The Queen’s Gambit

According to epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, the decision to end the second Auckland lockdown after just three days was a ‘calculated risk’. The possibility of undetected community transmission cannot be ruled out. In the United States, modelling by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the virus is mostly spread by asymptomatic people. This means that the real infection rate could be much higher than the official count. For example, a study by researchers at the Australian National University estimated that up to 70,000 Australians were unknowingly infected.

While these findings are contested, the reality of hidden transmission is inescapable. But the Ardern Government is reluctant to acknowledge its existence. In January, the Ministry of Health finally admitted that there ‘probably’ had been undetected cases in the community last year. With the most recent Auckland outbreak, a relatively small number of tests has given public health officials confidence that the virus is once again under control. This must surely allow for the chance that some of the tests have returned false-negatives. However, according to Worldometer, the current rate of testing in New Zealand lags well behind Australia.

As the Prime Minister explained on Wednesday: ‘Just remember, of course, Level 2 is designed to have situations where we are contact tracing individuals who are casual or close contacts in the community’. It would appear that Jacinda Ardern is comfortable with the likelihood that the number of cases will increase under Level 2. This is at odds with her stance in 2020. Back then, the Prime Minister declared there would be ‘zero tolerance for [community] cases’. Lockdown measures were to be in place for at least a full infection cycle. The hardline response to the August outbreak reinforced her government’s precautionary approach. 

While the situation in August was more urgent, it is clear that Ardern sees the world differently now. What explains this change in outlook?

At the height of the epidemic, Ardern revealed herself to be a conviction politician. She made elimination into a moral crusade and inspired the ‘Team of Five Million’ to rally behind her. New Zealanders were willing to sacrifice their freedom to protect the old and immunocompromised. Her edict to ‘be kind’ became our national motto. The country united to defeat Covid-19, and won. Twice. It was a source of pride for Ardern. ‘Your efforts continue to set us apart,’ she told us in September. ‘You’re being adaptable, patient and determined – this has all been critical to our stamp-it-out approach.’

But that ‘stamp-it-out’ approach was not on display this past week. If it had been, the Ardern Government would have listened to the advice of experts like Professor Baker, who recommended mandatory mask use indoors and new rules for social distancing. Instead, the Cabinet preferred to work on the assumption that there is nothing more to stamp out. Behind this decision is a tacit understanding that the adaptability, patience and determination of New Zealanders may be wearing thin. 

If the virus does reappear in the community, public health officials will recommend a further lockdown. By then it could be too late to prevent a major outbreak. This must have been weighing on Ardern when she spoke of her ‘indescribable anxiety’ following Cabinet’s decision to end the second Auckland lockdown. Anxiety is a normal reaction to uncertainty and the fear of losing control. We have all experienced it. In psychology, most experts would agree that anxiety can be a good thing. The nationwide lockdown in March saved many lives but it would not have happened without collective fear. 

That fear has now subsided. It is only Ardern, her officials, and a few scientists, who lie awake at night. The rest of New Zealand very much sees the virus as someone else’s problem. Of course, everyone wants to keep it out. But the notion of another major outbreak is generally dismissed as fear-mongering. There is a restlessness to move on. Given so few cases, and the apparent success of containment, it makes sense that New Zealanders are prepared to accept greater risk. They have been encouraged by an illusion of control. Until now, the occasional border ‘leakage’ has been managed. 

Ardern’s personal anxiety has given way to this illusory sense of control. Her government is now more influenced by optimism than precaution. Ministers have a high degree of confidence in the future. Any community cases will be identified and isolated before there is a ‘superspreading’ event. The vaccination of border and quarantine staff will be effective. If, despite these successful measures, there is a new outbreak, it will be contained without the need for another nationwide lockdown. There must also be confidence that no New Zealanders will die of Covid-19 in the community this year.

There is good cause for optimism. New Zealand has led the Anglo-American world in its pandemic response. But we cannot know the future. Covid-19 is likely to be with us for many years. Thus far, New Zealand has relied on geography to protect itself. With the arrival of a vaccine it is hoped that we may soon reopen the border. Even then, it is plausible that the virus will continue to spread and new variants may grow resistant to the vaccine. In pursuing the elimination strategy last year, Ardern believed that life would soon return to normal. She did not anticipate a future of recurring lockdowns and no travel.

‘I will never be comfortable with Covid-19,’ Ardern reiterated on Wednesday. ‘But you do learn things’. It is the closest the Prime Minister has come to admitting that events may not be in her control after all. And yet, she has gambled on the best possible outcome. There can be no going back.

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

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