Is NZ Ready for the Next Pandemic?

How did your country respond to the COVID-19 outbreak? Here in New Zealand, our government said "Go home, stay home, and don't come out until it's safe!!" No one wanted to die from a modern-day plague, so we all went to our bubbles* and sat there for 6 weeks. Most of us found something to do. Some of us twiddled our thumbs. No-one died in a car crash over Easter. (The last time that happened was 2012.)

* Visit the Ministry of Health website and find out how to manage your bubble.

Previously on COVID-19 Lockdown...

This is how New Zealand responded to the threat of COVID-19:

28/02/2020First case of COVID-19 reported.
19/03/2020 11:59pmBorders closed to non-residents, returning Kiwis to self-isolate for 14 days.
21/03/2020Four level alert system launched at Level 2 - Reduce, then two days later...
23/03/2020Alert system raised to Level 3 - Restrict, then two days later...
25/03/2020 11:59pmAlert system raised to Level 4 - Lockdown, only essential businesses allowed to operate, only essential workers allowed to travel, all other travel banned except for groceries and medicine, exercise limited to local activities (walks, running, etc.)
10/04/2020Returning Kiwis consigned to 14 days of supervised quarantine.
20/04/2020Alert system announcement about Level 3 - Restrict.
27/04/2020 11:59pmAlert system lowered to Level 3 - Restrict, takeaways re-open, construction workers return, real estate agents return but no open homes allowed, bubbles expanded to include a relative or loved one who lives alone, children of essential workers may return to school.
11/05/2020Alert system announcement about Level 2 - Reduce.
13/05/2020 11:59pmAlert system lowered to Level 2 - Reduce, reconnect with friends and family, shopping and domestic travel allowed, up to 100 people at indoor and outdoor gatherings, up to 50 people at funerals , public venues open.
18/05/2020Schools re-open.
20/05/2020 11:59pmPubs, clubs, and bars re-open.

This terrible situation began over 2 months ago (from the time of writing). It is safe to say that things could have gone horribly wrong. On the last day of Level 3 - Restrict (Wednesday 13th May 2020), there were:

  • no new cases to report,

  • 350 probable cases,

  • 1,147 confirmed cases,

  • 2 cases currently in hospital, neither case in ICU,

  • 1,402 recovered cases, up by 4 cases from yesterday, and

  • 21 deaths.

Kiwis are staunch, we roll up our sleeves, and we get on with the job. We're not very good at talking about our feelings, we're friendly but reserved, we're open but respectful, and we don't boast about our achievements. But we're funny, we're smart, and we always try to do better.

The Impact.

No-one knows what the lasting impact of COVID-19 is going to be. We're an isolated nation at the bottom of the world. That same isolation has bred - and sustained - a 'make-do' attitude, mistakenly confused with a 'can-do' attitude. Our mental health takes a constant battering. Life is never easy for us. But Kiwis don't complain because 'whinging' is seen as a sign of weakness. We're Kiwis, we're resolute, and we'll push through to the other side.

But our country is in trouble. The whole world is in trouble. Watching the news each night is a direct assault on our emotional welfare. We need a plan to move forward, if only for our own piece of mind. (People really hate feeling insecure and vulnerable.)

Government Spending.

Our government has two tools at their disposal:

  • Monetary policies are used to create more money and make borrowing easier. The Reserve Bank does this by:

    • buying bonds (currently set at $60B) so that the money that is spent by the government is injected back into the economy, and
  • slashing interest rates to the major banks with hopes that they will pass these savings on to their customers (the Official Cash Rate - OCR - is currently set to 0.25% until March, 2021).

  • Fiscal policies where the government shifts it's spending to influence the economy.

The fiscal policies are currently focused on delivering a $12.1B stimulus package while millions of dollars in cash support has started flowing to businesses.

Almost every other nation who is suffering through this crisis appears to have a languishing economy. New Zealand and Australia seem to be weathering this catastrophe better than most, especially on the health and economic fronts. But it's not over. There's work to do and we need to dig in.

We need to re-build our economy. We also need a better response to the next pandemic.

What Have We Learned?

Lesson One: We can't shut down the whole country again.

New Zealand never got slammed with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), Ebola, or MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). We saw these outbreaks on the news but we didn't experience these tragedies ourselves. Our nation went into Level 4 - Lockdown because:

  • we weren't prepared,

  • we didn't have a better response,

  • we didn't know what we were doing,

  • we didn't have any experience at handling this kind of situation, yet

  • our last pandemic was the H1N1 ‘swine flu’ pandemic in 2009, with 3,150 confirmed cases and 20 deaths.

Fortunately, Level 4 - Lockdown appears to have worked but that doesn't mean we're safe.

What Can We Do Better?

Our economy, our businesses, our social structure, and our mental health can't handle another response like the one we threw at COVID-19. So, how do we prepare ourselves for the next calamity? What if there's a new outbreak? What if there's a new virus? What did we learn from the 2009 H1N1 ‘swine flu’ pandemic? How do we take our experiences from H1N1 and COVID-19 and use them to formulate a better response?

Our language has expanded to include terms like:

  • Bubble,

  • Testing,

  • Cluster,

  • Contact tracing,

  • Contact tracing app,

  • Confirmed and probable cases,

  • PPE (personal protection equipment),

  • Breaking the chain of transmission,

  • Thermal imaging camera, and

  • Modelling.

There is one item in the list that looks problematic: The contact tracing app.

Last month (9th April, 2020) the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, remarked upon "a locally developed app that will assist with contact tracing." Last week (9th May, 2020) the Minister of Health, Hon Dr David Clark, said the "contact tracing app is well developed and expected to be released for voluntary registration very soon."

The term "voluntary registration" is designed to comply with the Privacy Act 1993.

And therein lies a problem: How can we replace the word "voluntary" with "mandatory" without impinging on everyone's privacy? Is there a way to amend the Act so that the emergency powers legislation can make the app necessary under certain, and specific, conditions?

Contact tracing involves more that just installing an app on your phone or smart watch, but it is essential for our government to use any tools at their disposal if those tools can save lives. And our economy. And our businesses. And our sanity.