Guest’s controversial ‘body count’ theory

 

ABC host Hamish Macdonald has interrogated an economist about being "heartless" and "advocating" for Melbourne's coronavirus patients to die during a heated Q&A on Monday night.

UNSW economist Gigi Foster was responding to infectious diseases expert Bill Bowtell, who argued Melbourne's resurgence in COVID-19 cases showed the need for a much harsher lockdown rather than "rinse and repeat and have a lockdown three come Christmas".

"We have a choice now in front of us," Prof Bowtell said.

"The experiment has been run in real-time from March through to August now, and we know what works and we know what doesn't work so well - so let's get on with it and let's just knock this thing out."

Prof Foster said she "completely" disagreed, describing it as a "fantasy to believe we can eliminate this virus, whether just in Victoria and NSW, or across all of Australia" and that there was "no real endgame in sight".

"If we did eliminate it, then we would have to commit ourselves to living basically isolated from the rest of the world until such time as there was a vaccine or some other brilliant discovery came about that would protect us against this thing," she said.

"I just think that's an unrealistic vision."

Prof Foster, who made similar comments on Sunday's 60 Minutes and earlier in the year on Q&A, said Australia was inflicting "huge" economic damage on itself.

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"These costs are going to be with us for a generation," she said, suggesting Australia should follow in the footsteps of other countries such as Sweden, which did not implement as strict lockdowns.

Host Macdonald pointed out that Sweden had seen 5697 deaths.

"Are you comfortable with advocating that for Australia?" he asked.

"I'm comfortable with saying let's be data-driven in our policy choices and look at what's happened in other countries. Sweden, about 6000. In the UK, about 50,000," she said.

Macdonald argued that the "economic pay-off is not there".

"How can you point to Sweden and say there's the model?" he asked.

Prof Foster said going by the current death count in Sweden it was about 0.1 per cent of the population.

"That's about 12,000 to 25,000 deaths in Australia for people who are predominantly elderly, but it's a body count," she said.

Macdonald interjected, "This is just heartless, isn't it? Why are you advocating for them to die?"

Prof Foster said she was "advocating for the least people to die as possible".

"What we're talking about now is exclusively about COVID-19 related deaths and suffering - what about everything else that kills people and makes them suffer?" she said.

"My position is we should consider all the things that influence human welfare, lives and quality of life, whether it's COVID-19 or something else. Have we thought about the unemployment effects and the mental stress?"

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UNSW’s Bill Bowtell and Gigi Foster. Picture: ABC
UNSW’s Bill Bowtell and Gigi Foster. Picture: ABC

 

Prof Foster said research from the UK indicated a "huge drop in life satisfaction", that if translated to the Australian population represented "a loss of about 100,000 healthy life years sacrificed for every month of lockdown here".

"That's just mental stress," she said.

Author George Megalogenis argued the trade-off between lives and the economy "makes no economic sense to me".

"Let's assume the market can efficiently allocate death, which is what Gigi is arguing," he said.

"I'd argue it couldn't because the minute you let a virus run free, the minute a government says, 'You're on your own', you get locked down anyway. Consumers avoid shops and mass gatherings."

Megalogenis said every country that had tried "to let it rip" had "given up on this idea", including US President Donald Trump who this week cancelled the planned Republican National Convention in Florida.

"The economic argument doesn't add up to me because you can't just say, 'I'll cop 25,000 deaths and avoid another 30,000,'" he said.

But Prof Foster said Megalogenis was "making my argument" by expressing the "trolley problem".

"There (is) a trolley going along and it will hit 10 people unless you change to the track that hits one," she said. "You can look that one person in the eye and know who they are - do you change the track? I change the track."

Prof. Foster's comments drew heated reaction on social media.

 

 

Prof Bowtell hit back that the Swedish model had been a "fiasco" and that the economic outcomes were "no better or worse than their neighbouring countries".

He said the Swedish strategy of attempting to protect at-risk groups like the elderly by quarantining nursing homes and "not allowing them to be treated in hospitals" was "abhorrent".

"The job of governments is to make people's life healthy, wealthier and happier," he said.

"You cannot segment out one sector of the population and ask them to undergo great misery, suffering and death in the interests - spurious interests - of saying all the rest of us will benefit."

He added, "That's not how societies work. It should not work in Australia. It can be discounted. The evidence is overwhelmingly clear. The debate in my view is finished. We have just got to get on with the job of doing in NSW and Victoria what has been done in the outlying states and New Zealand."

Other topics covered by the panel included a possible permanent increase to JobSeeker, the tax burden for the next generation, and whether there should be criminal penalties for "high-profile incitement of COVID complacency".

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prof Foster has previously raised the ire of viewers for suggesting the lockdown debate was "about lives".

"I reject the idea it's lives versus the economy," she said on the episode in April.

"It's lives versus lives. The economy is about lives. It's about protection of lives and human welfare and livelihood. You can make an apples to apples comparison although people find it difficult to do so."

 

frank.chung@news.com.au

 

Originally published as Guest's controversial 'body count' theory


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