Why I trust our COVID19 plan more than I trust the Opposition


A few days ago National Member of Parliament, Michael Woodhouse made a stunning allegation. A homeless man had apparently talked his way past security and into a hotel in Auckland where COVID19 quarantine patients were being held. Who was he; why was he there?

The Government launched an investigation because such allegations are not to be trifled with. In making the allegations, National was alleging that there had been a significant breach of the containment facility that the hotel had been converted into; that the Government had no idea where a potential super spreader who could have gone on to infect hundreds of people had gone.

Except that there is a problem. There is no way of verifying it and Mr Woodhouse has not provided additional evidence.

National are plain desperate. It is a significant allegation to make, and I am not the first to do so, but it seems to me that National actually want the COVID19 pandemic to come back to New Zealand because that would give their claim that the Government does not know what it is doing, credence.

Despite having heard of some silly stuff in New Zealand politics, I find the idea that a political party could want a pandemic for their own ends quite unbelievable. Wanting a pandemic that might be only weeks away from overwhelming the United States medical system to come back and start raising merry hell here, just so National can get back into power. And yet, that is precisely what other commentators, not able to really believe their own eyes and ears are seeing and hearing too.

All this does is give me confidence that New Zealand is for the very most part on the right track in dealing with COVID19. Right across the emergency from when New Zealand realized it was going to have to enact measures unseen in this country before, through to today, the communications between the Government and the people have been outstanding. At all levels of society – from video updates aimed at children to the daily 1300 hour briefings for other parts of

Sure we are having new cases announced daily, but New Zealand was told quite clearly to expect an eventual second wave. Whether this is the star of that new wave, I do not know but that is mute. My point is the Government understood in its contingency planning that when the restrictions are lifted and people become mobile again we would probably see a spike in cases.

In terms of the people who have come through the border and gone on without appropriate checking, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Dr Ashley Bloomfield gave instructions in good faith. As such they had every reason like the rest of New Zealand to expect that those instructions would be duly implemented. And that anger displayed by the Prime Minister last week was not for show – it was an actual reaction to someone not doing a completely essential job and potentially letting down the entire country. My guess is that someone in middle management either made a bad judgement or was someone who thought that they knew better and exceeded the authority delegated to them. And if this is the case, middle management is an internal matter for the appropriate ministry or department and not something the Director General or the Prime Minister need to know about.

It was a good call getting the military to become involved in quarantine management as their logistical system, chain of command and resources has a clarity and structure sometimes missing in civilian organizations.

Do I have concerns? Yes. And so should everyone else, because COVID19 is anything but finished. It is incomparably more dangerous than the “minor flu” that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro insists; the epidemiologists and all those other people working in the medical sector are far more in tune than the politicians seek to undermine each other on the subject of COVID19. New Zealand might be doing well, but as a small nation, we have to be honest that our economic ability to fight a major COVID19 resurgence is limited; that our I.C.U. capacity is not great (and never has been) and that no one really knows when a vaccine will be ready – never mind available in quantities that means New Zealand and our Pasifika neighbours get a fair use of it.

So, why do I have confidence if I have concerns? The answer is simple. Because the Prime Minister and the Government have put their trust in the medical profession who are dealing with the crisis. They are not trying to play down the danger at all and know that a move back up to Level 2, 3 or – heaven forbid! – 4, would be horrendous for everyone. The social cost would, like the economic cost, be something few would want to contemplate.

 

A stark contrast between the United States and New Zealand in war on COVID19


Yesterday a truly disturbing announcement was made about COVID19. Whereas the first 1 million cases world wide had taken 3 months to reach, the most recent million new cases took a mere 8 days. 125,000 cases or the equivalent of the entire population of Otago every day coming down with COVID19. And as we ramp up our efforts to keep the border secure, the contrast in handling the emergency between the country much of the West looks to for leadership and a country of two moderate size islands and a host of smaller ones 11,000 kilometres away, is becoming ever more stark.

New Zealand has made a few mistakes. We should have never allowed people in on compassionate grounds. From Day 1 we should have sent everyone to quarantine without exception. The Police should have gone in hard after a few days grace and done away with warnings and education.

I know there is a whole lot of coulda, woulda, shoulda in there, but if you look at earlier articles, you would see that I have acknowledged the mistakes. You will see that New Zealand has been – and I cannot say this with enough emphasis – very lucky to have had both the Opposition and the Government largely on the same page. For election year reasons as well as holding the Government to account, there have been obvious disagreements. When we look at how the Opposition and Government have worked or not worked together in other countries only then do we realize that for all their many faults, there are worse things than National and A.C.T. in politics.

But New Zealand has done very well to control COVID19 to the extent that we have. It has been a combination of circumstances and a brilliant response. New Zealand’s geographical location, so often the curse of the country in terms of our relevance to the rest of the world has paid rich dividends in this instance. Contrast that with Canada which has the United States on its border; France with Spain; India with Pakistan. The response, which was in the history of New Zealand, unprecedented, planning, announcing and implementing a complete national shutdown with the speed that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did was always going to catch some people out; was always going to have a couple of teething issues simply because so much had to happen so quickly, adequate planning simply was not possible for everything. Much of the desperate politicking by National and A.C.T. at the moment has nothing to do with COVID19 and is simply about the General Election on 19 September.

Before people say “the United States is much bigger than New Zealand, so more cases and fatalities should be expected”, yes that is true. But not on the disproportionate scale that the United States now finds itself in. The United States has 66x New Zealand’s population of 5 million people, but it also has vastly greater resources available to it, both in terms of Federal Government finances, equipment, personnel and so forth as well as an immense bank of knowledge to draw upon.

If the United States had some how managed to keep its cases strictly proportionate to New Zealand, prior to our case numbers starting to climb last week, the key equations would have been:

  • 1504 (N.Z. total cases) x 66 = 99,264 cases
  • 22 (N.Z. total deaths) x 66 = 1,452 deaths

If we were pragmatic we would acknowledge the social, geographic, economic disparities across the United States and the fact that a vastly larger population would bring individuals with a vastly greater range of medical conditions. On that basis, for arguments sake, one might then make a 3-4 fold allowance cases and deaths. But even that, horrible as the statistics are – and remembering EVERY life lost is a tragedy for a family somewhere, there or here – the following statistics still look comparatively good to what is actually happening in the United States;

  • 99,264 cases x 3 = 297,792; x 4 = 397,056
  • 1,452 deaths x 3 = 4,356; x 4 = 5,808

I honestly do not know what the answer is in the United States. With 2 million casualties and 120,000 dead it is clear that the United States has an unprecedented medical emergency on its hands, especially as the U.S. moves into the hottest months of its calender year. With major holidays such as Independence Day still a month away and an election campaign to come, the U.S. struggle to contain COVID19 is only going to get more and more desperate. It is not nice to see a country you were told to look up to in Primary School as a nation that New Zealand should aspire to be like, suffering like this, but it is one time I am truly, truly grateful that the lottery of citizenship had me born in New Zealand.

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 33


Yesterday was DAY 33 of lock down as New Zealand fights the COVID19 pandemic.

LEVEL 4 ended at 2359 hours on Monday. LEVEL 3 began at 0000 hours this morning. For the vast majority of New Zealanders, aside from being able to enjoy takeaway meals and coffees from ones favourite outlets, little has changed other than the following:

  • Tradies can return to work, but tools will need to be washed twice daily
  • Activities within your region are permitted, but the closer to home the better
  • Schools can reopen up to Year 10 (children under 14 must be supervised)

This is something from which the recovery will be tedious and unlike anything anything in the memory of the vast majority of New Zealanders. To the chagrin of millions of people. It will test the patience of decision makers, the authorities and the public. It will test them in ways they had not thought possible.

The civil libertarians, whose eternal distrust of Government renders them permanently suspicious of the establishment, will be looking for ways to get around a set of cumbersome, odious and yet essential rules. There may be a few inspired by protests in Germany and the United States who think they are making a stand for their country, but are only making a stand for their misguided beliefs.

The mainstream will be happy to comply with rules if they are sure it will get the virus gone. The authorities will be wanting to be as close to 100% certain as they can, that the virus has been defeated before they openly support seriously relaxed rules; the Police aware that the potential for non-compliance will increase in inverse portion to public patience.

The decision makers, having the decisions will want to be sure that they were a) the right decisions and b) will stand up to the scrutiny of any inquiry or review that happens later. For those like Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, their legacy and how well their policies survive into the future will depend in large part on how they handle the recovery from COVID19.

I hope we are compliant as a nation – like everyone I want the virus to be decisively defeated. But when the war on COVID19 is inevitably drawn to a close, the Government is going to have a difficult balancing act between systematically denying the virus the prospect of Round 2 and getting as much of the country back to work, back to having a life as quickly as possible. There will also be challenges on the side that need to be dealt with, such as privacy concerns over the new application that the Government is working on – who will store the data; what rules will there be around sharing; what security will there be to stop hacking or data misuse among other concerns.

In some respects it will be like walking along the narrow ridge between potential pits (COVID19 resurgence, all the while wanting to dodge crumbling cliffs (public compliance) and not knowing how long New Zealand can maintain this delicate act without seriously hurting itself.

And all the while remembering there is an election in September.

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 27


Yesterday was DAY 27 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

When I woke up yesterday morning and turn on my social media, my initial thoughts were to look for the latest controversy from United States President Donald Trump’s press conferences. Instead one of the first things that came up on Twitter was an article from well leftist blogger Martyn Bradbury (CitizenBomber). Mr Bradbury was trying to understand how the international oil market, which has slumped massively as a result of COVID19, could go into negative territory – i.e. be effectively worthless.

My reaction to this news was mixed. On one hand I thought no doubt there will be many relieved New Zealanders who hope that the costs will be matched to some extent by a significant drop in petrol and diesel prices here. With that, equally they will be hoping that the cost of transporting goods is reflected in a drop their prices upon arrival at their point of sale. Also happy, I imagine will be the environmental movement, who will be hoping that the inevitable revival is checked by a change in how New Zealanders get around.

On the other hand, despite those many people working in what the political left term a “sunset industry”, I could not help but feel sorry for the thousands of people who work in the immediate refinery and distribution parts of the industry. The industry will definitely try to mount a revival, but its greater challenge could be a long term one to see how willing it is to invest in biofuel and hydrogen research.

No doubt the petroleum industry would have been shocked by this historic low. One month in which the developed world and much of the developing world has effectively ground to a halt except for essential businesses will no doubt cause a major dip in profit margins. It is unlikely even if all developed nations started significantly scaling back their COVID19 containment measures tomorrow, that prices would recover for 18-24 months if not significantly longer. Many countries are now seeing literal air quality improvements from the absence of petroleum and diesel powered transport before their eyes – in Punjab, one can see the Himalaya’s for the first time in 30+ years; Los Angeles, long known for its smoggy skies will be enjoying its cleanest view of the San Bernadino mountains in a long time.

The greatest challenge will be political. The technological means to invest in hydrogen and biofuel research are already here. The challenge for politicians will be extricate themselves from big oil’s embrace and taking steps to ensure that the few silver linings of a crisis in world history that has otherwise been a monumental disaster, are not lost on us.

 

 

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 26


Yesterday was DAY 26 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

Yesterday at 1600 hours Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made an announcement of what the next few weeks hold for New Zealand.

New Zealand will stay at LEVEL 4 until 2359 on Monday 27 April 2020. With the start of the new day it will go to LEVEL 3 with restrictions.

The other key points about what can/cannot be done at LEVEL 3 are below:

  • Takeaways will be permitted
  • Tradies can return to work, but tools will need to be washed twice daily
  • Activities within your region are permitted, but the closer to home the better
  • Schools can reopen up to Year 10 (children under 14 must be supervised)
  • Social distancing is maintained

The Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges finds himself in an unenviable position for any Opposition Leader. He is facing a Government being led by a Prime Minister whose leadership is earning international accolades, which much of the country across the political spectrum is willingly following. With strong leadership, combined with a down to earth empathy often lacking in politicians Ms Ardern has attracted accolades from the U.S. newspaper The Washington Post; noted internet media website The Hill among others. Her communications with the New Zealand public have a clarity yet certainty about them that is completely missing in those of other notable countries – my thoughts on the press conferences of U.S. President Donald Trump are not printable; the United Kingdom and Australian Government pressers seem disorganized, and apparently Indian President Narendra Modi does not bother with them at all.

But as the Leader of the Opposition ultimately Mr Bridges has to say something, and in this case he has decided to call LEVEL 3 “LEVEL 3.9”, and said that the Government has not laid down the framework for moving the economy out of LEVEL 4. Mr Bridges also said that we should be following Australia’s lead, where restrictions are considerably less. Mr Bridges knows full well that Australia, whilst doing comparatively well compared to the United States, United Kingdom and other countries has had a lack of definitive direction from the Federal Government in Canberra. So too, does Dr Paul Goldsmith, National’s Treasurer spokesperson, who said that the Government is being too tight on the economy and needs to significantly ease restrictions now. He would do well to listen to the words of noted New Zealand economist Shamubeel Eaqub who said that at this time saving lives is more important than getting the economy moving again.

Clutching at straws might be a better description of A.C.T. Leader David Seymour. Mr Seymour’s response to the announcement seemed to be completely oblivious to why New Zealand is taking a cautious approach. Like Dr Goldsmith, Mr Seymour would be well advised to listen to Mr Eaqub.

At the end of the day, there was never going to be an entirely fool proof announcement today. What it has done is however the next best thing: an acknowledgement that we need another few days after the four week lock down period is up, then the start of a gradual transition into a hopeful post-COVID19 environment – to say “a return to normal” is not realistic. What was normal pre-COVID19 is simply obsolete now. Whether it is by societal impact of COVID19 or by a public decision to seize the opportunity we have now to radically overhaul New Zealand society, New Zealand has undergone a significant change from which there is no going back.

Am I happy with it? For the most part yes. The government has tried to listen to all sides. The first priority was defeat COVID19. Now that that looks somewhat attainable, we can start looking at getting the economy going again once LEVEL 3 restrictions are eased. It has spent billions propping up workers so that the economy does not disintegrate. Tens of billions of dollars more has been freed up to stimulate growth once New Zealanders start going back to work in large numbers.