The unexpectedly low COVID-19 death toll has triggered bitter, and public, arguments among Australia’s top university economists.

“A flight warning system advises a pilot to change direction to avoid hitting a mountain,” he tweeted. “The pilot responds and avoids disaster. It doesnt mean the system was wrong. It certainly doesnt mean all flight warning systems should be removed because planes havent hit mountains.”
Challenged about the number of fatalities, McKibbin said: “Hard to explain this to a New Yorker or Brazilian.”
‘False distinction’
McKibbin is the most prominent of 265 pro-lockdown economists who signed a public letter a month ago, well after the infection peaked, supporting lockdowns and accusing their opponents of a “false distinction” between public health and the economy.
University of New South Wales economist Gigi Foster on Q&A. 
They were referring, among others, to University of NSW academic Gigi Foster, who has been prepared to engage in pandemic heresy and suggest that not all lives are equal, and nor can death be avoided at any cost.
“I reject the idea that it is lives versus the economy,” she told the ABC’s Q&A program on April 20. “It’s lives versus lives. The economy is about lives.”
The data is so far unclear, but it is possible that the virus has not cost life, in Australia, in net terms. One calculation puts the life saved from fewer vehicle crashes at 2500 human years, compared with the roughly 300 years of life lost among those mostly elderly people who succumbed to COVID-19.
Normally academic debates are fought in obscure journals, or seminars. Foster’s daring position, reinforced in an Australian Financial Review column on Monday and by economic-trained commentators such as Christopher Joye and Adam Creighton, has spilled over into a social media spat.
Cryptic criticism
On Tuesday, Richard Holden, a University of NSW colleague who said 225,000 people could have died, made a cryptic criticism.
“Cost-benefit analysis has its pros and cons,” he tweeted. “But a key virtue is that it puts a monetary value on things. Unless, of course, one doesn’t provide any numbers!”
In a phone interview, Holden confirmed the tweet was a retort to the argument made by Foster, a woman he has worked with for nine years.
“It literally has not got one number in it,” he said. “When it is a numbers game, and there is no number in it, I don’t consider it to be an academic argument.”
He said he disliked personal confrontation but was worried that Foster’s position could dissuade governments from locking down life again if the virus flares up.
Social media anarchy
Foster countered that it isn’t her role to calculate the cost of policy.
“The point was to provide a big-picture view of why and how we have gotten our policy wrong, for the benefit of people who havent understood that yet,” she said in an email.
Seeing their intellectual leaders engaging with anonymous, and sometimes angry, members of the public, other academics have embraced the anarchy of social media.
In economics, the debate is so hot that Holden, a visiting professor at Harvard, recently urged senior colleagues not to ridicule junior academics and those without tenure a job security protection reserved for universities on Twitter.
The academic Twitter combat isn’t necessarily proof that professors are as desperate for attention as everyone else. Universities want their staff to influence policy, and encourage them to post on social media.
“There is a lot of academic pressure to enter into the public debate,” says Ross Williams, managing editor of the Australian Economic Review.
“But I am not sure Twitter is the right way to do it. In terms of shifting the wider debate I think you need more serious articles.”
Asked how long a rigorous analysis of the COVID-19 response might take, Williams has a very academic time frame: two years.