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We must overcome the fear of death and discuss

Jason Heale

Jason Heale
Auckland, August 22, 2022

During the height of the Covid pandemic, we were all obsessed with data around deaths.

How many people had died from the virus? Were these deaths directly attributable to Covid-1919? How did the lockdowns affect our death rate? Were they good for us overall because they stopped other diseases from transmitting? Or were they harmful because deadly diseases were detected later, and life-saving surgeries were postponed?

We were asking these questions as we talked about our pandemic response.

That was good.

When we shut down the country, we needed to see that it was having an effect.

Was our response keeping people safe?

Alarming data

Yet alarming data has been released by Stats NZ recently about the number of deaths we saw in the year ended June 2022. It turns out that the number of deaths we have seen over the past 12 months has increased by 3400 from the year before. That is significant. The estimate for our population increase is at its lowest in 36 years. We only added 12,700 people.

What is the cause of this? Various reasons have been proposed. Many people point to Covid-19. However, only 1053 have died from Covid over the same 12-month period. Far less than the 3400 that make up the jump. Stats NZ points to an ageing population, with two out of every three deaths being over 75. Some suggest the vulnerable are now exposed to diseases they avoided over the past two years due to lockdowns.

Whatever the cause, we need to be talking about this.

Each of these potential causes has significant implications for our society.

Yet (aside from Covid statistics) we dislike discussing death. We have been sanitised against it. Death happens behind closed doors. It is just a number; we do not want to face life’s end.

Our refusal to engage with this is evident in palliative care.

This is a certainty

Hospice NZ must fundraise $77 million each year just to keep running. We must overcome this fear of death, constantly trying to hold it at arm’s length as if it will not happen to us.

We know that nothing is certain but death and taxes.

We talk a lot about taxes; let us talk about death. An ageing population is just one of the three possible explanations offered that have wide-ranging implications for the future of our society. Our birth rates are falling; we are only just replacing people leaving the country. Young people are not only the future but also the present. How can we support our elders if fewer people pay taxes? If there are fewer people of working age, how will we do all the jobs that need to be done? How will our health system cope? What about education?

These are all questions that need to be asked, just about one of the possible reasons for our increase in deaths. Other questions are also worth asking. Whatever the answers are, we need to know about these problems to start to wrestle with them.

It is time to have some difficult conversations about death in New Zealand.

Jason Heale is Communications Manager at Maxim Institute, an Auckland-based independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

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