The pandemic in New Zealand

Submitted by martin on 6 July, 2020 - 5:37 Author: A New Zealand resident
Pandemic in New Zealand

Above: Identified Covid-19 cases in New Zealand (per million population, three-day rolling averages)

There has been no community transmission of Covid-19 here in New Zealand since early April. The only cases currently being identified are New Zealanders returning from overseas, who are being detected in border quarantine facilities. Life is essentially back to normal. Workplaces, shops, pubs, sports etc have all been back to business as usual for about a month. We can travel freely around the country.

The government imposed a highly restrictive lockdown on 25-26 March which lasted for 5-6 weeks, followed by a graduated relaxation of the restrictions. We are currently at the lowest alert level, where the only restrictions we have are around the border remaining more or less closed.

The government has implemented a large financial package to lessen the effects of the lockdown. There have been unrestricted wage subsidies - paid either to employers, or directly to individual contractors, who comprise a large amount of NZ's deregulated workforce. There has even been a financial allowance for artists. Beneficiaries have received a (small) increase, and there was a doubling of the winter fuel subsidy to pensioners and beneficiaries. A 12 week prohibition on landlords terminating tenancies was put in place.

My perspective, from inside health, was that the government had no choice but to lockdown once they saw the projected rates of hospitalisation and critical illness. NZ has an NHS-like universal healthcare system, albeit with more co-payments [where the patient pays part of the cost] than the NHS, particularly for primary care (GP visits etc).

However it has been systematically underfunded for decades, and has the lowest per-capita number of ICU [Intensive Care Unit] beds of the developed world. The Public Health sector was decimated during the National Party years, and was in no way able to rise to the pandemic challenge. Our health system simply would not have been able to cope if there had been widespread community transmission that was seen in other comparable countries.

The overall number of deaths was very, very low, with the majority of deaths coming from outbreaks at two aged residential care facilities.

There is a general sense that we acted collectively as a nation. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has kept repeating the genius catchphrase "our team of 5 million" emphasising our collective action and reinforcing our sense of responsibility to each other and in particular to the vulnerable. The government public address ads on nightly TV have used the Maori proverb "He waka eke noa" (we're all in this boat together) to reinforce the collectivist approach.

Ardern has framed the responsibilities of physical distancing as "Act like you have Covid" and you're trying not to spread it, rather than the version based around "protect yourself from others". There was a high level of compliance with lockdown, and regular shaming and reporting of those who were transgressing the rules (like our now ex health minister, who took a trip to the mountain bike park and took his kids to the beach during lockdown).

The emphasis was on health outcomes from the suppression/mitigation strategy initially, but it became apparent that elimination was possible, so the emphasis became on the economic benefits of maintaining elimination. Re-opening the economy with business as usual became a goal, to mitigate the predicted recession.

So much of the NZ economy relies on tourism, however, and this part of the economy has pretty much gone for good. Some high-value economic activity, like the film industry looks set to blossom given the situation overseas. The government had a budget which prioritised a number of infrastructure projects. The wage subsidy will end soon, and I think a number of people will become officially unemployed then, so we don't yet know the true unemployment rate.

It is not all rosy. Lots of people on temporary work visas have lost jobs in the service and tourism sector, and are ineligible for benefits, requiring civil emergency NGOs to provide support. Long term NZ workers who don't have citizenship or residency have been caught on the wrong side of the border and unable to return, with many families separated. Immigration application processing has ground to a halt, both for those already in NZ and those applying to enter.

A two tier benefit system has emerged with those requiring a job seekers benefit because of Covid related factors being eligible for almost double the payments of long-term beneficiaries. There has been a nasty racist dog whistle coming from the Tory National party about the number of Covid cases being diagnosed in the border quarantine facilities and their country of origin.

The popularity of NZ Labour and our PM Jacinda Ardern has been stratospheric. We have a coalition government led by Labour and including the Green party and the populist NZ First. The Tory National Party support has been decimated, and their leader was rolled in a bloody coup a month ago. We may see a majority Labour government at our general election in September, the first time such a thing will have happened since the introduction of MMP (a type of proportional representation).

The National Party opposition are utterly incoherent - calling for tightening of border quarantine processes and general opening of the border within the same week.

Despite all of these successes, our unfortunate Minister of Health David Clark resigned or was sacked last week for poor optics. He had been found to have breached lockdown rules (as discussed above), but the final straw came when he appeared to throw the Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield under the bus regarding a notable breach of quarantine processes.

Bloomfield is the best type of public servant, studious, diligent, compassionate, hard working, geeky, capable and ever present throughout each day's standup address to the nation, and has become something of a national hero. Despite the enormous success, the health minister was distracting from the good optics and was sacrificed.

What next? Our borders are more or less closed. Only NZ citizens and residents can enter, and are mandated to undergo 14 days in a government run isolation-quarantine hotel. There is talk of charging for these stays in due course or perhaps some type of means testing.

Some "high-value" workers from sectors like the film industry (Avatar 2), and sport (the Americas Cup crews) have been allowed exemptions to enter the country.

We cannot really travel and hardly any non-New-Zealanders can enter, and this may be the situation for a long time. We are hoping for a vaccine, but the timeline and likelihood of a vaccine is very uncertain.

There was talk of a travel bubble with Australia, but the new wave of infections in Melbourne currently has squashed that hope. At best we may be able to travel to the Pacific Islands, but there is great concern for the impact of Covid entering these vulnerable countries. It is only last year that a measles outbreak that originated in NZ led to the deaths of almost 100 Samoan children.

Many Pacific Islanders currently in NZ for seasonal work that has now dried up are essentially trapped here, not able to return home due to significant travel restrictions in their home countries.

I don't know what this all means for workers or the broader labour movement, but I'd rather be here in Fortress NZ than anywhere else. It feels more like the 1945 Attlee government lite, than anywhere close to a revolutionary situation.

Everyone you talk to says "we are so lucky", "we are so lucky to be here", "thanks goodness we have Jacinda" (even the dyed in the wool Tories). It will change as unemployment increases and the wage subsidy ends, but for now we are feeling relieved and fortunate.

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