Original article (in Croatian) was published on 12/01/2022
Several marginal websites shared Gordan Lauc’s claim suggesting that epidemiological measures kill as many people as Covid-19. We checked to see if Lauc’s claim has a substantial basis.
Molecular biologist Gordan Lauc, a former member of the scientific council of the Government of the Republic of Croatia, posted on Facebook that epidemiological measures kill the same number of people as the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Lauc concluded that epidemiological measures are as deadly as the virus by comparing Sweden and Austria. Here is what he wrote in a post on January 4 (archived here):
“Sweden and Austria are similar countries with very different approaches to the pandemic. The Swedes mostly had recommendations, and the Austrians had numerous bans, mandatory masks, covid-certificates, announcements of mandatory vaccinations and similar.
After two years, they ended up with almost equal numbers of deaths from COVID-19. So all those bans and other measures in Austria were utterly useless.
Moreover, in addition to being useless, they were also extremely harmful, as we can see from the total excess mortality, which is almost twice as high in Austria. In these two years, the ‘measures’ have killed as many people as the virus, and the real bill for the lack of cancer diagnosis, management of chronic diseases such as diabetes, insanity and similar, is yet to come in the following years”.
Lauc, therefore, concludes that a comparison of the course of the epidemic in Sweden and Austria reveals that epidemiological measures are not only useless but also deadly. The parameters that prove this, according to Lauc, are the excess of mortality, the total number of deaths and the level of severity of epidemiological measures.
Lauc attached screenshots from the Our World in Data page, which aggregates world statistics on many things, including the Covid-19 pandemic. However, a closer look at data from the same source reveals that Lauc’s comparison is oversimplified, i.e., that a comparison of Austria and Sweden cannot be treated as evidence that epidemiological measures cause the same number of deaths as SARS-CoV-2.
Similarities and differences
First of all, it should be said that Austria and Sweden are indeed similar countries when it comes to several parameters that can affect the spread of the virus.
Among the similarities are the number of inhabitants (about 9 million in Austria, just over 10 million in Sweden), the average age of the population (about 43 years in Austria, and 41 years in Sweden), the number of single households (about 1.5 million in Austria, almost 2 million in Sweden), gross domestic product per capita ( about 48 thousand dollars in Austria, about 52 thousand dollars in Sweden), investments in the health system (11.5 percent of GDP in Austria, 11.4 percent of GDP in Sweden) and the proportion of the vaccinated population (about 73 percent of Austrians and 76 percent of Swedes received at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine).
There are, of course, differences. For example, the population density in Sweden (about 25 people per square kilometer) is much lower than in Austria (about 109 people per square kilometer). Of course, climatic and weather conditions are different (1, 2) and air quality as well (1, 2).
Excess mortality and severity of measures
Gordan Lauc is right when he says that the number of deaths from Covid in Austria and Sweden is similar (almost 14 thousand died in Austria and more than 15 thousand in Sweden), and that the excess mortality in Austria was generally more pronounced than in Sweden.
However, when this excess mortality is graphically represented by pandemic phases and compared to the level of severity of epidemiological measures in different periods of the pandemic, it reveals a simplification of Lauc’s interpretation. The attached graph shows that when Sweden decided to welcome Covid’s first “wave” with extremely liberal measures at the very beginning of the pandemic, it had a significantly higher surplus of deaths than Austria.
An index of austerity measures in different countries during a pandemic can also be found on the Our World in Data page. The comparison reveals that it is true that Austria has had stricter measures than Sweden, but this does not mean that the Swedes, as Lauc claims, have relied only on recommendations. In fact, measures in Sweden from May to October 2020 were stricter than in Austria.
Comparing the two graphs above shows that the decline in excess mortality in the first “wave” in Sweden coincides with the tightening of epidemiological measures. On the other hand, Austria took stricter measures, gradually easing or tightening them depending on the course of the epidemic; as excess mortality increases, so do measures.
Therefore, from the presented data, it is difficult to draw a reasonable conclusion that the measures kill as many people as the virus. This becomes even more evident when comparing other countries, which mainly had more liberal or stricter measures during the pandemic than Austria and Sweden, such as Croatia and Australia.
Croatia had the harshest measures at the very beginning of the pandemic among the four observed countries. However, in the later waves of the pandemic, Croatia generally introduced milder epidemiological measures than other countries. On the other hand, Australia is known to combat the spread of the virus by periodically introducing a lockdown, which the graph below also shows.
If the claim that epidemiological measures kill as many people as the virus were true, it would be expected that this will be seen in the data on excess mortality in these two countries – epidemiologically liberal Croatia and strict Australia. However, such a correlation is not visible in the data.
The above graph clearly shows that the excess mortality among the four observed countries is least pronounced in “strict” Australia, and most pronounced in “liberal” Croatia.
It is very clear from the presented data that the claim that “epidemiological measures kill as many people as the new coronavirus” cannot have a factual basis.
All this, of course, does not tell us much about the real effectiveness or cost-effectiveness of epidemiological measures. Studies claim that strict measures are not a particularly effective way to combat the Covid-19 pandemic (and that it is much more important to adequately fund the public health system).
Also, there is no doubt that the social disruptiveness of epidemiological measures is proportional to their severity; strict restrictions adversely affect the economy and impair mental health.
However, no relevant scientific research would confirm that epidemiological measures are as deadly as the virus itself.
The health system
Finally, we should look at Gordan Lauc’s claim that “the real bill is yet to come” because other diseases have been neglected due to Covid-19. There is no doubt that this is true; this is a well-known problem that the Office of the Ombudsman also pointed out.
However, the fact that many patients were unable to receive adequate care due to the Covid-19 pandemic is no argument in the discussion of epidemiological measures. Patients were not left without access to adequate care due to epidemiological measures but due to the overload of the Croatian health care system with Covid patients.
In other words, even if Croatia decided to ignore the Covid-19 epidemic and not introduce any measures, the health care system would still be overburdened, and many patients would therefore lack adequate care. Moreover, the primary purpose of the measures has always been to “flatten the curve” or reduce the burden on the health system.