Counting the hidden costs of staying home to save lives

Gerhard Sundborn, Senior Lecturer Population and Pacific Health, the University of Auckland, urges us to consider that while staying home may be saving some lives, it is causing death and devastation to many more.

On Thursday 26th March in response to Covid-19, in an unprecedented action, our government enacted a state of emergency to lock our country down to prevent a purported

The modelling that generated these frightening statistics is questionable. When we look at the actual number of infections of covid-19 in New Zealand in proportion to those deaths ‘possibly’ related to covid-19 it is apparent that this modelling was incredibly misleading. Renowned Stanford University epidemiologist Professor John Ioannidis raised the notion that much of the debate and statistics around covid-19 is a “once-in-a-century evidence fiasco.”

Deaths during the 4-week lockdown
Covid-19 ‘related’ 13 deaths
All other causes 2,688 deaths

After 28 days, 12 elderly people have sadly died in their 70s, 80s and 90s. It has not been established if they died with Covid-19 or from the virus.  Although these deaths are undoubtedly sad, when viewed from the perspective of ‘years of life lost’, this is nothing like a wartime tragedy as modellers have made it out to be.

On average our country has had one Covid-19 related death every two and a half days.

Meanwhile, by comparison, across the country, two hundred and forty New Zealanders die every two and a half days from less publicised but equally tragic health conditions such as: heart disease, cancers, suicide, diabetes, pneumonia, respiratory infections, the flu and old age. Over the four week ‘lockdown’ period to date approximately 2,688 New Zealanders have died from other causes.

Like the twelve Covid-19 related deaths, these 2,688 non-Covid related deaths are not merely statistics. They are individuals – our mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters and friends. Each loss of life is heartbreaking for those left behind.

Regrettably, the strict conditions imposed during this ‘lockdown’ has meant that for those 2,688 + 12 individuals who have departed – children have not been able to farewell dying parents in hospitals, dying people have not been surrounded by their loved ones during their final days, and funerals have taken place in empty funeral halls with no more than a lonesome widow by the departed one’s casket. These unconscionable conditions are outlined on a pandemic response funeral management plan prescribed by our Ministry of Health and based on a scenario that 32,000 deaths had occurred, which was last updated in 2012.

Within our Tongan community, a friend explained that already his family has endured these restrictions in the passing of four family members on separate occasions since the lockdown began. No doubt, for the close family and friends of each of the 2,688 and 12 deaths during this period – additional stress, depression, and grief is likely to be experienced long into the future as a consequence of not being able to celebrate their loved one’s life with the dignity and respect deserved. Where is the dignity and humanity afforded to anyone or family in such circumstances?

Dr Elana Curtis, Associate Professor in Māori Health has described similar experiences in her Māori community and speaks to the “terror being unleashed on my people”, specifically relating to tangi.

A workmate explained to me her frustrations with this ‘lockdown’ as her first grandchild was expected and she was primed to support her daughter during such a special time. These plans had been derailed. The emotional anguish was clear and understandably so.

My grandmother is 93 and lives in a retirement village close by. Her memory is vague these days and she is thought to have a mild case of Alzheimer’s dementia. She has been accustomed to seeing her family every day or two, does not like to socialise with others and is becoming increasingly agitated, lonely, and confused. She often asks why we have not visited and has spoken of ‘what is the use of being around if I can’t see my family’ even going as far as saying she should end it all. Along with this, our team has received reports of increased rates of suicides from District Health Board members. It was distressing to hear of the 93-year-old man from the Kapiti Coast who developed panic attacks and eventually died as a result of social isolation measures, rather than from the virus. My fear is that my grandmother is giving up and may well die of loneliness and despair before we can see her again, hold her hand, comfort her with idle chat over a cup of tea, a smile or a hug.

The question must be asked how many more of these ‘silent casualties’ is the lockdown responsible for?

While these are anecdotes, our team has received e-mails from District Health Board members who state that suicides have increased during the lockdown. As Treasury forecasts increasing unemployment of up to 26%, this is not unexpected, since evidence shows that suicide risk triples in frequency during similar circumstances.

These silent deaths and silent tragedies combine with growing evidence that the health risk of the pandemic has been exaggerated, to suggest that staying home is saving some lives but taking others.