Image by David Scullion

This is what we amputated a limb for

A long-term historical perspective on Covid-19

Artillery Row

The main justification for the extraordinary continuing lockdown of public life in Britain has been that the Covid-19 epidemic is an extreme once-in-a-century medical threat, on a par with the Spanish flu of 1918. So to get the Covid-19 infection numbers in better perspective I downloaded the annual death figures for England and Wales that the Office of National Statistics publishes. These records go all the way back to 1838. I then made a line bar graph for the all-cause mortality numbers back to the turn of the last century, to see what they looked like. And then I thought: what if we presumed that the death toll for 2020 is the five-year average plus the Covid-19 numbers?

In reality many of the people who died from Covid-19 were likely to die this year anyway, so in one respect this estimate is likely to be too high. In another respect it’s likely to be too low, as it will not include ‘lockdown deaths’, that is, the deaths from delayed cancer and heart treatments, and so on, but as I was interested in the effect of Covid-19 I didn’t want those in my graph anyway. (Another complication is that not everyone who is classed as a Covid-19 death actually died from it, but I decided to ignore this.)

I am also assuming that lockdown had little effect on reducing the death numbers, which comparisons between different countries and their different lockdown strategies has shown. Sweden and the UK, for instance, had similar trajectories and results. (When the Imperial College modellers tried to argue that European lockdowns prevented millions of deaths their only evidence was… their own model.)

The five year average for 2015-19 is 531,355 deaths per year. As of writing this there were 42,462 Covid-19 deaths in the UK. There are likely to be a few more deaths in the next few weeks, but not many more, as the disease is (barring an unlikely second wave in winter), on its way out. Besides, the number we are adding on here is for the whole of the UK, not just England and Wales, so if anything this number is inflated. That gives us 573,817 deaths for 2020. Then I got hold of the historical population figures for England and Wales, and calculated the death rates per 1000 from it, so that population increases are taken account of. Here is the result:

So: no gigantic, bowel-emptying spike in 2020. No jaw-dropping upwards vertical rocket-ship to match those jaw-dropping downward vertical cliffs we saw with the economic data. Just a tiny little uptick, like many other little upticks in there, indistinguishable from random noise. If you asked someone in the future who was unacquainted with the era to point to where the once-in-a-century medical disaster was, they would have no chance of picking it out.

Far from being a once-in-a-century pandemic, Covid-19 turned out to be a bad flu. We shut down the country for a bad flu. We shut down the country despite living in the safest era in the whole of history.

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