New Zealand deserves more respect for keeping deaths so low

Published in Stuff, 3rd. February 2022

With the arrival on our shores of the latest COVID-19 manifestation – Omicron – it is hard to believe, judging by the media coverage particularly on MIQ, that the government has got anything right in its pandemic response.

One important feature that has been missed in the debate on New Zealand’s pandemic response to date, however, is our very low death rate. At under sixty, it is 0.5% of the rate in the United Kingdom (UK) – approximately 10 per million compared with over 2000 per million in the UK.

This is a very important metric that has been given too little regard here and overseas. The number of people dying of COVID-19 in the UK is well over 150,000. This figure is confirmed by the data on excess deaths estimated against the long-run average; the two numbers closely correspond.

This figure is just under half the number of British troops killed in the Second World War. And this in two years of a pandemic compared to the six years of that world conflict. In other words, the deaths wrought by Covid are on a scale comparable with a major outbreak of warfare. And yet too many commentators and decision-makers have become inured to this death toll, concentrating instead on the performance of the health system and the enjoyment of individual freedoms.

If we had suffered the same rate of COVID deaths as the UK has, that would make the number of deaths  not 50-60 but 10,000, not far short of the number of New Zealanders dying in the Second World War (just under 12,000).

The scale of death – or the potential for death – therefore needs to feature more prominently in the coverage of the politics of the pandemic. For example, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is said to have stated that he would prefer to “let the bodies pile high” rather than pursue another lockdown.  True or not, that reported statement had almost no impact on his popularity compared to stories of his attending parties at Downing Street when the UK was under firm restrictions on gatherings.

This blind spot in the media coverage and cultural resonance of the pandemic came home to me when a columnist in the left-of-centre publication The New Statesman pointed out that pre-Omicron her friends in Australia didn’t know a single person with the virus, and yet their state and federal governments at that time were pursuing far stronger public health measures than were being applied the UK. The same could have been said of New Zealand since the two countries have followed similar policies.

Yes, most Australians – and New Zealanders – pre-Omicron were unlikely to know anybody with the virus; but neither were they likely to know anybody who had died of the virus, which is in many respects a far more important metric both ethically and politically.

Arguably, New Zealand – like Australia – is a more communitarian country, with “two degrees of separation” and all that. Thus, it might matter that just little bit more to us whether or not your neighbour, friend, or relative dies of a pandemic disease. In larger, more anonymous societies there is less proximity to death. At present anyway, pictures of morgues piled high with the dead from the pandemic would be socially unacceptable in our culture. Added to this in New Zealand is the special place of Māori who could suffer disproportionately with a premature opening of our borders.

This is something that Grounded Kiwis, the expatriate New Zealanders’ group pushing the legal case against the government, may have missed. If they force the hand of the government to open our borders before we have been able to achieve acceptable levels of both vaccination and infection protection such as masking, ventilation, distancing, and self-testing against the onslaught of Omicron, then the consequences may also be an increase in the likely death rate in New Zealand from Covid. For example, New South Wales at the peak of its Omicron outbreak recorded rather more deaths in a single day than New Zealand had recorded over the near-two years of the pandemic, despite the supposedly milder and less impactful character of this variant. Is that really what we want?

It is also as well to remember our responsibility to all vulnerable populations, including the elderly, Māori and Pasifika, and all those with relevant underlying health conditions. These groups have suffered disproportionately in the pandemic so far.

Few of us have experienced over a short time and in a proximate way significant numbers of deaths in our circles. Half a century ago it was more common for people to die at home, often surrounded by family, but this has become much less so. These days it is more likely to be professionally and medically managed with much of our experience of death otherwise coming packaged via mass and social media.

The government – and New Zealanders – have done well to keep pandemic death at bay. This is not to justify draconian measures without considered trade-offs against wider societal costs and benefits. But it is to argue for a more balanced discussion of our pandemic response and to show greater respect for the more communitarian style of New Zealand’s response to the pandemic.

Peter Davis, elected member, Auckland District Health Board, and Emeritus Professor in Population Health and Social Science, University of Auckland.


  1. Great writing Peter. Yes oh how people have very short memories and are so selfish and totally unforgiving. Amazing NZ was shielded for the most part by a Government who made tough decisions and cared!


  2. We do indeed seem to be very confused now as to what the point of the COVID response is. The point of the response, presumably, is to stop people getting ill or dying, but we are now so far down down the pandemic track that we have forgotten. If that isn’t the point…what is? Does the government need to be clearer about stating what our goal is so that the people remember it?

    I do also think we need to consider in this next phase that perhaps our goal is not suffering excess mortality as a result of COVID infections? People may die because of, or indeed with, COVID. However, if those people would likely have died of something else in the same timeframe that could be ‘acceptable’. NZ certainly has had no excess mortality from COVID, in fact we have had -ve excess mortality according to trackers, likely due to saving lives that would otherwise have been lost to influenza infections and car crashes…that’s another track, isn’t it, if we all stay home there are lots of things we will be less likely to die of…


    • The problem is that the Covid pandemic keeps changing and throwing new challenges, and then there is the limit on how long one can maintain a restrictive policy. I think the government just has to be upfront and encourage debate to achieve a consensus.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Absolutely agree 100%. I for one, are very grateful that the actions of the government have kept me, my family and friends safe.


  4. Great article Peter and a vey useful corrective to all the negative commentary. Cheers and thanks too for David’s phone number. Kevin
    Professor Kevin P Clements,
    Director, Toda Peace Institute.
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    • Thanks. I have had more response to this article in Stuff than anything else of the range of worthy items I have published in the press. But it is unlikely to have much impact. I think there was a hunger out there for this point of view to be articulated.


  5. Hi Peter,

    Your article is spot on and for me hits the nail squarely on the head. What I scratch my head over, (as Boris is doing here) on a regular basis, is why don’t others see this as clearly as I do (and you of course!).

    Great article.

    Regards Chris Bayes – Murray Powells wife.



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