Mean age of Covid-19 death equal to average life expectancy

5 April 2020

Simon Thornley

To understand the risks of ending lockdown, it is useful to think of a worst-case scenario. What would happen if ending lockdown led to a fate like Spain, Italy and New York.

A well-known epidemiologist has calculated the answer. For individuals aged less than 65 years, even in ‘pandemic hotbeds’, the risk of dying during the outbreak in hard hit European countries, is about the same as that associated with driving a car between 15 and 100 kilometres per day, throughout the pandemic. For people aged forty or younger, the risk is almost zero. Females have a risk two to three times lower than for males. For people aged younger than 65 years, with no medical conditions, the risk of death is extremely low, with this group contributing only 1/100 of all Covid-19 deaths.

Underscoring the low risk of death, the authors of the study noted that the mean age of death is approximately equal to the average life expectancy at each center. The exact ages of cases are not given for New Zealand cases, but if these are fixed at their midpoint for those for whom only a decade is given, the mean age of death is 81.6 years. This very closely approximates New Zealand’s life expectancy of 82 years. Since the numbers are so close, it is very difficult to argue that the virus is causing early death. In fact, such a pattern is replicated in almost all countries heavily affected by Covid-19. The risk of death in people aged less than 65 years was at least 92% lower compared to their older counterparts in eleven hard hit Covid-19 regions.

This analysis must force us to ask difficult questions, such as if our population of working age are at so low risk, why are we locking down our entire population? If the risks posed by the virus are so low, what are the downsides of locking down? Why are we closing our borders, and devastating our economy due to such a threat? On the basis of such a threat, why are we so obsessed with eliminating the virus?

There are really two choices that continue to be open to us to contain the virus, in the case of increased spread. These two combinations are ongoing lockdowns, or opening up the majority of society, returning us to work and school and protecting the vulnerable. The question of the closure of our borders continues to loom, as we consider whether we can remain cut off from the rest of the world or we work toward a sort of Australasian bubble.

The lockdown affects people of all ages, taking children away from school and workers away from their jobs. In contrast, protecting the vulnerable largely means that people over working age, past their 65th birthday are vulnerable.

The toll is starting to mount. In Queenstown, 30% of the population faces unemployment. Now, more than 100,000 kiwis are looking for mortgage relief. The true magnitude of the effect of the lockdown will take some time to be realised.

At the same time that we are dialing back the real risks posed by the virus, the downsides of putting the country in handcuffs are becoming more apparent. We urgently need to get back to work and school and do our utmost to protect the vulnerable.