Will there be a COVID19 sequel?


Up to yesterday 15 May 2020, New Zealand’s new COVID19 case numbers for the month had gone like this: 1, 2, 2, 0, 0, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 0, 0, 0. Yesterday there was a solitary new case. Which is great because it means that the very long tail of COVID19 is something that we are well into.

However there is a problem. Aside from that very long tail existing, it also points to the need to display ongoing vigilance in the community against COVID19, which is very hard to do in a shopping mall where there are queues extending into the mall and

New Zealand’s hard work is at grave risk of being undone at some point in the future, because the pressure to reopen the borders and permit air travel again will become overwhelming. The pressures will be both internal, from the travel industry, from people wanting to go on holidays and see the world again and external pressures from trading partners wanting to do business with New Zealand again.

With the exception of Taiwan many of the other countries that were initially ones to watch and try to model our approach on, have since slipped markedly. This suggests that they eased their social distancing and isolation measures too soon.

One example is Singapore, which has a lot of migrant workers living in cramped dormitories has had a major jump in its cases to nearly 27,000. Yet miraculously its death toll is exactly the same as New Zealand. However, with only 6,000 of those cases having recovered, the death toll is almost certain to rise.

South Korea, after doing so well has also slipped. A single person with the virus who was apparently asymptomatic, visited Itaewon in Seoul, an area with nightclubs and popular with both locals and foreigners alike. He has infected a dozen people with 30 more probable and 7,200 people may have been exposed to the virus. South Korea, despite North Korea being isolationist and difficult to enter at best, has a potential 22 million strong incubator north of the Demilitarized Zone – North Korea does not admit to having any cases at all, but a combination of zero state transparency and a medical system that would not stand the strain, there are quite possibly cases.

As for Taiwan, incredibly its numbers are unchanged from when I last looked at them several days ago. 440 cases all up. 383 have recovered and 7 have died, leaving 50 outstanding cases.

New Zealand faces a testing balancing act in the coming days and weeks. There is no doubt that we need to get the economy moving again and that New Zealanders will not tolerate indefinite curtailment of their liberties – one day after the budget and two days after it was passed the COVID19 Public Response Act has already been referred back to a Select Committee for proper examination. There is equally little doubt that no one wants to go back to Level 4 or Level 3 restrictions any time soon, as the compliance issues would increase in inverse proportion to New Zealanders following recommendations.

Many questions also remain unanswered. One that I am keen to know more about is whether the warming weather in the northern hemisphere will exhaust the virus and prove the idea that it does not do well in temperatures above a certain level (I think 30ÂșC). Another is obviously whether a vaccine will be ready in 2020. I suspect not, just because even if all wealthy nations pitched in, it has to undergo a rigorous testing phase. If that testing is deemed a success, the ministries/departments of health around the world then have to be given instruction on its use, all the while waiting for a facility that can manufacture the vaccine in large enough quantities to be made ready. On top of that there are also outside forces – some controllable and some not so – such as geopolitical rivalries between the United States and China; poor medical infrastructure in some countries and conflicts all contribute to a myriad of challenges that a vaccine faces.

But the really disturbing thing is – as we have just seen in South Korea – one person in a bar or other potentially densely crowded meeting place is a mobile biological bomb exploding bit by bit. It would only take one or two such cases here and we might be locking down before we even known what happened.

And no one wants that.