New Zealand has eliminated coronavirus. For now.
And as we woke to a semblance of ‘normality’ at Level 1 on a day in which the World Health Organisation had announced its biggest daily global increase in Covid-19 cases, the sense of exhilaration and freedom was tempered a little by killjoy realists who point out we’re still in a bubble.
Says Newsroom’s Bernard Hickey: “We have built a beautiful and clean cage, and now we’ll have to electrify and reinforce the bars with very strict entry rules, border testing, quarantines, super-fast testing, a widespread and robust tracing system and hyper-vigilance.”
While he says we should all be understandably proud of our accomplishment, “Without the global rollout of a vaccine, which most see as 18 months away at best, New Zealand Inc should prepare for a long and frustrating stay in our gilded cage … it could mean years without trips to meet new business contacts, years without seeing relatives, years without international sport, years without international live entertainment and a complete rejig of our economic model based on international tourism, international education and cheap and exploitable guest workers.”
Alternatively, without “a tight and electrified cage” we risk “extremely damaging trips back to Level 4 social isolation” on our chosen path of elimination, or, the unthinkable: “accidently [sliding] into a suppression strategy that turns into a herd immunity strategy. We are neither ready for, nor want, either.”
Apropos ‘neither ready for, nor want’, the threat of Covid-19 may now feel far away, but as the RNZ interview with New Zealand’s last discharged hospital patient shows, the lived realities of this disease, while mild for most, can be brutal. Lilian Su’a spent two months in hospital, one month of which she was hooked up, unconscious, to a ventilator; doctors say it will take her half a year to fully recover.
For epidemiologists like Michael Baker and Nick Wilson, who worked on the government’s elimination strategy, the coronavirus is still very much cause for alarm. Going forward, to not only protect New Zealand’s bubble, but the country’s long-term health, they propose five key pathways:
- Establish the public use of fabric face-masks in setting like public transport, on aircraft and at border control and quarantine facilities. (While the Govt sees no need to mandate masks, there’s good evidence now to show that in the event of an outbreak, fabric masks do make a difference in the transmission of infection).
- Improve contact tracing effectiveness with suitable digital tools (Wilson told RNZ yesterday our contract tracing systems thus far are “completely unacceptable”).
- Apply a science-based approach to border management (i.e. don’t be swayed by politicised calls).
- Establish a dedicated national public health agency (for an eloquent argument for this, if the pandemic itself was not enough, you can read David Skegg’s 2019 book The Health of the People) and undertake an interim review of the public health response to the pandemic now, not after.
- Commit to transformational change to avoid major global threats to population health, like climate change, biodiversity loss and future pandemics. (As Baker and Wilson write, “The recovery from lockdown provides an opportunity for a sustained transformation of our economy that addresses wider health, environmental and social goals.”)
Expect to see more BayBuzz coverage on points 4 and 5 in particular over the coming months.