Health Analysis

World COVID leaders no longer: Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan down in 2022

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Data on COVID-19 deaths over the last 12 months offers lessons for the future, as Alan Austin reports.

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

WAS IT COMPLACENCY after early successes? Or sheer bad luck? In 2022, the deadly coronavirus, COVID-19, caught up with many of the nations which had maintained sound records in fending off widespread fatalities through the first two years.

With the virulent new Omicron strain, XBB.1.5, now spreading rapidly, worse may be yet to come.

Success turns to failure in Australia and New Zealand

Let’s go back to the beginning. Through the pandemic’s first two years, from the earliest deaths in January 2020 to the end of 2021, Australia had managed the disease remarkably well. By 31 December 2021, Australia had lost 2,353 lives at the rate of 90.7 per million population. That was the fourth lowest among all 52 very highly developed nations. See grey chart, below.

(Data source: Worldometers)

Taiwan fared even better, losing 850 lives at the rate of 35.6 per million. New Zealand performed best of all advanced nations, with just 59 fatalities to the end of 2021 at 11.8 per million.

Analysis at that time commended those governments for prompt border closures, strict quarantining, imposing social distancing and conveying accurate information in a timely manner. Those “successful” administrations were favourably compared with the USA and the United Kingdom which had lost 2,554 and 2,174 lives per million respectively by December 2021.

Then came 2022, with new strains, COVID fatigue across many communities and significant political resistance to regulations perceived to be unnecessarily onerous.

In a statistical phenomenon that defies explanation, the five advanced countries which at the end of 2021 had managed outcomes best were the five worst-hit nations through calendar 2022 — in precisely the same order.

The best-performed nations by 31 December 2021 were New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia and South Korea. Through the following 12 months, the worst-performed were, in order, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia and South Korea. Bizarre! See blue chart, below.

(Data source: Worldometers)

What are the chances?! It’s as though the virus has a mind and a will of its own and a warped sense of black humour.

Current success stories

The value of the blue chart, above, showing last year’s outcomes is that it reveals which countries now have the virus well-controlled and hence which policies are currently most effective.

Middle Eastern countries have done conspicuously well, with Oman, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Qatar comprising seven of the top eight.

The best outcomes in Europe, which was particularly badly impacted in the early months, were in the Netherlands, Romania, Switzerland, Czechia and Belgium, all of which kept deaths below 15 per million over the year. Other countries with commendably low mortality rates were Argentina and Uruguay in South America and several Eastern European countries. In Asia, only Malaysia kept the death rate below 50 per million, achieving a creditable 14.6.

The worst outcomes were recorded, besides those five Asia-Pacific nations discussed above, in Finland, Norway, Denmark and Japan.

Changes of administration

Both Australia and the United States have had changes of federal government since the pandemic began. In each case, outcomes appear to have improved following the changeover, although assigning effects to causes is naturally tricky.

Through the last three months of 2022 – October to December – total coronavirus fatalities in Australia were 1,861. That compares with 3,267 lives lost in the last three months of the Morrison Government — February to April 2022.

The pandemic raged in the USA for 11 months while Donald Trump was the Republican President. Deaths per month averaged 40,873 over that period. Over the two years – almost – Democratic President Joe Biden has been in charge, deaths have declined to 29,195 per month on average.

These numbers suggest the changed approaches in each country may have been effective. But because other factors unrelated to national administrations are also in play, not too much should be made of this.

Outcomes overall to date

The critical variable for country comparisons, of course, is the total fatality rate over the entire pandemic, from beginning until now. This shows Australia and New Zealand still faring well above average despite their horror year in 2022. The same is true of Taiwan and South Korea, although not Hong Kong. See green chart, below.

(Data source: Worldometers)

The United States remains among the worst-impacted advanced nations, along with the Eastern European countries hit hard early. Of the 13 worst-affected nations over the entire pandemic, ten are in Eastern Europe.

The most successful states overall are in the Middle East (Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Kazakhstan) and in the Asia-Pacific (Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan).

Looking ahead

The latest Omicron strain, XBB.1.5, first emerged in the USA in October and has since spread to more than 30 countries, including Australia.

Infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, Michael Osterholm, described it as “the worst variant that the world is facing right now”. That is based on its occurrence soaring from 20 per cent of cases in the USA to 40 per cent in one week.

Authorities in Australia do not yet know if XBB.1.5 is more dangerous than previous strains in terms of health impacts or survival rates.

The message is to keep informed, comply with any new requirements and keep up to date with vaccine boosters.

Then let’s hope 2023 is better for Australia – and the rest of the world – than last year.

*This article is also available on audio here:

Alan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @alanaustin001.

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