Friday, 26 February 2021

Covid-19 and the New Zealand response

I was invited by an asker to answer a question on Quora recently: People that live in or have visited New Zealand during the pandemic, what are they doing differently compared to other countries to have such a handle on COVID? (Ronald, 8 October, 2020).

An interesting question that started me thinking about what we are able to do differently here in Aotearoa compared to other nations.

From what I understand, Taiwan still has the market cornered on having most effective Covid-19 response: with a population of 24m, they have had just over 500 cases, at a test rate of 4,000/1m population. What has been a game changer for them is that they have a phone tracker app. As pretty much all payments are made in Taiwan using phones, if people go out, their movements are monitored from their phones. The Taiwanese also allocated enough police resources to immediately track people breaking quarantine. This meant that spread in Taiwan was contained very, very quickly. Recidivist quarantine breakers were locked into their apartments or imprisoned. 

I don’t think that approach would have suited Kiwi culture, and neither did we have (a) the police resources, nor (b) traceability via phones, nor (c) the phone payment technology. Not a go for us, then.

However, Aotearoa New Zealand does have some element of our early pioneering spirit, and a more collective culture than Australia, the USA, or the UK (Hofstede, 1980, 1984, 1994, 2001; House et al., 2004). Our government (a) had time before the crisis hit us to plan, (b) took the advice of scientists, and (c) were able to plan before our first infectious case was imported. Kiwis saw what would be good for our community, and did it. NZ’s strategy was public information, using people’s goodwill and understanding to do what had to be done for society’s benefit. We knew how we needed to behave for public safety, and - once the virus was detected in our community - we locked down and followed the rules in the first wave. This brought infections under control relatively quickly, as we ramped up testing, and learned new ways to protect each other. We dumped elective surgery to make hospital room for a potential avalanche of cases (not required, as it turned out). We watched what was happening overseas and applied what seemed to be working.

In the second wave, most of the people who were caught flouting the Covid regulations were either those newly returned to the country, or newly independent young people (16s to mid 20s). Our numbers are still only 1850-ish infections for a 5m population, with only 5 deaths, and testing at a rate of 200,000/1m population.

Why we were able to lockdown, twice in Auckland's case, is because New Zealand - like Taiwan, the UK, and China - is a single ‘state’. The Government of the day can act under emergency powers without the complication of state and federal legislature contretemps. We have seen, from the sidelines, how the state/federal divide adds unneeded complication in Australia and the US. Our simplicity of Government has worked in our favour.

We have a lot to be thankful for which was purely serendipitous. We have a left-leaning Labour party in coalition with a Green party, which made for protective and socially-focused government. The government planning response was collaborative. We have a current Prime Minister who takes a collaborative approach to leadership. We have a superb Director General of Health. We had a microbiologist and journalist whose voice was heard clearly about hygiene. The media suddenly stopped 'infotainment' and became journalists again. 

And another couple of final points. Like Taiwan, New Zealand is an island, so border controls are simpler to implement than in nations with land borders. Cross-border importation was our main source of Covid-19 cases. Both nations are relatively small. Many other nations do not have the luxury of that simplicity.

We can congratulate ourselves on our good response to the virus, but we should not be too smug. Luck, the simplicity of our government, and our geography also had a large part to play.



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