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.