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.

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 37

Yesterday was DAY 37 of New Zealand in lock down as we fight the COVID19 pandemic.

It has been interesting to look at the news from around the world these last few weeks and observe the hugely varied reactions of politicians and the public to COVID19. The diversity of reactions and responses has been quite profound. From the grim unity of New Zealanders going into lockdown to the increasingly violent division in the United States; from the quiet success of Taiwan to the flat out denialism over taking Brazil and some third world despots, the variation in the reactions and subsequent responses have been startling.

I will not concentrate on New Zealand so much as that is well documented and now receiving high praise from around the world, warranted or not. Instead I will look at some of New Zealand’s major international partners and where those partnership might go in the post-COVID19 environment.

A few days ago I examined the Australian response to COVID19 and noted that it is doing per head of capita, slightly better than New Zealand. The governments of both countries are talking to each other about how reopening the borders might happen, which is good. However, there are other nations that New Zealand and Australia should start talking to about an extended bubble. Taiwan is one of these nations. The island nation east of China has been one of the true success stories in the global campaign against COVID19. It has had just 429 confirmed cases, of which 324 have recovered with 6 deaths. No new cases have happened since 26 April. New Zealand and Taiwan have good relations and share similar democratic principles. South Korea is another one that could potentially be invited to join the bubble. It has 10772 cases of which 9072 have recovered, with new case rate per day in the single digits.

I now examine the risks posed to our small Pasifika neighbours like Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and our Melanesian neighbours in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. These little island nations might have dodged a bullet by being remote and not having large numbers of tourists arriving like Tonga, Fiji and Samoa do. All of these islands have weak health and social welfare systems, which means a potential outbreak in any of them could be absolutely catastrophic. The last serious pandemic to affect them would have been the 1918-1920 influenza, which was transported around the world by ships carrying soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe. A ship that was carrying infected New Zealand soldiers was allowed to dock in Apia during that time and 7,000 Samoans or about 1/5 of Samoa’s population then died.

It is not just these small nations that could be devastated. It is also the even smaller territories such as Wallis and Futuna, Niue, the Cook Islands, Tokelau, Kiribati, Palau and other tiny land masses could potentially have their entire populations wiped out. Because of the great risks posed to these nations, no one should be surprised that they were quick to slam their borders shut.

New Zealand and Australia need to take charge of aid to these little nations. They cannot afford the lack of transparency and the potential for agenda setting that goes with Chinese aid. Nor can we rely on American aid any for them any longer in the age of Donald Trump. Given the size of some of the smaller territories like Wallis and Futuna, a sum of say $200,000 directed through the Red Cross would be quite substantial.

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.

Don’t expect anything historic at Trump-Kim summit

As I was typing this last night, news was breaking of Kim Jong Un’s arrival in Singapore for a historic summit with President Donald Trump of the United States.

So much rides on what will happen in Singapore on Tuesday. So much depends on how the meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Kim goes. But New Zealand, like the rest of the world need to be realistic about the prospects. We also need to harbour a healthy doubt until verified by neutral sources that Kim has indeed kept his promises made in the last few months.

I certainly have my doubts. Mr Trump is reactionary. Mr Kim is calculating. Mr Trump has the most powerful military in the world, but needs to be mindful of South Korea, whose capital Seoul is within artillery range of North Korean guns. Mr Kim’s military might be short on equipment, poorly trained and led, but it has the vast power of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to prop it up.

Not I believe war is going to break out. I don’t, but much as I would like to see the Korean peninsula become a nuclear free zone I do not believe that this is going to happen.

How do we know that Mr Trump’s presidential body guards and Kim’s guards will not have a fight? How do we know that one or the other will simply not turn up on the day and leave Singapore looking really embarrassed at having this fall over flat for no fault of their own?

I do not believe that the purported closure of Punggye-ri nuclear testing facility actually went ahead. How do we know that the explosions caught on video were actually at the Punggye-ri site? And if they were? How do we know that these buildings – some of which looked more like domestic tool sheds or something one might have done pottery in – were actually used for nuclear weapons purposes? We do not.

My view is that Punggye-ri is very much still functioning. The site might be closed for repairs following the large nuclear test last year, which generated an energy release equivalent to a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, but I doubt very much that it is closed for good.

It is well known if you believe the media, that Mr Trump has not done very much preparation. Given that this is a one in a life time opportunity to end one of the worlds longest running wars, make more stable the last active front line in Cold War geopolitics and potentially denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, these are very concerning claims make. And yet, given Mr Trump’s impulsive, child like attitude towards global diplomacy and world leaders, not actually dreadfully surprising.

Mr Trump left the G.7. early to get away from an international meeting that showed America at its least trustful, divisive worst. But he is now heading into another one where a wrong move by either side could have long lasting complications for global security long after Mr Trump leaves office and possibly cost Mr Kim a chance at solidifying himself as the next “Dear Leader”. He is heading into a meeting where the hand of China is the real power behind Mr Kim – China can crush Kim virtually overnight if it wants to, except that Mr Kim and his North Korean regime serve a useful purpose for Beijing by preventing a democratic Korean Peninsula existing all the way to the Yalu River.

So, I wait, like many others, with interest to see what will happen on 12 June 2018. Will a ray of sunlight break through the dark clouds lurking in international geopolitics, or we see a distant flash of lightning?

Can North Korea be trusted? Would the U.S. respect the peace?

On Friday evening, whilst in a bar scrolling through my Facebook, I saw breaking news that North Korea and South Korea’s leaders had met on the border and shaken hands. After polite greetings and a show of smiles for the camera, Kim Jong Un briefly invited his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae In, to cross into North Korea leaving the world stunned.

I am not a hawk. I would love to see lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. I would love to see a Korean Peninsula where there is no longer a Cold War-era hotspot waiting to flare up at a moments notice

But when I say North Korea should not be trusted, it is not built on anti-North Korean sentiment. It is not built on a want of war or a desire to keep up the division and the anger. Far from it.

The reasons why I do not advocate trusting North Korea are entirely to do with the regime. They are in large part to do with the scheming Kim’s who have a track record of pulling the wool down over the eyes of the West in order to gain more leverage. It happened in the 1990’s when North Korea wanted significant aid, and the West said it could have the aid if it stopped its then clandestine nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

Kim Jong Un is like any other dictator. Staying in power is everything. When a dictator is in power they have the police and military forces under their direction pretty much in lockstep on national security. Transparency suffers as does the human rights record of the dictatorship. Surveillance of potential dissidents; restrictions on the type of activities civilians can indulge in all come to the fore.

North Korea’s record on human rights is the worst of any planet. It has the only concentration camp in the world at Yodok. Its many prisoners are treated appallingly – sexual violence, torture of all sorts, execution and starvation are rampant. The gates happily open to let people in, but are rarely seen opening to let people out. The transparency in North Korea is about as good as a windowless room with no other light source. The corruption is as bad as anywhere else.

North Korea’s involvement in terrorist activities and helping prop up other regimes also comes into question. It has been linked to the training of police forces in Zimbabwe who have used terror as an instrument. It’s execution style murders of people outside of North Korea as well as its kidnappings cannot go unchallenged.

However the United States has questions to answer as well. In the 1990’s when North Korea asked for assistance, the U.S. made a set of concessions that were supposed to have been carried out within a couple of years if North Korea kept its end of the deal. Fast forward to 2003 and almost none of the American concessions had been actioned. This was despite North Korea having apparently complied with the American demands. If America could not keep its end of the bargain struck under former President Bill Clinton, could it keep any bargain that might be struck between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un?

Another question that needs an answer, although I am a bit afraid of what it might be, is whether or not National Security Advisor John Bolton, a hawkish figure who advocates war would tolerate peace? According to past N.S.A.’s there is apparently not a war that Mr Bolton disagreed with and yet to be a peace agreement that he agrees with.

If peace really does break out on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea must take a lot of credit. They have put up with North Korea’s antics for nearly 70 years. They have seen families broken up by some of the most cruel geopolitics in the world. They have been through who knows how many periods wondering if war is imminent.

Let us see how this goes, but now is not the time to be saying “oh, what a great man Kim Jong Un is”. Nor is it the time to be nominating anyone for the Nobel Peace Prize.