Deaths and excess deaths

Back in 2020 and 2021, in and around the straight economics and economic policy posts, there were quite a few on aspects of the Covid experience in New Zealand, particularly in a cross-country comparative light.

More recently, you see from time to time suggestions that New Zealand’s experience may have been so good that in fact excess mortality here since Covid began might actually have been negative (in which case, fewer people would have died than might have been expected had Covid never come along.

A couple of alternative perspectives on that caught my eye in the last couple of months, both from academics, one from a physicist and one from an economist.

The first was a very very long Twitter thread from Professor Michael Fuhrer at Monash in Melbourne. His thread starts with this tweet

and after reviewing the evidence, and granting that

he concludes that

All of which sounded plausible, at least having read the entire thread.

A week or so later Professor John Gibson, one of New Zealand’s leading academic economists (at the University of Waikato), sent me a copy of a new short paper he had written, under the heading “Cumulative Excess Deaths in New Zealand in the COVID-19 Era: Biases from Ignoring Changes in Population Growth Rates”. I’d done a couple of posts on earlier work by Prof Gibson on aspects of Covid policy responses and the likely impact of some of those choices.

For New Zealand, one of the biggest things that changed over the first 2.5 years of the Covid era was a dramatic slowing in the population growth rate, not because of Covid or other deaths but because net migration went from a hugely positive annual rate to a moderately negative rate. Pre-Covid – and probably again now – migration is the biggest single influence on the year to year change in New Zealand’s population. He includes this chart

Here is Gibson’s abstract

It is a short paper, and easy enough to read, so I’m not going to elaborate further, and will simply cut and paste the final page.

It is a shame he hasn’t labelled all the other countries, but his text tells us that the countries to the right of New Zealand on that bottom chart are Luxembourg, Canada, the Netherlands, Iceland, Israel, and Australia. Note too that several countries just to the left of New Zealand have estimated excess mortality barely different from that estimated for New Zealand.

Across the entire grouping of countries New Zealand still rates fairly well (there are many other things we might reasonably hope to be in the best quartile for but are not; this one we are), but as he notes for the three years to the end of 2022 even in New Zealand there does appear to have been positive excess mortality in the Covid era.

I have no particular point to make, but found both Fuhrer’s thread and Gibson’s note interesting notes, providing some useful context to thinking about the New Zealand experience. Since one still sees claims (including reportedly from David Seymour just a couple of days ago) that there have been no excess deaths in New Zealand over the Covid period, is it too much to hope that some media outlet or other might give some coverage to what appears to be careful work by, in particular, Gibson, a highly-regarded New Zealand academic?