New Zealand has a fantastic record of biosecurity. We are the only country in the world to have eliminated microplasma bovis from the cattle population. We eliminated hydatids from the sheep population. We got rid of fireblight from the apples. And recently we also eliminated pea weevil where it had arrived in the Wairarapa. New Zealand has huge experience in all this because it’s literally the country’s livelihood – despite rocketry, film industry and the rest, we’re still a pastoral country. Much of the GDP is generated, one way or another, from pastoral products, including sustainable forestry.
The methods government has been using – so far – to control Covid are identical to those long successful against animal and plant disease: ring-fence the outbreak, identify contact points, isolate those, and stamp it out. Even the charts were the same.
The science behind this is strong, it worked against the initial outbreak – and I am sure it would have worked against delta, apart from one small point. The Ardern government blinked. They let go the highest level of lockdown too early. It’s easy to see why. Large societies composed of many individuals can’t be simply herded into a pen and left. And people became weary of restrictions – quite apart from the damage being done to the commercial sector and the increasing stridency of calls from the business community. Testing rates fluctuated. People began breaking through boundaries set up to keep the rest of the country safe. One car was stopped with a boot-load of KFC, picked up on the other side of the Auckland boundary, where takeaways were open. (Apparently takeaways are a staple diet, these days.)
A week or so ago the change of government tone became clear: ‘stamp it out’ became ‘the virus is out to get the unvaccinated’ and the campaign to vaccinate everybody gained momentum. But it wasn’t well thought through. If anything was going to fuel the crazy-pants conspiracy narrative of ‘evil government is out to take control’, this sudden change of message was a good way to start. All the while, there were growing reports of cases ‘leaking’ out of Auckland, the main centre of the delta outbreak.
The science is clear: masks work, sanitising works (as in hand-washing), and vaccines work. The vaccines are astonishing demonstrations of science – the first effective against any of the coronavirus family. Work began back in 2003 when SARS emerged, so their appearance now is the result of steady efforts over nearly two decades. Furthermore, MRNA-type treatments have been in use for over a decade, so there is data on their longer-term effects. What’s not known is the duration of protection.
I can see why the New Zealand government has changed course. By practical measure, lockdowns can’t be run indefinitely. But there will be a human cost. If government reaches its 90 percent vaccine target, that still leaves around 670,000 Kiwis (including children under 12) unvaccinated. One of the reasons why the government pursued the elimination strategy is because decades of chronic under-funding of the health system have left the hospitals creaking. Mass Covid cases will overwhelm it in short order. And people will die. There is a paper in The Lancet – here – which modelled the New Zealand situation and found that, at a vaccination rate of 90 percent (variably across population cohorts) there could be over 80,000 cases with up to 145 deaths.
To me the fundamental issue is that people – and populations, especially – think emotionally, not scientifically. In that sense, the choice the New Zealand government’s facing isn’t much different from that old Futurama joke: someone is offered ‘death or snoo-snoo’. When they choose death, it turns out to be death by snoo-snoo. Ouch.
On the other hand, and maybe this is just me, I think the Ardern government could have handled it better than they have.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021