Guest Post: What next now the Covid-19 battle is won?

A guest post by Mark Keating:

Let’s give the Government the benefit of the doubt.  In fact, the benefit of all the many doubts.

Let us agree that the Government relied upon cogent expert advice to reach the well-reasoned decision to suddenly shutdown the country in order to prevent a massive loss of life.

Let us assume that the Government’s Alert Levels were both rational and reasonably applied, with good justification for each and every exception.

Let us accept that both the complete shutdown of our economy and suspension of our personal liabilities was entirely lawful, and that its designation of essential and non-essential services were clear and explicable.

Let us hope that the Government’s drastic action to save all our lives was worth the financial carnage and personal damage that will result, and that the resulting loss of wealth, health and life expectancy that will inevitably follow the coming economic slowdown.

And finally, let us acknowledge that we understood the sacrifices imposed on us by the Government to “eliminate” Covid-19 from New Zealand actually never meant “eradicate”, and that even after victory was declared we recognised the virus will remain among us, albeit at a low but menacing level.

So our team of 5 million can now celebrate our success and a good job well done.  While the virus continues to cause significant loss of life and economic damage around the world, all New Zealanders can breath a sigh of relief that we have kept the worst from our shores. 

We can now open our economy and begin to return to work, albeit with social distancing. We can socialise again, albeit initially in small numbers.   In short, we can return to a new normal and watch the virus ravage other countries from the safety of our national bubble. This Government wants us to know that it cared about us regardless of the cost and merely asked us that we “be kind” to each other in return.

But what next?

For those old enough to remember, we are now like the main character in the 1976 film, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, played by a pre-famous John Travolta.  For those a little younger, we are like the unpleasant “Bubble Boy” character featured in Seinfeld.  For those younger still, we are like the Jake Gyllenhaal character in the 2001 film of the same name.

All three suffered from an absence of natural immunity so had to be protected from the outside world in a germ-free environment.  (The technical term is severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a hereditary disease which dramatically weakens the immune system).

For fear of the fatal virus, New Zealand has now voluntarily retreated into such a bubble.  But while we are relieved to have escaped the worst of the virus for now, how long must be hide in fear of becoming infected by the unsanitary world outside?

Obviously we must remain isolated until an effective treatment is identified.  Chloroquine anyone? Or better yet, we must isolate until an effective vaccine is developed and becomes available and is administered to enough of the population to reach the required level of artificial herd immunity.  And obviously then we must develop a policy on how to deal with the stubborn anti-vaxers?

But no one knows how long that may take, or even if such a treatment or vaccine is ever possible.

In a recent article entitled The pandemic winner: will it be Sweden or New Zealand? published by The Hill (see: the authors compare the costs and benefits of the different responses adopted by each country. 

It accurately describes the New Zealand approach as “based on the presumption that the virus can be eliminated via a two-pronged strategy: stop importation at borders and ports of entry and reduce domestic outbreaks by stringent containment procedures.”

It continues:

“The public messaging accompanying the elimination model is for absolute safety to avoid exposure at all costs. Acquired immunity is thwarted, and an effective vaccine features prominently as the end-game.”

This approach is contrasted with the approach of Sweden (and a few other countries) in which the virus is accepted as inescapable so is allowed to spread through the population at a slower rate to ensure the medical services are kept busy but not overwhelmed.  Rather than being callous, this approach is justified as:

“leading to progressively greater levels of acquired immunity. Since the virus cannot be indefinitely evaded, it is accommodated and gently accepted. It was initially slowing then ultimately halting the spread through herd immunity.”

The rationale is that, once herd immunity is achieved among that population, normal life can resume again.  Therefore the different responses raise the crucial question:

Is exposure to be ubiquitously feared and avoided or accepted and even welcomed as a necessary protective measure?

The New Zealand Government has plumped for fear and avoidance – but that response leaves us trapped in our bubble. 

From 1945 to 1984 New Zealand lived in another kind of bubble, in almost splendid isolation from the outside world.  For better or worse we closed ourselves off to protect our ever weakening economy and idiosyncratic way of life.  But eventually we grew tired of this isolation and instead reoriented ourselves to face the world to a remarkable degree – from one extreme to the other.

But absent an effective treatment or available vaccine, we have now chosen to seal ourselves off again indefinitely. 

Even if the domestic economy recovers, the ongoing price for that international isolation will be high –  virtually nil incoming tourism, risk of infection and then lengthy quarantines for all travellers abroad, permanent distancing from friends, relatives and business contacts throughout the rest of the world.    Given the highly contagious nature of this particular virus, only eternal vigilance will protect our bubble.  So as the rest of the world begins to recover and trade and travel again, we will become a vulnerable curiosity.  If so, then the Government should honestly tell us.  If not, then it should explain the long-term exit strategy that does not assume an effective vaccine.

Because eventually our vigilance will falter or our patience will desert us.  Or simply the financial and practical cost of watching the world carry on without us will become too high.  In either case our bubble will burst and the virus will re-enter to find a population with no immunity – and we will then face up to the unpalatable reality and belatedly expose us to the epidemic.  And only then can achieve the herd immunity necessary to rejoin the rest of the world. 

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