Bloomfieldian Optimism – The Tragedy of Case M

In the United States, naive optimism was at the heart of the Trump Administration’s failed response to Covid-19. The same kind of wishful thinking may now characterise the Ardern Government. While the Prime Minister is adept at dealing with complexity, some of her officials are not. No one has given New Zealanders more cause for unfounded optimism in the last 12 months than Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Even after the World Health Organisation officially declared a pandemic, and local epidemiologists pleaded for action, the good doctor was on television to reassure New Zealanders that there was no community transmission here. 

Back then, a restrictive ‘case definition’ meant few New Zealanders met the criteria for a test, even if they had flu-like symptoms. The absence of evidence was presented as evidence of absence. Weeks later the Director-General of Health would advise the Cabinet that a narrow focus on international travellers meant it was likely some cases were missed. By then, the high risk of undetected community transmission necessitated a full nationwide lockdown. It is now clear that the experience did not fundamentally change the way New Zealanders live. Rather, we became a nation of Bloomfieldian optimists. 

And so it was last week. On Monday, the serene Dr Bloomfield recommended to Cabinet that Auckland return to Level 1. By Wednesday, life was back to normal again. The Director-General himself used the phrase ‘business as usual’ in his daily press conference. Aucklanders could look forward to a weekend of revelry and sports. Many would make the short trip to Hamilton for the iconic Six60 at Claudelands. Several thousand, including the Leader of the Opposition and a Cabinet minister, packed Spark Arena to see heavyweight champions Joseph Parker and Junior Fa duke it out. 

Once again, Jacinda Ardern could turn her attention to other matters of state. Social justice and environmentalism were finally back on the agenda. While Aucklanders returned to their schools and offices, the Prime Minister confirmed that the government would issue free toothbrushes to preschoolers in an effort to address the country’s oral health epidemic. Later in the week she unveiled a new plan to save the Māui dolphin. She also sat down for her first major television interview of the year with Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien.

After traversing the subjects of immigration and child poverty, the interview circled back to pandemic management. It was the anniversary of Covid-19 arriving on these shores. O’Brien quoted public health advice from 12 months ago dismissing the likelihood of a community outbreak in New Zealand. The statement had been issued after the country reported its first case on 28 February 2020.  ‘We got totally blindsided and underestimated Covid, didn’t we?’ It was a remark that Ardern clearly did not appreciate.

‘I think it would be really unfair to anyone to look back on statements made a year ago with all of this hindsight and make a judgement on that,’ she objected. ‘I think all of us, at some point, would have read, very early on in the outbreak, stories abroad and would never have anticipated the scale of what we’re up against.’ The Prime Minister also felt the need to defend her officials. ‘I’ve found the Ministry of Health and the people they work with completely dedicated to their jobs.’

The Prime Minister’s faith in the Director-General and the Ministry was rock solid. Indeed, she had carefully followed their advice from the beginning. But as the interview went to air, events were moving in an unforeseen direction.  Before the day was over, a 21 year old student at the Manukau Institute of Technology would be notified by the Auckland Regional Public Health Service that he had tested positive for the new B117 strain of Covid-19. Most concerningly, ‘Case M’ had gone to a gym while he awaited his result.

No one could have been more outraged by Case M’s disobedience than Ardern herself. Having flown back to Wellington for an emergency Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister called a sensational Saturday night press conference to announce that Auckland would again return to Level 3. This time the lockdown measures were to be in place for seven days. With a scowl and sharp intake of breath, Ardern told the nation she was ‘frustrated’. The frustration soon turned to righteous anger.

‘We cannot exist in an environment where we set rules and they [are] breached consistently.’ It was a good telling off. Although Case M would bear the most criticism and scrutiny, his flouting of the rules were by no means discrete. At least two other members of the Papatoetoe High School cluster went to work while they were supposed to be isolating. Hence the emphasis on ‘consistently’. However, despite her public reprimand of Case M, there was a glaring inconsistency in the government’s message. 

Case M is the sibling of a ‘casual plus’ contact who thrice tested negative for the virus. According to the Ministry website, the family of casual plus contacts are not required to do anything. While it is true that Case M should have isolated when symptoms developed, the onset of these came as Auckland returned to Level 1. The government may have urged those with any known links to the Papatoetoe High School cluster to remain isolated and vigilant but, in the same breath, it told Aucklanders to go about ‘business as usual’. 

Bloomfield’s nonchalance to the possibility of hidden transmission was evident throughout last week. After all, he had allowed a return to Level 1 despite the fact that 11 close contacts were yet to be tested. He must have been confident. Even on Saturday night, Bloomfield was reassured by wastewater testing and dismissed the likelihood of ‘false-negatives’. However, the source of Case M’s infection was still unknown. Genomic sequencing confirmed that Case M was indeed part of the Papatoetoe High School cluster but an epidemiological link could not be found. It was not until Monday that the truth was revealed. 

Case M’s mother, who also tested positive on Saturday, confessed to going for a walk with one of the other infected households during the previous Level 3 lockdown. At the time, this may have seemed innocent enough. We do not know what advice the families received. But it appears that they were reluctant to disclose this walk to contact tracers over the weekend. Ardern’s wrath might have compelled them to do so in the end. However, it is doubtful this information would have averted a return to Level 3. 

Case M’s decision to go to the gym on Friday afternoon was almost certainly the trigger for another lockdown. We may ask what was going through the young man’s head? His earlier decision to get tested for Covid-19, in the knowledge that family members had socialised with infected individuals, must have given him a sense of foreboding. But recall that his sibling had tested negative for the virus three times already and there was no indication his mother had been infected yet. It is likely that Case M believed the risk was negligible. 

What did health professionals advise him? Was communication a factor? These are questions that may further help understand his actions. But we will never know. Whatever the reason, Case M is a lesson in human psychology. It demonstrates our low capacity to understand and evaluate risk. All of us are susceptible to cognitive biases that distort our thinking. Even the most intelligent and educated person can be a victim of faulty reasoning. This is especially true in business. But it has taken a global pandemic to reveal the true extent to which human beings are irrational and self-destructive. 

As the Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explained in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, most of our decisions are intuitive. We rely on past experience and mental short-cuts to inform us about the future. These inevitably lead to errors of judgement. One such tendency is for individuals to overestimate their ability to control a situation and downplay risk. It is called ‘optimism bias’. The result can be catastrophic, as we have seen throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, New Zealanders had good reason to feel optimistic. But our victory was never permanent. 

Bloomfieldian optimism most likely encouraged Case M to believe he and his family were free of the virus. In truth, we have all suffered from a collective delusion that life in New Zealand can be ‘business as usual’ again. The latest outbreak is a tragedy of no individual’s making. If there is one lesson we can all learn from 2020, it is to hope for the best and plan for the worst. We should not depend on the government for that.

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

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