N.Z. in lock down: DAY 15

Yesterday was DAY 15 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

At the time of writing this, it was 2130 hours N.Z.T. on 09 April 2020 and I expect that the streets of Christchurch, like the streets of every other town and city in the country will be effectively deserted. As today is Good Friday, effectively only the service stations around the country will be open. Most dairies have shut because the absence of foot traffic does not justify them staying open. No doubt for a few in the lowest socio-economic groups, it could be a quite grim weekend.

There is no doubt that this Easter is going to be a very sedate, rather boring affair for New Zealand. Instead of Wanaka rocking to its bi-annual airshow, the streets will be empty. Instead of thousands of New Zealanders pouring onto the roads to reach their holiday homes, the Police have been turning the few silly enough to try, back at check points. Instead of people like myself going to the pub and staying there until being told to leave because the staff have to have locked up and left the building themselves by midnight, everyone is at home.

But – and I cannot emphasize this enough…

Yesterday I saw – or maybe I imagined it but still want to think its true – that just maybe the darkness in the COVID19 tunnel has just started to get either so slightly lighter. For a few days now, the rate of cases has been slowing. It will probably take another few days to taper right off, but instead of an exponential growth in case numbers and a matching explosion in hospital cases, the numbers have been quite linear in their growth. The one death recorded over a week ago was an elderly lady with pre-existing medical issues, and there has not been any since.

For staying the course and going in hard and early, New Zealand now has a realistic chance of becoming the first western nation to not so much beat COVID19 as completely eradicate it. This would be a major feat.

However, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the countries that New Zealand has drawn inspiration from in terms of making sure it was ready for a pandemic. Particular acknowledgement has to go to Singapore. Following the outbreak of SARS, Singapore realized that it was very vulnerable if it did not reinforce its medical system, have a plan for rapidly ramping testing up and a way to get the population on board.

It is also important to note work that was done in New Zealand preparing the country financially for a rainy day situation – natural disaster, pandemic, stock market crash, and so forth – that both National-led and Labour-led Governments contributed to. The last two Governments both set aside money for emergencies, but also they tried to keep the debt owed by New Zealand to relatively low levels compared with other countries. Without this, New Zealand probably would not have been able to so rapidly open to the extent it has the Government cheque book.

When I look at other countries and how they are handling the pandemic, I sometimes have trouble believing how lucky we have been here:

  • In the United States, 50 different states have 50 different ideas about what should be happening whilst the President is constantly undercutting those with medical knowledge, and more worryingly, trying to promote hydroxychloroquine as an effective vaccine.
  • In Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in the Intensive Care Unit, and whose government initially wanted to try “herd immunity” – a rather dystopian and quite backward theory – that would have let hundreds of thousands get sick, the National Health System is critically short on protective gear.
  • In India, as far as I can tell India has no plan for how it will address the pandemic – its vastly underfunded health system is in no way ready for the millions of tests that will need to be conducted, and the nation wide lock down for 21 days will only be effective if the borders were closed.
  • In Spain a worsening situation has seen nearly 10,000 people die with over 100,000 cases. The country is in full lock down, but there is evidence that the curve in the new cases figure is starting to flatten, with hospital admissions slowing down.
  • In Italy, one of the first countries to feel the lash of COVID19 and one of the worst affected around the world, 17,700 have died from the pandemic. However like Spain, the hospitals are reporting a decrease in new patients coming in and a full lock down has been extended.

As the late New Zealand comedian Fred Dagg said in a moment of vivid wisdom that seems to getting brighter by the day here, of living in Aotearoa:

We don’t know how lucky we are

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 14

Yesterday was DAY 14 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

In the last few weeks, hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders have seen their jobs get put on ice as their employers brace for what might be the single biggest economic hit to the country since before 1987. Estimates have been made that 400,000-500,000 New Zealanders might lose their jobs as a result of the COVID19 pandemic.

Whilst the vast majority of employers are trying to protect their staff from the impact as much s they can, there are a few employers whose methods have attracted negative media attention. Fletcher Building, which has had several turbulent years as a result of mismanaging a host of projects and finding its balance sheet to be a sea of red, is one of two employers I want to look at a bit more closely in this article. The other is Sky City.

Fletcher Building has asked its 9,000 staff to take a staggered pay cut, of which 8,600 staff agreed to. Its senior staff were initially going to take a 15% cut and then raised it to 30% when it was realized how much impact was being felt by other staff. Concerns were raised that there would be hardship issues for staff who live from pay check to pay check. The workers union E tu believes the conduct to be unlawful and indicated it would be reporting Fletcher Building to the Ministry of Business Innovation and Enterprise.

Sky City has come to my attention after reading a Stuff article, where a lady working as a food and beverage manager and union leader describes how she has in effect been fired. Julia Liu talked about a letter that had been sent to staff that ruled out any discussions, any exploration of alternatives. In her case a 21 year career was being brought to a close. The letter, according to Unite Union National Secretary effectively told the staff that they are fired. Ms Liu said no effort had been made by Sky City to apply for a wage subsidy to assist employees.

In this case another article suggests that Sky City actually is assisting staff to find new jobs and that the company did apply for the wage subsidy.

These are tough times and the speed of the onset of the lock down had to be fast in order to start slowing down COVID19. However I believe that the warning signs were around for a bit longer than either employer have indicated and that as a result, had they been better organized they could have talked to staff in greater depth.


N.Z. in lock down: DAY 11

Yesterday was DAY 11 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

Over the last several days I have seen people starting to comment on the need for a healthy functioning political oppositionĀ  in times like these. The commenters are from both sides of the divide, which I found encouraging because it means that both the right and the left understand that healthy democracy cannot exist if there is no one asking the hard questions.

Right now are unprecedented times. Never before in my life time have so many civil liberties been suspended, and certainly not for the compelling reasons we find being used to justify the lock down. Before we progress further I want to briefly look at some of those freedoms that one could argue have been suspended.

  1. Although there is nothing to stop online assemblies, freedom of physical assembly is effectively suspended as it is too dangerous to have contact outside of your bubble.
  2. With the exception of going for walks or going to the super market or the doctor or pharmacy, freedom of movement is effectively suspended – you cannot go to your holiday house/bach/other secondary property
  3. Freedom of association outside of your bubble, on line communities you belong to, is also in respects suspended as one cannot meet for any length of time except from a distance – people sitting on either sides of the road in deck chairs having a beer/wine with 2 metre distancing; are okay, but one cannot go to a bar with a bunch of mates

Yet we can be thankful we live in New Zealand. In some other countries the measures that have been taken are even more draconian. In China people who had COVID19 had steel frames physically welded to their door frames so that their front doors could only open a certain distance.

New Zealand also has legal protections that Chinese do not. The most important is a functional democratically elected Parliament. It has a media that enjoys one of the highest freedom ratings in the world, and has (for the most part!) independent watch dogs. New Zealand also permits N.G.O.’s such as Amnesty International, Transparency International and Human Rights Watch to operate on New Zealand soil without fear of persecution.

A State of Emergency has been declared here, but there is a strong legal framework in which it operates. If after 1221 hours 08 April, reasonable grounds no longer exist for the activation of Civil Defence Emergency Management Act powers, the State of Emergency must expire. Any renewal must happen before that time, and shall be valid for no longer than one week before another review happens.

Does that mean New Zealand is perfect? Absolutely not.

For example, I believe there needs to be an amendment to how Parliament passes legislation that requires long term emergency legislation such as the Canterbury Earthquake Recover Authority Act 2011 to have a sunset clause or a review clause. This is a mechanism that is triggered by certain conditions being met or exceeded and must be acted on. No such requirement currently exists, and the 5 year sunset clause in the C.E.R.A. Act was inserted after resistance in Parliament.

Another issue is not being able to get up to normal autumn pursuits, such as the duck shooting season in May. As hunting, swimming and surfing are non essential activities, Police have the power to tell people partaking in those activities to go home and desist until restrictions are lifted. Both the Police and the Government could have been better at communicating this.

As mentioned on Sunday, I believe New Zealand has some challenging decisions to make in a few weeks time when the four week lock down period will end. The real test of our democracy will be in how we handle the end of this period, when public compliance will no longer be a certainty.

But for now, with 18 days still on the clock, New Zealand’s compliance is for the very most part guaranteed.

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 10

Yesterday was DAY 10 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

Over the last several days I have been starting to think about what faces New Zealand once the time comes With the number of days since lock down began, now in the double digits, and long since shorn of any novelty it might have acquired, Zealanders will be looking at potential scenario’s that the country might confront when restrictions are lifted:

  • SCENARIO A: Will we experience a second big wave of COVID19 at some point down the track;
  • SCENARIO B: Will there be a long period of gradual easing off around the country over say 12-18 months with COVID19 completely erased
  • SCENARIO C: Will it be like a medical variation of of an aftershock sequence with the aftershocks (new waves of COVID19)gradually diminishing

After about not later than mid-May, the Government is going to have to make some pretty tough choices, and not just economically, but socially as well. With the economy potentially going to retract by 30%, we are talking about something that will make the Global Financial Crisis, and possibly even the 1987 stock market crisis look pretty tame. The huge numbers of people likely to lose their jobs will be several hundred thousand – my guess is possibly 450,000-500,000 people made unemployed.

There will also be the social aspect. New Zealanders love their bars, restaurants, cafes; going to movie theatres, rugby matches, gigs and other fixtures. At some point this is going to have to restart just to offset the potential problems if you keep the country in lock down for too long. People are going to need to have serious face time with relatives, friends, colleagues – I had a phone call from my boss yesterday to see how things were going, and pass on some employment information. Whilst it was nice to have a phone call and a bit of a laugh at the circumstances, outside of my parents it was the first serious verbal conversation I had had in over a week.

Very briefly I want to touch on SCENARIO A and SCENARIO B before I go to what I think will be the most likely one. In A, we treat COVID19 like a cyclone where there is an eye in the centre which is relatively calm. We find that after a lull with relative calm and people wanting to have things eased off, New Zealand gets slammed by the other half of the cyclone. This is bad and much of the country goes back to LEVEL 4, causing more misery, job losses and another round of bubbles (not bubbly – though I am sure much of that will be drunk!).

SCENARIO B is the longest and the hardest, but in the end the most successful. New Zealand somehow manages to completely kill off COVID19 and we can get on with rebuilding the economy and going back to doing the things we love. BUT it comes at a cost. 2020 is a complete write off. The economy takes the full 30% hit and 500,000 people are out of work. Would New Zealand be prepared to wait until maybe December?

So, lets suppose for a few minutes, that today is some day in say July. The restrictions have been scaled back. Most things are open again, though many in restricted capacity – such as cinema’s having to run at half capacity whilst the movie of the year (whatever it might be)is screening because there needs to be an empty seat between every single person. The scenario in play is Scenario C – COVID19 is coming through in pulses, but they are getting weaker with time and not all of the country is being affected at once: Auckland may have a pulse one week and then it might be in Canterbury the next, before going to Nelson.

My estimate is that New Zealanders will comply as well as they have been probably until no later than mid-May. At that point the Government is probably going to have to dial back substantially to LEVEL 2 across most of the country and LEVEL 3 in hot spot areas. The problems faced by New Zealand after about mid-May will experience 3-dimensional growth – in numbers, in complexity and severity – if this does not happen.

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 9

Yesterday was DAY 9 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

After taking yesterday off, I tried to focus today on my University study. I am some distance behind in the lectures, which fortunately can be done at ones own pace. However, I want to try to finish the lecture material for the week I am currently working on before we have what was meant to be a 3 day block course starting on Monday, which has now turned into something quite different. I think that my weekend is going to be dominated by study.

The course material that was being looked at this week was about the necessity of council plans, planners and the planning profession. It looked at the first and second generation council plans and critiqued the processes undertaken to get there. I got to see a break down of “the good, the bad and the ugly” of the first generation plans, but immediately started wondering if anything had actually been learnt from them.

Every afternoon about 1530-1600 hours, I put my sneakers on and go for a walk. On days when the weather has looked dodgy or the forecast has been for rain, such as on Sunday (DAY 4) I have restricted it to just a couple of kilometres or about 20-25 minutes relatively brisk walking. On better days like yesterday, the walks have been up to 8-9 kilometres and, lasted about 80 minutes. I go by myself and I walking at speed. I am not stopping for any one, and for the most part do not have to stop for traffic at intersections – with the very vast majority of Christchurch at home, sometimes even on the major routes such as Fendalton Road and nearer to home, Wairakei Road, I can go for a few minutes without seeing a single car.

It is interesting to see how various businesses are handling COVID19. Two service stations within walking distance of my place are open. One has blue tape on the floor every two metres to denote the recommended physical distancing one needs to maintain. The other does not. Both have a plastic shield at the counter with just enough room underneath it to slide coinage and move the EFTPOS machine. Dairies are closed – there are two down the road from me and both are shuttered. Their daylight operating hours have been cut.

A Countdown supermarket about 1.5 kilometres from my place with an underground car park is perhaps a better example of how the rules are being enforced. Although most people are keeping their distance, where the ramp down to the underground car park meets the foyer and main entrance, a staff member is counting people as they enter and leave and sometimes a security guard is present to make sure people stick to the 2 metre rule. Behind the check outs there is blue tape on the floor to indicate where people waiting in line need to stand. I thought that all staff would have masks and gloves, but apparently not so.