skip to main content

Will socio economics significantly impact drownings in a post Covid-19 environment? 

WSNZ has run a lens over drowning fatality data to identify whether a depressed economy and unemployment is a significant risk factor for preventable fatal drownings in New Zealand. One could imagine this occurring as a result of unemployed people having more leisure time in which to undertake risky activities.

Three periods of recent history have been identified where there was a rise in unemployment rate due to a significant downturn in the economy:

  • Early 90s downturn. 1989 - 1993. (in which unemployment rates rose over 10%)
  • Asian financial crisis. 1997 - 1999.
  • Global Financial Crisis. 2009 - 2012.

In each case we looked at recreational fatal drowning rates. In all three cases there was no significant difference in drowning rate between the crisis period and a comparable control period ‘pre and post’ the crisis period. See Table 1 below.

Table 1.


Based on history we don’t have evidence to predict that there will be a significant increase in drowning fatalities.

BUT the current Covid-19 event may be significantly larger than the three evaluated – in which case we don’t have comparative data to make a prediction. In other words, recent historical data may not be a reliable guide in this case.


Long-term unemployment does appear to be a risk factor for fatal drowning

The analysis above shows that a substantial increase in unemployment over a period of months to years does not drive drowning rates up markedly.

However, as will be shown, a disproportionate amount of fatal drowning victims are unemployed. We speculate that this is associated with long-term unemployment.

Drownbase records the occupation of victims. Among recreational fatal drowning victims over the last 20 years, who were aged between 18 and 60 and for which an occupation was recorded:

  • 23% of all victims were unemployed – significantly higher than the proportion of the adult population not in work
  • 38% of all “accidental immersion” victims
  • 29% of all “land-based fishing” victims
  • 23% of all “water sport / recreation” victims (including swimming)
  • 23% of all boating victims
  • Just 11% of underwater diving victims

Examination of coronial findings for these victims shows a complex relationship between unemployment, mental health, drug and alcohol problems, antisocial behaviour and drowning.

We tentatively conclude that:

  • a short to medium period of economic depression is unlikely to drive the drowning rate up, but
  • in a post-Covid 19 environment, there is the potential for increased drowning rate in the longer term through some combination of long-term unemployment, mental health and addiction issues.


Other considerations

On a positive note:

  • Lockdown Level 4 has had a significant positive effect on drownings, with no fatal drownings ocurring during the four week period of mid March to mid April 2020.
  • Pools closure took the pressure off pool incidents.
  • Heading into autumn, less people were swimming in open water.
  • A drop in tourist numbers results in less incidents. (However, tourists have never actually been a significant problem – they have made up a small proportion of fatal drownings historically.)
  • Immigrants, foreign workers and international students were emerging as a problem in a pre-Covid-19 environment. We expect incident rates to reduce aligned with fewer numbers of foreign workers and students entering the the country post Covid-19.


More concerningly:

  • ‘On top of’ and ‘under-the-water’ recreation are likely to remain problem activities.
  • Kai gathering has been a risk factor and is likely to remain so.
  • Possible respiratory health issues as a result of Covid-19 or flu could further impact on underwater diving drownings.
  • Recreation outside one’s neighbourhood has been identified as a risk factor – especially for Aucklanders.


The data shows Aucklanders, more often than people from other areas, tend to drown out-of-region.



Historical evidence suggests that there will not be a significant increase in drowning fatalities. BUT the economic impact of Covid-19 may be significantly larger than the three evaluated – in which case we don’t have comparative data to make a prediction.

In addition, long term unemployment could be a contributing risk factor that could be brought on in a post Covid-19 environment.

Over the coming weeks to months, we should be concerned about:

  • ‘on-top-of’ and ‘under-the-water’ recreation
  • impact of post-Covid respiratory problems on underwater divers
  • people, especially Aucklanders, travelling out-of-region to recreate (once the alert level permits).


Covid19 and Its Social Impact on Drowning

+ Text Size -