Covid 19 coronavirus: Kate MacNamara: E is for Elimination, Emergency measure … and Enough already?

OPINION:

Zero Covid is not a reasonable strategy for anything other than a crisis. New Zealand has taken emergency action for close to a year, whereby the many can suffer extreme curtailment of personal freedom to protect the susceptible few. But with a vaccine in hand, it is now past time for a plan to navigate away from these extraordinary measures.

It was easy to imagine that the country had returned to normal though our long stretch of alert level 1 (from September last year to just a few weeks ago). It had not. Our borders are and were, in very large measure, closed to people. The threat of a lockdown response to an outbreak of Covid-19 has hung over our heads.

And onerous and exceptional legal provisions to curtail individual freedoms in the name of the common good remained in place, including the extraordinary power to compel all those who test positive, not just travellers, into state custody.

(Yes, the quarters are repurposed hotels and the meals are reportedly quite tasty; no, it doesn’t ameliorate the suspension of liberty and the army at the door.)

All that has been driven home again by the latest Auckland lockdowns at level 3: the brief stint from February 15-17 and the current week-long measures expected to lift this weekend.

It’s worth remembering that a year ago the reasons New Zealanders were given for accepting such heavy intrusions by the state into ordinary life were twofold.

The very serious risk that the country’s healthcare system would be overwhelmed by a wave of sickness and the death rate from the virus, which models suggested would reach into the high thousands, possibly the tens of thousands.

We’ve known for many months that those higher death rates were incredibly (meaning not credibly) large. Though on the other hand, we now know more about the harm of so-called “long Covid”, which the World Health Organisation says continues to afflict 10 per cent of patients with symptoms like fatigue and brain fog three months after having the illness.

Still, if our modellers returned to their task with today’s inputs, including better Covid-19 treatments and a frontline health workforce that is on the cusp of vaccination, we might not meet the threshold of sufficient danger for drastic action.

A stand-down from a heavy-handed elimination strategy might well be required as soon as health workers received the jab and secured the health system’s staffing capacity.

But those original reasons given for extreme lockdown measures morphed over the course of last year, particularly as it became evident that New Zealand was weathering the economic ravages of Covid relatively better than many (though not all) comparable jurisdictions.

Zero Covid was achieved with less economic cost than either the Treasury or private sector economists anticipated. Although that remains a backward-looking assessment and it assumes the avoidance (far from assured) of oscillating lockdown measures from here.

The economic cost, after all, is still rising and it’s also noteworthy that pockets of the economy are ravaged. A week for our largest city at level 3 (with the rest of the country at level 2) costs an estimated $250 million to $500m in lost GDP.

And it’s also critical to remember that, while the lower-than-expected economic cost is very welcome, it isn’t everything. The current measures remain an enormous departure from the norms of our liberal democracy and a shocking extension of state power.

A rising chorus of voices is calling for those who’ve broken the level 3 rules in the recent outbreak to be prosecuted. Among them are a young man who went about town and to the gym while waiting for the results of his Covid-19 test (it was positive) and two women from different households who went for a walk. One woman had the virus in her household and seems to have infected the second woman.

Since both acts appear contrary to health orders, penalties of up to $4000 and six months in prison are possible under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Bill, passed last year.

The calls for enforcement are loud (though as yet largely unheeded by police) because even a single case of infection can result in the suspension of ordinary life for millions of people. But this is a distraction from the much bigger issue: when do we dispense with lockdowns?

Stopping the transmission of the virus is not an end in itself; we only pursue it with extreme measures if it results in untenable harm. This is about to change, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to Government ministers.

The country now has over 200,000 vaccine doses in hand or already administered, supplies are arriving at least weekly, and though the plan is altogether fuzzy, the majority of border workers and their families have received their first shots and health workers are the next group in line.

The Government’s current aim, though largely unarticulated, seems to be to achieve herd immunity through vaccination by the end of the year, and to loosen restrictions thereafter.

But it’s not clear how many Kiwis will turn down their jab and whether we’ll ever reach the 65-70 per cent immunity the World Health Organisation reckons is needed to thoroughly interrupt transmission.

There is a strong case to be made that harsh shielding measures applied to the many should be banished much sooner than year-end. The Covid crisis is one of significant risk, not to the population at large, but to pockets of susceptible younger people and to the very old.

Once these groups are vaccinated — within a handful of months if the Government has its act together — the risk of the disease will be more commensurate with familiar ills like the flu. It might not be neighbourly but it’s not a crime to pass that around.

Surely this is the point at which a society that prizes freedom will turn away from strict elimination in favour of restoring our liberal norms.

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