By Ian Wishart
New Zealand looks set to get through Round One of the coronavirus pandemic, but if you are expecting life to return to normal think again: nothing will ever be the same.
With just 29 new cases found today out of a 4,000 test sample, it’s the fourth day in a row of declining cases. The government is in a no-win position however. Keeping the death rate below a hundred, perhaps even below 20, will leave many kiwis looking at their tattered finances and destroyed businesses and careers, and those people are going to turn around and say “We sacrificed our futures for a handful of deaths??”
On the other hand, if the virus cuts loose and gets its claws into the community, all eyes are going to turn and focus on the many things this government and the health ministry got wrong early.
The problem for the rest of us is this: Covid19 is like wrestling with a pit-bull – if you take your foot off its throat the virus sinks its teeth in and suddenly you’ve transformed into Spain or France.
China and South Korea are discovering this…you relax restrictions because you think the virus is gone, and suddenly it’s back again with a vengeance.
The Prime Minister warned as much at today’s media briefing when she told journalists that New Zealand government modelling had seen NZ on an Italy trajectory before lockdown, and relaxing the rules now could put us back on that trajectory within two weeks.
There’s been some hope that countries where the old BCG tuberculosis vaccine was given to children are less at risk. New Zealand was one of those countries between 1948 and the 1960s for South Islanders, and through to 1990 in North Island schools. However, every UK school student received the BCG vaccine up to 2005, and they’re a Covid19 cot case, so maybe BCG doesn’t work after all.
All this raises a bigger question – how does this end? Assuming the government does manage to strangle Covid19 in NZ, does life return to normal?
Sadly, no. If you have been paying special attention to the PM’s news briefings you will instinctively know this.
The borders will be locked down even further tonight. All people coming in will go into mandatory quarantine for two weeks. Ardern is doing this because she knows there is no chance of stamping this thing out without quarantine of all travellers.
There will be no overseas travel or inbound tourism for two – possibly three years. And when international travel does resume, it won’t look like it did back in BC times. New Zealand can’t afford to let in travellers carrying this bug, nor will other countries want to. That means anyone coming here will have to pay for two weeks quarantine before starting their holiday or business trip, knowing they will face another two weeks’ quarantine when they return to their own country. Weekend trips to Sydney? Won’t happen. A week in LA? Never again.
New Zealanders are going to have to holiday in their own country, because no other options will exist unless you are super-wealthy and can afford a month in quarantine at $300 a night.
The Prime Minister knows that until there’s either a guaranteed cure for Covid19, or an effective vaccine, that New Zealand will remain closed. We don’t even know if a vaccine is possible. It doesn’t exist for the coronaviruses that cause the common cold, and science has worked on that for decades. Even the flu shot is only partially effective, protecting maybe 60% of recipients, and it only lasts a year.
Countries will not reopen borders for a vaccine that only has coin-toss efficiency and a short window of effectiveness.
As Ardern put it, ‘tight border controls will remain for the foreseeable, we don’t have an end date’.
There is no vaccine for HIV nearly four decades after its discovery. Science can’t fix everything. While there is some optimism there also needs to be a reality check. We might never have a vaccine for Covid19.
What about herd immunity? Surely if we allow this coronavirus to sweep through and give the survivors immunity, then the problem is solved? That’s the logic of many keyboard commentators.
If only it were that simple. Again I find myself repeating: there are coronaviruses that cause the common cold. Have you become immune to those yet? We don’t even know if Covid19 survivors have any immunity at all…or whether next season they will find themselves struck down again, fighting for their lives – again. We don’t know if every last one of us is going to have to run that gauntlet every flu season for years to come. We don’t know whether people who received a mild dose were simply lucky because the virus never reached their lungs, and that all bets are off next season – particularly if it hits you while you have an existing chest cold. We don’t know what long term lung and heart damage is being done to young people who get this.
In short, time will tell but we currently don’t know what we don’t know, although now we know how the Neanderthals felt – every time they ventured out of the cave to forage for food they were at risk from bears, wolves and sabre-tooth cats. The Wuhan bat virus may be smaller, but it’s capable of killing more humans than sabre-tooths ever did. That feeling of being hunted and stalked by something as you touch a supermarket trolley is an eerily primal throwback.
The reason I am writing this is not to depress you further, but instead to force a paradigm shift in the way we think about this problem. We have effectively been delivered a post-apocalyptic world; not by aliens or nuclear war or “climate change” (oh for the days when a warmer temperature was all we had to worry about), but by a virus.
Realistically, barring a miracle, that virus is never going to be eradicated from the continents. It will lurk in the populations of Europe, America, Asia, Africa and South America the same way that other viruses do. Poorer countries with less resource will be overwhelmed. Only island states that can totally control their borders have a chance of exterminating it.
New Zealand, and perhaps Australia, the UK and Japan (all island nations) may be some of the only first world countries on earth that could end up free of the virus in the long term. It is in NZ’s best interests that covid19 is exterminated in Australia, which would at least allow free movement down under.
Of course, if we do eventually get a vaccine, or if people get lasting herd immunity, then a semblance of our old lives may return. But don’t bank on it.
The end of the Level 4 lockdown in NZ won’t mean we have beaten covid19. As Ardern warned, this is going to be a marathon. She didn’t say it, but the government is keenly aware that winter is coming. We could be at a level 3 lockdown until well into spring and even then there’s no guarantee that the virus will be controlled.
The sooner we come to the realisation that this bug may be with us forever, that there may not be a vaccine and that we may not get any lasting immunity even if we catch it, then the sooner we can get our heads around a new future for New Zealand.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo has warned his citizens likewise:
“When will things go back to the way they were? I don’t think it’s about going back. I don’t think it’s ever about going back. The question is about going forward and that what we have to deal with here,” Cuomo said. “I don’t think we return to yesterday, where we were. I think if we’re smart we achieve a new normal.”
For all those lamenting the lockdown and demanding a swift reopening, pause for a moment: reopening to what? The world we knew on December 31, 2019, has gone. Perhaps forever. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in the tourism sector are gone and many won’t come back. Agriculture on the other hand? There is a unique irony that the Labour/Greens war on farming has been flipped by a virus, and suddenly farming and infrastructure look set to dominate in our new economy.
What all of us should be doing in our Zoom sessions is whiteboarding what life in the Age of the Virus will look like, and where our own businesses can pivot to adapt and improve our lives. What will our country need? What will the world need? How will we live? What will we need to manufacture ourselves moving forward? How do we re-employ half a million kiwis? How do we become self sufficient so we are not forced to rely on foreign supply chains that could be wracked for years by seasonal waves of covid19 (assuming the same immunity/vaccination issues as the common cold)? How do we make our own pharmaceuticals? GlaxoSmithKline was born in New Zealand.
We could still have immigration as an economic driver. People wanting to come and live here will be prepared to quarantine. Likewise the education sector will continue to attract long term foreign students. But with airlines mortally wounded, and jumbo jet pilots now re-employed driving supermarket delivery vans, it won’t be easy to get here. Airlines have relied on huge volumes of passengers to fund their routes. Without that traffic, the golden age of air travel is over. As long as the virus is loose in the wider world and populations remain at risk, prospective migrants and students won’t just be able to hop on the next plane and come here. Mass migration will require charter flights and ships.
In the short term however, you won’t see any of that. The demand for housing driven by migrants will dry up.
On the other hand, as one of the first TV and movie industry hubs to emerge from lockdown, New Zealand could capitalise on the lack of fresh content being produced elsewhere in the world.
If Jacinda Ardern can eradicate Covid19 on our shores, that’s where the story of a new New Zealand begins. Anyone who thinks the end of lockdown will mark a return to normal is dreaming. A sickly Wuhan bat has changed that for all of us.
So collectively as a nation, we now have some brainstorming to do.
POSTSCRIPT: Three days after we published this The Australian newspaper (paywalled) interviewed the scientist helping coordinate the global hunt for a vaccine. She is just as blunt as I am. Read the Daily Mail (non-paywalled) version here