Why Hong Kong’s coronavirus measures are out of proportion to the risk
- Hong Kong officials’ obsession with reducing case numbers to zero means they have paid scant regard to society’s broader interests
- There is no denying the global scale of the pandemic but, unless kept in perspective, the cure may be worse than the disease
“Lies, damned lies, and statistics” is an oft-used phrase to denote the misuse of statistics, be they wrong or misinterpreted. For the past year, we have been deluged on a daily basis with numbers – Covid-19 cases, deaths and hospitalisations – and then data about the fallout from lockdowns, school closures and attendant unemployment, government debt levels, etc.
Scary headlines about the number of deaths can be misleading if they are taken out of a broader context of past and present measures of health and mortality.
There is scant evidence to suggest that Covid-19 has raised the death rate. Indeed, the rate in the 12 months to June 2020 showed a slight drop compared with 2019 as a whole, at a time when death numbers are rising by 1 per cent to 3 per cent a year due to population ageing and increase.
Meanwhile, the longer-term costs in terms of loss of income and education, and treatment of other diseases, remains a worry for future generations – not the old folk such as myself who may have been saved from Covid-19 by the strict measures. Contrary to populist media headlines, not all lives are equal.
Nor are the death figures for Hong Kong unique. The Philippines has been notoriously unsuccessful in controlling the virus spread despite lockdowns. Headlines scarily report a 5.8 per cent rise in the overall death rate in Metropolitan Manila over the past year compared with the five-year average. Yet, for the first six months of 2020, the total deaths in the Philippines were less than in same period in 2019.
And, over the past five years, the total population has increased by 8 per cent and those aged over 65 by nearly 30 per cent. All statistics need context.
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But it has not been as high on the scare scale of “excess deaths” reported in most media, which compared the past year with a five-year average – during which time the total population increased by 3 per cent, and the number of those aged over 65 by 5 per cent.
For sure, lockdowns may have also reduced road and air pollution deaths but that merely tells us how little we normally care about other death threats relative to Covid-19.
The other health statistic usually ignored are the deaths, particularly in developing countries, from other well-known diseases. Tuberculosis kills about 1.5 million people annually, including many young people. Judged (as it should be) by years of life lost rather than crude death numbers, its impact is greater every year than Covid-19 over one year. Malaria’s 400,000 annual victims are mostly children.
Resistance to antibiotics is growing apace, resulting in thousands of deaths annually even in advanced countries. Hospital-acquired infections are one source. Yet the research effort given to new antibiotics is modest compared with the mobilisation against Covid-19.
There is no denying the global scale of the pandemic and the suffering of those with serious and prolonged cases. But, unless kept in perspective, the cure may be worse than the disease and may cause untold mental health damage in particular.
Meanwhile, it should teach us about the importance of public health in general and the pre-emptive role of government in creating conditions which prevent or contain chronic as well as communicable diseases, long- and short-term health threats. The loyalty of Hong Kong’s administrators, its civil servants, should be to the population and society they serve, whoever is the supreme ruler.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator