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More than one in five Australians are willing to see tens of thousands of their compatriots fall victim to COVID-19 if it means the country will avoid going into a recession, new research from CoreData has found.

Australia’s current COVID-19 infection rate is approximately 0.03 per cent, with 6,980 confirmed cases and 98 deaths as at May 13 – a mortality rate of 1.4 per cent. But CoreData’s research reveals 20.9 per cent of Australians believe it is acceptable to relax measures to control the spread of the virus and allow the infection rate to soar to more than 30 per cent if it were to avert a recession.

This implies more than 7.6 million infections in a population of about 25.5 million and, assuming no change to the current mortality rate of 1.4 per cent, total deaths exceeding 106,000. CoreData’s research of nearly 1000 Australians also found nearly two in five (36.3 per cent) believe an infection rate of more than 20 per cent is acceptable if it protects the economy, implying that more than 70,000 deaths are deemed to be an “acceptable” price to pay to protect the economy.

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Baby Boomers – who are in the high risk demographic – are less willing than younger generations to accept an infection rate above 30 per cent, with fewer than one in six (14.2 per cent) agreeing this would be acceptable. A quarter of Gen X (25.1 per cent) and Z (25.8 per cent) would accept an infection rate this high, while only one in five (20.2 per cent) Gen Y believe such a rate is acceptable. 

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Of those surveyed, women were slightly more likely to trade lives for the economy than men (21.8 per cent vs. 19.4 per cent), while Victoria – which has some of the highest numbers of infection in the country and as a result has taken a strong stance on social distancing – is the state with the highest proportion of people willing to accept an infection rate higher than 30 per cent (25.3 per cent). In comparison, Western Australians are the least willing to make this trade-off (10.6 per cent), the lowest of any state.

Aside from the human cost, it is clear that the country’s health system, with only 7000 intensive-care unit beds available, is nowhere near able to cope with the number of deaths deemed to be acceptable in the interests of avoiding a recession. But the number of people who choose the preservation of human life over the preservation of the economy rivals those with the contrary view: around one in five Australians (19.7 per cent), believe measures should remain in place to keep the infection rate to an absolute minimum, regardless of the economic cost.

It’s not you, it’s me

Despite an apparent willingness among some to allow infection and mortality rates to soar, CoreData’s research has found that most Australians are more worried about social restrictions being lifted too fast and negatively impacting their own health than they are about restrictions being lifted too slowly and continuing to drag on the economy.

When forced to choose, approximately four in five (79.0 per cent) say they are most concerned about social restrictions being lifted too fast, while only one in five (21.0 per cent) said they are more concerned about a slow relaxation of social distancing. 

The findings are in stark contrast to the sentiment expressed by protesters in the US who oppose social distancing and lockdown measures across the country, although opinion polls there also support the view that most people are more concerned about relaxing restrictions too soon and too quickly than relaxing them too late and too slowly.

Across the ditch, where prime minister Jacinda Ardern imposed stricter lockdown measures than those adopted in Australia, Kiwis express similar sentiment to Aussies with more than one in five (21.8 per cent) accepting of an infection rate above 30 per cent and a slightly lower proportion preferring to protect our health at any cost (18.5 per cent).

Interestingly, Generation X Kiwis are far more likely than Baby Boomers to want the infection rate kept to a minimum regardless of the economic cost (22.9 per cent vs. 13.0 per cent). However, Generation Y are twice as likely as Baby Boomers to say an infection rate above 30 per cent is acceptable to shelter New Zealand from recession (29.7 per cent vs. 13.4 per cent).

Two in five Kiwi Baby Boomers (39.6 per cent) would like to see the infection rate sit between 1 and 10 per cent, compared to less than a third of Generation X (31.3 per cent) and only one in five Generation Y (20.7 per cent).