Rod Jackson: How many Covid 19 coronavirus deaths are acceptable?


Mum died prematurely following complications of a fall at the age of 95, just a few weeks before the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Wuhan. I say she died prematurely because her mother, my grandmother, lived to 100 and Mum was living independently, with all her marbles, until a few months before her death.

I had always assumed she was going to beat my grandmother’s 100 mark. Mum did complain to my wife about feeling tired quite a lot, but this was not surprising given she had a more active social life than we did.

Surely those who downplay the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic have or had mothers and grandmothers. Yet one of their main arguments, aside from refuting the high Covid-19 death rates, has been that most of the deaths are in old people, who were going to die anyway.

This is a somewhat meaningless statement because we are all going to die – I teach my students that the death rate is one per person per lifetime but it’s the timing that’s important.

Of course, old people are going to die, on average, sooner than younger people, but we still do our best to prevent unnecessary death.

Boris Johnson is reported to have dismissed the 130,000 Covid-19 deaths in the UK, because they were mostly in people aged over 80. Actually, almost half were under 80 and Covid-19 was the No 1 cause of death in the UK in 2020, ahead, of heart disease and stroke.

My research team has recently reported that about two out of every three New Zealanders aged 80 years and over are taking daily drugs to prevent heart attacks and strokes. Every day we operate on New Zealanders aged over 80, to unblock arteries in their hearts, so they can go back home and carry on with their busy lives.

Up to one in five of all public hospital beds in New Zealand are occupied by people over 80 years. The President of the United States is almost 80. The only New Zealander I personally knew who died of Covid-19 was an 85-year-old practising GP.

Also, the pattern of Covid-19 deaths in different age groups is very similar to the pattern of all deaths in different age groups, yet would those who downplay the severity of Covid-19 deny life-prolonging drugs and health services to people once they reach the age of 80?

Some American politicians are now downplaying the significance of Covid deaths in younger people, because most of them have underlying health conditions. So should we also deny health services to everyone with an underlying health condition, whatever their age?

Approximately one in five New Zealanders are classified as having underlying health conditions and these proportions are much higher for Māori, Pacific and the most socio-economically deprived New Zealanders.

In a recent RNZ interview, I said that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump should be prosecuted for genocide and a member of the panel suggested that what I meant was “a crime against humanity”. Genocide is “the intentional action to destroy a people – usually defined as the ethnic, national, racial, or religious group – in whole or in part”, so I stand corrected.

However, about 4 million people in India are believed to have died of Covid-19. US life expectancy plunged by 18 months on average in 2020, but it was three years for Hispanic people and 2.9 years for Black Americans. Is there are clear boundary between an intentional action and the intentional inactions of politicians that have led to many millions of deaths over the past 18 months?

The Radio New Zealand interviewer asked me, “how many deaths from Covid-19 would be acceptable?” Given that we know how to prevent every Covid-related death, simply by preventing people from getting infected, the answer is none.

• Rod Jackson is Professor of Epidemiology at the School of Population Health Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland.

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