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Professor Baker Is Right; New Zealand Needs Pandemic Political Leadership

I’m not a Twitter fan. Instead I’m a reluctant user. However, I can only admire the precision of NZ Herald investigative journalist Matt Nippert who, on 12 October, tweeted the  following:

The lockdowns were the first to go; then the scanning; then MIQ; masks; and even boosters. Soon, the only thing remaining from that time was Covid.

One of the most succinct statements I’m aware of involved Winston Churchill paying tribute to the enormous efforts made by the fighter pilots and bomber crews to establish air superiority over England defending it from Germany: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much been owed by so many to so few”. Quite riveting if one ignores his own record as an imperialist warmonger.

In a completely different context Nippert matches this succinctness. New Zealand may have given up on Covid-19 but Covid-19 has not given up on New Zealand. It is this context that the call for a return to government pandemic leadership, initially through Radio New Zealand on 14 October, by leading epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker should be considered: Professor Michael Baker calls for new alert level system.

Call for new protective alert level system

Responding to the first recorded case in New Zealand of the new Omicron subvariant BQ.1.1, Professor Baker said a return to some kind of alert level system could help avoid the worst in future Covid-19 waves.

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In his own words:

We’ve already been through two big Omicron waves this year,” in March with BA.1 and BA.2 and July with BA.5.

If we see another wave rising, which seems very likely, and whether it’s BQ.1.1 or one of the other subvariants that are starting to become dominant, we’re going to see more cases and all the things that go with that.

What I do think we need is that we have a system that when the risk of infection rises we have the equivalent of an alert level system that describes the level of risk in a way that people really understand. We have alert level systems for fires, for earthquakes, for all these other threats. I think we need one again for the pandemic.

I think at the moment, unfortunately, government and other groups are quite worried as being seen to do anything systematic. I think we need that leadership with the pandemic.

These subvariants are often very different than those that have come before. In a way the mere fact that they’re becoming more common overseas and causing waves of infection means they’re more likely to do the same in New Zealand.

They’re surviving or thriving by escaping our existing immunity. Personally I know people who have had [Covid] three times. … and in some cases they say it was not milder when they got it again.”

Michael Baker’s concerns are in the context of recent increasing new community cases (infections) and a surge of new cases in Europe driven by the subvariant BQ.1.1. He is advocating a new alert level system which would, by way of example, outline the circumstances in which mask-wearing on public transport might be reintroduced.

Baker’s proposal should not be confused with the alert level system first introduced in March 2020 and suddenly replaced by the Government’s confusing and less effective traffic light system (which has now also been dropped although without replacement).

700 more deaths this year?

Two days later NZ Herald published an article by its science journalist Jamie Morton based   interviews with pandemic experts, including Professor Baker: Another Omicron wave risks hundreds more deaths this year.

Baker observed that, over an eight-month period including two case peaks and varying mortality trends, the daily average of deaths attributed to Covid-19 has been around 8.5. Again, in his own words:

Simple extrapolation would suggest we might see another 700 deaths for the remainder of this year if that mortality rate continued.

What actually happens depends on multiple factors, particularly the impact of new sub-variants and waning immunity.

If the average mortality rate seen with Omicron continues to the end of the year we could see around 2700 deaths in total, which would account for more than 7 per cent of total deaths for the year.

That would put Covid-19 at a similar level to stroke and lung cancer, but behind ischaemic heart disease, which is our leading cause of death.

This estimate depends on the behaviour of the pandemic over the next three months, which is unpredictable, so we might finish the year with fewer or more deaths.

From following the science to laissez-faire drift to false certainty

Over the past 12 months there has been a drift towards a laissez-faire approach, despite the odd positive initiative here and there, to the pandemic. Government leadership has migrated from visible collective responsibility and protecting our public hospitals (and their already overworked health professionals) to individual responsibility and silence on protecting hospitals.

This drift has occurred at a time when Covid deaths have gone through the roof and public hospitals have morphed from being in crisis to carnage. The Government’s much touted kindness has migrated to creating political distance from the impact of the pandemic through desensitised indifference.

The current situation following the Government’s announcement (16 October) of its intention to repeal its emergency pandemic legislation is well analysed by a critical Marc Daalder in his Newsroom article the following day: Pandemic false certainty.

When the pandemic first came to New Zealand in March 2020 the Government justifiably claimed that it was following the science (ie, evidence). This included the advice of Professor Baker and his fellow experts. It served New Zealanders well for around 18 months. We were an international exemplar.

Then the laissez-faire drift began beginning with a misstep in the response to Delta in Auckland. Then there was the unsettling ‘rattling of the cage’ effect of the violence and other threatening behaviour of the far-right influenced anti-vaccination protests in Parliament Grounds

The drift has now reached a point that the Government is ignoring the science of the experts it previously listened to. Covid-19 is still in the country causing both harm and deaths. The only predictable feature of this pandemic is its unpredictability.

Setting up practical alert levels based on evidence to prepare and protect the public is not just the kind thing to do; it is the common sense thing to do. Instead the Government intends to repeal our current protective legislation without anything in place to provide this protection.

Daalder’s conclusion is worthy of repeating as it says it all:

The latest guarantees from the Government that, somehow, this time will be different should be greeted with a healthy scepticism.

Wishful thinking about the end of the pandemic may win votes, but it’s unlikely to win over the coronavirus.

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