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-.

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