New Zealand’s looming failure to control Covid

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 Lancethere – 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

9 thoughts on “New Zealand’s looming failure to control Covid

  1. Loosening restrictions too soon happened in several provinces here in Canada too, with hospitals becoming overwhelmed. I’m wondering if emotional responses deliver faster apparent rewards, whereas scientific choices take time to play out. Also if one day there will be a virus that’s as readily transmitted as Covid, but deadlier.

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    1. It’s an issue every government seems to have faced. I think it’s inevitable given the fact that we’re sitting two generations out from the Reagan/Thatcher neo-liberal revolution that prioritised the needs of the few over those of the many. It’s entrenched to the point where big business (and their profit margins) has due effect on political decisions. Couple that with the sociological effects of lockdowns – increasing unease, increasing desire to defy it – among a general population brought up for the last two generations on the principle of ‘me – me – me – gratification – me – me’, and it’s a recipe for trouble. Here in NZ the fact that everyday Kiwis apparently can’t go without their fast food is astonishing (people were breaking out of the Auckland lockdown perimeter to get it) – but it’s a reality. I find it extraordinary from a historical perspective because it is almost the precise reverse of the social attitudes that enabled both World Wars to be won by the democracies, with all that this means for today’s world of democratic nations and freedoms.

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  2. Every country’s media seems to be saying something similar about their government’s attempts to control covid – all decrying the different strategies countries have employed. Hindsight is a wonderful thing

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  3. Ouch. This is where a sincere but useless apology is in order. I am honestly sorry that NSW exported Delta to New Zealand. The Gladys Monster refused to do what needed to be done and now my state, Victoria, and your country, are both suffering for her hubris.

    My premier, Dan Andrews, did an abrupt about face as well some weeks back when multiple protest marches made it impossible to keep the lid on cases.

    All we can hope for now is that we’ll reach maximum vaccination of our populations before the $hit hits the fan big time. 😦

    Stay well.

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    1. Thanks! Of course, given the way these things transmit, Delta (or some similar version, later) was always going to arrive here sooner or later no matter what was happening in Australia. The trans-Tasman ‘travel bubble’ certainly opened the door for it in this instance – but these viruses are tricky beasts. I suspect NZ’s main problem now is that the original deliverance in 2020 was so effective that the Delta restrictions – a whole new thing – are irksome. The fact that Aucklanders were even breaking the boundary to go and get their fast-food fixes speaks volumes. (Actually on several levels… including the fact that fast food is apparently an essential staple of modern NZ diet. Ouch.)

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      1. You’re right, and we certainly saw Delta burn through the rest of the world, yet we dawdled on the vaccinations. As our smirking PM said, “it’s not a race”. -grinds teeth-
        We could have held Delta off though, at least until both our countries were properly vaccinated, but the lockdown-lite that GladysB played with ensured that we’d all have to do a desperate sprint, like it or not.
        How’s the vaccination target going in NZ? Sorry but we don’t get much news from your way unless it’s very bad.

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