10 September 2021

What we avoided in 2020

Communicable Disease COVID-19

Australian pandemic policies spared us a covid-19 death toll of almost 50,000 last year, modelling from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has shown.

The data, released today, compared Australia’s pandemic experience to outcomes from countries which had a similar population make-up, but took radically different control measures.

If crude case and death rates had been similar to those seen in Canada, Sweden or the United Kingdom – which all have comparable health systems, life expectancy and proportions of people over 65 – then between 16,000 and 48,000 Australians would have died over the first year of the pandemic. We might have had up to two million cases, rather than the 29,000 we did have.

The AIHW report covers the time leading up to May 2021, and so does not include data from the current outbreaks in NSW and Victoria.

Although it acknowledges that a much more detailed analysis would be required to determine the impact of specific interventions, the AIHW does make note that some level of travel ban, physical distancing and other control measures were applied “to varying degrees” in each of the comparable countries.

“It is not possible to determine the reasons why some countries have managed to contain the virus more than others,” the AIHW report reads.

“However, it is likely that countries that had a strong response across a number of relevant areas had the highest chance of containing the virus.

“This type of response minimises the chances of outbreaks in the first place, but also provides the capability to bring them under control when they do occur.”

All told, Australia recorded fewer deaths in 2020 than expected, including statistically significant decreases in deaths over the winter months.

During the height of the initial nationwide lockdown, April 2020, there was a 25% drop in road deaths compared to the year before, with hospital emergency department data also indicating that trauma presentations were lower than previous years.

While there was an increase in psychological distress across the population at the beginning of the pandemic, levels had returned to normal by April 2021, except for young people.

Despite fears that the negative impacts on mental health seen at the beginning of the pandemic would drive an increase in suicide, the total number of deaths remained almost the same across the three most populous states.

On a less positive note, however, the AIHW report also highlighted the fact that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to die from covid.

“There were almost four times as many deaths due to covid registered for people in the lowest socioeconomic group compared with the highest socioeconomic group, and age-standardised mortality rates were 2.6 times as high,” the report said.

There was no clear pattern in the proportion of covid deaths with comorbidities by socioeconomic group for most conditions.

“The exceptions were covid deaths with comorbidities of diabetes and chronic heart diseases (higher in the lowest socioeconomic group) and chronic kidney disease (higher in the highest socioeconomic group),” the report said.

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