Politics Analysis

Lessons from COVID-19: Government inaction led to needless deaths

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump (Image via ABC News)

We now have the capacity to reflect on how ignorant government responses to the COVID-19 virus caused millions of needless deaths, Alan Austin writes.

GOVERNMENT ACTIONS matter. Following medical advice saves lives. Millions of people lost their lives unnecessarily by refusing simple precautions after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world with devastating impact in early 2020.

For the last five and a half years, medicos, academics, government workers, politicians and others have watched with dismay the mounting toll from the airborne SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The central COVID-19 database has been Worldometers, which has updated numbers of mild cases, severe infections, tests, deaths and recoveries for 229 nations daily. Now that Worldometers has suspended its tallies, we can review the data and draw conclusions.

Government responses cost lives

Norway and Sweden are neighbouring Scandinavian countries far from Europe’s COVID-19 epicentre in Italy and even further from its source in China. We would expect both advanced nations to have been safe from disaster.

In fact, Norway lost 6,638 citizens to the infection, which was 1,204 per million population. Sweden, in contrast, lost 27,407 citizens to the infection, which was 2,682 per million — more than double Norway’s rate.

Subsequent studies have shown that Sweden tried to avoid a societal shutdown by seeking natural herd immunity. Sweden’s health agency dismissed advice from scientists and international authorities as extreme and permitted media and political bodies to advance their own preferred responses.

The Swedish people were not given basic facts such as transmission being airborne, that asymptomatic individuals can be contagious and face masks work.

The people of Norway can be thankful their government, in contrast, heeded the science, issued timely warnings, and provided both information and masks.

Vast death rate differences

Wealth, education and advanced medical facilities were no guarantee of safety. Many countries kept the death rate well below 100 per million. These included most poor African nations, the islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and several wealthy Middle Eastern states.

In contrast, France, Spain, Britain, Sweden and the U.S. – world leaders in medical science – all lost lives at rates higher than 2,500 per million.

Eastern Europe was impacted most severely, with the Czech Republic, Georgia and Croatia losing more than 4,000 per million, while Hungary and Bulgaria lost more than 5,000.

There was extraordinary variance in impact across the developed world, ranging from 232 deaths per million in Qatar to 5,661 in Bulgaria.

(Source: Worldometers Coronavirus Statistics | worldometers.info)

The deadly incompetence of Donald Trump

Canada and the United States adopted contrasting approaches to the pandemic and experienced divergent outcomes. In Canada, 59,034 citizens died, at the rate of 1,538 per million. The U.S. – led by President Donald Trump when the virus appeared – copped a staggering 1,219,487 fatalities, at 3,642 per million.

Mismanagement by the Trump Administration included waiting far too long to suspend incoming flights from China and Italy, failing to test and quarantine returning travellers, refusing to recommend social distancing and masks, spreading racist conspiracy theories, diminishing the severity of the risks in speeches and advocating whacky solutions.

Trump’s influence can be seen in the disparity in deaths between the states which voted for him in the 2020 Presidential Election and those that didn’t.

Of the 17 states with the lowest death rates, only four were majority Trump voters in 2020.

(Source: Worldometers Coronavirus Statistics | worldometers.info)

States with Democratic governors, like Washington, the District of Colombia and Hawaii, all had death rates below 2,300 per million.

Republican-run states Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia had death rates above 4,500 per million — almost double. That is statistically significant.

Australia eventually successful

Overall, Australia ended up among the low death toll nations, losing 937 citizens per million population. Final data shows Australia experienced 11,853,144 active cases — which was 45.5 per cent of the population, resulting in 24,414 deaths.

The spread across states was quite uneven, with New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia losing more than 900 citizens per million population — whereas  Western Australia and the Northern Territory lost fewer than 490 per million. The other states ranged in between.

This does not reflect the performance of state governments. However, the surge in Victoria in early 2022 was due almost entirely to the gross mismanagement of federal nursing homes by the then-Morrison Government.

Variances in testing regimes

The number of tests done across the world varied enormously. Austria and Denmark completed more than 22 million tests per million population.

The majority of OECD members conducted between one million and eight million tests per million. At the bottom end of the scale, South Korea only tested 308,000 per million and Mexico even fewer at just 152,000.

The U.S. and Australia were in the middle, with 3,545,000 and 3,142,000 tests per million, respectively.

Critical messages from the data

Lessons learned include that travel bans were effective but frequently imposed too late. Quarantining returning travellers reduced the spread. Masks worked well.

Authorities recommend countries better coordinate their responses next time, notably regarding access to vaccines and travel restrictions.

A report by McKinsey and Company found that government policy matters — but individual behaviour matters more. It concluded that the effectiveness of lockdowns and mask mandates depended on compliance.

Hopes soared in late 2020 that the rapidly-produced vaccines could achieve herd immunity quickly. They were dashed by the reality of vaccine hesitancy which enabled the virus to mutate and spread.

Economic stimulus was effective when matched with strong public health measures. The size of the fiscal stimulus did not matter. Controlling the spread of the virus did.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) met last month to discuss plans for 'Disease X' — the next pandemic, as yet unidentified.

Everyone engaged in public health policy hopes that when it arrives – as it will – recent learnings will minimise its toll.

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

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