Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Assessing the NZ Government's Handling of Covid-19

How has the New Zealand Government done so far in its response to Covid-19? Well, if you believe the New Zealand media, Jacinda Ardern and her government are just rocking it!

There is no doubt we had to take measures to stop the spread of the virus within the community. If you want to understand the strategy behind the containment, this article by Tomas Pueyo in Medium is the most informative I have read on how you bring Covid-19 under control. Different countries have had variations on the strategy and some of the most successful in containing the spread of the virus, such as Korea, Singapore and Taiwan (and yes, you weasels at the WHO, there is a country called Taiwan), haven't gone into the full lock down like New Zealand. These countries were better prepared for the outbreak, probably because of their experience with SARS in 2003. They tracked infections, tested extensively, and quarantined all those who test positive.

The preparedness of the New Zealand Government compared with these countries is poor. Our health system is still not in a position to do sufficient testing as the Government's own chief science advisor wrote in this report posted on Twitter by Joel Hernandez of the NZ Initiative. We need to do both virus antigen (to detect if someone is currently infected) and antibody (to test whether someone has had it and is now immune) testing to ensure we stop transmission in the community. Dr David Skegg, emeritus professor at Otago University's School of Preventive and Social Medicine, also told Parliament's Epidemic Response Committee this morning that New Zealand's response was inadequate and that in particular we needed to step up testing. Unfortunately, we can't step up testing because we still don't have enough test kits.

It is not as if the Government had no warning. I was warning on Twitter about the impact of Covid-19 nearly two months ago. Others such as economist Michael Reddell were blogging about the Government's seemingly lackadaisical attitude to the evidence coming from China and elsewhere about its potential impact on New Zealand. Obviously the advice of bloggers and tweeters weren't likely to carry much weight with the Government, but by mid-February another epidemiologist from Otago University, Dr Michael Baker, was publicly warning about the threat. Jacinda Ardern seems to have been particularly careless, reassuring us as recently as a couple of weeks ago that public events such as the Christchurch mosque attack memorial and Auckland's huge Pasifika Festival could still go ahead. You could argue that she may have had poor advice, but perhaps the single most important attribute of a good leader is to find and distil the best advice.

The most galling aspect of the current lock down is that we could've prevented it. If we had introduced strict quarantine at the border and made provision for widespread testing much earlier, like South Korea and others, we probably wouldn't be in the situation we now find ourselves. We all have to pay a high price to bring this disease under control and that cost is now as much in our liberty as our wallets. I don't think there is anything to be gained at this time in castigating the Government for their earlier inaction, but let's not give them undue credit either. Hopefully there will be a reckoning after all this is over.

At this stage, I'd give them a C-.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Resisting the Ghouls

It is Day 3 of our universal house arrest (and I think that is a more accurate description than “lock down”) here in New Zealand, and I’m well set up to carry on working. I have every videoconferencing application known to mankind on my desktop Mac – Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Jabber, etc. So far, the internet is working well despite everyone else in my household bingeing on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple TV+. Yesterday afternoon I was even able to participate in my usual “Friday Fours” – the regular drinks I have with a group of associates – by videoconference. The biggest topic for discussion was how to buy alcoholic spirits in a Puritan lock down. Supermarkets, which are considered essential services and remain open, can sell beer and wine but not spirits. Other liquor outlets have to remain closed, unlike in Australia where “Bottle-Os” (take out liquor stores) are considered an essential service. You have to hand it to the Aussies, they have their priorities right!

I was listening to a podcast yesterday and one of the presenters was discussing Covid-19 with his elderly father, who was a doctor until retirement. The presenter asked how he would’ve coped with the virus in the heyday of his medical career during the 1960s and 1970s. The old man said they wouldn’t even have known it was a distinct virus, not having the DNA analysis we have today, and would’ve regarded it as just a form of influenza.

The story made me realise that some of our worst concerns are subject to what I would call information arrogance – a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. This is the problem with climate science – we know that an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ought to lead to an increase in average temperatures, all things being equal. The problem is, all things are never equal in real life, and we understand very little about the influence of other factors in climate change such as cosmic radiation, the sun’s radiance, the formation of cloud, and the absorption of CO2 and heat in the oceans. The same is true of Covid-19. In most countries, we don’t know the true incidence of the virus because most people haven’t been tested. We don’t know the real mortality because we’re only testing people we think have already got it.

Perhaps the most unsurprising thing to me about the pandemic is that it is being exploited by the usual ideological thugs to push their dystopian agendas. We have already seen numerous claims that “there are no libertarians in a pandemic” and “we’re all socialists now”. The exploitation of these difficult circumstances by those on the left to justify their illiberal political views has been described by Brendan O’Neill of Spiked (an old leftie himself) as the “socialism of ghouls”. He goes on to say:
If your overarching thought upon observing a crisis of this magnitude is to feel ‘vindicated’, almost to welcome the crisis as an opportunity to promote your political worldview, there is something wrong with you. 

There has been much praise of China's response to the pandemic, despite that country’s regime being complicit in the spread of the virus. The idea that only a highly centralised authoritarian state could respond effectively to the virus outbreak doesn’t stand up to the most cursory examination. If China had been a more free and open country, instead of arresting those who sounded the alarm, the virus might have been confined to Wuhan. Other repressive regimes, such as those in Iran and Russia, have also botched the response. You could counter that Western governments haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory in responding to the virus and certainly the New Zealand Government underestimated the risk and responded too slowly, but others such as South Korea and Singapore have managed to bring the pandemic under control comparatively quickly.

We have heard much about how we are all in this together, but ultimately our response to the pandemic is personal and individual. We may be under the confinement orders of our governments, but we each have to take responsibility for how we respond to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. In particular, our ability to recover from this will depend on the decisions of millions of individuals - decisions about whether to invest, start a business, apply for a new job, buy a house, get married and have children, or take early retirement. Governments need to remember this once the pandemic is over. If they lock in the measures they have sold as a temporary necessity, and make all of us dependent on the state for ever after, we may never fully recover economically and socially, and the ultimate cost will be far higher than that of the pandemic itself.

Liberty has been the driver of the huge improvement in the health and prosperity of human beings all over the world for more than two centuries, and we are currently sacrificing that driver to bring this virus under control. The worst effect of the pandemic would be to make that sacrifice permanent.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The World is a Different Place Today

I’m writing this on the evening of the first full day of the Covid-19 “lock down” here in New Zealand.

The world is a different place today than it was three months ago. The virus has changed everything. The fact that we are living through history was brought home to me when I was talking to my elderly mother about the closure of schools and businesses, and she told me about the similar response to the polio outbreak when she was a child. I realised that schoolchildren today, as they were back then, will be known as the kids that lived through the pandemic.

We thought 9/11 was significant, but really its effects were minor. Of course, for those in the Twin Towers or on one of those airplanes on that day in 2001, or even for the many US service men and women who went to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of the terrorist attacks, the impact was huge. But for the rest of us the effects of those events were mostly limited to extra security checks at airports and in some public buildings. The current crisis is different – it affects us all profoundly and intimately.

The first day has been fine. I think we all feel excited at these momentous events that have overtaken us, tinged with a little worry about how long it will last and who might succumb to the virus. The worst time will be later, when the excitement wears off along with our tolerance for the annoying habits of those we are forced to spend every waking hour with for the next month. Even the most solid relationships will be tested.

I am fortunate. My home is spacious and is surrounded by the “green belt” of trees and bush,  interspersed with hiking trails and fields, so I can go for a long walk and barely cross paths with another human being. My family and I have almost everything we need right here and so long as we can stock up every week or two with essential supplies, we can continue to live in considerable comfort. I have watched the apartment dwellers in European and Asian cities, singing from their balconies and otherwise putting on a brave face in their cramped spaces, and I know their confinement is so much worse than mine.

There will be moments when fear will eat away at our resilient spirits. Concern about getting the virus itself is only part of it. The loss of economic and social freedom frightens everyone. We have all been made dependent on our governments, no matter how self-sufficient we were before. I am sure that even the most ardent big-state supporters don’t completely trust the government with the almost unlimited powers it has assumed to deal with this crisis. I watched the New Zealand police commissioner earlier today talking about how he will enforce the lock down, and he wasn’t shy about threatening the use of force against those who break the curfew. I am sure the actions of the police here in New Zealand will be measured, but now we all have a taste of what it must have been like to live under a totalitarian regime such as Soviet Communism.

Our cage might be gilded, but it is still a cage.