In the midst of the pandemic, few countries have managed to keep COVID-19 rates low, with New Zealand one of the most successful examples. A new study finds New Zealand has done much more than that, avoiding a large proportion of the deaths from other causes that have affected the nation in recent years. The data isn't yet available to reveal the reasons in full, but the team who noticed the startling fact have a few ideas.
New Zealand's isolation gives it some advantages in controlling infectious diseases, but a large tourism industry meant that quite a few cases of COVID-19 reached its shores before the threat was recognized. The government responded by locking down hard, keeping movements to a minimum until it could be confident all cases had been eliminated. Brief upsurges when the virus escaped quarantine were also swiftly stamped out. In a nation of 5 million, 25 people died of COVID-19.
Some other countries tried to follow, although usually lacked the compassionate clarity with which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern communicated the decisions. Those opposed to strong government intervention, particularly lockdowns, however, viewed New Zealand as the epitome of what not to do. That included dire warnings of undesirable consequences, both economic and social, including extra deaths from causes such as suicide or domestic violence.
A team of scientists from the Medical Institute of New Zealand have tracked the country's total number of deaths by week in The Lancet, comparing each one with the average from 2015-2019. For most of the first four months of the year, including the first five weeks of lockdown, overall mortality was similar to previous years.
For countries experiencing the highest April mortality for decades that was enviable enough, but starting from late April, New Zealand went much further. Mortality fell to unprecedented levels and remained there until at least until September, the last month available to Dr Nethmi Kearns and co-authors.
Total deaths were 123.4 per million per week during lockdown and thereafter, an 11 percent fall on previous years.
Inquests, autopsies, and reporting take time, so a breakdown of the causes of death is not yet available. The authors note, however, the period covered; “Is usually marked by an increase in all-cause mortality due to seasonal influenza and pneumonia.” The same measures that prevented people from catching COVID-19 also presumably slashed other transmissible diseases.
That's probably not the whole story, however. The paper lists; “Road traffic accidents, occupational causes, air pollution, and postsurgical complications” as other likely reductions, but can't explain why some of these haven't bounced back since lockdown ended.
No one is likely to suggest shutting countries down to replicate this achievement, but the authors suggest a more detailed analysis may prove very useful. If, for example, it turns out air pollution is a bigger killer than previously recognized, that knowledge could be applied in many ways.