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ANANISH CHAUDHURI: Claims about New Zealand saving 20,000 Covid lives are inaccurate and meaningless

In a recent article in the New Zealand Medical Journal, Michael Baker and his co-authors claim that New Zealand saved at least 20,000 lives from Covid death. This article has received a fair amount of media exposure. Given that this is a “viewpoint” article, I am not sure whether the paper went through peer review or not. The article provides an overview of the progression of the Covid pandemic and various associated issues. Most parts of the article are uncontroversial as it presents a series of facts. There are bits of opinion thrown in that might raise some eyebrows such as: As COVID-19 transitions to becoming endemic, some argue that it should be treated more like other infectious diseases. We propose the converse approach of treating other serious respiratory infections such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) more like COVID-19. It is not clear exactly what this means but it seems like Baker et al. are suggesting that we should implement lockdowns to deal with other respiratory diseases. At this point, it has become clear that Baker and his colleagues are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge the massive collateral damages of the policies they espouse. It is well-established that lockdowns have no effect on mortality. But equally, one could take the charitable view that as medical professionals it is their job to focus on diseases and advocate for stringent responses. It is up to the policy makers to figure out the optimal response bearing in mind the various trade-offs. But where did the headline “20,000 lives saved” come from? As far as I can see this comes from a section in the paper’s Appendix, which deals with excess mortality around the world. The authors reproduce a chart from Our World in Data that shows excess mortality in different countries in July 2023. The authors write:

If New Zealand (resident population 5.185 million in 2022) had experienced the cumulative excess mortality of the US (3,739.3 per million) then we would have had around 19,390 excess deaths up to the end of June 2023. With the United Kingdom (UK) excess mortality (3,164.8 per million), we would have had around 16,410 excess deaths, or using the experience of Sweden (1,436.3 per million) we would have had 7,450 excess deaths. New Zealand’s excess was varying around zero in mid-2023 (122 at the time of writing). The claim is deeply problematic. First, how do we know that this excess mortality is the result of Covid? Second, what is an appropriate benchmark or baseline that this mortality is being compared against? Third, what about the age at death, knowing that the age profile of Covid deaths is heavily skewed toward the elderly? Fourth, what about the other social, economic and psychological opportunity costs of some of those policies? Fifth, it is well-known that the definition of a Covid-19 death, in many countries, did not imply that someone actually died from Covid. Finally, it is well-known in the public health literature that “lives saved” is not a meaningful measure. The usual measure is “quality adjusted life years” (QALY) saved. This is the measure used, for instance, by Pharmac in deciding which drugs to fund and which not. New Zealand’s current life expectancy is 82 years. This means that if you save the life of a healthy 80-year-old then you have possibly saved two years of quality-adjusted life while preventing the death of a 5-year-old implies potentially saving 77 years of quality-adjusted life. And yes, this is the exactly the type of calculation carried out by bodies like Pharmac. But suppose, Baker and his colleagues are correct. Even if we take their arguments at face value then based on what they write, the excess mortality is between 7,450 excess deaths (Sweden) and 19,390 deaths in the US. So rightfully the headline should be: “New Zealand may have saved between 8000 and 20,000 lives.” But are these the right comparisons? Should we compare New Zealand with 5 million people to the US (330 million) or the UK (68 million) with both having far greater population density (and other problems) than New Zealand? What if we compare with Denmark, Norway and Finland, each of which has around 5.5 million people. On July 2, 2023, Norway had 1315 excess deaths per million, Denmark 716, Finland 2164. What does this imply for excess deaths? Given that the populations are roughly equal to New Zealand, we could multiple each of these numbers by 5. At best, we can say that we have saved somewhere between 3580 (Denmark) and 10,820 (Finland) lives, a far cry from 20,000. I could only find data for Australia from May 28 when its excess death stood at 1094 per million. This would imply approximately 5,470 deaths. So, the “20,000 lives saves” message is numerically inaccurate and practically meaningless. It is possible that the message got distorted in reporting. It is possible that Baker said that we may have saved as many as 20,000 lives but this was written up as “20,000 lives saved”. But Baker should have noted that “lives saved” is a meaningless measure. It is also true that the fallacies in the argument would be obvious if journalists engaged in double-sourcing, which they are expected to do, by seeking a second opinion from an objective third-party. ---ENDS---

Ananish Chaudhuri is Professor of Experimental Economics at the University of Auckland and the author of “Nudged into lockdown? Behavioral Economics, Uncertainty and Covid-19”. https://ananishchaudhuri.com

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112 Kommentare


joanna.taupo
joanna.taupo
10. Nov. 2023

I totally agree with Ananish. I heard the previous PM repeatedly attest that Labour had saved 20,000 lives from Covid. Each time I said " Rubbish!"

He said it so many times, that I think he had convinced himself, it was fact.

The other statement --complete nonsense - is "Labour has taken 70,000 children out of poverty"

Pardon???????? Where are the facts on this ???????

My definition of complete POVERTY is having - NO food, NO access to food, NO shelter, NO clothes, NO water, NO money, NO access to money.

Sorry, this is not the case in our country New Zealand, (Please note --- NOT Aotearoa).

Especially for part-Māori and Pacific people. There are special organisations providing the following…


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Rusling Mcgehan
Rusling Mcgehan
15. Okt. 2023

A very good article on how the narrative can be manipulated to achieve the required outcome. Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story.. The idiot merchants of doom wheeled out by our last government (RIP Labour). Non of these labour stooges have ever been peer reviewed unless it was a pier off our coast. They all did their best to discredit the real knowledge like Dr Peter McCullough, Dr Pierre Kory, Dr Robert Malone etc who actually know what they are talking about but don't get knighthoods for devious work.

We, the NZ public we hoodwinked, coerced and really forced to take something that may kill, maime of shorten their lives. Now the government has…

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Aaron Shanahan
Aaron Shanahan
11. Okt. 2023

Reading this makes me so bloody angry.

The lockdowns , at first, yes I agree they were necessary, because we didn't then know what the bloody hell we were dealing with.

But the dictatorial and unmitigated self righteous behavior, propogated and encouraged by the media that followed after the vaccine was first introduced by this current government deserves a place in the annils of shame for this country, if there were such a document.

Let me take you back a time or 3.


First we were told that the vaccination wouldn't be mandatory.

Suddenly jacinda yipped yopped and declared it was, introduced mandates that sent thousands of people straight to planet broke.

All in a days work for her, I…


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harveyandsara
harveyandsara
11. Okt. 2023
Antwort an

Good form as usual Arron .So you are not keen on Jacinda then??? Looks like her awfull Facebook rant is not going down well. Many people are unable to handle the full bullshit laden plea.

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Octavian Augustus
Octavian Augustus
11. Okt. 2023

Greg S replies to a commenter below in defence of Baker: "Only with noisy misinformed critics, self-appointed "experts", and the tiny minority of doctors who are totally out of step with the vast majority of their colleagues. On extremely rare occasions fringe mavericks have been right. Not this time."


When Greg speaks of the rare occasions when fringe mavericks were right, does he mean the occasion of the fringe prediction that we would be forced to endure much more than the initial "three weeks to flatten the curve"? Or the fringe claim that masks would be mandated? Or the fringe warning that vaccine passes and vaccine mandates would be introduced and the unvaxxed made social outcasts? Or the fringe assertion…

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NB
NB
13. Okt. 2023
Antwort an

An attitude of moral superiority built on the scientific foundation of Baker and Wiles appears brave.

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Make Ripples
Make Ripples
11. Okt. 2023

Michael Baker's claim that New Zealand has one of the lowest Covid death rates in the world is simply untrue. We may have had negative excess deaths during the first two years of the pandemic, but we have more than made up for that since. According to Worldometer, which uses the most credible data available internationally, the world average total Covid death rate, as at 10 October 2023, was 888.4 deaths per million. New Zealand's total Covid death rate was 995 deaths per million, i.e. above the world average. By comparison, Australia's rate was 875 deaths per million, Japan's was 595 deaths per million and India's was 378 deaths per million.

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zespritz
zespritz
12. Okt. 2023
Antwort an

Worldometer reports average 378 Deaths per million in India.

This might be attributed to the situation where no high Pharma cost Vaccination was available to large portions of the India population, but existing low cost ChloroQuininne was. Personally I put my trust in Vindaloo, it is well known that powerful Vindaloo will force frequent excretion of most fluids and solids, ridding the body at an early juncture of the virus contents, and reducing potential lethal consequences. Can it be rightfully said that Vindaloo saved 990 million of Indias Population. Well it can be said, and with about as much authority as Barkers self devised construct of 20,000 lives saved. I am not at all sure if 19,999 of those counted…

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