Glen Johnson

New Zealand’s Super-Fast Lockdown

June 1, 2020

QUICK REACTION, ECONOMIC HIT

New Zealand’s super-fast lockdown

The country shut down when it had only 205 Covid-19 cases, and began to come out of it at 1440 cases and 12 deaths. The cost of that may be 300,000 jobs and huge level of government debt

Decades of chronic underinvestment in New Zealand’s health sector and an outdated pandemic response plan left the country acutely vulnerable to coronavirus. The Southern District Health Board, which serves some 330,000 people, was thought to have only two intensive care beds pre-crisis.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a former public relations expert, who has led the Labour party since 2017 (gravitating to the political centre), and her government had to scale up a fast response when it became clear in January that China had not contained the virus, with cases reported in Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand. A pandemic was already certain. The government worked with the national carrier Air New Zealand to organise an evacuation flight for New Zealanders in Wuhan, and a few days later, on 3 February, non-New Zealand residents on flights from, or transiting through, China were barred entry to the country.

Fear built through February, worsening to a peak in the late summer days of mid-March when Kiwis would normally spend final lazy days at the beach. Ardern said on 25 March, just hours before the country rushed into the most restrictive stage of a four level lockdown, ‘Unlike so many other gravely inundated countries, we have a window of opportunity: to stay home, break the chain of transmission, and save lives – it’s that simple.’ Ardern said the policy was ‘Go hard and go early’.

She rose to international prominence because of her capable handling of the Christchurch terrorist attack in March 2019, when a white supremacist shot round after round at a local mosque and Islamic centre, killing 51 people. Her ability to communicate and her effective crisis management were invaluable as infection grew, and were needed: modelling provided to the health ministry showed that 14,400 New Zealanders could die if the virus spread unrestrained.

‘Stick to your bubble’

Ardern’s clear messaging and her humane, health-first priorities ensured that people were willing to confine themselves to their homes for an extended period; 88% said they trusted the government’s response. In politically divided New Zealand, it was a rare moment of national unity. Ardern said, ‘You may not be at work, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a job to do. Your job is to save lives, and you can do that by staying home and breaking the chain.’

As the country entered alert level 4 at midnight on 25 March, it had registered 50 new infections, total cases 205. The government, it seemed, had acted just in time.

All non-essential businesses closed – pharmacies, supermarkets and hospitals remained open – and people were only allowed out to buy supplies or exercise.

The first Covid-19 related death was reported on 29 March, a woman in her 70s from the rugged, sparse West Coast of the South Island. The normally congested motorways out of Auckland, the largest city, looked apocalyptically empty. Long socially distanced queues stretched from supermarkets. Many tuned in to the daily press briefings, usually from the reassuring director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, who urged people to ‘stick to your bubble’.

Several leading epidemiologists felt New Zealand should look beyond a mitigation strategy and argued that the country could eliminate the virus, as with the apparent successes in Wuhan and Taiwan. Michael Baker, an epidemiologist from Otago University and advisor on the ministry of health’s Covid-19 response group, said, ‘It is challenging because in many ways Covid-19 is right on the edge of being controllable, and it should be controlled … For an island country like NZ that meant that the elimination strategy looked like the way to go, but then, others thought that it would never work.’

The government endorsed this. With the borders closed and a strict lockdown, it looked well positioned to achieve elimination. There was also luck: Covid-19 likely seeded in the country in January, but did not spread widely. Baker added, ‘With contact tracing, all you’re doing is finding contacts and putting them into home lockdown for a few weeks. The benefit of a [nationwide] lockdown is that you don’t have to find every case, and they should start to extinguish.’

Relief package to save jobs

Bloomfield and the health ministry secured vast quantities of PPE and ensured that the fragmented 20 district health boards could manage distribution issues. Testing increased with focus on vulnerable Maori and Pasifika communities. With multiple clusters across the country – a high school in Auckland, a wedding in the deep south, a bar in the tourist hub of Matamata – the government announced NZ$55m to support the public health units (PHUs) and the newly-formed National Close Contact Service to increase contact tracing capacity to a ‘gold standard’.

The lockdown brought much-needed time but the economic hit was massive. Finance minister Grant Robertson cushioned the economic impact, announcing a relief package, with the government rolling out a $NZ9b wage subsidy in support of stricken businesses, capped at NZ$585 per worker per week, to keep people linked to work; some projections estimate 300,000 New Zealanders may lose their jobs.

The package likely saved tens of thousands of jobs for now. Marc Shaw, 35, who owns a small café and coffee roastery in the Nelson region at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, said, ‘Our staff is like family to us, and we’ve been able to keep everyone on. We applied, and a few days later, we had NZ$62,000 for our staff.’

The homeless were given refuge in hotels and campervans, and extra financial support for energy costs provided before winter. The government pushed through a planned increase to the minimum wage and was rebuked by the main opposition, the centre-right National Party. That party was in power for nine years before the Labour coalition in 2017; its leader, Simon Bridges, vowed on 25 March to put aside partisan politics and support the government: ‘Today, on the big questions in this House or in New Zealand, we agree. With no exception, we are all in this together.’

Infections began to drop significantly during lockdown. For the first week of April, the health ministry recorded 513 cases, with 12 significant clusters; over the final seven days of April only 32 cases were discovered. As the numbers began to diminish, Bridges began to cast doubt on the government’s approach. He is the head of the Epidemic Response Committee, established to monitor the government during lockdown, and often appeared to be politicising the pandemic.

Disagreement on lockdown exit

Some prominent mainstream journalists and businesspeople took the same approach. An organisation called Plan B, a ‘cross-disciplinary group of academics’ concerned about ‘the welfare and futures of all Kiwis’, became ubiquitous in the media. Its website read, ‘International health data and experience is showing that New Zealand’s lockdown may now be unnecessary, and even more harmful than the problem we’re trying to solve.’  The contention was that the government had ‘overreacted’ and that it was time to get back to work.

Epidemiologists urged caution as lifting restrictions too soon could lead to an outbreak. Bridges, imitating Donald Trump, began to claim that ‘the medicine shouldn’t be worse than the cure.’ Disinformation about a spike in suicides as a result of lockdown proliferated, and journalists agitated for a move down alert levels, writing about their favourite fast-food chains in a media-wide in-joke.  Instead of public health concerns coming first in media messaging, the media, political opposition, and some business interests attempted to manipulate a fearful public’s perceptions.

On 20 April Ardern announced the cabinet’s decision to extend alert level 4 by five days, until midnight on 27 April, balancing public health advice and private sector pressure. Nine new cases were reported, a total of 1,440; deaths remained at 12. Ardern said, ‘We have done what very few countries have been able to do: we have stopped the wave of devastation. Our transmission rate is now 0.48, overseas the average is 2.5 people.’

The tension came to a head that night, when Bridges criticised the government on Facebook, after days of agitating for an end to lockdown. In just over a day, the post received 29,000 comments, most of them excoriating Bridges for prioritising his personal political ambitions over public wellbeing.

With the movement to slightly more permissive alert level 3, people descended on fast-food chains like McDonald’s and KFC; reporters had given them significant free publicity. Gerard Hehir, National Secretary at Unite Union, which represents 4,000 workers in the fast-food industry, said if the reporters ‘had to stand at an open window for eight hours … the approach to many of their stories would have been very different. There was genuine fear for many of our members about returning to work. They simply did not have confidence that their employers would stick to the social distancing rules.’

Dallas Prendergast, wealthy co-owner of Glenfield Mall on Auckland’s North Shore, said during a sitting of Bridges’ Epidemic Response Committee, ‘There are so few people who have been affected by this virus in New Zealand and the worst is over … we are all gobsmacked that we are not allowed to open our mall. There is just not a good enough reason.’

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The nation moved to alert level 2 on May 14, the third day in a row that no new cases were reported. The total number of confirmed and probable cases remained at 1497, with a 94% recovery rate and 21 deaths. Much of the country reopened. People were free to ‘pop their bubbles’, as long as gatherings were restricted to 10 people.

This generated a degree of backlash, particularly among Maori, who felt the restrictions should be loosened to allow their communities to practise tangihanga – a funeral rite conducted over several days. Once again, opposition politicians and the media acted in bad faith: implying that the government was discriminating against Maori by allowing up to 100 people (in distinct groups of 10) to enter cinemas and restaurants, but not allowing Maori to gather (in groups larger than 10) to farewell their loved ones. It was a deliberately cynical and incendiary equivocation.

Robertson, meantime, announced the nation’s budget. Many New Zealanders are angry at the brutal neoliberalism the country has been subjected to since the late-1980s. With 8,000 state homes to be built over four years, Robertson was recalling the country’s revered heyday that began with the Social Security Act of 1938 – the basis of the welfare state.

Yet, the budget was, perhaps understandably, geared towards recovery — $3.9b for health; $1.1b to create 11,000 green jobs; $3.2b to extend the wage subsidy – but was not in the spirit of the transformational politics that Ardern has built her brand on. Even in the midst of a pandemic, one that has laid bare the fragility of a hyper-globalised world, the political resolve for a correction of course is absent.

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