THE DATA IS IN. While columnists wave the flag for “living with Covid”, top medical journals say the numbers tell a different story: the minimizing “Covid elimination” strategy associated with China, New Zealand, and a few other places, is statistically better for public health, the economy, and even civil freedoms.
Fridayeveryday looks at the numbers associated with the effect of Covid-19 in four special features.
1. Five differences between the columnists and the scientists
While pundits push “living with Covid”, science writers say the data clearly shows the advantage of elimination strategies associated with China, New Zealand, Singapore, and a small number of other places. That strategy is better for public health, for business, and even for civil freedoms.
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China’s approach to managing the pandemic has clearly worked, so why do Western media outlets feel compelled to tell a different story? Seeing other (surely inferior!) societies doing far better may help explain this desire to sermonize, argues Richard Cullen.
Negative political activism and rashly alarmist media reports were among the key factors that stopped Hong Kong’s elderly from being vaccinated. Richard Cullen reports.
The anti-government movement used firebombs and shame campaigns to stop people being vaccinated, says Nury Vittachi
Five differences: Scientists, columnists fall out over best Covid response
Elimination (the scientific term for attempts to isolate and wipe out Covid in specific places) is statistically better for public health, the economy, and even civil freedoms, the statistics show.
A GULF IS GROWING. There’s a large and expanding gap between popular discourse and scientific discussions on one particular topic. Pundits pushing conventional wisdom are saying that the “living with Covid” strategy spearheaded by Boris Johnson was clearly the right answer for everyone. “Zero covid” is a failure.
Or is it? The discussions among science writers come to very different conclusions. The Lancet, the British Medical Journal, and other scientific sources say that the numbers tell an alternative story: the various “elimination strategies” clearly produce better results for both public health and business.
Here are the five main points in brief so you can decide.
1. The numbers tell the story:
The saga began with China opting for a go-hard-go-fast elimination strategy after the virus emerged in Wuhan; this was copied in New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, and elsewhere. And today? These places have lower numbers of deaths than most places which moved to a “low restrictions” model.
“Obvious benefits of rapid elimination are greatly reduced case numbers, a lower risk of health sector overload, and fewer overall deaths from Covid-19,” said Michael Baker in an analysis for the BMJ.
2. “Elimination model is for authoritarians only”?
This has been widely asserted by columnists, but the evidence is against it. Few people would list Australasia as “authoritarian”. Hong Kong and Singapore are highly westernized societies, and both successfully used similar strategies.
An example of a strongly western liberal community that selected elimination and succeeded in achieving East Asia-style results is the city of Davis, California. The residents are baffled as to why people in the rest of the country are not copying their methods.
3. “Can’t stay at zero forever.”
The pundits say that elimination may work for a while, but cannot last forever. True. Very few countries (Turkmenistan is one, North Korea another) have reported zero cases.
But the scientists say that having a significant period of time at zero is clearly beneficial in terms of numbers of lost lives. The covid-free periods bought time to study the disease, increase the vaccination rate, and lower total number of deaths and hospitalizations.
4. “Ah, but Zero Covid places changed eventually to Living with Covid”:
The pundits say that the fact that the countries which followed elimination strategies are now adjusting their strategies shows that “Boris was right”.
Not true, say scientists. All societies fine-tune their strategies from time to time, including China, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
“But No-Covid’s early champions had to shift in part because other countries let the virus rip,” says science writer Laura Spinney, writing in the UK Guardian. If everyone had followed an elimination strategy, the numbers of deaths would be lower everywhere. Omicron did not evolve in Singapore or New Zealand or Hong Kong. It was brought in from places which failed to eliminate it.
5. “Zero-covid policies are killing business.”
A 2021 study in top medical journal The Lancet presented data that showed that societies which chose elimination not only prevented more deaths, but ultimately enjoyed a faster economic recovery. China’s ability to get their factories up and running again is clear.
The BMJ study came to the same conclusion: “The effect on gross domestic product (GDP), based on International Monetary Fund projections for all of 2020, was more favourable for countries with elimination goals than for those with suppression goals,” it concluded.
Interestingly, firm elimination policies also lead to a quicker return to civil liberties. So, for example, many people in China could quickly stop wearing masks and resume having parties in several locations after the disease stopped spreading.
Another issue is terminology. Science writers say that many people don’t really understand the terms. “Endemic” does not mean that a disease becomes mild and common like colds and flu. Malaria, for example, is endemic in many places and is extremely harmful.
“Zero Covid” is also an unhelpful term. It distracts people from the actual numbers of individuals affected – which is the key to judging which systems are working best.
Another issue that the columnists who support the abandonment of restrictions pioneered by the UK’s Boris Johnson fail to consider is that Long Covid is a thing – and a very scary thing, at that. “It’s looking increasingly likely that countries that tolerated high infection rates, including the UK, are facing a sizeable burden of long-term disability,” says Spinney.
Furthermore, countries that drop all restrictions will not just see a rise in hospitalizations now, but put themselves at risk for the next variant.
“The vaccines do not stop transmission completely, and by abandoning the non-pharmaceutical interventions that do, those countries also increase the likelihood – far from trivial, as scientists highlighted again this month – that a variant more severe than Omicron or its “stealth” subvariant could arise,” Spinney says.
In summary, we see a stark gap. Columnists typically say “Living with Covid” is clearly the best system, while a number of biostatistical studies say that forms of elimination strategy cause lower rates of death and faster recovery for economies.
Now read the other parts of our Covid data special.