The Covid-19 pandemic has caused an dramatic and unexpected drop in the number of people dying in New Zealand.
A leading Whangārei funeral director says he's never seen anything like it, with monthly deaths down by as much as a third compared to last year.
The lockdown is thought to be the main reason behind the drop in mortality because it protected the frail and elderly from influenza viruses which normally circulate during winter.
Closed borders help too because Northern Hemisphere visitors can't bring in new strains of the flu.
Gary Taylor, general manager of Morris and Morris in Whangārei as well as funeral services in Kerikeri, Kaitaia and Dargaville, said the immediate effect of the lockdown was that people couldn't have funerals — but then he noticed fewer people were dying anyway.
Taylor, who is also president of the NZ Funeral Directors Association, said the effect varied around the country but overall he estimated 20 per cent fewer people than usual had died during the Covid period.
He believed measures designed to combat Covid-19 had also stamped out the flu virus, usually a significant cause of death among the elderly and those with serious health conditions.
That appears to be borne out by district health board figures showing 292 confirmed cases of influenza last year in Northland. So far this year there have been only 23 positive tests for the flu and not one since the lockdown.
Taylor said it wasn't just the flu — all forms of respiratory illness had decreased.
''We've seen hardly any in the last two or three months. Just by locking people down initially, then keeping resthomes under pretty close hygiene rules, people are not succumbing to those normal ailments.''
Up-to-date Northland statistics are not available but Auckland deaths in March, when the lockdown began, were down almost 9 per cent on March 2019 followed by a 4 per cent drop in April, Taylor said. A post-lockdown ''catch-up'' saw deaths increase by 15 per cent in May compared to the same month in 2019.
The decrease was most dramatic in winter, when people usually succumb to the flu. June deaths in Auckland were down by 33 per cent, July by 10 per cent and August 33.5 per cent.
Taylor believed the effect was less pronounced in Northland but followed a similar trend.
The absence of overseas tourists was another factor with the number of foreign citizens dying in New Zealand down by about 50 per cent.
Kiwis too were suffering fewer serious injuries as people travelled less and were more cautious, he said.
''The very act of living has consequences for us. Because we are limiting our living we are seeing a decrease [in deaths] across the board.''
Taylor said he'd never seen anything like it. The last big worldwide event, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, affected many aspects of life — and prompted people to spend less on funerals — but did not change deaths.
''This is the first time in my lifetime, and in the living memory of some of the older people in our profession, that we've actually seen the number of deaths decrease because of an external force.''
''When a pandemic comes along your natural instinct is to expect more deaths. We've had exactly the opposite.''
Ultimately there was no escaping death but for many it had been delayed. That would usually mean more time with loved ones but that wasn't necessarily the case due to resthome restrictions.
''Although these elderly are surviving longer they're not seeing relatives as they would in pre-Covid times. Generally speaking, living longer is a bonus, but the downside is being denied access to your family.''
While the death rate dropped during lockdown, the 3500 New Zealanders who died during that period couldn't have meaningful funerals due to Covid, he said.
''We hear a lot about the 25 people who died of Covid, but very little about the 3500 whose families just had to wear it and move on. That's not good for them at all.''
Unexpected knock-on effects included extra pressure on health servcies and resthomes, which would run out of space without their usual turnover of residents.
The drop in deaths, along with lockdown rules which saw many people opt for private cremations instead of funerals, had also cut funeral home incomes by 70-80 per cent while their operating costs were unchanged.
Northland District Health Board respiratory specialist Fiona Horwood said Whangārei Hospital had been busy over winter but it would've been a lot worse without Covid-19 restrictions.
''It would've put a lot more strain on the health system if we had had the sort of flu season we'd been anticipating, if Covid hadn't come along.''
Statistics NZ figures show that the total number of New Zealanders who died to the end of August this year is 21,762, about 7 per cent down on 23,282 in the same period in 2019.
Northland figures are available only to the end of June but show 387 deaths this year compared to 405 at the same time last year.
Nor is the reduction in deaths confined to the elderly. The biggest percentage drop is among people aged 15-30, with a 19 per cent reduction in deaths in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period last year. Deaths in that age group are relatively low, however, so the figures need to be treated with caution.
Possible reasons include a drop in road deaths during lockdown and a drop in workplace deaths as many workers were forced to stay home. Both skew towards younger people.
In the first six months of this year 36 people died at work, according to WorkSafe figures, compared to 49 at the same time last year. The road toll so far this year is 219 compared to 244 at this time last year. Northland, however, is bucking that trend with road deaths almost on par with 2019.
Experts have also suggested decreased air pollution during lockdown, especially in big cities, contributed to a drop in deaths from respiratory illnesses.
Rumours on social media claimed an increase in suicides during lockdown but the opposite was true with the Chief Coroner reporting a decrease in suicides compared to the same period last year.