People can argue ad nauseam (and they do) about the merits of the government’s management of Covid-19 and its aim of eliminating the virus through a strict lockdown policy – a strategy that comes loaded with economic and social consequences. But whatever you think about the government’s approach, there’s no disputing statistics that prove its effectiveness when judged purely in terms of mortality rates.
America’s Johns Hopkins University keeps a running tally of global deaths from the virus. It uses two measurements: the case fatality rate (the proportion of infected people who die) and deaths per 100,000 population. Judged according to these metrics, New Zealand’s 26 deaths make this country one of the world’s standout performers in minimising Covid-19 mortality, with a case fatality rate (CFR) of 0.7 percent and 0.53 deaths per 100,000 people.
Compare those figures with some of the countries we think of as generally similar to us:
Australia (1012 deaths): CFR 1.8 percent, 3.99 deaths per 100,000.
United States (640,108 deaths): CFR 1.6 percent, 195.01 deaths per 100,000.
United Kingdom (132,859 deaths): CFR 1.9 percent, 198.79 deaths per 100,000.
Canada (26,989 deaths): CFR 1.8 percent, 71.80 deaths per 100,000.
Peru has the unhappy distinction of heading the Johns Hopkins table, with 198,263 deaths, a CFR of 9.2 percent and a death rate of 609.84 per 100,000. It’s followed by Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia, in that order.
In a table of 192 countries with the hardest-hit at the top, New Zealand is ranked seventh from the bottom. If you measure the threat posed by Covid-19 purely in human, personal terms – that is, the virus’s direct impact on sufferers and their families – then these figures represent a powerful vindication of the Ardern government’s elimination strategy. But of course the political equation is far more complicated than that because it has to take into account broader concerns such as the economic costs of lockdown, the disruption to children’s education and the effects of social isolation on personal wellbeing and mental health.
So which six countries have kept their Covid-19 death rates even lower than New Zealand? If the statistics collected by Johns Hopkins are to be believed, we’ve been out-performed by China (ironically, considering it was the source of the virus), Bhutan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Laos and Tanzania.
The data-gatherers may be too polite to say it, but these countries’ figures should probably be treated with some scepticism. Johns Hopkins does caution that there are inconsistencies in the way the statistics were compiled and that country-to-country comparisons may be misleading. The point should also be made that the figures don’t distinguish between the original virus and the much more contagious Delta variant.
Subject to those provisos, however, the Johns Hopkins table makes interesting reading. What else does it tell us?
■ Singapore is another standout performer, with 55 deaths, a CFR of 0.1 percent and 0.96 deaths per 100,000. (Singapore’s CFR is the lowest on the chart, but that may be due to the exclusion of patients who had Covid but died of other causes.)
■ The shocking figures for Fiji (496 deaths, CFR 1.1 percent and 55.73 deaths per 100,000) are a stark reminder of the trauma experienced by one of our closest neighbours – a country that has dropped off the New Zealand media’s radar screen as a result of our absorption with our own imagined hardship.
■ Some commentators attribute New Zealand’s success in controlling the virus to the happy geographical accident of being surrounded by sea, and hence better able than many countries to protect its borders. But Malta (441 deaths, CFR 1.2 percent, 87.73 deaths per 100,000) and Iceland (33 deaths, CFR 0.3 percent. 9.13 deaths per 100,000) have been hit much harder despite being similarly isolated.
■ Sweden (14, 692 deaths, CFR 1.3 percent, 142.84 deaths per 100,000) controversially opted not to lock its population down, yet has fared markedly better than Italy, the UK, France, Spain and Portugal. On the other hand, its mortality rates have been much higher than in the other Scandinavian countries.
■ Israel’s vaccination programme has been held up as a model for the rest of the world, but with 7043 deaths, a CFR of 0.7 percent and 77.79 deaths per 100,000, it’s still in the wrong half of the Johns Hopkins table.
■ The countries that have suffered most from Covid-19 tend to be in Eastern, Central and Southern Europe (Montenegro, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, in addition to those mentioned above) and Latin America (Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia), though there are exceptions to the overall pattern (such as Belarus and Venezuela, assuming their figures can be trusted).
■ Germany (92,229 deaths, CFR 2.3 percent, 110.94 deaths per 100,000) and the Netherlands (18,368 deaths, CFR 0.9 percent, 105.97 deaths per 100,000) have managed significantly better than the other major countries of Western Europe, of which Belgium and Italy (15th and 16th on the table, respectively) fared worst.
■ There’s surely a thesis to be written on why Canada suffered far less severely than the US, despite being just across the border and spending significantly less per capita on health.
■ There’s another thesis to be written on the contrasting Covid-19 strategies adopted in Australia and New Zealand, and their strikingly different outcomes. Whoever writes it might like to consider, among other things, why New Zealand appears more amenable to lockdowns. Setting aside contrasting political structures, I think it’s another reminder that despite all our superficial similarities, the two countries are culturally and socially quite distinct. Some might say it’s the difference between a larrikin country with lawlessness in its DNA (that would be Australia, in case you’re wondering) and one whose people are meeker and more compliant - or if you prefer, more inclined to pull together in pursuit of a common goal. But I won’t stick my neck out by going any further than that.
(You can see the Johns Hopkins table here.)