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Air Commodore Darryn Webb and minister Chris Hipkins. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Air Commodore Darryn Webb and minister Chris Hipkins. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyNovember 13, 2020

Counting the true costs of our continued Covid community transmissions

Air Commodore Darryn Webb and minister Chris Hipkins. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Air Commodore Darryn Webb and minister Chris Hipkins. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Each time there’s a new community case, New Zealand draws breath, then sighs with relief as it is contained. It’s long past time we stopped accepting that such a volume of leakage is inevitable, argues Duncan Greive.

Yesterday Auckland was delivered news of the most troubling case of Covid-19 in the community since the Americold cluster, which prompted the second lockdown in August. It was a young woman, living in a central city apartment, going about her life – eating, shopping, working in those tight and bustling streets. She also worked while sick, after having had a test but before the results came in, though there is dispute about her employer’s role in that decision.

At the time of writing it appears that the case is genomically linked to the Defence Force cluster, which would have the effect of, if not allaying fears, then certainly calibrating them. Within a few hours we will know more – whether Auckland will be ratcheting up the alert levels, and whether the rest of the country will resume its (entirely justified) wariness of visitors from our largest city.

While we do this, it’s worth counting the true costs of these continued leakages from managed isolation. By my count there have been at least eight separate instances of the virus making its way through the border since we first eliminated the virus in early May.

The managed isolation and quarantine system is, of course, not our only line of defence. As Siouxsie Wiles has explained by reference to the “Swiss cheese model”, our response requires multiple layers of protection.

MIQ is, however, the most critical of those layers. Every time it is breached, there are consequences. Clocks reset, nerves frayed, behaviour altered. It seems as though the collective relief at our continued ability to contain these incursions – so far – has led to the suppression of a look at the consequences. But they are worth weighing, because they are profound and far-reaching.

The clocks reset and the shocks radiate out

Most directly, the prospects of borders reopening with other states which have eliminated the virus further dim. Andrew Waddell, Tourism New Zealand’s GM for Australia, last week spoke of a desire for a “pragmatic” two way travel bubble with Australia to be deployed by January. Yet Jacinda Ardern says such a situation would require 28 days without community transmission in Australia.

Such a standard has been met by all Australia’s states with the exception of NSW and Victoria, though both are trending in the right direction. New Zealand, by contrast, has semi-regular community cases, including four separate incidents in the past 28 days. Even though they have largely been isolated and quickly contained, each one resets the clock on any bubble. For those operating or employed in businesses which rely on overseas tourists, this is not a small thing – it’s their main hope that the summer might be somewhat salvageable.

The same goes for the Pacific Islands. New Zealand is sending a team to explore the idea of a bubble with the Cook Islands, an idea which remains unlikely to ever get off the ground until we can get these leakages under control. Pacific economies are far more reliant on tourism than New Zealand’s, so a consistent inability to stop these outbreaks visits more hardship on them than on us.

It also diminishes the prospects of allowing workers from the Islands in to work in our labour-starved horticultural sector – not only raising the prospect of crop losses here, but depriving Pacific states of remittances, another massive source of income for neighbours whose welfare we claim to care about very deeply.

A man peers through security fencing at an isolation facility in Rotorua. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Every fresh community case also makes our current highly restricted border likely to continue in its current form. Already MIQ is fully booked into the new year, meaning thousands of New Zealanders cannot return home when they would like to. The plausible political case to expand the MIQ network to meet demand from New Zealanders, let alone allow in more of the specialist high skill workers our recovery depends on, is nil while we cannot control the isolation facilities we currently have.

The shocks of each fresh case are not simply felt at and beyond the border, either. Today is Friday – the busiest day of the week for hospitality businesses. Already this year those in Auckland have sacrificed upwards of a dozen Fridays to various restrictions. Today will be another bust in a deserted inner city, which was only just very recently seeing traffic flows start to resemble the pre-pandemic normal. In a low margin industry, every Friday lost will push some proportion of those businesses to the wall.

It’s not just small businesses, either. Tonight sees the Design Institute host the Best Awards, to celebrate great design and communication across a variety of fields. A number of those involved with the government’s own Covid-19 campaigns are (rightly) nominated. At the time of writing, organisers say these are still going ahead, despite University of Otago epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker telling Morning Report earlier today that such large-scale gatherings are not advisable under present circumstances. Whether the awards go ahead or not, each community case endangers, delays or subdues attendance at any event at scale, which has flow-on impacts for venues, caterers and the industries which rely on such events to centre and celebrate them.

This is without trying to cover other downstream economic impacts, or even getting started on the immense mental health load which gets visited on geographic and demographic communities every time there’s a fresh scare.

Is the system unfixable, or do we lack the will to fix it?

What it comes down to is that we have an imperfect system. As recently as this week, there were questions raised about the inadequate standard of PPE worn by staff in contact with those in MIQ. People I have spoken to who have been through MIQ say that there is regular close proximity among different groups in shared exercise facilities, and that smokers frequently congregate to participate in an activity which is known to increase the risk of transmission. Air travel workers and port workers operate under different systems, each of which is to a certain degree higher trust and therefore less reliable. We see semi-regular escapees from MIQ hotels, and know that hotel corridors are unsupervised, meaning those in MIQ could easily mingle if they were of a mind to bend or break rules, just as the West Indian cricket team did this week.

When, as it inevitably does, the virus sneaks out these known holes, it arrives at a society which is largely behaving as if the virus is a thing of the past. Scans of the Covid-19 app are way down, and mask wearing has plummeted – even as Todd Niall points out for Stuff today, among local and central government leaders. The social pressure to not do either of these things is now high and rising, as is the pressure to continue to work when unwell.

The solution to this is not hard to figure, even for a lay person, even if it doesn’t sound nice – a harsher, more prescriptive and punitive system. This would more closely resemble that of Australia which, Victoria aside, has been far more successful in keeping the virus out, and comfortable with the cost of it being a less pleasant experience.

Defence staff patrolling the corridors of hotels. Greater policing and control of exercise and smoking facilities in MIQ. Mandatory mask-wearing on public transport and use of the Covid-19 app, except under exceptional circumstances. The kind of system that the likes of academic epidemiologists repeat ad nauseum on Checkpoint and the Mike Hosking Breakfast and The Project and every other fast news show each time there’s a fresh case.

It doesn’t happen. Instead we continue to rely on a seemingly system-wide kindness doctrine. One which means not only is no one is seen to be held responsible, but that even to seek to discover the location of the transmission, and therefore the person responsible for overseeing that breach, is portrayed by some in government as a lesser human impulse.

It’s not. It’s accepting that while nobody can reasonably demand perfection, these leakages are too often and too many. It’s simply asking that those tasked with designing and overseeing the systems that keep us safe do so to the level whereby they will own any and all failures. Until that time, these cases will continue. There will be spiralling consequences radiating out from the incident and affecting huge numbers of people in and out of New Zealand, and eventually one – maybe this one, maybe the next – will spread further, and kill someone.

Keep going!