In a week I feel I have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous – from fantastic mountain views and solitude to being a participant in an opaque traffic light system. Based on the cartoons and media commentary yesterday, I appeared to be in good company thinking “Huh, what?” as our COVID traffic light system was revealed.
Together with New Zealand epidemiologists, I am puzzled as to why we would completely shift systems, having reached a collective understanding of what different COVID Alert Levels mean in a framework regarded as world leading. I also find it puzzling that we are moving to a very COVID-specific approach, where a refined Alert Level system could have served us well in the next pandemic. Moreover, we have moved to an approach which appears to be based on DHBs, which will no longer exist by the middle of next year. However, no-one in government asked me or apparently listened to the epidemiologists.
Explanations of what COVID traffic lights mean is leaking out piece by piece; it feels like our communications machine is creaking at the seams. Apparently the country is split into three – Auckland, the rest of the North Island, and the South Island. The traffic light to be applied to each area will be decided on November 29th – that is one piece of clarity, which is welcome. Except that it sounds like the South Island could get reconsidered sooner, although we don’t know when sooner might be.
On November 29th, Aucklanders will get a red traffic light if their three DHBs have each reached the 90% double vaccination mark. The rest of the North Island and the South Island will have the opportunity to get an orange traffic light if all DHBs in their respective regions have achieved 90% vaccination. I am not sure what happens to the Waikato if cases continue to occur there. One could ask what will happen if some other part of the North Island needs to move to Level 3, such as Northland, before the traffic lights are instituted. Do they then get considered separately? However, I won’t ask about these things because I might get even more confused than I already am. This situation reminds me of the cartoons following Boris Johnson’s announcements; “You will wear masks on Thursdays unless it is the last Thursday of the month and you wearing orange. However, if you are wearing red you will not pass go and will have to stay home all day”.
One can ask why New Zealand has chosen 90% of eligible people as our vaccination target. This translates to about 76.5% of the total population (I shouldn’t be complaining given that I asked for a 75% target back in August), based on 15% of New Zealanders being under 12 years old. Population scale vaccination rates are dependent on the age groups that are being vaccinated in each country (in the UAE they are vaccinating everyone from 3 years old and up). At present, we are number 41 in the New York vaccination tracker for full vaccination rates, at 59%. Australia is just ahead of us, at 60%. 76.5% would put us at number 9 in the world.
76.5% vaccination might be a good aspiration but is it necessary to achieve that level before increasing freedoms? I guess we will find out the answer to that question as we watch numbers of hospitalised COVID-19 patients and the degree of stress on our health system.
The time for concern about numbers of cases is almost past, now our concern is how much spread is occurring, which is indicated by cases where there is no known link to other cases, and how much weight COVID is placing on the medical system, indicated by hospitalisations and people in intensive care or high dependency units (ICU/HDU). It is interesting to see we had a big pulse of people in hospital early in this outbreak, possibly because of the numbers of unvaccinated people who were relatively vulnerable? We got on top of tracking the connections between cases but this started to decrease right around when Auckland moved to Level 3 on September 6.
My greatest concern with the traffic light system (assuming we will get past the confusion eventually) is that there is a very definite move to segregate unvaccinated from vaccinated. The reactionary part of me says “Great”, I don’t want to be unnecessarily exposed to COVID-19 and people who refuse to act in a beneficial way to society don’t deserve the same rights as those who do. However, another part of me feels that this approach will push people further into corners from which they will refuse to budge. The degree of social divide we are approaching reminds me of the damage done to national and individual psyches by the Springbok tour, when rifts were created between friends and within families that took decades to patch over. This is something Sarah has already noted on returning to New Zealand, as quite different from the feel in the UK.
There is a feeling of rigidity in our approach that sets off alarm bells in the back of my mind; what other aspect of national threat might trigger the government to indulge in the same behaviour again? We all know that practicing a behaviour makes it easier to repeat. On such shallow slopes can a change in national character change, starting slowly but gaining momentum. It is easy not to notice the pace at which you are moving until the point of no return is long past.