Register For Our Mailing List

Register to receive our free weekly newsletter including editorials.

Home / 372

COVID-19 and the madness of crowds

History may well judge the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic as much an emotive and financial panic as a health crisis that led to a recession or depression. More like a GFC Mark II. In a fortnight during March, we saw $US30 trillion (30%) wiped off world stock markets that had begun the year at around $US100 trillion. They had recovered to be 15% below that peak in mid-August. World GDP in 2020 has been forecast to fall 5%, and even with growth in 2021, GDP would be still lower than 2019.

Having been scared witless by panicky leaders, the medical world, and 24/7 sensationalist media, the public has not been given perspective or options, so many wanted immediate ‘safety’ since they believed they had a high chance of catching and dying from the dreaded virus. A grossly exaggerated fear, given that the world will have lost a miniscule 0.015% of its population from COVID-19 in 2020, lower than the average respiratory death rate each year.

Pandemic perspective

How on earth was COVID-19 allowed to panic nations and the world? The reality of death in society does not justify the madness that has evolved, as we see in the data below.

Some additional perspective for Australia can be gained from the following facts.

  • 13 people died from COVID-19 in March-August 2020, on average, each week
  • 154 people die of all respiratory diseases on average each week
  • 3,220 people die from all causes on average each week and every week.

Only the miniscule number of COVID-19 deaths received saturation media coverage. Only a handful of other deaths were mentioned from murder, road and other accidents and the death of somebody famous.

Didn’t other deaths count or matter as much as a virus death? Is there not as much tragedy with the other 3,200 or more deaths every week in Australia?

So, why can’t governments tell their citizens what tiny chances there are of dying from respiratory diseases at large, compared with all other causes of death, and even less from COVID-19 by itself? And why saturate media with ‘positive cases’ when it is only deaths that matter in the final analysis?

Why are we scaring people out of their minds, when the facts do not provide justification? It is almost as if mediaeval witchdoctors have taken charge of our lives and livelihoods (the economy).

Short history of pandemics

Epidemics and pandemics are an integral part of human history, with each outbreak bearing both social and economic costs. The world has endured other outbreaks over the past century. If the early decades of this new century are a reliable indicator, we can expect to see more in the future.

The first table below outlines the main epidemics and pandemics that have been observed in recent history, when and where they struck and the resulting death toll.

The two standouts were the Spanish Flu and HIV/AIDS. The first, which occurred in 1918–20, resulted in over 50 million deaths (>2.5% of the population); and the second, which was first observed in the 1960s and is still present today, has resulted in 30 million deaths to date (0.6% of the average population until now).

The most recently discovered coronavirus, COVID-19, spread rapidly worldwide. The economic impact of COVID-19 on global GDP and stock markets is proving more severe than was anticipated, and we are yet to see the full extent of the damage.

Increased economic vulnerability

A simple statistic reveals the vulnerability of the world today: in 1950 only 1% of the population were international tourists compared to 20% in 2020. So, diseases can go pandemic more easily and more speedily. Counterbalancing this extreme risk is modern medical research which can result in vaccines and antidotes. Many countries reckon they have the response, so here’s hoping.

The epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, China, dominates (near half) the world’s manufacturing output, and that has created an unexpected problem with the supply chains of goods.

In short, the world economy now has a lot more international interdependence between economies and businesses. Exports had trebled their percentage share of the world’s GDP from 10% to 30% over the past 70 years.

It is sobering to know that governments in Australia shutdown tourism (2.8% of GDP), restaurants (1%), international air travel (1.3%), entertainment (> 1%) and other direct or collaterally damaged industries (estimated 8% minimum) or around 15% of the economy. We will have lost 5-7.5% of GDP and possibly on our way to a depression (two years in succession).

The Ruthven Institute’s provisional forecast over the next five years is shown below.

The financial impact

Businesses and investors can be just as spooked with emotional (populist) responses as the public is with diseases. Yet again the stock markets have gone crazy. They have a habit of exaggerating threats as well as exaggerating opportunities, as the chart below reminds us. So, we are on a wild ride, despite the actual economy (GDP) of Australia being nowhere near as volatile as these deviations.

The huge rises and falls in the stock markets are the usual madness of crowds (as expounded by Charles Mackay in his 1841 book: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds).

We have been on some doozies before, including -40% in 2008. We have had four calendar years of falls of around 30% since Federation due to two World Wars, an oil crisis and the GFC.

Where to from here?

The long ‘tunnel’ in the chart below shows where we seemed to be heading before COVID-19 changed everything. The fall in March was -26% (and 31% from our record high in February). This was panic of the magnitude of the GFC, which was caused by sub-prime mortgages and other unethical if not also criminal behavior in financial markets. The market has recovered to be around 15% below the peak but for how long?

So, what are the lessons learned?

Predicting future epidemics and pandemics is easy: they will continue to happen. But knowing what disease, how dangerous, and when it will strike isn’t easy at all. The world has had 14 pandemics over the past 100 years to 2020, averaging seven years apart and averaging <5 % of annual deaths of the population each year. Only three were terrifying (Spanish Flu, Smallpox and AIDS).

So, it is well to remember that >95% of deaths are unrelated to pandemics. Getting panicky and frantic is no substitute for perspective, rational measures and balancing human impacts with ongoing livelihood impacts (business and the economy). Most of the COVID-19 deaths are with the elderly, meaning quarantining the under-65s that create the bulk of our wealth each year is questionable. What will probably be non-negotiable are: quarantining the most vulnerable (over 70-year-olds) and infected, social distancing and masking.

Perhaps the best news, for those prepared to take the long-term view, is that complacency in both health and interconnective trade dependencies is likely to give way to better planning, safer strategies and alliances, and contingency plans.

And perhaps another permanent change is likely to take place with more virtual workplaces, more virtual meetings and more flexibility via increased partial working from home and videoconferencing via the likes of Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Facebook et al. These practices have been in place or available for many years, but they are becoming more user-friendly, of higher quality and offering more features. They will become de rigueur as a result of the pandemic.


Phil Ruthven AO is Founder of the Ruthven Institute, Founder of IBISWorld and widely recognised as Australia’s leading futurist.


Chris McGowan
September 12, 2020

Some have commented that Australia should folllow the swedish approach to covid. sweden has a population of 10 million, 86,000 cases of CoVid and 6,000 covid related deaths. Aust has a population of nearly 25 million. so if we used swedens tactics Australia could have had 215,000 cases and 15,000 deaths.
So are you prepared to take the risk - I'm not.

September 12, 2020

Selective figures!
The number of deaths CAUSED by Covid in Sweden is actually quite low, much much lower than the figure you quote.
Sweden has been quite successful!
See a very useful analysis of the data here:

May 18, 2021

The Swedish model was very successful. There is the issue of liberty and freedom, which was trampled on the tyrannical governments who imprisoned their populations. Sure the Easter Road toll was zero thanks to the lockdown but that is not a desirable way to live. The damage to mental health, neglect of other illness and the economy was disproportionate to the risk posed by this virus that kills predominantly those over 70. Of course,you are no doubt one of those who benefited from the Covid hysteria,you got to sit at home on the sofa full pay and by called a hero by alarmists fear mongering politicans.The response here in Victoria was a disgrace.

September 09, 2020

It's very difficult to call a race while it is being run. It's impossible to compare the mortality and various impacts of an epidemic with historical epidemics. Obviously the numbers just aren't in yet, it has a long way to go yet. I see this article as sloppy to not have at least even acknowledged this fact. It's way too early for a historical comparison, the full impacts certainly haven't been realized.

December 30, 2020

My sons friend was feeling bad and so he waited in line to get tested for three hrs. finally he gave up and left. Later he was told he was positive without even having been tested. ????

September 03, 2020

When a vaccine is developed, trialled and found to be safe for widespread distribution all
previous discussion will be rendered redundant ....... until then look after #1 and those
who you hold nearest and dearest......

September 09, 2020

Phil should get a job as a front line medical worker in New York, Dehli or Rio. Then he may have a different perspective. A few months ago Boris Johnson thought he was bullet proof against Covid 19 (until he ended up in an ICU on a ventilator). Covid 19 is not completely understood and there is a possibility it could mutate into a more deadly strain. I think most countries have tried to do the right thing and this is a great learning curve on how to deal with future out breaks and establish an international standard and mitigate the economic impact.
Guy's like Phil can't tell the difference between the real world and the black board!
In 5yrs time the Aussie economy will be roaring into the 20's!

September 02, 2020

Phil’s comments only make sense when viewed from the very privileged position we have in Australia, where we managed the virus effectively, prudently and took precautions.
Phil is indeed only able to have his perspective because he lives in Australia.
The death would have been a lot higher if we hadn’t had the lockdowns.
We prioritised life and well being. There’s nothing we need to apologise for that.

May 18, 2021

Yes living on an isolated island you could correctly assume that Australia would be totally immune. But thanks to totally incompetent quarantine and contact tracing, especially in Victoria we got the virus here. Hubris is not reality.

Richie Rich
August 31, 2020

It seems to me that Phil has concentrated on simplistic data and neglected the concepts of exponential growth, limited medical capacities and the unknowns of virology. If only life was so simple!

Gary M
August 31, 2020

Extract from US newsletter called the Ross Report on adverse impact of shutdown not in the statistics:
"There is now a study out that has shown the damage to people not infected from the shutdown was extensive and is continuing. Thousands did not get cancer screenings and now have cancer advanced that might have been dealt with. Many others with other serious conditions did not get care and will die or have bad outcomes. Thousands became mentally strained and turned to suicide, alcohol, and drugs, or abuse. Many small businesses will go out of business, ruining the lives of the owners and employees. The cost of the shutdown was gigantic. Many buildings for malls and office will go into bankruptcy. Many who could have remained employed did not. And the fiscal cost to the country will be terrible. In short, all of the things many worried would happen that were bad outcomes, did happen, and the toll is still mounting. If they had instead used the Swedish model with some modifications, putting a lot of lockdown on nursing homes and others with serious health factors, and told everyone they had to wear masks and distance, and possibly just shut down the NY region, the overall death toll including those who die due to the lack of medical care for other things, would have been lower, and the economic and mental health damage would have been far lower. Sweden, now that time has passed, has had a much lower problem than most of the EU, and if you eliminate the nursing home deaths, they did a lot better. Their economy was hit but much less than the EU as a whole. Schools are in session. Life went on. As I has said then, if you were a middle class white person and you took precautions, your chance of getting sick was little and your chance of dying very little. They need to reopen the whole country, and schools now and follow those parameters, and get the economy back in gear."

August 31, 2020

I am saddened that we have reduced the fate of some of our community's most vulnerable to mere statistics. I hope Mr Ruthven heard Kerry O'brien speak on Q&A last night.

August 31, 2020

Well said, but even then the stats are misleading and there is no rigour applied - the number of deaths was tiny, but so was the number of people infected at that stage. All over the world its become clear that medical systems get overloaded with very small infection numbers - and we still don't know the long term impact of this. Think chicken pox and shingles and then wonder what the future might bring.

August 31, 2020

I agree with you. He's just focusing on meter statistics and money. If he thinks the lives are not that important why doesn't he go and volunteer in hospitals serving the COVID patients? Why should only medical professionals risk their lives? 

Richie Rich
August 31, 2020

I wonder if Mr Ruthven's statistical logic applies to his friends or family, or indeed to him. 

Neil Shilton
August 31, 2020

And Kerry Obrien has a statistical or epidemiological background?

September 09, 2020

Q@A?? Left wing ABC socialist propaganda

Mark N
August 30, 2020

Covid-19 is known to be have a morbidity rate of about 10 times higher than the flu, probably about 1%. Obviously the vast majority of those are in older people or people with other health conditions. So it is an extremely serious disease. But it quite frankly it astounds me that the author seems to view human life as so cheap to prefer less economic impact over the loss of potentially millions of lives. In my judgement, all Australian governments have done a very good (but not perfect) job in dealing with this pandemic. I am very happy that Phil Ruthven, and people who share his views, are not in making the decisions.

August 31, 2020

Mark, human suffering and life lost due to the devastating impacts of the radical policies enacted by our government also matter. Unfortunately these facts are omitted from mainstream media but I implore you to undertake some basic research regarding the alarming rise in suicide, self harm, domestic violence, and so forth. Not to mention what lies ahead. A shame also that the facts are not given context. Did you know the deaths are reported as being “with COVID” but not necessarily “from COVID”? Phil Ruvthen, thank you for your measured article. A willingness to analyse, engage in robust debate, and examine issues from different perspectives does not preclude one from “feeling” as is so often implied.

Relative of COVID victim - how many do you know?
September 01, 2020

This idea that a death 'with COVID' is somehow not really a COVID death has to be challenged.
The doctors signing death certificates know exactly what's happened. Someone comes in with breathing difficulties, testing positive for COVID. The virus takes over the respiratory system and the person goes onto a ventillator. Yes, other health issues may have been made worse by this, but the issue is they can't breathe properly. When the ventillator fails, they die a horrid death.
With COVID deaths are caused by contracting COVID. It's really very simple.

September 01, 2020

Agree with Sara. Which is why, if you die in a car crash and tested positive for Covid, they have been reporting it "as a Covid death". It is nonsensical and THAT is what we are talking about, not the perfectly acceptable and understandable statistical anomalies, but the lazy and/or wilful mis-attributation by Governments, purely for political purposes.

And the idea that doctors know exactly what has happened, no they don't, not always. There are deaths from all sorts of diseases or viruses, where the cause of death is likely to have been from, but not definitively identified as. Medicine (and science) is not 100% accurate all of the time.

And I doubt that it is something as simple as "the ventilator fails", that's too simplistic, otherwise there's an issue with their manufacture. More likely that the ventilator can't cope, there are complications etc., not that it runs out of batteries.

Relative of COVID victim - how many do you know?
September 05, 2020

Chris, you cannot be serious? A) that's not happening (there are plenty of independent agencies globally who are keeping tabs on the numbers for non-partisan purposes) and B) the statistical impact of it, if it is happening, is surely miniscule. You are not making a case at all against the overwhelming evidence of the veracity of this virus, nor its deadly impact. You are just trying to send up some smoke to obfuscate the picture.

Graham Hand
August 30, 2020

I understand this is an emotional and controversial subject, but for the record, there is evidence that Sweden's approach is now going well, or at least better than many believed a couple of months ago. Adam Schwab writing in Crikey today says: Sebastian Rushworth, an ER doctor who was on the frontline of the Swedish fight against COVID-19 explained: “The only thing coming into the hospital [in March] was COVID. Practically everyone who was tested had COVID, regardless of their presenting symptoms. People came in with a nosebleed, they had COVID. They came in with a stomach pain, they had COVID. “Then, after a few months, all the COVID patients disappeared. It is now four months since the start of the pandemic, and I haven’t seen a single COVID patient in over a month.” “At the peak three months back, a hundred people were dying a day of COVID in Sweden, [a country with] a population of 10 million. We are now down to around five people dying per day in the whole country, and that number continues to drop.”

After analysing the numbers, Schwab writes: Using those data points, we get to an estimated fatality level of 7,500-10,000 for Australia (with a “Sweden level” of lockdown) ... The great concern in the community is still that, left unchecked, they are at risk of dying from COVID-19. This thesis is largely based on the scenes in northern Italy and New York, coupled with an unwillingness to take another look at the actual data. Let’s also not forget, of those who die from COVID-19, almost all are above 70 with at least one precondition.

September 11, 2020

Not sure where you got your Sweden facts but last I looked, a few weeks back, Sweden, with a population of 10 mil had over 2500 deaths and the economy dropped over8%, further down tban Aussies.

Graham Hand
September 12, 2020

Yes, Ray, not an easy subject to cover even with the data. But we are talking about what works over time, and Sweden is currently recording no deaths while Australia has 10 or so a day. Both are good results in a global context, but how many people in Australia are suffering severe depression, domestic violence and other social consequences? Lifeline reported their highest ever number of calls at over 3,000 a day. Nobody under 30 has died in Australia and only 13 under 60, so we could have focussed on protecting the elderly and vulnerable and done more to leave the economy open (and over 60,000 Australians die each year in aged care facilities, a terrible number but previously none was due to COVID).

August 29, 2020

Other people’s chance of death may have no impact on Mr Ruthven, but l thought he would be concerned about his own (heightened) risk of mortality. I don’t think we will be able to see the full impact of Covid 19 on populations without looking at surplus deaths. The excess deaths over whatever the normal figures are. This should give us a true picture.

August 29, 2020


Two Quotes:
Why are we scaring people out of their minds, when the facts do not provide justification?
13 people died from COVID-19 in March-August 2020, on average, each week

The authors' premise appears to be that there has been an over-reaction to the virus and he seems shocked that the media has been sensationalist, and the share market has moved drastically (yes the media has, for this... and everything else been sensationalist, and the markets... they are the markets).

The basic argument appears to be... Why lock-down etc. etc. if only 13 die on average each week.

What the author should have said is something like... we locked down, we relaxed, then Victoria locked down again and other States remained careful and as a result only 13 people have died on average, each week. It could have been much, much worse.

The lessons learned section (at the end for those who stopped reading) is interesting... and although I don't agree with the tone of the article I agree that as a society we are now better equipped.

August 29, 2020

The death statistics have been fudged as well. Professor Carl Heneghan and his colleagues at Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine have showed that the figures are so loose that they could have included car-crash victims who once tested positive for Covid.

Relative of victim
August 29, 2020

Someone contracts COVID, it attacks their system, they struggle to breath, they go into hospital, they try a ventilator and if it doesn't work they die a horrid death. I know, as I have relatives who've died from it. The stats are not fudged. Talk to any frontline healthcare worker and they'll tell you what goes on with this horrid thing. 

September 01, 2020

Yes, what would an Oxford Professor know ?

September 02, 2020

That may well have been the case in some instances and may be the case in the UK as well.
Indeed I have also heard from Belgium that their death rate is so high due to the way the link a death to Covid that may not have been directly linked to Covid.
A while there’s no doubt that the way a Covid related death is counted seems to be sometimes misleading, it’s also clear that is not the case for the majority of the deaths attributed to Covid, where people have indeed died as a direct result of the virus.

Roger Farquhar
August 29, 2020

I think the lessons learnt from COVID-19 is that the deregulated financial sector has again proven to be ill equipped to advise on any public policy - as numerous enquiries have determined they need to get their own house in order before diversifying into epidemiology, disease control, public health and pandemics.

Robert Hutchings
August 27, 2020

I find the article simplistic and as pointed out by Lisa , patrick Bennett and others the death toll due to Covid 19 would most likely have been much larger than Mr Ruthven postulates if lock-down rules had not been instigated. 2.7% mortality in 1918/18 (Spanish Flue) replicated in 2020 indicates 210 million deaths world-wide - much greater than the 0.015% postulated by Mr Ruthven! A potential death toll over 18 months to two years of 675,000 for Australia alone due to Covid 19. I am glad that Mr Ruthven doesn't have political power in Australia.

Michael RE
August 29, 2020

Robert, if you're going to extrapolate why not assume 5% mortality now to allow for much greater travel - the media would be proud of you.
However, evidence from countries that avoided the extremely expensive lockdown approach (in terms of lives lost as well as GDP) like Taiwan, Sweden, etc suggest mortality of less than 1% is far more reasonable for a non lockdown death rate, and still far smaller than the media and pollies feared, and supportive of Ruthven's argument.

August 27, 2020

This article is simply a selective comparison of statistics. There is no value in using Australia's virus experience, where we have had an incredibly successful response, in measuring against other death and illness statistics. We need to look to places like India, which has had virtually no success in control and it is blowing up badly, however it is still far too early to know what the real death toll will be. The author doesn't seem to get one of the most fundamental problems, this has only just begun! Tell those who were digging mass graves in New York they were overreacting. 

August 27, 2020

He was right.
"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."
From Charles Mackay, 'Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.' The current panpanic and hysterical over-reactions to imagined and modelled worst case scenarios reflects the herd mentality that was evident in medieval times and shows how quickly the human brain has evolved to resort under pressure to instinct, instead of logic. But articles like this show that some people are indeed recovering their senses and ability to apply logic and I congratulate the author on being at the vanguard. Unfortunately our finger wagging state premiers are still in panic mode, shutting down borders, cowering behind masks, issuing edicts and allowing us all to be controlled by unelected medical authorities with their own narrow agendas.

Dec Con
September 20, 2020

This is a terrific article and provides some perspective to the whole COVID 19 crisis. The unfortunate problem is the whole issue has become emotionalised and lots of people have lost the ability to look at it with any logic . Just read the comments above and and the vast majority are trying to condemn the author. Back in Feb all the Medical experts / governments called for lockdowns to allow the medical systems to prepare for massive case numbers. This was probably justifiable at that time as obviously the medical profession were unprepared for the crisis but here we are over 6 months later with low death rates and we are still seeing lockdowns. Look at NZ, 5 cases no deaths and shutdown Auckland...seriously is that rational.? The sad part most of the deaths are in poorer countries who don’t have the medical systems to cope. The author makes a valid point that the death rate is the Number that counts not the Case number. Some people seem to believe the whole world should shutdown for ever til we have a vaccine. The hyprocity of people who live in-first world countries is galling. Millions die of famine, war etc yearly and no one give a F**k. A fraction of the money printed for this crisis could have saved millions of lives throughout the world , provided education to billions of young disadvantaged people. The whole crisis and it’s handling just reflects the self centred world we live in and as rightly pointed out by author people people are manipulated by the media and have sadly lost the ability to think for themselves. I thank the author for having the courage to put an alternative view forward and it is timely as a lots of groups in Europe are now beginning to question government handling of the crisis.

Chris Jankowski
August 27, 2020

The nice thing about a pandemic of a new disease for which there is no immunity in the community is that it is so easy to precisely model it mathematically.

This modelling showed that if we as a society and as individuals were to take no steps to quash the rate of transmissions than in the peak transmission week there would be approximately 2 .5 million of new cases per week. Conservatively, at 2% hospitalization rate with typical stay of two weeks this translates to 100,000 available hospital beds required at the peak + personnel to take care of the patients. Obviously our system has nowhere near this number. In addition, a significant number of medical staff would be sick to further diminish the numbers. The health system would collapse. There will not be enough people to collect dead bodies from homes in these critical two or three weeks. This is what happened in one city in Colombia.

It did not happen in Australia, as our government took action. You may dispute the details of the approach, but you should always remember what would happen if no action was taken.

Furthermore, now with significant experience with the pandemic we know that one needs to limit the number of new case such that every new cluster can be tracked and contained or eliminated. For Australia the limit is most likely to be no more than about 50 new cases per day. Unless we can build up our tracking capacity and effectiveness to much higher degree the sum of all distancing and movement restriction measures needs to be kept at the level where we will not have the 50 or so new transmissions a day.

August 27, 2020

Respectfully, I don't think there's anything precise about modelling this virus at all. By your logic, if the virus doesn't follow the model (which I'm not aware it has followed "the" model), the virus has it wrong. Kind of like lecturing birds how to fly (Taleb).

August 27, 2020

Unlike better researched morbidities for which medicine has a better handle, COVID-19 is still being understood and tentative treatments developed. The fear of the unknown, as well as the fact that irratioanlity and ratioanlity are in the same continuuum justify the choice some regimes made to lock-down. That they did not all succeed as expected is beacuse we are still adapting to it.
Reports of terminal cases dying with no contact with family and friends makes COVID-19 mortality particularly heart-rending.
Another constraint is that group averages mean nothing at the individual statistic level. Probability estimates however robust cannot tell a citizen how she or how he would cope.
We need to put ourselves in the position of leaders who have to decide, and support their impossible roles.

August 26, 2020

Taking a simple theme in keeping with Firstlinks, we know the human frailty in not readily understanding the power of compound returns. If most people tend to naturally think linearly, not exponentially, that also Is the flaw in reasoning of those who seem to just want to let it rip. Without suppression it goes out of control, until everyone has it. Now wouldn’t that lead to an economic disaster?

August 28, 2020

Not necessarily. We'd have herd immunity and we could move on better and stronger.

August 26, 2020

This piece triggered a few inner-city technocrats, it seems. I favour rational discussion and personal responsibility to keep communities safe from the tyranny of experts. The fact of the matter is that with respect to the virus, we don't know all that much - even the experts. But it doesn't mean that we shouldn't be ready to learn and adapt as new information becomes available. Keep up the good work!

Rod in Oz
August 26, 2020

I also cheered reading this very welcome piece. At last a more balanced perspective rather than all the noise, hype and panic. Also being over 70 myself I try to stay in good health and personally have no fear of this virus.

September 05, 2020

If covid becomes uncontrollable, you may catch it when you are admitted to a hospital for some other problem. Oh and your care may be delivered by short staffed and inexperienced healthcare workers (if too many become sick or have to quarantine).

Simon Taylor
August 26, 2020

Unfortunately the author needs "perspective". At only 25 million recorded cases so far, only 1/250th of the world has been infected and we already have 800,000 deaths. (Johns Hopkins data) We still have over 7 billion people yet to contract the disease! It has barely started! When you look at what we spend on road safety, workplace safety and world health initiatives, compared with a 0.5-1% death rate from Covid-19, how could anyone have such a bizarre perspective that these deaths don't matter? Get your head around it. This is serious and has changed the world forever, like AIDS. The world is not in a "panic", but responding sensibly to a major global epidemic which can be limited with simple control measures in the short term. Just as the author claims >95% of deaths are not related to pandemics, I would suggest that >95% of articles like this should also be ignored.

August 26, 2020

Well said Simon..........the author states " quarantining the most vulnerable (over 70-year-olds) " and obviously has given not a moments thought to how that would be achieved ........for a start they would NOT be allowed out of their house - if they had one, and would be banned contact with anyone ........additionally he makes no mention of the sequelae of being infected and surviving at various age groups ....there are some horrible stories emerging following such complications as cerebro-vascular disability ......Agree with you 95% of such articles should be ignored.! There are far more balance approaches available .

August 30, 2020

You are presuming that every positive case has been tested. What about the studies showing they have only picked up 1/100 cases. Time will prove you horribly wrong and that is already showing up in the numbers of countries who were some of the first to be infected. Sweden, Germany, Netherlands are all showing 0-5 deaths a day and only 0.5% of their population has been infected. Why has the case fatality rate fallen off a cliff and all of these countries have very limited social restrictions?? Either more people have been infected than first thought or the virus is only most critical for a very small number in the population.

August 26, 2020

A far more balanced journalistic approach to the "Open it Up" debate is made in the article from CNN:

The dangerous morality behind the 'Open it Up' movement

August 26, 2020

A flaw in your thinking that makes it difficult to bother reading the rest of the article .... you can't compare the actual deaths of Covid as anything of use given the lockdown allowed the deaths to be lower than they otherwise would have been without the lockdown. Please rewrite the article with the help of an epidemiologist and some predictions on what if 2% of 7 billion people died, one-third survived but had lung and brain disability, and also it would not be 2% death anyway as the only reason it is that low has been there has been a ventilator and oxygen machine for most Australians who entered hospital with Covid. If that was 1,000 per day into hospital not 25 a day entering hospital obviously the death rate % would be much higher. Whilst I agree there is a lot of fear mongering, this piece of journalism needs work.

August 26, 2020

Could not agree with you more

michael Jj
August 26, 2020

My exact thought Lisa. Its pretty obvious that deaths from Covid would be huge in many countries including our own if there were no steps taken to arrest the contagion. Phil conveniently does not discuss these.

Trevor Thompson
August 26, 2020

Well said Lisa. I believe it was Belgium that got to a death rate around 16%, many other European countries reached levels close to that as hospitals were overwhelmed. If the virus is allowed to spread unchecked more people get it and more die due to finite medical resources. Lockdowns, as you know, curbed this. We can have a debate about economics versus human life. It will have to come sometime, but its wrong to use the current worldwide death rate which is just below 4% in the modelling. We just don't know how far the cases and death rate it go up if we stop restrictions.

Frans de Ryk
August 26, 2020

I have read the whole article with interest. One key argument here or quoted fact is that people over seventy account for almost 100% of CIVID deaths. I am over seventy and agree that Governments should focus on keeping the elderly and infirm safe and subject them to necessary restrictions whilst keeping business and borders open as much as possible. Mask wearing and social distancing mandatory for all pre vaccine. PPEs medical clinics, hospitals, aged care facilities. Governments should get policies and their implementation right.

Simon Taylor
August 26, 2020

Spot on. This comparison data is irrelevant.

August 26, 2020

Completely agree. Because we locked down we avoided a massive amount of deaths and severe illness that would have devastated our economy anyway. Sweden had a light touch lockdown - down 8.6% GDP vs EU avg 12%. so still terrible and Sweden has counted nearly 82,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and its death toll stands at 5,766 as at early August. That's far higher than its neighbors Denmark (617), Norway (256) and Finland (331), and at more than 56 deaths per 100,000 people, Sweden has a higher mortality rate than the U.S. Futurists dont deal in facts.

August 27, 2020

great points - well said

September 01, 2020

I agree with the first lockdown as we were managing on the run so to speak. Why has Belgium had more CV19 deaths than Sweden with opposing strategies on the value of lockdowns? The pain and suffering for many younger people has yet to be experienced with reduced job opportunities etc

Rob Little
August 26, 2020

A most timely perspective on deaths due to COVID19 compared to other (regular) causes.
With the knowledge now gained on COVID19's impacts on our lives and livelihoods, it's time to rethink Australia's approach to managing and "learning to live" with this pandemic.
With all the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) now readily available and measures installed to prevent our hospitals being overwhelmed by extreme numbers of seriously infected people, our leaders' narrative needs to move swiftly away from the tactics of fear and closures of state borders to helping all Australians get back to work employing reasonable COVID safe practices which are now well understood and accepted by the vast majority. The one caution I'd add to Phil's article is that re-admission of international visitors be carefully phased to avoid overwhelming our hotel quarantine system.

August 26, 2020

look up the word 'contagious', research so far shows covid 19 is more contagious than flu
now put your maths head on and look up "exponential" - given the Firstlinks theme equate it to 2 interest rates compounding and the end results being hugely different
now look up hospital/medical system capacity (broken leg - bad luck, terminal illness - bad luck, curable cancer - yeah, you might scrape in, etc)

David Williams
August 26, 2020

An excellent analysis from Phil as usual. Another factor has been involved from the outset. It has been well known that the aged care system was already badly prepared for the demographic shift to an older population. The additional short-term burden of the pandemic was always likely to tip the balance.The aged care shortcomings were again exposed by the Neglect report of the Royal Commission (and just watch this space).

While the madness of crowds could certainly be a factor, it was magnified by these shortcomings, exposing the madness of politicians in espousing short-term triumphs over long term strategies.

From the outset it was clear that the most exposed were over 70, and of that group the ones already heavily dependent (why they were in aged care) were most at risk. The cost of protecting them adequately would have been minimal compared with the overall economic cost we have sustained. This would also have protected the hospital system which was the other facility at risk and for which the medical experts moved heaven and earth to keep them online and not overwhelmed by transfers – in effect containing the problems to the aged care system.
All this is not hindsight. We can only hope that the lessons learnt will prevent a repeat, and that the other benefits Phil mentions will accrue.

Bruce Gregor
August 29, 2020

You have highlighted the key issue here David. Chinese epidemiologists issue a comprehensive age specific profile of the risk of the disease in February 2020. It showed deaths occuring predominantly in those over 80 and those with significant comobidities. That should have lead to federal goverment ring fencing residential aged care. The effect would have had social implications but they should have been managable. Isolating the city workforce in age care is the main problem as it draws a major part from low paid immigrant households spread within the community. Also many are casuals who need to take shifts from different aged care facilities. Only 60 years ago nurses lived in nurses quarters accross the road from hospitals and only worked in one institution. If we are to set up systems which can cope with recurring pandamics in concentrated cities then why not get started on building this now. If we had started doing this in March 2020 the rest of the economy could have been kept open and Covid deaths would have been no more remarkable than road accidents and cancer.

Pat Connelan
August 26, 2020

Utterly self-serving. The cost to the economy of 'letting it rip', as the Phil Ruthven school of epidemiology would have it, would be significantly greater in the long run. This is not just another flu. It is significantly more infectious. It has a higher death rate. And even among those who survive it, there is now a serious body of evidence that the ongoing effects can be severely debilitating. Millions more will die before this pandemic is over, but the 'economy counts more than people' brigade are so busy counting their money they want to overlook that suffering.

September 01, 2020

Well, enjoy the economy now. We're in recession and you're not getting your dividend cheques.

August 26, 2020

Patrick Bennett says it well, if it was unchecked the rates would be much, much higher. There's still merit in comparing the numbers though, as long as it's done sensibly.

Patrick Bennett
August 26, 2020

Has it not occurred to Mr Ruthven that the mortality rate is low precisely because governments and people took the actions that were needed to constrain virus transmission? You can see from the US and Swedish experience what happens when real dangers are ignored. "A grossly exaggerated fear" - I think not. I'd rather believe the opinions of qualified epidemiologists (mediaeval witchdoctors?) than futurists.

Peter Simpson
August 26, 2020

The pandemic has provided evidence vs theory of how different approaches would work. The approach of Sweden to rely on citizens to do the right thing and minimise restrictions produced a worse health outcome AND a worse economic outcome. The theoretical open up the economy fails to consider the impact on basic services when 30% of the population is either sick or caring for someone who is ill. If healthcare workers, hospital cleaners and other related front line workers are sick in large numbers or quarantined the death rate will increase. China has shown that a disciplined approach of masks, testing etc can allow resumption of activities. Can democracies with libertarians flouting the rules, unqualified journalists and politicians spouting false medical opinions also act with such discipline? Presenting the issue as economic survival vs health is dualistic thinking that will not help. Educating people on how to live safely in the midst of a pandemic whilst resuming economic activity would seem more productive.

Peter Smits
August 26, 2020

I stood and cheered reading this comment.

August 31, 2020

Well argued, but experience shows so far that educating people will not work - you can tune into the Sky News for some of the best examples and as we've seen in Victoria and numerous other places, trusting people to follow self-isolation or even full quarantine rules is doomed to failure.

August 26, 2020

I stood and cheered reading this piece.

August 26, 2020

Hear, hear
The truth has been told.


Leave a Comment:



Four simple strategies deliver long-term investing comfort

'Unprecedented' should be 'here we go again'

COVID-19: Is this time really different?


Most viewed in recent weeks

Meg on SMSFs: Clearing up confusion on the $3 million super tax

There seems to be more confusion than clarity about the mechanics of how the new $3 million super tax is supposed to work. Here is an attempt to answer some of the questions from my previous work on the issue. 

Welcome to Firstlinks Edition 566 with weekend update

Here are 10 rules for staying happy and sharp as we age, including socialise a lot, never retire, learn a demanding skill, practice gratitude, play video games (specific ones), and be sure to reminisce.

  • 27 June 2024

Australian housing is twice as expensive as the US

A new report suggests Australian housing is twice as expensive as that of the US and UK on a price-to-income basis. It also reveals that it’s cheaper to live in New York than most of our capital cities.

The catalyst for a LICs rebound

The discounts on listed investment vehicles are at historically wide levels. There are lots of reasons given, including size and liquidity, yet there's a better explanation for the discounts, and why a rebound may be near.

How not to run out of money in retirement

The life expectancy tables used throughout the financial advice and retirement industry have issues and you need to prepare for the possibility of living a lot longer than you might have thought. Plan accordingly.

The iron law of building wealth

The best way to lose money in markets is to chase the latest stock fad. Conversely, the best way to build wealth is by pursuing a timeless investment strategy that won’t be swayed by short-term market gyrations.

Latest Updates

Investment strategies

Have value investors been hindered by this quirk of accounting?

Investments in intangible assets are as crucial to many companies as investments in capital equipment. The different accounting treatment of these investments, however, weighs on reported earnings and could render ratios like P/E less useful for investors.

Investment strategies

Investors are threading the eye of the needle

As investors cram into ever narrower areas of the market with increasingly high valuations, Martin Conlon from Schroders says that sensible investing has rarely been such an uncrowded trade.


Persistent, but not permanent

There is universal consensus that the Earth is experiencing climate change. Yet there is far more debate about how this will impact different economies across the globe. New research sheds more light on the winners and losers.

SMSF strategies

How super members can avoid missing out on tax deductions

Claiming a tax deduction for personal super contributions can end in disappointment if it isn't done correctly. Julie Steed looks at common pitfalls and what is required for a successful claim.

Investment strategies

AI is not an over-hyped fad – but a killer app might be years away

The AI investment trend looks set to continue for years but there is only room for a handful of long-term winners. Dr Kevin Hebner also warns regulators against strangling innovation in the sector before society reaps the benefits.


Why certainty is so important in retirement

Retirement is a time of great excitement but it is also one of uncertainty. This is hardly surprising given the daunting move from receiving a steady outcome to relying on savings and investments.


This vital yet "forgotten" indicator of inflation holds good news

Financial commentators seem to have forgotten the leading cause of inflation: growth in the supply of money. Warren Bird explains the link and explores where it suggests inflation is headed.



© 2024 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved.

The data, research and opinions provided here are for information purposes; are not an offer to buy or sell a security; and are not warranted to be correct, complete or accurate. Morningstar, its affiliates, and third-party content providers are not responsible for any investment decisions, damages or losses resulting from, or related to, the data and analyses or their use. To the extent any content is general advice, it has been prepared for clients of Morningstar Australasia Pty Ltd (ABN: 95 090 665 544, AFSL: 240892), without reference to your financial objectives, situation or needs. For more information refer to our Financial Services Guide. You should consider the advice in light of these matters and if applicable, the relevant Product Disclosure Statement before making any decision to invest. Past performance does not necessarily indicate a financial product’s future performance. To obtain advice tailored to your situation, contact a professional financial adviser. Articles are current as at date of publication.
This website contains information and opinions provided by third parties. Inclusion of this information does not necessarily represent Morningstar’s positions, strategies or opinions and should not be considered an endorsement by Morningstar.