In a previous article titled ‘Lockdowns “Postponed the Inevitable”. Is That a Bad Thing?‘, I noted that South Korea and New Zealand couldn’t keep the virus away forever, but by postponing large outbreaks until their population had been vaccinated, they suffered many fewer deaths per capita than the US and nearly every other country in the world. Over 800,000 Americans would be alive today if the US had their death rate. In that article, I asked if South Korea and New Zealand had damaged themselves by delaying outbreaks, or rather, would the US have benefitted had it tried a bit harder to suppress the virus.

I thought the answer was obvious, at least to anyone who feels mass death and suffering is a bad thing.

Not everyone agrees with my assessment. I am referring to an article written in August 2022 by Dr. Jay Bhattacharya titled “Zero Covid Has Cost New Zealand Dearly“. Because Dr. Bhattacharya wanted unvaccinated young people to contract COVID, New Zealand’s decision to protect all of its citizens represents the antithesis of his pro-virus stance. As such, Dr. Bhattacharya was always going start with his conclusions and then search for the evidence. Predictably, the article contains multiple flaws, which become clear in the article’s second sentence which states:

Covid cases in New Zealand have exploded, with cumulative cases per capita now exceeding US levels.

While the simple tally of cases in the US is an enormous underestimate that renders comparison meaningless, Dr. Bhattacharya acknowledges that New Zealand abandoned its Zero Covid strategy. New Zealand couldn’t close its borders and periodically lockdown forever, especially in the face of Omicron. But they chose to do so until most of their citizens were vaccinated. Though Dr. Bhattacharya rightly criticizes New Zealand for a slow vaccine roll-out, he recognizes that:

By February 2022, like other developed countries, New Zealand had successfully vaccinated a large proportion of its population, elderly and young, vulnerable and non-vulnerable alike.

Of course there is no group that is “non-vulnerable”. That’s a myth that promoted by doctors who experienced the pandemic entirely from their laptop. However, even Dr. Bhattacharya is forced to concede that:

New Zealand’s strategy delayed the inevitable spread of Covid throughout the population to a time after the development, testing and deployment of a vaccine capable of reducing the burden of severe Covid disease. Despite having experienced more Covid cases per capita throughout the pandemic than the US, New Zealand has a tiny proportion of the US’s Covid-attributable deaths per capita.

Dr. Bhattacharya was also forced to concede another uncomfortable point, writing that “All-cause excess deaths – below baseline levels in 2020 – shot up in 2021 and in 2022“. The link in Dr. Bhattacharya’s article produced the following graph, showing that countries that let the virus run wild had much greater excess mortality than New Zealand for nearly all of the pandemic. New Zealand’s largest increase mortality occurred only after they abandoned their COVID Zero strategy, but because most of their population was vaccinated by then, they fared much better than the US and UK.

Despite this, Dr. Bhattacharya does not feel that any of this really matters compared to the economy. This is why he didn’t tell his readers that 800,000 Americans would be alive today if the US had New Zealand’s COVID death rate. Instead, Dr. Bhattacharya’s readers will learn detailed statistics about New Zealand’s economy. He wrote,

There was economic damage as well during the Zero Covid period. New Zealand’s typically robust tourist industry collapsed as overseas visitors stopped coming. The New Zealand economy shrank by two per cent in 2020 despite Zero Covid, recovered to grow by 5.6 per cent in 2021, but shrank again in the first quarter of 2022 as Omicron cases spread throughout the nation. In July 2022, inflation reached 7.3 per cent, sharply reducing the purchasing power of New Zealanders.

I agree with him that lockdowns are bad for business, and I don’t want to trivialize their financial harms. I was sheltered from this the way he was sheltered from the care of COVID patients. However, countries that let the virus run rampant didn’t exactly have booming economies either. Millions of Americans lost their jobs, and the whole world is suffering from inflation today. It’s probably not good for offices, restaurants, and theaters when so many people are dying that morgue workers have to use forklifts to move bodies into giant refrigerated trucks, as happened here in New York City at the pandemic’s start. It’s also probably not good for business when workers get sick. A new study estimated that 4 million Americans are out of work due to long COVID, though Dr. Bhattacharya will be unlikely to acknowledge this unwanted fact. Of course, even if all of New Zealand’s economic woes were from their “Zero Covid period”, it’s not obvious to me this financial price was not counterbalanced by their citizens not dying.

Dr. Bhattacharya concluded:

Finally, New Zealand’s strategy relied entirely on the development and testing of a vaccine outside of its borders. Indeed, the vaccines could never have been tested in 2020 and 2021 within New Zealand because there were insufficient Covid cases to run a meaningful randomised trial. In effect, New Zealand relied on the fact that other countries did not adopt a Zero Covid policy to create conditions that permitted New Zealand to escape from the Zero Covid trap it embraced until spring 2022.

Ultimately, New Zealand’s Zero Covid strategy was immoral, incoherent and a grand failure.

In essence, Dr. Bhattacharya is saying, since the rest of the world suffered from COVID, New Zealand had no right to contain the virus. He feels New Zealand was “immoral” for not letting more of its citizens die of COVID.

I wonder how many New Zealanders feel their country’s COVID approach was “immoral, incoherent and a grand failure”. I wonder how Americans, especially those who lost a loved one, feel their country’s approach was “immoral, incoherent and a grand failure”.

Author

  • Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19.

Posted by Jonathan Howard

Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19.