Spectator by Professor John Lee and also in a feature article by Camilla Hodgson in the Financial Times. Owing to a combination of inadequate forensic capacity and political sensitivity, in some countries there is under-reporting and in others over-counting. This makes comparisons of countries even within Europe misleading, let alone across continents. It’s also made it impossible to distinguish between those who die with Covid from those who die of the disease.

The most commonly used metric of the mortality rate is deaths per million. Coronavirus has hit Europe and North and South America particularly hard with their DPM being twice, six times and three times higher than their respective shares of world population. In striking contrast, Africa has one-fifth, Asia one-third and Oceania one-sixth the ratio of world Covid-19 deaths compared to their population shares. Figures don’t lie. The ‘stringency index’ has been developed as a measure of how strict a lockdown is, taking into account nine factors such as school and workplace closures and travel bans. Japan, Tanzania and Taiwan all have a lower stringency index than Australia and also significantly lower deaths per million, while the UK, Belgium and Peru with higher stringency index have higher DPM.

Data from Worldometers and the Australian Department of Health show that as of 9 November, 907 Australians had died with Covid-19. Of these, 819 deaths (90 per cent) were in Victoria. Its case fatality rate is 4 compared to 1.2 for the rest of Australia and its DPM is 122 compared to the rest of Australia’s 4.7. The latter is pretty close to the East Asian average of 4.3 DPM and New Zealand’s 5.0. Of course, if Daniel Andrews had internalised East Asia’s culture, he’d bow his head deep in shame and commit political hara-kiri. Don’t hold your breath.

Australia’s overall DPM of 35 looks stunningly good against the 700+ figures from Europe and the Americas but compares unfavourably with East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, Mongolia, South Korea and Taiwan). The worst statistics among these six are those of Hong Kong and Japan with 14 DPM each. The best is Taiwan with 0.3. This is astounding. Taiwan lies just 130km offshore from China, has 1.2 million of its citizens living or working there, and 3-4 million people travel between the two territories annually. Its population is broadly comparable to Australia’s, yet its total number of cases is just 577 and deaths just seven. That’s right: Seven. Australia’s case and fatality numbers are almost 50 and 130 times higher respectively.

Taiwan avoided mass economic and social disruptions by using big data and analytics. Travellers returning from Wuhan began to be screened from 1 January, when the World Health Organisation was still dismissing the risk of human-human transmission. It learnt and institutionalised lessons from the Sars epidemic in 2003 to create a Central Epidemic Command Center that was activated in mid-January. Schools were closed, but only for February. Restrictions placed on public gatherings in early March were lifted in early May, and some travel restrictions were also eased from July.

Lockdown fanatics are mostly evidence-light and data-poor. Consider this: Australia’s Department of Health reported that at 31 October, just 36 flu deaths had been recorded for the year. There were 943 flu deaths for the same period last year. The total number of Covid-associated deaths are 907. If you add 36 flu deaths, the total is, wait for it: 943. Coincidences don’t come any more interesting than this. As far as the lockdown narrative is concerned, Taiwan did a lot wrong and very little right but has achieved possibly the best public health outcomes in the world despite remarkably unfavourable initial conditions. Its stringency index is among the lowest in the world, with few controls of limited durations, prioritising the normal functioning of society and the economy. A Lancet study published on 21 October concluded: ‘Extensive public health infrastructure established in Taiwan pre-Covid-19 enabled a fast coordinated response, particularly in the domains of early screening, effective methods for isolation/quarantine, digital technologies for identifying potential cases and mass mask use’.

Taiwan did not lock down and did not test extensively, yet has the lowest DPM rate of any populous country in the world. It ranks 189th among 218 countries covered by Worldometers. Unlike many others, its data are accurate and credible.

Taiwan thwarted the spread of coronavirus with early and aggressive interventions through efficient testing, strictly isolating suspected cases, diligently tracing through cellphone movements those who had been in contact with infected people, tight control at air and sea ports of entry and temperature checks on entry into crowded areas like train stations, office complexes and malls.

Taiwan has shown how democracies can manage epidemiological crises without rupturing society or sacrificing the economy. Yet, scandalously, owing to Chinese pressure, the WHO refuses to engage with Taiwan, study its success and promote it as global best practice. The wilful exclusion of Taiwan from the international conversation on the pandemic prevents the dissemination of useful information that could protect people from illness and economic affliction and avoid doing more harm.

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