Covid-19: Do we need to restrict our mobility?

The Covid-19 pandemic has sent many countries into a state of shutdown where major parts of public life came to a halt. The virus is obviously threatening public health and the lives of many people. Globally, we must expect hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by Covid-19.

At the same time, each year more than one million people die in accidents related to mobility and traffic. Based on WHO numbers, the annual number of traffic deaths is about 1.35 million. So far not a single country has imposed measures similar to the Covid-19 shutdown restrictions in the mobility field. Do we need to fight traffic accidents with the same rigorousness as we fight Covid-19?

Moving from a fear-based to a fact-based approach

To understand the Covid-19 measures that have been imposed, we need to have a look why these drastic measures have been implemented in the first place. The goal of the measures was to contain the virus in order to not exceed the capacity of the health system. Extending intensive care unit (ICU) capacities, the goal of preparing hospitals for a dramatic wave of Covid-19 patients could be achieved in countries such as Germany, Austria or Scandinavia. In Italy, Spain and France however, even more drastic measures including curfews for several weeks could not prevent the health system from being overwhelmed. In contrast, several Asian countries such as South Korea or Taiwan didn’t even need a public shutdown to mitigate the crisis smoothly. Therefore, the shutdown is obviously not a decisive factor or the best measure at hand to deal with the crisis. A shutdown is buying time but is not a sustainable strategy in itself.

Triggered by images of trucks carrying dead bodies in Northern Italy, the public discussion has been an emotional and fear-based one. To put the measures in perspective, a rather rational and fact-based approach is required. And the facts do clearly suggest a smart and more differentiated strategy.

Flawed statistics but a well-defined risk group

It has been widely discussed that the official statistics are flawed. The reported number of deaths is generally too high because a significant amount of infected people dies with the virus inside but not necessarily due to the virus. The reported number of confirmed infections is way too low because it depends on the amount of testing and does not include infected people that have not been tested. Hence the perceived case fatality rate (# of reported deaths divided by # of confirmed infections) is overestimated. Studies suggest an infection fatality rate of 0.3-0.4% based on actual infections.

Even more interesting is the risk group. The average age of deaths has been around 80 and almost exactly corresponds to the average life expectancy, even when considered for each gender individually. In some countries like Germany, even at the peak of the pandemic there is no excess mortality compared to the average mortality. Experts predict that most countries won’t see any excess mortality when considering the entire year.
Moreover, 50% of deaths have been diagnosed with pre-existing conditions. Less than 1% of deaths did not have pre-existing illnesses. Case fatality rate for infected people without pre-existing conditions is 100 times lower than with pre-existing conditions. Compared to the flu, the case fatality rate for the group with no pre-existing conditions is way lower for Covid-19.

Three types of appropriate measures

With the well-defined risk group the appropriate measures in general and for the mobility sector are at hand. First, the risk groups need to be protected. This has nothing to do with confinement or isolation. It is a recommendation for people in the risk group to voluntarily limit their potential exposure to the virus. People outside of the risk group have a very low risk of severe health problems and can responsibly resume economic activity including mobility and travel. This smart and differentiated approach needs to be supported by personal hygiene (hand washing etc.) and physical distancing measures that have already been widely in place during the pandemic.

Mobility and travel enhance quality of life and create opportunities  

The aforementioned measures make sure that mobility and travel will be possible in the near future. The imposed shutdowns were a temporary action to contain the virus. After this initial phase of containment to prevent the collapse of health systems, they cannot be maintained. Maintaining the shutdown would mean a too narrow focus not taking into account other health, social or economic considerations. In the same logic, restricting mobility to prevent traffic deaths would mean a one-sided focus on safety without considering the negative imapcts of limited or no mobility.

The comparison between the deaths by the pandemic and the deaths by traffic accidents makes clear that an extended duration of shutdowns is socially inadequate. Mobility needs to be possible. It is a major driver of the welfare of societies and does enable health systems to function properly. It creates opportunities for the individual. In this respect we are implicitly accepting the negative impacts of both the pandemic and mobility. Neither a one-sided focus on health nor freedom of mobility can be an adequate approach.