Challenging times

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    “Epidemiological stupidity” isn’t a phrase that trips off the tongue easily – and, before the events of the past 20 months, would have had most of us reaching for the Scrabble dictionary.

    But with the hindsight of a raging pandemic, it’s now the sort of comment that makes you sit up and listen. Especially when it comes from a man with the title of the World Health Organisation’s head of global emergencies.

    Dr Mike Ryan used the phrase in reaction to England’s desire for a “freedom day” so they could open up to the Delta wave over the summer holidays and push towards herd immunity, safe in the knowledge that their high vaccination rates would keep infection and death rates within acceptable realms.

    Certainly, from the photos swirling around my family’s WhatsApp groups, opening up England has offered the “freedom” they’d so long begged for during a two-spike, year-long lockdown that has so far claimed more than 116,000 lives in England alone.

    Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Freedom Day was 19 July, and six weeks on, on Tuesday, the UK’s rolling seven-day average of daily Covid deaths just crept above 100 for the first time since March. 

    Quite apart from the idea of whether 100 deaths a day is acceptable, the main reason for Dr Ryan’s outrage at England’s “I’m all right, Jack” approach to Covid – and the reason he also accused the UK of “moral emptiness” – is that more virus means more mutations (and the risk of an even more potent strain than Delta), the decision seemed to have been made for political rather than health-based reasons, and, until the whole world is effectively vaccinated, offering a petri dish for mutations threatens lives way beyond the UK’s geographical borders.

    Political solutions to scientific problems will always carry baggage – and that’s why they must be challenged. It may be uncomfortable watching our own politicians grow daily more ashen-faced at the Beehive’s theatrette as they bat back questions relating to the current Auckland outbreak and what’s looking like a sizeable lockdown.

    But New Zealand’s Covid response – as glowingly reported as it has been overseas in comparison to some abject failures – has not been gold standard, and that’s why questions must continue to be raised.

    For example, MIQ is simply not working. From tens of thousands locked out of their nation, to a booking system that seemingly rewards wealth over need; and from leaky, breachy, city-centre hotels to a delay until just this past week for the Government to finally admit they were considering purpose-built facilities, we’ve failed to get a handle on this basic right to allow New Zealanders to come home and a key element of any future re-opening.

    Mask-wearing and scanning the Covid tracer app was urged but never became urgent while we bathed in months of case-free life through autumn and winter; and the vaccination rollout has been shown to have worked poorly in Pasifika and Māori communities and so slow that our rates have offered little protection against the latest outbreak. It’s also important to question why AstraZeneca has provisional approval, but isn’t being shipped in to help share the load with Pfizer during the current clamour for jabs.

    And our hospitals, grimly over-worked in even the best of times, seem still underprepared for a worst-case Delta outbreak. Yes, from the derisory 200 ICU beds nationally in March last year we did initially raise capacity to more than 350, but that number had fallen back to fewer than 300 fully staffed beds in public hospitals again by the middle of last month. Internationally, we don’t scrub up either: our critical care beds have actually become more scarce over the past decade, and at 4.6 beds per 100,000 people, lag behind countries with similar healthcare systems such as the UK (6.4 beds per 100,000 people) and Australia (8.9 beds per 100,000 people). And even if we upped the beds, our capacity is still limited by a shortage of skilled staff. 

    Covid has ushered in a new era of personal responsibility – where our individual actions, from hand-washing and social distancing to vaccinations and learning to work from home, can have genuine life-saving consequences for others. 

    But there’s also a personal responsibility to become knowledgeable about how this virus works and seek out and listen to the genuine experts who can help us battle a formidable opponent. 

    New Zealand must never be allowed to fall into the trap of thinking some sort of “freedom day” – as politically beneficial as it may be to those who can hail it from the ramparts – would ever outweigh a cohesive global strategy.

    We have a personal responsibility to challenge each step of the Covid response and ensure that scrutiny must be allowed to improve decision-making. What may be politically astute can still, after all, be “epidemiological stupidity”.

    Which puts us in a powerful position – just so long as we all continue to get a shot in the arm and hold the feet of those in power to the fire.• James Belfield

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