Australia, New Zealand, and the Covid Pandemic: Success or Failure?

Melbourne in September 2020


Published: September 2022

Did Australia and New Zealand succeed or fail during the covid pandemic?

In August 2022, US professor and Great Barrington Declaration co-author, Jay Bhattacharya, argued that “ultimately, New Zealand’s Zero Covid strategy was immoral, incoherent and a grand failure”.

Is such a harsh judgement really justified?

In early 2020, it made sense for places like New Zealand and Australia to close their borders and try to keep the novel virus out, as they had done during previous flu pandemics. They could hope to gain time and possibly get access to treatments or vaccination, especially since both countries have high-risk populations due their very high obesity rates.

Even brief preemptive lockdowns may have made sense in order to disrupt any undetected early transmission (while borders were already closed). Yet the Australian state of Victoria, and its capital city Melbourne in particular, have shown that just one or two mistakes (in a quarantine hotel) were sufficient to trigger an out-of-control regional infection wave. Thus, the “Australian way” simply wasn’t an option for most other countries.

The fact that vaccination campaigns in Australia and New Zealand started half a year later than in Europe and the US may have been due to global vaccine access priority considerations.

Already in mid-2021 it was clear – based on Israeli data – that Australia and New Zealand would get swamped with coronavirus as soon as they would open their borders. Yet they could still hope that prior vaccination would drastically reduce severe and fatal cases of covid.

The unexpected emergence, in late 2021, of the synthetic omicron variant decreased both vaccine protection but also covid severity. The end result is that Australia has suffered significant excess mortality in 2022, though overall still about four times less than Britain and about six times less than the United States since 2020. New Zealand performed even better.

This result has been achieved by avoiding the fierce early coronavirus waves (Wuhan, Alpha, Delta) and by providing some vaccine protection to senior citizens and other risk groups.

On the other hand, Australia invested about $2 billion dollars in mostly unused “quarantine camps”, and the economic performance of Australia and New Zealand during the pandemic was mediocre at best (mainly due to the collapse of tourism, which may have been unavoidable).

In addition, Australia – and especially Melbourne – has seen some of the worst civil rights violations among Western countries during the pandemic (see video: A week in Melbourne, 18+). Many citizens were not allowed to leave the country or even to return from abroad for almost two years.

Concerning the Great Barrington Declaration itself, it should be noted that “focused protection” really wasn’t achieved anywhere in the world: the higher infection rates in the general population were, the higher deaths among risk groups were (including in nursing homes). Only early treatment (ignored in most countries) and then vaccination (forced upon the entire population in many countries) could provide a kind of “focused protection”.

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