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.


My thoughts on election policy in 2020: Part 1

Over the next three nights I look at policies that I would like to see be given effect by New Zealand politicians. Every three years just before an election campaign kicks off, I go back over my thoughts from previous elections and revisit ideas put forward either by politicians, or ones that I came up with. In the name of keeping my policies current I run a three strand rule of thumb over them:

  • Did they have a modicum of realism – i.e. is there any realistic chance of a N.Z. political party giving effect to any them
  • How badly does New Zealand need those issues addressed
  • Is there any party in New Zealand that has seriously thought about these

In this part I look at justice, housing and the need for a technological economy.

In Justice I have noticed that the spectrum is a double edged sword. On the right of the sword, you have the proponents of a heaver sentencing regime. These are typically conservative, pro-Police, pro-judge – although they talk about restorative justice many of these typically just want a heavy sentence to be handed down without real about what they want from it. I therefore propose:

  1. Introducing alternative sentencing for non serious crimes that do not involve danger to ones life; introduce 1wk jail sentences for those who flee the Police at stops;
  2. Legalize cannabis to decrease the rate of minor drug offending; increase sentencing regime available for Class A drugs like methamphetamine
  3. Heavier sentences for employers who exploit staff, particularly those not from New Zealand
  4. Introduce extra training for Police to improve trust between them and Maori and Pasifika communities

Science and technology is always something I have thought to be rather underfunded. New Zealand has long had one of the lower rates of investment into research science and technology. I believe that this would go some distance towards discouraging scientists to remain in the country, and why those that do like Dr Siouxsie Wiles who stick around and take a leading role become more high profile, both in terms of recognition, but unfortunately also troll attacks. These jobs and additional ones providing technical support have the potential to be well paying jobs in the respective regards.

I also believe that science and technology can go some distance towards reducing our environmental footprint on Planet Earth. However it is going to require a rethink about how we live as a society. Coming at a time when we are fighting COVID19 and dealing with increasingly urgent signals about the dangers of our worsening environment, I propose the following:

  1. A systemic reinvestment in science at high school and at University, with an increase in the R.S.T. funding pool to 2% of G.D.P. – this will partially assist in luring top notch researchers bake home
  2. Spread 80-90% of the funding across three or four broad areas instead of diluting it down across many areas – renewables; medicine; nano-technology; environment are my preferences
  3. Research pros and cons of hydrogen as a vehicle fuel source

Health is the third area I want tackle tonight. It has been highly prominent as a result of COVID19 this year. With Canterbury D.H.B. in a state of disarray and many other D.H.B.’s struggling to rein in their spending, it is important to revisit how well D.H.B.’s work and whether New Zealand should go towards a more centralized model. Continuing issues with how Pharmac purchases medications and the lack of availability of cancer drugs used overseas is another.

But it will be without doubt the strain that COVID19. On one hand the health system has done extraordinarily well in its biggest crisis in decades. It did not collapse; the medics, doctors and nurses as well as specialists performed heroics. Yet I find several things that need to be done:

  1. Improve the communications system used by staff – too many unnecessary and potentially costly errors being made, with potentially massive consequences
  2. Review the D.H.B.’s and see whether a clean out or complete restructuring is needed
  3. Prepare for a potentially worse COVID19 outbreak than the current surge in New Zealand


The incoming National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management

In 2014, a National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management was introduced. It was the first serious attempt to use the N.P.S. as an instrument to prescribe freshwater policy in New Zealand. The N.P.S.-F.M. which was amended in 2017 will be superseded by a new one this week. But how keen are politicians on improving our freshwater resource?

On the centre-right, National, whose voter base is dominated by farmers and business owners is not keen and National leader Judith Collins initially said that the reforms would be “gone by lunch time”. Although Ms Collins has since back tracked somewhat, the overall support in the party for improvement of the resource is low and generally viewed as unnecessary red tape.

On the centre-left, the Labour Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is supporting the new N.P.S.-F.M. which seeks to broadly overhaul the checks and balances on use of the resource by farmers. The broad aims are to reduce the presence of livestock in freshwater bodies including lowland streams and smaller rivers, to require farms to have management plans and data loggers recording their water takes from groundwater and surface water sources.

New Zealand has a long and deep association with its freshwater resource. We use it for electricity generation; a multitude of water sports; farming; industrial and domestic uses. It supports an array of fisheries, some of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Maori iwi have ancestral linkages to the freshwater, its use for transportation, as a source of kai, and as ancestors the strength of the mauri (life force) is an indicator of its health. In the central North Island, Tainui whose ancestral lands cover much of Waikato are strongly linked to the river of the same name, in the same way that Ngati Tuwharetoa are linked to the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park and Ngai Tahu to Aoraki/Mount Cook.

Causes of the decline in fresh water quality can be traced to excessive nutrients going into freshwater, mainly from dairy farms. If waterways are not appropriately fenced off cows will urinate/defecate in the water. The break down of this introduces high levels of nitrogen which is bad for aquatic life in the streams, which in turn impact on the fish. In urban areas a failure to adequately treat runoff from roofs, road surfaces and industrial sites means a range of heavy metals find their way into water bodies such as the Avon or Heathcote Rivers in Christchurch.

The 2020 N.P.S.-F.M. takes effect on 03 September 2020.


Answering the critics of getting New Zealand out of poverty

Poverty is one of New Zealand’s biggest social issues and probably the most divisive. It is a subject that generates a wide range of reactions when discussed, from compassion and wanting to help those in it, to contempt that at times almost borders on hate. In this article I look at some of the common arguments put up by those who are critics of the behaviours and living standards of lower income earners.

To me, poverty is an intergenerational thing in many families. Successive generations of the same family have come to be marginalized people, unable to break. There are multiple arguments that critics of addressing poverty like to use to justify their stance. I will address these here:

  • that most are lazy people who simply do not want to help themselves
  • that people who are in poverty waste their benefit money on drugs, alcohol and gambling
  • that all one needs is to work hard and save

A fairly small percentage of people are likely to be lazy – but how did they get to this state of being? Are they from a family where schooling was a low priority; what if their parents were simply absentee in that they were at work or had gone out and simply neglected their children? You cannot blame the children for that.

A correlation between the location of alcohol stores and bars with pokie machines can be made. For example Merivale and Fendalton, two of the more upmarket suburbs in Christchurch have bars, but they are quite upmarket places that do not have run of the mill features such as pool tables, T.A.B. and/or pokies; instead of the standard Speights, Mac’s Gold, Guinness, more expensive beer is found. Higher income areas have greater social mobility and are able to afford access to resources that lower income people cannot. Contrast with neighbouring Bryndwr or Papanui, both of which have bars that have pokie machines, and subsequently middle income people are more likely to be found there, which helps to discourage the lower income earners from presenting.

Occasionally you see articles in Stuff which are click bait in nature, but talk about people who have had supposed rags to riches stories simply by working hard and saving hard. What these articles tend to omit is that these people had parental or other assistance getting into the market. A person earning $75,000 a year currently loses $25,000 in income tax. Assuming they are flatting/renting they might pay another $15,000 in rent. Add food, internet, medical, clothing and vehicular costs and that might be another $1,200 per month.

$75,000 – $25,000 – $15,000 – $14,400 = $20,600 per annum after expenses and assuming no money is being set aside in KiwiSaver. It would take 18 years if all of that $22,000 was saved JUST for buying a house to be able to buy something worth $400,000. Someone at a supermarket on minimum wage earning $600 per week after tax, paying rent could easily lose nearly all of that on living costs, never mind saving.

Crime is a significant symptom of poverty and much of it can be removed by addressing the chief causes of poverty. By giving people a proper place to live that is warm and dry will help to reduce the likelihood of them being a drag on the health system; establishing an adult education system for those who were never taught basic things and assign them a tutor/buddy; appending social benefits to inflation will all help. Addressing poverty is a long term investment – a marathon and not a 100 metre sprint.The social/economic/cultural benefits in the long term will far outweigh the fiscal costs of the investment.