🔒 Costly Covid-19 shutdowns and when to lift lockdown: US vs SA death tolls

About 5.2m people around the world had tested positive for Covid-19 as of 22 May. Of these, 333,000 people have died, with just under 95,000 deaths reported of 1.5m cases in the US. The world’s second-highest death toll has been reported in the UK, with more than 36,000 succumbing to the novel coronavirus which sprung into life at the end of last year. As Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre statistics indicate, Russia is powering up the table of worst rates of spread, with about 350,000 reports of Covid-19 contagion, followed by Brazil, with 310,000 cases. China – where it all started – has reported about 4,500 deaths and recently shutdown cities in the Dongbei region after new Covid-19 cases were brought in from Russia. South Africa has a relatively low case rate and death toll, with some commending the government for early steps to contain Covid-19 and others lambasting the ANC for over-reacting to health-related statistics at the expense of jobs, livelihoods and the economy. Fresh modelling from Columbia University on the US situation serves to highlight that the picture could have looked very different by now in SA. – Jackie Cameron

By Thulasizwe Sithole

There is a loud call for the South African government to lift one of the world’s strictest Covid-19 containment lock-downs. A group of respected actuaries, mathematicians and economists – called Panda, which expects at best 10,000 Covid-19 deaths – has asked whether strict lockdown is necessary, while many business owners warn that millions of jobs will be lost forever, exacerbating poverty and ultimately playing into more deaths, though not from contracting the Covid-19 virus.

In the US, there is much criticism because lockdowns appear to have been too loose and too slow to be implemented. The New York Times has picked up on new estimates that suggest ordering Americans to stay at home just one week earlier would have saved a staggering 36,000 lives. And, a lockdown two weeks earlier than the US began imposing social distancing measures would have prevented eight out of 10 deaths to Covid-19.

“The enormous cost of waiting to take action reflects the unforgiving dynamics of the outbreak that swept through American cities in early March. Even small differences in timing would have prevented the worst exponential growth, which by April had subsumed New York City, New Orleans and other major cities, the researchers found,” say the reporters.

Covid-10 modelling

“It’s a big, big difference. That small moment in time, catching it in that growth phase, is incredibly critical in reducing the number of deaths,” Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia and the leader of the research team, is quoted as saying.

The findings are based on infectious disease modelling that gauges how reduced contact between people starting in mid-March slowed transmission of the virus. Dr. Shaman’s team modelled what would have happened if those same changes had taken place one or two weeks earlier and estimated the spread of infections and deaths until May 3,” says the publication.

The results, say The New York Times, show that as states reopen, outbreaks can easily get out of control unless officials closely monitor infections and immediately clamp down on new flare-ups. And they show that each day that officials waited to impose restrictions in early March came at a great cost.

“After Italy and South Korea had started aggressively responding to the virus, President Trump resisted canceling campaign rallies or telling people to stay home or avoid crowds. The risk of the virus to most Americans was very low, he said.

“’Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on,’ Mr. Trump tweeted on March 9, suggesting that the flu was worse than the coronavirus. ‘At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of Coronavirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!’

In fact, continues The New York Times, tens of thousands of people had already been infected by that point, researchers later estimated. “But a lack of widespread testing allowed those infections to go undetected, hiding the urgency of an outbreak that most Americans still identified as a foreign threat.”

In the New York metro area alone, 21,800 people had died by May 3, says the report. “Fewer than 4,300 would have died by then if control measures had been put in place and adopted nationwide just a week earlier, on March 8, the researchers estimated.”

All models are only estimates, and it is impossible to know for certain the exact number of people who would have died, notes the publication.

But Lauren Ancel Meyers, a University of Texas at Austin epidemiologist who was not involved in the research, reportedly said that it “makes a compelling case that even slightly earlier action in New York could have been game changing.”

“This implies that if interventions had occurred two weeks earlier, many Covid-19 deaths and cases would have been prevented by early May, not just in New York City but throughout the US,” Dr Meyers added.

Comment from Biznews community member Kathleen Finegan:

Dear Alec,

Having read the projections from the government regarding the number of predicted deaths from Covid-19 in SA, one needs to ask how have they calculated these figures?

Although our numbers are increasing, they are certainly not doing so at the same rate as they did in the USA, the UK and Italy.

Several years ago I had to do a talk on the care of the elderly in SA. This was before we had easy access to ARVs. I was horrified to learn that in SA the percentage of the population over the age of 65 was a mere 5%. The bulk of the population, 34%, at present is under the age of 16.

In SA at present, 6% of the population is over 65; UK 18%; USA 16%; Italy 23.1%

The average age at death in SA some years ago was around 57—-this has improved to 63.5 now. But when comparing these figures with those in the UK 81.6, USA 78.4, Italy 83.24

We know that SA has a much younger population and many of these people are immunocompromised.

The question is: can the models used in Europe and the USA be used in SA when predicting the Covid-19 numbers?