Lessons from the response to the pandemic:
Scientifically informed pandemic strategies
Letter to the Irish Times, May 19, 2023
Sir, – Finn McRedmond wrote an opinion article headlined “Covid was a new contour in an existing culture war” (Opinion & Analysis, May 11th).
The article stated: “It (Covid) also taught us that Jacinda Ardern – by closing New Zealand’s borders for over two years, denying her nation the ability to psychologically move on from the worst throes of the pandemic – got it just as wrong as any mainstream denier did.”
There is much we should learn from this (ongoing) pandemic, so that we can plan for future pandemics and experience minimal deaths and restrictions.
International comparisons are essential. Countries that eliminated or actively suppressed the SARS-CoV-2 virus suffered fewer deaths, and also spent less time in restrictions during the worst parts of the pandemic.
This continues to be the case today and the total Covid-19 deaths per million across countries, as of May 2023, provide clear evidence: New Zealand – 538; Japan – 602; South Korea – 666; Australia – 779; Norway – 1,000; Netherlands – 1,309; Canada – 1,358; Ireland – 1,765; Sweden – 2,287; UK – 3,334.
The proof is in the pudding, and New Zealand continues to be the best in class. Remarkably, it is one of the only countries on earth to have maintained cumulative excess mortality below zero for the duration of the pandemic. This is on account of it using an elimination strategy to largely keep Covid-19 out of the country for two years and using this time to achieve high vaccine coverage. They prioritised tight border management and travel quarantine as their first line of defence rather than lockdowns on all of society.
To be blunt, New Zealand’s cumulative Covid-19 death rate in May 2023 is where Ireland was in early January 2021, before the consequences of the 2020 Christmas reopening were felt.
In 20/20 hindsight, it will be interesting and important to compare the overall pandemic approach of New Zealand with that of Japan. Reasonable debates and rational discussions will surely emerge there, with a clear focus on indoor air hygiene.
We must be cautious against revisionist history, so that the actual history does not repeat itself.
Drawing false equivalencies between scientifically informed pandemic strategies and “conspiratorial Covid deniers” is dangerous.
In a global pandemic, no country can escape without a cost. New Zealand chose a low death rate and normal domestic freedoms at the cost and operational challenge of strict border measures. Ireland maintained open international travel, at the cost of both a relatively high death rate and the pain of a long period of time in lockdown.
Lest we forget. – Yours, etc,
Prof MICHAEL BAKER,
University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand;
Prof DANIEL CAREY, School of English and Creative Arts, University of Galway;
Ms SIMONE GEORGE, Human Rights Lawyer;
Prof GERRY KILLEEN, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University College Cork;
Prof DAVID McCONNELL, Fellow Emeritus in Genetics, Trinity College Dublin;
Prof MARTIN McKEE, Professor of European Public Health, London School of Hygiene
and Tropical Medicine;
Prof AOIFE McLYSAGHT, Chair of Evolutionary Genetics, Trinity College Dublin;
Dr JULIEN MERCILLE, Associate Professor and Head of School of Geography, University College Dublin;
Prof IVAN PERRY, Dean of the School of Public Health, University College Cork;
Dr TOMÁS RYAN, Associate Professor, School of Biochemistry and Immunology and Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity College Dublin;
Prof ANTHONY STAINES, Professor of Health Systems, Dublin City University.