Pedestrians and pandemics

A couple of days ago, Adam Creighton had a piece in the Oz, downplaying the risks of the coronavirus pandemic, under the headline “Under 60, in good health? Crossing the road is more risky” Authors don’t choose headlines, but in this case, it’s an exact quote from the article.

There was no supporting analysis, so I decided to do the numbers myself. I looked at Sweden (quoted as a success by Creighton) which seems reasonably comparable to Australia, except that they haven’t gone for a lockdown. I started with some rough estimates on Twitter, and corrected them in response to comments. What follows is the final version.

In 2019, Australia had 172 pedestrian deaths a figure that has been stable for some years. As with the virus, over-60s are more at risk, accounting for 40 per cent of fatalities, compared to 15 per cent of the population. So, just over 100 pedestrians under 60 died last year in Australia. That’s about 2 per week.

Looking at Sweden, there have been 86 virus-related deaths of people under 60 so far, virtually all of them in the last three weeks. That’s about 28 per week, or 14 times the Australian rate

Now we need to adjust for the population difference. Sweden has about 10 million people and Australia about 25 million (ideally, we’d look at the under 60 population, but I’ll leave that adjustment for later). So, as of now, the virus risk to Swedes under 60 is approximately 35 times as great as the risk to Australian pedestrians under 60.

We don’t know how things will change in Sweden. Their strategy is one of “flattening the curve” while allowing the virus to spread slowly. Unless (as some have claimed) there are a huge number of undetected case, it will take a long time to reach herd immunity. Perhaps the current restrictions are sufficient to keep R below 1, but that seems unlikely to me. Even if it turns out that way, thousands more will die before the infection fizzles out.

It’s important to note that we have a lot of interventions aimed at reducing pedestrian deaths. It’s an offence to cross a street without using a crossing if one is available, or to do so against the lights. Drivers are subject to a huge range of laws which have been highly successful in reducing the risk they pose to themselves and other road users, including pedestrians.

And, as with other risks, the same people who want to let the over-60s* die to save the economy have typically been keen to give motorists more scope to kill themselves and others. The Centre for Independent Studies, for example used to push something called “Safe Speed“, and is now denouncing lockdowns. In the US, where these forces have more cultural and political support, pedestrian deaths just hit a 30-year high.

  • Full disclosure: I am over 60, and ill-disposed towards people who think my life is expendable.

24 thoughts on “Pedestrians and pandemics

  1. I’ll just mention that at 66 times Australia’s current COVID-19 death rate per capita, Sweden is a clear disaster zone when it comes to managing the virus. Worse, there’s no real sign of the carnage tapering off. If they had instituted 100 year old public health measures of the sort used in Australia to eliminate the virus there would be a couple thousand more Swedes in the world today. Or maybe 1,900 if you want to be picky and spot them a few deaths due to complications from yodeling injuries.

  2. The forecasting of the recovery from the CV-19 responses is so like the Douglas Adams meaning of life question – guaranteed to keep philosophers in the money for ever. Every forecast holds so many variables as to be endlessly debatable – that’s what I call real thinking.

  3. I haven’t looked it up (as I don’t have time), but I vaguely recall that there is state law in (I think) NSW that prohibits the publication of misleading information relating to health. IIRC it was used some years ago to successfully prosecute the anti-vaxxer “Vaccination Information Network” and force that organisation to change its name and take down misleading publications. Presumably the law still exists. However, I suspect that the NSW authorities wouldn’t have the gumption to use that law against media commentators spreading misinformation about COVID-19, even if it occurred to them.

  4. Creighton says “Under 60, in good health?”
    You give a comparison for Swedish deaths of under 60 year olds. You haven’t accounted for comorbidities in the Swedish deaths.
    You might be right, Creighton might be right.
    Your apples v oranges comparison provides no insight at all.

  5. You can understand how things went so badly for Tony Abbott when you realise that Adam C was one of his advisors before he joined The Australian.

  6. I regret clicking on the ‘Safe Sped’ link. That article reminds me of the superficialities that decorated Reader’s Digest in its heyday.

  7. @Michael That’s a pretty desperate stretch. Have you thought about what rates of comorbidity you’d need to outweigh a 35 to 1 differential.

  8. It’s not the rate of comorbidity in the Swedish & Oz populations that matters, it’s the relative risk of death for those with commorbidity that matters. What’s the number for deaths in young Swedes with no other risk factors. I suspect it is rather low. That’s the number you need to fact check the headline.

  9. Herd immunity is NOT a given. People are blindly assuming that herd immunity will occur for COVID-19. Take influenza (admittedly not a coronavirus). Herd immunity does NOT occur. New immunizations are required nearly every 2nd flu season for mutations. Take the 20% or so of colds caused by corona virus relatives of covid-19. Herd immunity does NOT occur. Colds are perennial. We get partial immunity to these pathogens which immunity then fades within 6 months to 2 years. It is quite likely, indeed more likely than not, that COVID-19 immunity will start to fade in from 3 to 6 months and be faded altogether by about 18 months to 24 months at the latest.

    There also has NEVER been a successful vaccine made for any pulmonary coronavirus for humans, dogs or cattle. Maybe there has not been enough research or maybe it will prove technically / immunologically impossible. We don’t know yet.

    It really annoys the heck out of me when people like Adam Creighton who obviously know nothing of empirical data, statistics, medicine, immunology or epidemiology come out with these completely unsupported opinions. A little research of reputable sources easily exposes his assumptions as utter nonsense.

  10. The conservative fixation on one snall country that is clearly getting it wrong, Sweden, is extraordinary, There are now plenty of countries of all sizes that are doing much better: China, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Singapore, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Cuba, Jamaica. “Emulate failure” is a very peculiar strategy.

  11. James Wimberley,

    You fail to factor in their major criterion. If rich people can make lots of money then it doesn’t matter (to them) how many other people die. Just like terrorists, their actions are logical from within their own rationale.

    Markets are constructed in neoliberalism (market fundamentalism) to outsource moral decisions to the market mechanism. Let the market decide is their standard rubric. In a completely free market everything would be for sale to the public: slaves, highly unsafe products, previously restricted, poisons, heavy weaponry and so on. It only takes a simple reductio ad absurdum to demonstrate that free markets morally, socially and ecologically cannot be permitted. Then it becomes a moral and also an economic efficiency set of questions to determine how much markets should be regulated.

    I mention economic efficiency because empirical research shows that unregulated markets are inefficient. They lead to inequality, usually by oligopoly formation and regulatory capture: and ths to the inefficiency associated with inequality. We can also note how unregulated markets destroy the environment. It can hardly be efficient to destroy the supports of the economy and human life.

    “Inequality leads to lower growth and less efficiency. Lack of opportunity means that (a nation’s) most valuable asset — its people — is not being fully used. Many at the bottom, or even in the middle, are not living up to their potential, because the rich, needing few public services and worried that a strong government might redistribute income, use their political influence to cut taxes and curtail government spending. This leads to under-investment in infrastructure, education and technology, impeding the engines of growth. . . . Most importantly, America’s inequality is undermining its values and identity. With inequality reaching such extremes, it is not surprising that its effects are manifest in every public decision, from the conduct of monetary policy to budgetary allocations. America has become a country not ‘with justice for all,’ but rather with favoritism for the rich and justice for those who can afford it — so evident in the foreclosure crisis, in which the big banks believed that they were too big not only to fail, but also to be held accountable.” – Joseph Stiglitz.

    Stiglitz’s “growthism” might be a concern unless he recognizes the need to transition from quantitative growth (in a finite biosphere) to qualitative growth (improved technology, culture, knowledge, eco-services and human services).

  12. Michael Kottek… 35 to 1, Dr Phil and… Taleb’s reply to those who use switch n bait / strawman statistics – ever seen a pedesrian death multiply exponentially?

    “Indeed, if Taleb is chronically irritated, it is by those economists, officials, journalists, and executives—the “naïve empiricists”—who think that our tomorrows are likely to be pretty much like our yesterdays. He explained in a conversation that these are the people who, consulting bell curves, focus on their bulging centers, and disregard potentially fatal “fat tails”—events that seem “statistically remote” but “contribute most to outcomes,” by precipitating chain reactions, say. (Last week, Dr. Phil told Fox’s Laura Ingraham that we should open up the country again, noting, wrongly, that “three hundred and sixty thousand people die each year “from swimming pools — but we don’t shut the country down for that.” In response, Taleb tweeted, “Drowning in swimming pools is extremely contagious and multiplicative.”) Naïve empiricists plant us, he argued in “The Black Swan,” in “Mediocristan.” We actually live in “Extremistan.”

    The Pandemic Isn’t a Black Swan but a Portent of a More Fragile Global System

  13. The Swedes got what balance right? Deaths vs money? This is a short-sighted and ethically dyslexic approach. The world is now a laboratory for COVID-19 responses so time will tell. It is even possible that the savage Social Darwinism implicit in the USA’s “let it rip” policies will succeed, though personally I doubt it. The social damage more likely will be so great that the USA becomes highly politically, and thence economically, unstable.

    Talib is right overall;

    “As Taleb told me, “The great danger has always been too much connectivity.” Proliferating global networks, both physical and virtual, inevitably incorporate more fat-tail risks into a more interdependent and “fragile” system: not only risks such as pathogens but also computer viruses, or the hacking of information networks, or reckless budgetary management by financial institutions or state governments, or spectacular acts of terror. Any negative event along these lines can create a rolling, widening collapse—a true black swan—in the same way that the failure of a single transformer can collapse an electricity grid.

    COVID-19 has initiated ordinary citizens into the esoteric “mayhem” that Taleb’s writings portend. Who knows what will change for countries when the pandemic ends? What we do know, Taleb says, is what cannot remain the same. He is “too much a cosmopolitan” to want global networks undone, even if they could be. But he does want the institutional equivalent of “circuit breakers, fail-safe protocols, and backup systems,” many of which he summarizes in his fourth, and favorite, book, “Antifragile,” published in 2012. For countries, he envisions political and economic principles that amount to an analogue of his investment strategy: government officials and corporate executives accepting what may seem like too-small gains from their investment dollars, while protecting themselves from catastrophic loss.” – Bernard Avishai, New Yorker.

  14. This report doesn’t look good for Sweden. Includes the death of a 40 year old nurse. I’m sure there are plenty more cases like this. Note that even three deaths of healthy people under 60 would blow Creighton’s claim out of the water.

    And, from Worldometer, peak deaths so far were 185 on Tuesday – twice as many in one day as we have lost in the entire pandemic (mostly caught overseas)

  15. Sweden seems to have a patriarchal approach to COVID, there is only person and he is calling the shots. This is not the broad based approach advocated by epidemiologists.

  16. IMO the distinguishing feature of the Swedish model is that for healthcare to be successful people must die.

  17. Michael Kottek says: “Good grief KT2.
    I don’t suggest doing nothing.”


    Covid vs pedestrian deaths does seem an apples vs oranges stretch yet disinformation and arm chair epidemiologists with a platform – news – need to be seriously challenged.

    The pedestrian comparison needs to be expunged from memory as they do not replicate not multiply.

  18. “Full disclosure: I am over 60, and ill-disposed towards people who think my life is expendable. ”

    I am of that age also, but on Anzac Day it’s worth remembering that leaders around our age thought that young people were very expendable once upon a time.

  19. I am over 60 and I think my life is worth less than a young person’s life. But I don’t think my life is worth nothing at all. I also don’t think my life is worth less than some other person’s “right” to have a roaring business providing non-essentials at CO2 emission and pollution costs incompatible with preventing climate change and saving the sustaining world environment.

  20. Michael Kottek – did you look at the Euromomo data you linked to? The first map describes Sweden as having a “very high” rate of excess deaths, while Norway has no excess. The country by country charts appear better, but Sweden has still passed the “substantial increase” threshold.

  21. Adam Creighton, words fail to describe my feelings as to this individual.
    Sorry.. no more.

  22. Terence,
    Of course I looked at it. I have been watching it for weeks.

    Yes Sweden has a real spike; a bit worse than their last flu year; the Italians, a fair bit worse than their last flu year.

    I think the Swedes got the balance in their response about right.

    Influenza in Aus this year will be trivial because of social distancing.
    Do you advocate this level of social distancing every winter to limit the number of old frail people in nursing homes from dying from pneumonia caused by the flu (or common cold corona viruses)? If not, why not?

  23. Glad you did this. I read the Creighton article. His binary of lockdown-no lockdown overlooks all issues of timing. italian lockdown came after huge spread of virus.

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