COVID news of this week was that three eminent New Zealanders think we should reopen the border and abandon our elimination strategy. Reactions, and reactions to the reactions, rebounded around the air and social media waves. However, what was reported wasn’t necessarily in the actual conversation piece provided by the previous Chief Science Advisor Peter Gluckman, ex Prime Minister Helen Clark and ex CEO of AirNZ Rob Fyfe. Headlines were even more inaccurate than the text of articles, with Newshub saying “New Zealand must consider opening borders soon”. “Soon” was a word also used in the NZ Herald article on the matter, in reference to timeframes for opening borders. But Gluckman, Clark and Fyfe said nothing about a requirement to open borders soon, just that New Zealand needs to consider when and how it might open its borders. We need to remain part of the world, on our own terms; I am sure it isn’t just me that is thinking that we could be living in a Fool’s Paradise and happily holidaying domestically while the world crumbles around us.
When I first heard of the Gluckman/Clark/Fyfe paper, I had the reaction that I heard mirrored on the RadioNZ Panel discussion – no way should we be reopening the borders! Look at Australia, they got a little bit of COVID and now parts of Melbourne are having to lock down. Locking down again is close to unthinkable; we have been through significant trauma and our prize is being able to behave normally within our country. We do not want to return our prize because there are no better looking prizes in this game show.
Before I go on to have a closer look at Victoria’s situation, and how that might relate to New Zealand, let’s have a look at a few of the prizes that we don’t want to be claiming.
South Africa’s cases are soaring, closing on 10,000 a day for a population of 58 million. Despite a very stringent lockdown, their cases have continued to climb. They relaxed lockdown at the beginning of June and the cases climbed faster, so now they are considering more stringent lockdowns again.
Iran was an early victim of COVID-19 exponential growth, and got things under control during April through lockdown. Lockdown was eased on April 11 and 3 weeks later, in early May, cases started to rise again and have largely continued to do so, although not exponentially of late. Their population of 82 million is seeing new cases of 2,000 per day at present.
Mexico is a big country with 126 million people and have had continued increases in new daily cases of COVID-19, now at around 6,000 per day. They started locking down in late March, hospitals started to be overcrowded from late April. In June the government decided the economy could take no more and started reopening the economy, including welcoming tourists. A number of Mexican governors asked for autonomy in dealing with the virus in their regions; the data suggests no solutions have been found yet.
The United Kingdom‘s 67 million people locked down for April, May and June and the consequence appears to be much reduced incidence of the virus at around 500 new cases per day (equivalent to 38 cases per day for the NZ population, the point at which we locked down!). The UK also reduced their social distancing restrictions markedly on July 4 so the test will come in early August as to whether their internal track and trace can keep the infection rates under control.
Brazil‘s president is up there with Trump in the COVID-19 denial stakes. His country (of 209 million people) is up there with the USA (328 million people) in terms of new daily cases, at around 50,000 per day where the USA celebrated July 4th with a record breaking 60,000 new cases. Both countries have had spotty and confused lockdowns and restrictions; Brazil is generally reopening and the USA has reduced lockdowns in many states starting in May and accelerating through June (as did the number of cases). There appears to be little correlation at the country level between rising numbers of cases and the perception of the need for measures to curb them.
Returning to the Victoria scenario, I think the most pertinent part of the Australian problem (that we don’t want to emulate) is how COVID-19 reentered the community. Australia seemed to have COVID-19 under control. As in New Zealand, new cases were coming across the border as Australians returned home, but these cases were being controlled through mandatory hotel quarantine. However, the Victoria Premier has pinpointed the origin of many infections being workers who are overseeing hotel quarantines and ‘breaking the rules’. Hotel staff cases are apparently ‘ancestors’ of cases in homes, based on COVID-19 mutations. It is suggested that there is inappropriate socialising between guards and travellers, and between quarantine hotel staff. The media says guards and travellers were sleeping together. Let’s hope this is another media beat-up otherwise the IQ of Australia must be dropping rapidly. It is also likely that secondary cases from an existing cluster related to an abattoir may have been ‘festering’ undetected in the community. As precautions, and thus people, relaxed, COVID-19 started spreading again. In particular, non-English speakers were vulnerable as messages changed rapidly and were not necessarily communicated in other languages.
One of the critical lessons from Victoria, then, is that excellent quarantine procedures are essential. Another critical lesson is that, when spread reoccurs, the country must be able to identify people who are sick and get on top of the spread through contact tracing to prevent sustained and increasing community transmission. Cases will reenter the country, there is no doubt of this. So we must be able to manage them. These are the fundamental messages from Gluckman, Clark and Fyfe, we have to get these basics right in New Zealand to have a hope of opening up in the future, not to mention protect the advantageous situation in which we currently find ourselves.
I am not at all sure that the media has done us justice with their reporting and whipping up righteous fervour in regard to keeping our borders closed. There are many New Zealanders who may yet choose to come home – there are around 1 million of them out there! They represent a significant avenue through which COVID-19 can arrive and which we need a good plan to manage this and a public that accepts we cannot have absolute elimination of the virus if our borders are to be open in any way. Although I remain skeptical of arguments that say we must open borders or risk economic disaster, don’t we want to be in a position where we are able to open borders to enable economic activity of a type that is clearly advantageous? For example, our research and innovation system hugely depends on flows of skilled people between New Zealand and other countries; new people and new ways of doing things drive new ideas. And new ideas are not just about improving our economy, they are a life blood for a vibrant society.
So I agree that we need a plan, one that lets us leverage our huge international advantage of having already controlled COVID-19 in our country. A plan that puts New Zealand at the forefront again, as the country that has not only squashed the virus but the country that has figured out how to manage its border in a way that keeps the virus down. Just like we needed the team of 5 million to do the squashing, we will need the team of 5 million on board to move into our different COVID-facing future. I am hoping that the media will curb their click-bait tendencies and shift focus towards creating that team anew.