This September’s election promises to be very close. Opinion polls suggest that either of a National-ACT or Labour-New Zealand First-Greens coalition could easily take power in the aftermath. The actual winner will be determined by a number of factors. One of those factors, as this essay will discuss, is the effect of COVID-19 on the demographic makeup of the nation.
One striking feature of this particular form of coronavirus is its death rate among old people. The death rate for people aged 80 and over who contract it is believed to be over 14%. For people aged between 70 and 79 it appears to be 8.0%, and 3.6% for people aged between 60 and 69. Corona-Chan is the Scourge of the Aged.
The death rate among young people, by contrast, is extremely low. No-one aged under 10 is known to have died of COVID-19 yet, and the death rate for those under 40 appears to be no more than 0.2%, i.e. barely different to regular bouts of influenza. Corona-Chan is merciful upon the young.
This great differential in danger across age brackets may have electoral consequences.
As Dan McGlashan showed in Understanding New Zealand, there are very strong correlations between being old and voting Conservative or National. In 2017, the correlation between being aged 65+ and voting Conservative was 0.39, and between being aged 65+ and voting National it was 0.62. At the other end of the scale, the correlation between being aged 20-29 and voting Labour in 2017 was 0.34, and with voting Greens it was 0.60.
0.62 is a strong enough correlation to suggest that the vast majority of people over 65 will vote National, and much of the remainder will vote Conservative. Meanwhile, the correlation of -0.35 between being aged 20-29 and voting National in 2017 tells us that few young people will vote for them in September.
Put these two things together, and it becomes apparent that COVID-19 is likely to kill off a significant proportion of National and Conservative voters.
There were over 711,000 people in New Zealand aged 65 or over at the end of 2016. It might be closer to 800,000 by now. If COVID-19 kills off 10% of people over 65 before September 19, that will approach 80,000 deaths, and if 75% of those people were National or Conservative voters, that suggests that they could well lose 60,000 voters – 20,000 more than Labour, Greens or New Zealand First would lose.
At the 2017 General Election, National, ACT and Conservatives got 1,171,403 votes between them out of a total of 2,591,896, a proportion of 45.2%. If they would lose 60,000 voters from coronavirus deaths, as per the scenario outlined in the above paragraph, they would end up with 1,111,403 votes out of a total of 2,511,896 – a proportion of 44.2%.
A loss of one percent might not sound like much, but the effect of COVID-19 in suppressing right-wing voters is not limited to deaths.
If there are 60,000 deaths among National and Conservative voters, there will be at least this many incapacitated by the illness. The overseas experience has shows that COVID-19 often means a few weeks confined to an artificial respirator. If the pandemic is at or near its peak in New Zealand at the time of the election, there could be a large number of old people unable to vote because coronavirus has left them physically incapable of doing so.
A further factor is that some old people might decide to stay away from polling booths on Election Day out of the fear of contracting coronavirus. As COVID-19’s greater threat to the elderly is widely known by now, a significant number of those elderly might be persuaded to stay away from the polling booths altogether. A majority of the population will pass through the nation’s polling booths on September 19, so standing in line at one for half an hour is asking for trouble.
Adding together deaths, incapacitations and discouragements, the right wing appears likely to lose several tens of thousands of voters before September 19.
All of this is moot if Jacinda Ardern suspends the election. There is presently no hard indication that she is prepared to do this, but mayoral elections due for May have already been suspended for 12 months in London, and Ardern must have felt the temptation. New Zealand has already been in chimpout mode for the past year and this coronavirus pandemic has made it three times worse.
Assuming the election goes ahead as planned though, there is a small but realistic chance that what would have been a National-ACT victory is transformed into a loss by the effects of COVID-19. The balance is so fine that a nudge the size of a coronavirus pandemic could tip it over.
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