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 30ºC). 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.

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 6

Yesterday was DAY 6 of New Zealand being in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

There are times when I am truly frustrated with New Zealand. There are times when the Mixed Member Proportional system of governance, combined with our laissez faire “she’ll be right” attitude to society, to life is like a car revving its guts out, with the hand brake still on.

But right now is not one of those times. In a world where much bigger, better resourced nations that should be leading decisively, showing the rest of the world how to beat COVID19, we are seeing the major powers make massive mistakes that are literally killing people, accelerating their case rate, accelerating the probability of a massive medical catastrophe. We are seeing countries that our grand parents were encouraged to look up to and say this is who New Zealand should be following – the United States, Britain, Australia, and that little ol’ New Zealand is too small to do big things.

This really is not one of those times. The nations that are leading the world at the moment, with New Zealand in pursuit are Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea. These nations have the experience of the S.A.R.S. emergency in 2009, and out of that realized that their testing regimes, their hospitals and nursing systems had to be overhauled. They realized that should a pandemic hit, they have to have action plan ready to go and be prepared to enforce it rigorously. Dutifully all three nations made those preparations and although none of them are yet clear of COVID19 cases, compared with Spain, Italy and the United States, they have the situation well at hand.

New Zealand is not quite tracking like they are yet, but we are doing well. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s cabinet made the decision to “go hard and go early”, realizing the longer we waited the worse it would be and the more explosive the growth rate in cases would be – hundreds, maybe even thousands, instead of several dozen a day at the moment. Our case rate is moving further away from doubling every couple of days and is now taking several days to double, meaning our rate is growing in linear fashion instead of exponentially.

Is our response perfect? No. And nor is anyone else’s. All nations with COVID19 cases are probably looking back at their progress so far and probably wishing they had done things a bit differently. In the case of New Zealand, we should have probably arranged bus companies to scour both islands and round up any travellers who wanted to get out of the country before the borders shut and get them to Christchurch or Auckland airports. In reverse, maybe a pair of Air New Zealand charter flights using 777’s or 787’s to likewise recover New Zealanders wanting to get out of Europe and Asia before they shut down would have been useful as well.

Our biggest challenge will be in a few weeks, when the pressure to relax the lock down will really kick in. People will want to see businesses rapidly reopening, but we will have to be patient. Much of the world will still be in lock down and the borders shut, which I suspect will probably be until late this year if the news from popular travel locations such as the United States and Europe are anything to go by.

But for now, New Zealand needs to keep doing what it is doing. It needs to look to Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan for signals rather than our traditional friends in the U.S. and Europe. And whilst acknowledging the very gloomy time it must be for businesses here, they, like the rest of New Zealand are on board with the idea that beating COVID19 involves an all in effort. As the financial year ends and the new one starts, we should thank them for that.

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Tourism – Part 3

Continued from Part 2.

Singapore, on the other hand is a study of quite a different nature to the European countries. As a modern city state occupying a land mass of 723km² it is limited in what it can have in terms of industries.

Thus Singapore has under Lee Kew Yuan and his successors become a substantial tourist based economy.

As a tourist power, Singapore does very well. It has a number of factors at play that make visiting it an attractive proposition to tourists.

It’s warm tropical climate with temperatures consistently 23-32 the whole time I was there is kept in check by convective storms that develop over inland areas or the Malaysian peninsula and typically peak between 1400-1900 each day. The reliable rain enables a lush green canopy of tropical vegetation. It also enables a range of tropical bird and reptile life to thrive including monitor lizards. This has been recognized by the local wildlife parks.

Singapore has a range of tourist attractions. Fort Canning and the Battlebox, where British General Archibald Percival conducted the biggest capitulation in British military history is one. Whilst Fort Canning is open, the Battlebox is a guided tour whose reservations fill up most days. Marina Bays has the popular floating roof top bar that sits on three separate buildings

If one likes cuisine, Singapore has a full range of culinary delights including a Michelin 1-Star Hawker Chan restaurant. Along the Singapore River there are a number of restaurants with open air decks looking across the river, which serve a range of dishes. I was not there long enough to get a really good look at all of what was on offer.

One of the things that makes Singapore so popular with tourists is the perception of being very safe. This is largely true in terms of crime as Singapore’s non tolerance of drugs, murder and other serious crime mean the death penalty is applicable. Singapore in 2016 had a murder rate of just 0.32 people per 100,000. And in terms of ones own perception of safety, granted I did not venture out at night whilst there.

As for cleanliness, Singapore has low tolerance of dumping of rubbish. I saw no dumping of goods anywhere. The city has universal water supply and a combination of policy, education and legal framework helps oversee this. Given its love of telecommunications, Singapore could in the future develop e-waste recycling as another industry since per thousand people it has one of the highest connection rates in the world. It has the know how, the education system and legal framework potentially there, and it would further enhance its environmentally responsible reputation on which its ability to be a tourist power sits.

I have in the past promoted biofuel as a fuel source whilst writing about New Zealand. I have done that on the understanding that economics might not permit such activity here on a large scale as it would in a densely populated area like Singapore. However one way of helping Singapore maintain an environmentally responsible reputation, in a two fold manner, thereby helping protect the attractive tropical environment that lures so many people to the city state, would be collecting the waste cooking oil as the basis of a biofuel blend. With only quite limited room for refuse facilities, it would make sense to examine what can be taken out of the waste stream.

Singapore has a bright future. I enjoyed my time there and will be going back at some point. Other countries with small landmasses and dense populations can look at how Singapore achieved what it has and perhaps try to replicate it.

Except maybe the death penalty. I don’t endorse that.

Lessons from Europe and Singapore

Over the next few articles, I am going to share with you a few things I learnt whilst overseas. I had experiences that helped to enrich my understanding of the world around me and realize that whilst New Zealand does very well in many aspects of life, there are some we can learn from – and can teach others about.

I have just returned from four weeks in Europe, during which time I visited the U.K., Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and had a brief foray into northern France. Aside from having a nice holiday and test driving some very nice Belgian beer and comparing our drinking habits with theirs (another article) and seeing all sorts of fascinating tourist attractions.

On the way back to New Zealand I stopped for a few days in Singapore for my first visit there. It was a chance to see how an island city state of 5 million people – all of New Zealand’s population and about another 900,000 people on top of that – get on. I will focus on  tourism, which is the core of Singapore’s economy and examine the challenges and opportunities that such a small nation faces.

Over the course of the articles I will cover public transport in major cities, as I stayed in several large European cities. They included London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Gothenburg. I will explore the tourism industries in these locations, where tourism has been a thing for periods of time longer than European knowledge of New Zealand’s existence. I will also explore living, as time was also spent staying in rented apartments in Brugge and Ypres.