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On Why We Should Extend The Lockdown

As Bloomberg says, impatience can be contagious. The kids in the back seat during the lockdown – Mike Hosking, Barry Soper, David Seymour etc - keep yelling “ Are we there yet” and saying they never wanted to come on this dumb old trip anyway. Hopefully, the adults driving the car will keep on ignoring them. Because the backlash - if wrong decisions get made under pressure – will be felt mainly by vulnerable adults, and not by the kids who seem willing to accept nothing less than life being put back to normal ASAP. As if realistically, that option has ever been on the table.

Even so, the Cabinet decision today is likely to be a close one. Yes, our health system and its frontline staff and the border controls and quarantining, and the testing, tracking and tracing systems have shown us how well New Zealand can cope with conditions of low infection. But how would they fare if and when the pressures ramped up? Today’s Cabinet decision has to judge how well our treatment, tracing and prevention systems would cope with future shocks, which pose different challenges than what we’ve faced over the last four weeks. Level Three means more people working and socialising together. Logically, that makes it likely that infections will begin rising again, from about a week after the Level Four lockdown ends. We need to know that our systems would be able to keep community transmission under control in future. At the moment, that ability seems open to question.

Sure, there are grounds for optimism. The lockdown has done its job of attempted elimination as well as anyone could have hoped. Community transmission has been kept extremely low here, by world standards. Yet the victory to date remains only provisional. At what level of infection would (a) our fragile and admittedly ‘less than gold standard’ tracing system and (b) our thinly spread ICU bed and ventilator capacity (one of the lowest per capita in the developed world) be likely to buckle under the strain? The safer option would be to allow Level Four to continue for another week at least.

In short, New Zealand needs to be cautious because its resources are very limited. Not co-incidentally, the same people decrying the economic impact of the lockdown tend to have been the cheerleaders for the systematic underfunding of the public health system in the past, mainly in order to make another round of personal tax cuts possible. We can’t allow the government to be stampeded by such people, into making bad decisions about the lockdown.

Looking (further) Ahead

New Zealand could have been facing runaway community transmission by now, had we not gone into lockdown early and hard. What should happen today? At this point, the government’s ability to manage Covid-19 at Level Three (much less at Level Two) feels a lot like the NZ cricket team last December, just before its tour of Australia. The stats looked good, the team was confident in itself and in the captain– and yet the moment the Black Caps ran into tough opposition, they got smashed. The health system could go the same way if the virus is allowed to gain much room to circulate.

At the very least, a week or fortnight’s delay from exiting Level Four would enable us to shore up the tracing regime, and make sure that the PPE gear we’ve got on order from overseas does actually arrive here in time, and has been distributed. The mantra all along has been that the best outcome for the economy is the best outcome for public health. That remains the case. Yet is it likely that the government will bend to public pressure and shift to Level Three today, and hope for the best? Probably. I’d love to tune in at 4pm today and be proven wrong.

Wizardry About Oz

To listen to the “lift the lockdown/cure is worse than the disease” crowd, you’d think the global pandemic and the subsequent need to offer support to workers and firms suddenly in need …. were all caused by bad decisions made on the ninth floor of the Beehive. Frankly, it is hard to conceive how anyone can look at a global death toll of 161,000 people and dismiss the measures taken here as an over-reaction - but there is no vaccine against stupidity. Unfortunately, governments worldwide face a no-win situation. If they don’t respond quickly and successfully and hellish levels of infection then ensue, they’re idiots for not going hard out, sooner. But if they do go hard out early and successfully, then they’re been idiots for over-reacting. Which is what the kids in the back seat are currently claiming.

Newsflash . tourism and international education collapsed for external reasons, and not because of decisions made here. It wasn’t the length of the lockdown, or the fine details of who was allowed to open up shop and who wasn’t, that caused the current economic crisis. Have the nuances of what did, or didn’t qualify as an essential industry made the economic crisis significantly worse than it needed to be? No.

Here’s the evidence. Routinely, Australia has been invoked as an attack line by the centre-right, who claim that the Aussies enacted a softer and smarter lockdown over there, and yet (allegedly) got the same health outcomes.. Even if we could agree on which Australian lockdown we’re talking about – the states have varied in the details – the criticism doesn’t stick. Australia has had worse health outcomes, and its economy is still being hit just as hard as ours has been. They’ve launched an initial $130 billion rescue package to cope.

To start with the rough and ready comparison : their population is five times bigger. They have 67 deaths, we have 12. But as Professor David Skegg pointed out to the Epidemic Response Committee recently, their hospitalisation rate is far larger than what you’d expect on a per capita basis. Meaning : by keeping some outlets open, they’ve put far more pressure on their health system. Moreover, our lockdown began earlier than theirs, but their “softer” lockdown is threatening to stretch out for longer.

University of Otago Professor and epidemiologist David Skegg told the Epidemic Response Committee this week that while New Zealand's lockdown might last only four weeks (or slightly longer if experts aren't confident in the data), Australia's could last at least six months, and possibly up 18 months.

Last Thursday. Australian PM Scott Morrison extended their lockdown for three or another four weeks. If we compare Covid-19’s impact on the economy here, and on the economy there…it is really, really hard to see any sector of the Aussie economy that is in noticeably better shape because hey, Scott Morrison allowed restaurants to do take-outs, and let hair salons stay open if they could get through a haircut in 30 minutes or less.

Such concessions haven’t done much to soften the blow, and they haven’t saved the day for retailing across the Tasman. Anecdotally, the downtown areas of Melbourne and Sydney are ghost towns, because foot traffic has vanished, causing shops to shut – even though theoretically, they could stay open. Therefore, the much touted ( by the centre right) ability of Australia’s economy being able to bounce back earlier because more of it has stayed open under lockdown is just as theoretical. In reality, consumer demand will be suppressed – and restricted only to the bare essentials – for a very long time on both sides of the Tasman. The threat posed by the virus and by job insecurity is going to inhibit spending well into 2021, at least.

There hasn’t been a jot of difference at the higher levels of the Aussie economy, either. Last week, the IMF predicted that Australia’s economy would contract by 6.8 % in the short term, and – just like here – the economic modelling is predicting a jump to unemployment rates of between 10% at best, and 20% in the worst case scenario. In large part, that’s because we happen to share with the Australians an over-reliance on tourism, and on international education :

It's the end of globalisation as we know it," said Tim Harcourt. [ from the University of NSW Business School] All major economies have been hit almost at once by the impact of the coronavirus and it's done damage to global supply chains in manufacturing, and even more to people- based industries like education and tourism."

In short, staying open is pretty meaningless, in a climate where demand is all but dead.

Tracing and Privacy

As MoH director-general and godlike being Ashley Bloomfield has conceded, this country is still about a week away from hitting the so called ‘gold standard’ in contact tracing – which he has defined as the ability to trace 80% of the social contacts of infected persons within 3 days. Call me demanding, but that standard doesn’t sound all that great in the context of Covid 19, given the remarkable ability this virus has to move easily between its human hosts. Conceivably, an asymptomatic carrier could infect quite a lot of people over the course of three days.

Still, that’s the tracing standard we’re aiming for, but do not yet possess. To improve our tracing capacity, there have been calls for more use of digital tracing – via some variant of Singapore’s TraceTogether phone app, which uses Bluetooth data between compatible devices to gather and chart anonymised data on social contacts. In this excellent article on Newsroom, there’s a fascinating discussion about a “Covid Card” concept that’s being mooted in government circles as a way to boost our digital ability to track and trace. A key problem with relying on app tracing is that the take-up levels – even in digital savvy Singapore – are quite low. The app would help. But only a bit, and only among users with compatible devices and with Bluetooth switched on at all times.

For that and other reasons – as our coalition government keeps on saying – the phone apps and other forms of digital tracing (via say, cellphone data) can only assist in the tedious and labour--intensive routines of personal tracking and follow ups, and not replace them. Also, there’s an inherent social inequality factor involved. As Bloomberg’ s Cathy O’Neill has pointed out :

Many people [who don’t have cellphones] include the homeless and elderly in nursing homes, [who] are at greatest risk of catching the virus. And many more who do have phones can’t afford medical care or to stop working if they learn they’re infected. Until we can better care for these people, contact tracing’s utility is limited. Those of us with smartphones, great jobs and great health-care benefits, on the other hand, will get a lot out of the app. This will be just another way that Covid-19 pries the yawning digital divide even wider….That divide is already exacerbating differences in how well our children learn, and how workers work. Now it’s hurting how we fight this disease.

That aside, privacy concerns are being expressed about how digital tracing could expand the surveillance powers of the state, beyond the term of the threat posed by Covid-19. The phone apps are less of a worry in that respect. Both TraceTogether and the “Covid Card” contain inbuilt safeguards – in that participation is voluntary, collected data is anonymised, and there are inbuilt features that deliver automatic data erasure at monthly and annual intervals. The other (undisclosed) forms of cellphone tracing are of more concern.

Overall, New Zealand has done a good job of keeping the powers of the state under check during this emergency, even though Parliament has been temporarily suspended for a couple of weeks or so. ( As No Right Turn laconically pointed out, no one seems to mind unduly when Parliament buggers off for 6-8 weeks over the summer.) Reportedly, the Business select committee and Mr Speaker are now working out when, and how Parliament will return to action.

In the meantime, we’ve done pretty well in resisting authoritarian creep. ( There’s a good online discussion of the legal basis of the lockdown by a group of Victoria University academics available here. Dean Knight’s contribution is available here.) Arguably, we’ve maintained a reasonable level of accountability and transparency during the current crisis. Instead of the normal weekly post-Cabinet press conference, the access to the PM (and to health officials) by the media has significantly increased. Covid-related press conferences have been occurring on a daily basis. The legal framework for the additional powers under the lockdown has been spelled out - and most of the powers used have been under the Health Act, and not under the emergency powers or legislation nominally specific to epidemics.

More to the point, the Epidemic Response Committee has done a better job of holding Ministers and their policy decisions up to scrutiny than the Question Time circus in Parliament has ever done. Throughout, the offices of the Auditor-General and Ombudsman have remained open for business.

In other words…to the possible disappointment of conspiracy theorists, there has been few signs here (as yet) of a drift into authoritarianism. As Dr Eddie Clark pointed out in his contribution to the Victoria University seminar above, we haven’t gone the way of Hungary - which passed emergency Covid-19 laws, and then used them immediately to crack down on transgender rights.

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