Learning to live with Covid-19?

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 14 August 2020

At the end of this week, New Zealand is back in a situation we hoped to have left behind. With Auckland in lockdown and the country on alert, Covid-19 is back.

Perhaps the virus entered on some refrigerated goods. However, the Director-General of Health believes this to be highly unlikely.

This means the virus came in through the border. Indeed, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said so on Australian TV last night. But that means, the outbreak was preventable.

New Zealand has always been in a lucky position when it comes to Covid-19. As a low-density island nation, it is much easier to combat an infectious disease than, say, in a high-density East Asian country or in a landlocked European one.

But for New Zealand to use its geography to its advantage, it had to handle the border and quarantine practices well. Without proper processes, the Government’s elimination goal is unachievable.

Over the past months, we observed the flaws in handling international arrivals. As a reminder, people in managed isolation initially were not routinely tested before being released into the community.

Before the two sisters’ famous Auckland to Wellington road trip became known in mid-June, there had been weeks of no cases caught at the border. After that, there were new cases almost every day. What changed was that new arrivals were finally being tested.

And remember how people in managed isolation facilities were at first allowed to leave on compassionate grounds without prior tests. After that, several people absconded, sometimes for hours.

At the same time, there were reports of managed isolation facilities allowing arrivals from different flights to mingle at different stages of their isolation. We read of aircrew complaints about returning Kiwis flying from Auckland to Wellington without wearing protective equipment.

We then learnt that those working at the border or quarantine facilities were not regularly and frequently tested. Earlier this month, Newshub reported that authorities did not know how many bus drivers ferrying international passengers around ever had a test. Last night, Newshub revealed that about two thirds of staff around the border had not had a single test.

Having previously eliminated the virus domestically, the border is the only way it could return. Yet all these incidents over the past months show remarkable sloppiness.

The handling of the border has been so amateurish that it was only a matter of time until we got a new outbreak.

If the Government does not urgently improve its border handling capacity, there is no point pursuing elimination in New Zealand. We cannot afford to put our largest city into lockdown every few months because the border practices are not virus-tight.

The lesson from this outbreak and lockdown is clear: The Government must sort out the border – or prepare Kiwis for learning to live with the virus as most of the world now does.

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