COVID19 worsens around the World; New Zealand heading for Level 1 – again


Some days when I look at the COVID19 of New Zealand and then look at the response of other countries, it seems like we are a different planet all on our own doing our own thing. Having successfully fought off what I think was the second wave of the pandemic, New Zealand is once again heading towards COVID19 Level 1, where the country is effectively functioning normally, but with precautions in place. And as we do, I cannot help but look in the revision mirror at the madness engulfing other countries that did not so proactively respond to it.

What I find really off putting is how poorly the western world has done in fighting COVID19. With the exception of Germany, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand, most western countries have had and continue to have a torrid time – it is not to say that it was a walk in the park in New Zealand, far far from it, but thanks to a proactive response New Zealand has managed to avoid the case explosion that has happened in the United States, Brazil, India and elsewhere. With support across the House of Representatives, New Zealand has been able to tackle this as a nation and not as individuals. With effective communication, New Zealand has avoided the chaotic responses seen in European countries. And with the comparative lack of socio-political division, we have avoided becoming like the United States, the wealthiest country in the world tearing itself to bits as violently as it can without a second Civil War starting.

Yes, there are countries that we could be more like. I am particularly impressed with Taiwan’s effort. Taiwan has had in the 8 months that COVID19 has been around, 509 cases and 7 deaths. It is recording one or two new cases a day and its death toll has not increased in months. But unfortunately Taiwan is more of an exception, rather than the norm.

The few countries that have lesser cases than Taiwan and are considered to be first world are non-existent. The few countries at all that have less cases than Taiwan are Pacific island nations such as the Cook Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu, and so forth. These countries by their isolated nature, small size and lack of connection with the outside world pre-emptively shut down without waiting for recommendations to do so. However their very weak health systems mean even just a few cases of COVID19 could be disastrous.

Brazil, after peaking on 29 July at 69,000 new cases a day, has tapered off somewhat, but is still recording 33,000 new cases or the equivalent of the entire population of Blenheim each day. It has had 138,000 deaths from 4.59 million cases. Its President Jair Bolsonaro, denies the existence of COVID19 despite testing positive for it himself. Like India, like other countries whose cities have large slum areas, Brazilian urban areas have been swamped by COVID and my guess is that whilst 4.59 million cases have been recorded, there are probably hundreds of thousands more that are unknown.

India is finally facing up to something I had long dreaded would happen. Because of the relatively large size of India and poor transportation, I thought COVID19 would take a bit longer to spread around the country and it appears to have done so. But at the back of my mind I worried that when COVID19 did eventually arrive it would be potentially catastrophic. The acceleration of cases in India is truly shocking to watch – in one day last week, the equivalent of the entire population of Palmerston North (95,000) was infected; 5.6 million cases to date. Mortality rates though are not as high as I thought, with 1,053 dying on 22 September 2020.¬† With poor hygiene and sanitation practices, I expect that India’s case rate will worsen for a while longer yet.

And then there is Australia, a country that for the most part has COVID19 in check. Yet at the same time, Victoria, its second most populous state is locked down and has been for six weeks. Its politicians are arguing over whether to individually open up their states whilst Victoria finishes mandatory lock down. The cost to Australia, like New Zealand will be substantial, but if the former can successfully shrug off COVID19, it might be able to join New Zealand and other nations that have seen off the second wave in a COVID19-free bubble.

And so here we are. How did so many other nations with much greater resources, man power and expertise manage to mess up so badly, not once, but twice?

COVID Level 1 for New Zealand from Thursday


On Thursday at 0000 hours COVID Level 2 will take force in Auckland, nearly 6 weeks after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sent the country’s most populous region back to Level 3 (2 for the rest of New Zealand). At the same time Level 1 will take effect across the rest of New Zealand.

The country has spent the last nearly 6 weeks at an elevated COVID19 level as it stamps out what appears to be the inevitable second wave. In that time 200+ more cases have been added to the New Zealand tally, whilst 3 more deaths were also recorded.

It has not come without significant controversy though as conspiracy parties such as Advance New Zealand try to make people believe COVID19 is a cover for a takeover of New Zealanders rights by the Government. They point to actions by the New Zealand Defence Force, and Police during the first lock down – actions that are actually sanctioned by decades old legislation: the Health Act 1956; Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act 2002 and the Pandemic Preparedness Act 2006.

However it also means New Zealand has possibly achieved something no other country has yet done: seeing off the second wave of COVID19 without it merging with the mayhem caused by the first.

COVID19 waves and their impacts (IMAGE: VICTOR TSENG)Whilst we had a second wave, the strategy employed meant that only the Auckland area was made to shut down to Level 3, whilst the rest of the country went to Level 2. For the second time this year Auckland will be reopening on Thursday to an elevated alert level and wondering how much of 2020 can be salvaged from two lengthy shut down periods. For the first time too, campaigning for the 2020 General Election will be able to take place.

Many on the far right will continue to say that New Zealand is bent on destroying its own economy. They will continue to claim that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a Communist whose goal is a takeover of the country. These people could not be more wrong, and potentially could not be less empathetic with the families of the dead and the people who have suffered it, if they had tried. But not only that, the level of deceit being foisted upon New Zealanders just trying to get their lives back on track in what has been a very testing year by any reasonable measure, is quite shocking.

As for other countries, Australia, despite having the misfortune of having to watch Victoria slump back into lock down, is still the best friendly country. Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales as well as the Northern Territory are all largely open to domestic travel. Like New Zealand their border is largely shut, with only a few people who are citizens or permanent residents being allowed back.

Watching from a far, it seems like COVID19 is some sort of sinking ship. New Zealand and Australia, plus a few other nations have somehow managed to paddle their life boats away from it, whilst the rest of the world continues to struggle to get away.

An honest conversation about COVID19: The science


This is an attempt to answer a few basic questions from my stand point about COVID19.

One of the most noted aspects about the New Zealand response to COVID19 is that the Prime Minister did not assume to know better and decided to follow the advice of her chief Science Advisor, Director General of Health and others. The Prime Minister saw the danger with the “herd immunity” approach in Britain, where thousands have died, where the idea was to simply let the coronavirus get into the community and and rely on the population gradually becoming immune.

The numbers of people that that would have potentially affected in New Zealand is truly terrifying. The very first estimate suggested a death toll of 80,000 New Zealanders or 1.6% of the population. Some people screamed alarmism, but forget that very little was known about COVID19, the international response was patchy and no plans were really in place. This was simply unpalatable to the Government.

Are we going to get rid of COVID19 completely?

I would like to think so, but the answer is probably not. At some point in the future, New Zealand will have to open our borders, albeit carefully and with priority given to those countries that have a semblance of control – Australia, Taiwan, our Pasifika neighbours and maybe a few other countries. But that might not happen until maybe February or March 2021, whilst we try to buy the hopes of a vaccine a bit more time.

COVID19 might come in waves over time. Those waves may eventually diminish in strength, but for the immediate future whilst it is still rapidly evolving in many countries COVID19 means that the borders must stay shut for the time being. I do not envisage international air travel resuming before March 2021.

Will we have a vaccine?

The international race to get a working vaccine has been underway for a number of months now, but even if the world co-operated Рwhich it is not Рit would still take time to find out what could realistically work, design a test and agree on the parameters of the sample group. After testing the sample group, the test results would have to written up, peer reviewed and governments briefed. If assuming after all this things are going well, plans for production can be started, but that will include finding suitable facilities  to manufacture it, who takes priority Рdo nations do it by their most vulnerable categories, by age groups, among other concerns.

But all this assumes we as nations develop a common and agreed understanding of COVID19. In this fractured world, politics is as big an enemy a result as the virus itself.

Should we trust the science?

Absolutely! Science has come a long way in the 100 years since the Influenza outbreak of 1918, which resulted in the deaths of about 50 million people around the world. That was transmitted by soldiers returning from World War battlefields, who picked up in the hell that was the trench environment, a pandemic that would kill 8,500 New Zealanders. Social attitudes have changed since then too. Whereas economy of death might have been acceptable to practitioners then, no medical practitioner worthy of being called one would contemplate such a ghastly idea. Understanding of hygiene and matching standards have improved society’s ability to fight back against.

Although we still have a long way to go in fully understanding how COVID19 works, enough is understood to know that COVID19 can spread very easily. In Washington State, a single person managed to infect 52 people in a 61 member choir. A single dormitory in Singapore has been linked to 800 cases there.

Although the flu vaccine is not related to COVID19, one of the best things one can do is have the vaccine anyway. This is for the reason that COVID19 has the potential to put a lot of people in hospital, and by having a flu vaccination, one is potentially freeing up a bad that might be needed by a COVID19 patient.

Should I trust the Government?

I am not going to make that decision for you, but I am going to be very clear that I do not condone in any shape or form COVID19 denialism. Nor do I condone people who are actively calling for measures that risk undoing all of our hard work and which may put more vulnerable society members at undue risk.

An honest conversation about COVID19: Ministerial Response


I think we need to be clear up a few points of misunderstanding that people seem to have around New Zealand’s management of COVID19. A combination of misinformation being fed by news agencies such as Newstalk ZB, individuals such as Billy Te Kahika of the New Zealand Public Party and poor communications from Parliament have led to an unfortunate fog of confusion that simply does not need to exist. It is incumbent on all who know fact from fiction to make of the truth.

New Zealand has a public service that is, compared to the rest of the world, with the exception of the Scandanavian countries, very transparent about its activities. Successive Government’s have for the most part tried to maintain that transparency, which is why Transparency International has consistently rated New Zealand as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. And there are good reasons for it:

  • Whilst the Government watchdogs such as the Privacy and Human Rights Commissioners are sometimes put under undue pressure by the Government, they enjoy a freedom to operate that simply does not exist in a lot of other countries – the one time I remember a politician making a credible threat was Prime Minister John Key telling the Human Rights Commission to get into line or risk losing its funding
  • We have a high level of media freedom, but also a Broadcast Standards Authority that people can take complaints about the conduct of media outlets to, with a reasonable expectation that they will be looked into and
  • Whilst the Official Information Act is sometimes perceived as not working, is that really a failure of the Act itself, or the agencies that give effect to the Act – like any legislation it is only ever as good as the agency or agencies giving effect to it

So what has this got to do with COVID19?

Quite a lot. These checks are not adequate in my opinion, yet they along with a relatively well working legal system help to ensure that New Zealand’s elected officials and public service work to a high standard. They serve to give the public faith in the system, because the public are able to go explore options such as going to the Ombudsman’s office, or, if that fails, going to the media.

But it also means that the Government of New Zealand has access to information and data that is likely to be of a correspondingly higher standard. The officials that have been working on our COVID19 response will have been informed about the standards of honesty expected and the consequences of not meeting that standard.

Of course there will be a few along the way who do not. What happens to them is in part dependent on what they did, but also how serious their offence was. Most of the failures, are not at Ministerial level, but in lower and middle level management. Thus whilst the Minister is responsible at a national level, they cannot take responsibility for privacy and other reasons for someone failing to to do their job at Auckland airport for arguments sake. The slips at the border were most likely by people in middle management who overstepped their limits, or failed to spot a potential case. In the same way the Minister of Health cannot be responsible for whether a medical practice sacks a nurse or doctor for serious misconduct (in the first case the practice is responsible, but it can be referred to the Nursing Council or Royal College of General Practitioners), the Minister of Transport is not responsible for whether Aviation Security sack Joe Security for failing to direct someone displaying COVID19 symptoms to step aside, whilst appropriate arrangements are made.

So, whilst you are understandably frustrated if someone goes into the community with COVID19, it is not necessarily the Government to blame. They are reliant on everyone under them being honest about what is going on, including whether they are appropriately resourced, trained, staffed and so forth, but it is responsibility of the agencies tasked with the border work to DO the border work.

 

First nine days of lockdown unlawful, but justified


A court decision has found that the Government breached the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 in the first nine days of the lockdown.

So, what happened?

A three count complaint was made that the Government did not act within the scope of the law during lock down. Andrew Borrowdale took the Government to court, aggrieved that his rights of freedom of movement and freedom of association were being infringed on during lock down. His first point regarded comments made by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and other officials concerning the announcement of lock down and its onset. His second related to three orders and how they were linked to each other.

In short when New Zealand went into lockdown at 2359 hours on 25 March 2020, the Government had overstepped the order of the Director General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield that forbade congregating except with social distancing.

This is to say that whilst the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 was breached by the lockdown for the first nine days, the rapidly evolving COVID19 situation meant that the Government was left with little choice but to act rapidly. Whilst staying in our homes was not a legal position until 03 April 2020 it was one that was found to be justified, reasonable and proportionate to the emergency as it stood at the time.

However only on this count, article 1, of the case laid, did the Court find in favour of Mr Borrowdale. The other two counts were dismissed.

Unsurprisingly this has drawn an angry reaction from the Opposition in Parliament today who attempted to suggest that the Government is a body with two arms but does not know what each arm is doing. However one could argue that the Government, in a time of unprecedented urgency where New Zealanders were being put on an emergency footing that had not happened since World War 2, if at all, literally did not have the time to go through and double check their legal footing before it became necessary to lock the country down.

Some will call this evidence that the Government cannot and should not be trusted with anything. But many of these are the same people currently promoting conspiracy theories around the COVID19 response when there is plenty of evidence that New Zealand’s success stems in no small part from reacting as we did. Yes, in hindsight the Government should have taken a bit longer to confirm the legal ground that it was standing on, but if we had waited another week or however long before putting lock down into effect, perhaps we would have a three digit death toll instead of 22.

That is not okay.