Collateral Damage

Are we sacrificing our young to the pandemic?

What could be more morally compelling than the notion that every life is sacred and therefore, worth saving? This has been the view taken almost universally in Australia, indeed most of the world, since the beginning of the pandemic. Anyone publicly questioning this premise has been met with howls of derision. Just ask Professor Gigi Foster, Director of Education in the School of Economics at University of NSW.

Since appearing on QandA and 60 Minutes, scathing social media mobs have piled on Professor Foster, accusing her of wanting to “kill grandma”. She says however, that she has been misunderstood. She is not advocating for people to die, rather, she is calling for a more holistic approach to managing the pandemic and this requires maximising human welfare more broadly. She claims that the Australian government’s response has been driven by fear, rather than rational thinking.

Professor Foster says that governments the world over, including in Australia, have been placing different values on lives forever and that the COVID-19 pandemic should be no different. By choosing to prioritise the lives of elderly people over the social, economic and psychological wellbeing of our younger generations, she says we have made the wrong choice and quite possibly a deadlier one. She argues that the cost of locking young people away will be a far greater cost to society than if we had allowed more elderly people to die. It’s an uncomfortable question to ponder.

It seems Professor Foster’s theories have been either overshadowed by the legion of medical specialists advocating for extreme lockdown and other public health measures to control the virus, or dismissed as being on the same page as the rantings of anti-science conservatives like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones. Previously Professor Foster’s message may have been delegitimised by being associated with the views of these shock jocks who appeal to conspiracy theorists eager to validate their own unproven theories. It would be a mistake to dismiss her theories though, which are firmly rooted in evidence and data.

Australia’s federal and state governments’ policies on the pandemic have, rightly, been informed by medical experts including immunologists, virologists, epidemiologists and other medical specialists. These experts have been the drivers of our national response to the pandemic. Scientific evidence about pandemics and COVID-19 disease has been the basis on which all decisions about border closures, restrictions, lockdowns and other public health measures have been made. In the beginning we were told that the measures were all about “flattening the curve”. This became our collective mantra and the holy grail we still strive to achieve.

Professor Foster says it was short-sighted of the government to only consult with medical experts and that their failure to consult other experts will have disastrous consequences for generations to come. A fairer and more effective response to the pandemic might have been achieved if the government had also consulted with economists, psychologists, sociologists and other experts. Her argument centres on the theory that the best decisions are those that benefit the highest number of people and that the welfare of all people must be considered, not just the health outcomes of an ageing population.

To date, we have had more than 600 COVID-19 deaths in Australia. While these deaths aren’t welcome, it’s worth contextualising them. In 2019 Australia had more than 900 flu-related deaths and in 2017, 1,100 deaths. Whilst COVID-19 has a higher reproductive number than the flu, emerging data shows that the case fatality rate is similar to the flu in Australia. In other countries the data varies, but mortality rates for both flu and COVID-19 are more likely determined by access to and quality of health care.

In Sweden the percent of the population who have died of COVID-19 is estimated at around 0.05% the population. The percentage in the US is slightly higher on average, but is still only estimated at around 0.1% of the population. Poorer health outcomes in the US can be attributed mainly to a broken health care system. In Australia, deaths to COVID-19 are around 0.003% of the population, a statistical blip, but no less devastating for the families who have lost loved ones to the disease.

Australia’s better outcome compared with the US for example, can be attributed to three main reasons: Australia’s world class health system, the fact that we had more time to prepare, including having access to better treatments, in addition to the fact that we managed to slow the progression of the virus through the measures taken early on, including international border closures and lockdowns. This does not mean however, that these are the best measures to continue with.

Professor Foster has a blunt message for the Australian government at all levels.

“Victoria should lift wholesale lockdown and schools and universities should reopen. We can’t protect people by having young people cowering at home. Our young people are being deprived of the opportunities that previous generations have had…no death is okay, but we are killing more people by keeping us locked down.”

“Our children will be carrying the effects of these draconian lockdowns for the rest of their lives. The Australian government needs to change the messaging around coronavirus. It should be a message that prioritises human welfare overall. The government response should be driven by policy that recognises the importance of a functioning economy. It should direct resources appropriately towards places in the community where people are more vulnerable to succumbing to the virus, instead of enforcing wholesale lockdowns.”

Governments have always made judgements on how to allocate scarce resources. Often the economic decisions made favour the young — for good reason. It’s understood that it is important to invest in our future. So why haven’t the young been considered in policy development on COVID-19?

While acknowledging that Sweden has made mistakes, one aspect Professor Foster believes the Swedish government has managed exceptionally well, is that they have not allowed fear to dictate their response. Although the deaths of almost 6,000 of their elderly population is heart-breaking, COVID-19 deaths equate to only a small proportion of their mortality rate. Schools and universities have remained open throughout the pandemic and businesses have been able to function at reduced capacity. Life in Sweden hasn’t been upended in the way it has in other countries.

This is in contrast to the fear reaction seen in Australia. Professor Foster says that the strict, draconian, tight buttoning-down of our economy has been driven by fear, not rational thinking. She is calling for the government to be data-driven in their policy choices. A focus on the death rates of COVID-19, not transmission rates, would be a start. Focusing on transmission rates is pointless because the death rates are not following the same trajectory — they are tracking downwards worldwide. The total global death count is still under one million.

Professor Foster believes our government is using a fear campaign to scare people into complying with the restrictions. Focussing on the anomalies, such as the rare case of a young person becoming seriously ill or dying of COVID-19, serves the purpose of instilling fear and displays an irrational response to the virus. The statistics show that COVID-19 overwhelmingly affects the elderly and those with comorbidities, not young people; which is why she advocates for aggressively protecting the elderly and vulnerable and allowing everyone else to live their lives with few limitations.

Furthermore, there is compelling new evidence revealed in the Lancet that wholesale lockdowns do not save lives from COVID-19, compared to any other setting. The factors affecting mortality rates are more closely linked to health care capacity, co-morbidities such as obesity, and other factors.

By not listening to a range of experts, the government is not considering the broader welfare implications of lockdowns.

“This is nowhere near as big a crisis as we are being led to believe. A single-minded focus on one aspect of welfare is dangerous. Poverty, isolation and mental anguish in the community are only exacerbated by lockdowns and made worse by a failing economy. Loss of productivity and loss of jobs will have an enormous deleterious effect on the living. We are putting millions more lives at risk from these things than the lives at risk from COVID-19.”

As the stage 4 hard lockdown in Melbourne drags on and students continue to be locked out of school, university and their casual jobs, pandemic fatigue is setting in. What if “flattening the curve” is actually the least of our problems?

Link to published article in Mojo News:

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