Flat White

Covid maths: two plus two equals five…?

5 January 2022

12:00 PM

5 January 2022

12:00 PM

Everyone has made mistakes in mathematics, but some mistakes are more important than others.

In a contract I was working on, our team put a proposal together to manage a customer’s computers. As part of the contract, there was a mistake which meant we had proposed to charge a customer a once-off fee of $20,000 when it should have been a fee of $20,000 per annum for the duration of the contract, which was five years. Had the proposal been successful, that would have represented a loss to our company of $80,000.

Needless to say, I nearly had heart palpitations when I saw the final trial run of the presentation and realised the error. Such a mistake would have left us red-faced and looking incompetent as we tried to backtrack on what had been proposed. Those involved may have also been in need of new employment.

On December 15, 2021 the Minister for Health Brad Hazzard made the following statement:

Now I’ll remind everybody that in our first year of the pandemic, we had similar modelling that told us we’d have 25,000 deaths in the first year.

But because the community responded, because they actually wore masks and socially distanced and did all that they were asked to do by public health, we managed to keep those deaths down considerably.’

This is a significant claim. But how true or reasonable is it?

If we examine a country with minimal mitigation and no invasive health orders, we get an idea of a worst-case scenario. Sweden in 2020 had no vaccines, encountered the most virulent strain of Covid, and did not have the benefit of accumulated experience.

In 2020, 8,727 Swedes died ‘with’ Covid and presumably many less ‘of’ Covid. It has a population of 10.1 million. If we adjust this for New South Wales and its population of 8.2 million, we would expect a worst-case fatality scenario of 7,085 Covid deaths. This would be the baseline figure should no beneficial mitigation be applied.

This means, according to Hazzard, 17,914 extra people would need to die to meet his claim even before any mitigating circumstances were applied. What does this tell us about Hazzard’s impression of the success of his department? Either he felt his health officials and civil servants were so incompetent that thousands of extra lives would be lost, or he was quoting figures which could not possibly be correct.

It is excusable for a member of the general public to make a mathematical error like this, but it should not go unchallenged when made by an experienced politician with an enormous budget and supporting department. Hazzard would be fully aware of how his message would be received and the panic with which the press would repeat it. I can imagine having to look for another job for losing a company $80,000 but what would be an appropriate penalty for someone who loses over 17,914 people in a calculation?

Mistakes happen, but information fitted around a narrative of fear does not give an accurate picture of what is really happening. Instead, it fosters anxiety and diminishes hope.

Hazzard is not the only high profile government department, organisation, or prominent person to stoke fear in recent months.

The Sydney Morning Herald carried the headline, Australia prepares for 50,000 to 150,000 coronavirus deaths on March 16, 2021 based on commentary from Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly. These initial estimates provided by medical experts remain several orders of magnitude larger than what has transpired in Australia.

Norman Swan wrote on Twitter on March 21, 2020:

1700 on Monday, 3400 on Wednesday or Thursday, 7-8000 by next weekend. True number by then 70-80,000 possibly. Primary school maths. Someone should go figure. No magic fairy will bring that down. 14-20 days behind Italy. Believe in maths not magic.’

His prediction of infection numbers – which ranged from 7,000 to 8,000 or as high as 70,000 to 80,000 – were both a long way from the actual infection rate in March 2020 of 3,635. The total number for all Covid infections in 2020 was 28,536.

In the case of Australia, it was projected that 50,000 to 150,000 people would die directly from Covid during the pandemic. When you add the media focus and acceptance of high (but questionable) modelling, pictures of patients on ventilators surrounded by medical staff in full protective gear, inter-cut with footage of mass graves – it is hardly surprising that many in the public became fearful.

It is time to realise that the division and derision which has resulted from government decisions based on secretive health advice has to stop. Every day this continues is a day longer it will take for relationships to heal, although I fear some never will. We are stretched as a people. Australia’s spirit of unification as a nation has been fractured but not yet broken.

Government leaders and civil servants, it is time to get out of our lives so we can heal the damage. Those who represent the people and are funded by the people should serve the people as we have selflessly served political demands for nearly two years.

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