Analysis by Keith Rankin.
This morning, RNZ played the following story: Health stats show 87 people have died in their homes from Covid-19 since March, which references New Zealand’s most media-visible expert, Dr Michael Baker. (And this on today’s Morning Report.)
Before commenting on today’s story, it is pertinent to check out a story published on 1 August 2022. Habitual mask-wearing is likely helping Japan, Singapore and South Korea bring daily Omicron deaths down, epidemiologists say. The ‘clickbait’ headline was: ‘The countries keeping Omicron deaths down have something in common and it’s very simple’.
The Covid Virtues of East Asia?
The earlier story is about the need for trusted experts to report the facts accurately, and how easily available evidence suggests that much of what these experts say appears to fall short of acceptable standards of accuracy. And it certainly points to the need by journalists to fact-check statements by accepted experts as well as statements by conspiracists.
(My account here is not about facemasks, except to note that, like just about any consumption activity, mask-wearing has diminishing benefits and increasing costs.)
The 1 August story was not written by Dr Michael Baker, New Zealand’s very own Dr Covid. But he is prominently cited, for example: ‘”I’m looking at the countries that appear, on paper, to be keeping their mortality very low – despite having lots of circulating virus, and it’s basically the Asian countries, particularly Japan, South Korea, Singapore,” he said.’
Before that, Dr Baker, in an interview with Newshub said: “Societies who are using masks are doing very well, like South Korea, Japan.” (See my Covid 2022: Sweden versus South Korea, Europe, Asia. To see just how not-well they are actually doingthis year.)
The internationally published data is very easy to access online, especially in Our World in Data and Worldometer. For the countries Michael Baker mentions, these Worldometer country pages (especially charts for ‘active cases’ and ‘daily deaths’) show the empirical truth (for the Omicron waves, look at the period from February 2022):
It’s true that the second omicron-waves were only just beginning when the article was published, but there was ample evidence that, not only had these countries suffered substantially during their first omicron-waves, but their second omicron-waves were clearly underway. (And these countries are not even in winter, when the worst waves typically occur!)
This chart put the South Korean covid deaths in context (and this, on the same scale, for the European norm); so the death impact was twice as great as the (then world-topping) published figures showed. (Excess deaths are easily available from Our World in Data; and see this in the New Zealand Herald.)
The data from Worldometer and Our World in Data directly contradict the assertions by Michael Baker about the abovementioned East Asian countries. (Another country to mention is Malaysia, which stopped reporting total deaths after September 2021, in the middle of its ‘Delta outbreak’. While Malaysia has continued to report Covid19 deaths, it is almost certain that the undercount in Malaysia is substantial and larger than it was in Singapore and Taiwan. My understanding is that Malaysia, like Singapore, is a substantial wearer of facemasks.)
When will a journalist in the traditional media confront Dr Baker on his claims on how well East Asian countries are doing? (And noting that, implicitly, he has been comparing East Asia with West Europe.)
RNZ’s syndicated programme Mediawatch, on 17 July 2022 made the very pertinent comment that much of the New Zealand’s traditional media has decided to play-down the whole Covid19 story, essentially because their readers (and their journalists?) are ‘over the pandemic’. And the programme also noted the somewhat inhuman way that the deaths are being downplayed.
The first irony (with respect to the topic of the story) is that, in the following week, New Zealand became the country with the highest weekly death rate in the world. The second irony is that Mediawatch itself pushes the Michael Baker narrative; a narrative which substantially downplays the state of Covid19 in East Asia in 2022.
As well as promoting Baker’s narrative, Mediawatch presents the Covid19 virus as our ‘enemy’ which “hasn’t finished with us” and may never do so.
When the dust settles, SARS-Cov2 (the present covid virus) may well turn out to have been principally the enemy of the other human coronaviruses; in other words, the Covid19 pandemic may have finally put an end to the ‘Russian Flu’, which was at its pandemic peak in the early 1890s, and which brought New Zealand’s indigenous tangata whenua to their demographic nadir. And, while Omicron-covid was in the process of becoming part of our global micro-ecosystem, along with other micropredators, it proved a devastating enemy to Delta-covid!
New Zealand’s Covid19 Deaths
On latest data, from February 2022, about 2,400 people in New Zealand have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid19, and about 1,650 have died because of Covid19.
The Ministry of Health give no details of the places these people have died, and they give no details of the percentage of hospitalised people with Covid19 who die in hospital. From the article cited at the very beginning of this essay, it would appear that fewer than 100 died at home (surprisingly few), and that the vast majority of Covid deaths – by both definitions – have occurred in hospital. (Some will have been in rest homes and in palliative care facilities.)
We should note that under the first (now unfavoured) definition, it is easy to compile timely data about where people died. Yet the Ministry of Health opted not to do so. Their preferred definition gives data that is substantially out of date, incomplete, and harder to itemise.
Reading between the lines, today’s RNZ story appears to have been the result of attempts to get information weeks ago, but frustrated by Ministry of Health stonewalling. It’s clear that the Ministry has, for its own political reasons, opted not to answer all the questions put to them. And it’s also apparent that Michael Baker, while answering questions put to him by RNZ, has been less than proactive in his critique of the Ministry of Health’s apparently political approach to the management of the covid mortality data.
The qualitative and quantitative underreporting of covid deaths in Aotearoa New Zealand remains an ongoing scandal; that includes our choosing to ‘not want to know’ the fact that New Zealand has had the world’s highest covid death rates over the last month.
The attempts (with or without intent) by both the Ministry of Health and much of New Zealand’s traditional media to suppress that knowledge, and the lack of human-interest-compassion (noted by Mediawatch) when reporting the daily press releases, is setting a future New Zealand government up to have to apologise, in much the way that the Canadian government is now apologising for the ‘brushed-under-the-carpet’ deaths of indigenous school children in what passed last century for ‘educational establishments’.
In particular, the unpublished metric of concern is the number of people who died of Covid19 contracted between four and six months after their most recent ‘booster’ vaccination. Given that a substantial majority of people who died opted to have their ‘first booster’, we can be confident that most of them would have had their second booster ahead of the widely predicted (indeed predicted by the Prime Minister) ‘winter wave’ had they been allowed to do so.
The vast majority of ‘first boosters’ took place from January to March 2022, which meant that only a very few vulnerable New Zealanders were allowed to receive their ‘second boosters’ before the school holidays which began on 9 July. My best guess is that about at least fifty percent of Covid19 deaths since May 2022 in New Zealand were of people who would have chosen to have a second booster four months after their first booster, had they been allowed.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.