The Year of Reckoning

For most New Zealanders, the Covid-19 pandemic ended on 8 June 2020. That was the day Jacinda Ardern declared New Zealand had ‘eliminated’ the virus.Tragically, 22 people were dead but 1,482 others had recovered to full health. For the first time since February there were no more active cases in the community or at the border. The announcement was met with surprise and jubilation. The Prime Minister herself confessed to marking the occasion with a ‘little dance’ at home. While most other countries struggled to contain the virus, New Zealand would return to a state of normality.

Having done its part, the ‘Team of Five Million’ was encouraged to get out and see the country. Parties and concerts were back on. Strangers were allowed to mingle again. Social distancing became a nicety rather than a matter of life and death. Although public health experts continued to warn about the ever-present risk of another outbreak, the government assured us that strict border measures, and a state of the art contact tracing system would keep New Zealand safe. The belief that New Zealand was ‘Covid-free’ persisted for more than 100 days before a mysterious outbreak in Auckland led to a second lockdown and another death. 

Even then, an illusion of control reassured New Zealanders that normality would soon return – and it did. But wilful ignorance may also have played a role. Last month, the Ministry of Health admitted that undetected community transmission likely did occur back in June. According to one study, the false-negative rate for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is 20% when performed five-days after infection. The rate can be much higher when the test is performed earlier in an infection. Perhaps this is why the so-called ‘burning ember’ hypothesis to explain the August outbreak was never entirely ruled out. Rather, we forgot about it.

Six months later Auckland is once again in a Level 3 lockdown while health officials investigate the source of new community cases. It was always a fantastical notion that the problems of 2020 would disappear at midnight on 31 December. The reality of life in 2021 is that New Zealanders must accept further disruption and uncertainty. Travel restrictions will remain. Entire industries have been decimated, and thousands put out of work. It is true that government intervention has staved off the worst. However, it would not take much to upset this equilibrium. If new cases emerge outside of Auckland then a second nationwide lockdown is possible.

Until now, public health officials have worked on the assumption that multiple lines of defence at the border are sufficient to prevent a major community outbreak. Past experience appears to support this. But regardless of whether the latest index case was infected at the border, we should not be surprised if there is now a chain of transmission in the community. Even if we stamp it out again, the border is not impenetrable. There will be a next time. The vaccine may significantly reduce the public health risk but we do not yet know how effective it will be in the long-run. After all, the vaccine has not been evaluated on its ability to prevent transmission. 

So long as Covid-19 remains endemic in the world, New Zealand has no choice but to live with it. If the objective is to prevent loss of life, then the Ardern Government’s elimination strategy is proven to work. But it has come at the expense of livelihoods, not to mention psychological and emotional harm. Yet most agree the short-term cost was worth it. As the great philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote of politics, ‘We are doomed to choose and every choice may entail irreparable loss’. For elimination to work long-term, New Zealanders must accept a permanent change in their way of life. Social distancing and mask use would need to become culturally ingrained, international travel a relic of the past. We might also need to give up some of our privacy for contact tracing.

It is unclear if New Zealanders are willing to live in such a regimented society. While many have felt pride in the country’s ‘Covid-free’ status, few have considered the long-term implications of elimination. There has always been a sense that, sooner or later, life will return to ‘normal’. The promise of international travel again has felt tantalisingly closer with each vaccine trial. This delusion is encouraged by politicians and the media alike. When a community case was reported in Northland, two weeks before Waitangi Day, the government urged people not to change their holiday plans. It was business as usual. For their part, journalists have presented the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as if it were a panacea. 

But there are no panaceas and life can never be the same. The last 12 months should have been a lesson in humility for our species. Despite technological wonders and immense knowledge, there is much about the natural world that eludes human control. It is not within the power of any government, or science, to make the virus go away. When it comes to dealing with this existential threat, the Prime Minister must give up on the illusion of control and persuade New Zealanders to live differently. It would be her greatest accomplishment. If she fails, this will be a year of reckoning.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.

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