Saturday, June 13, 2020

Alex Davis: NZ’s Post Covid Futures Are Bad

After days of no new Covid19 cases many New Zealanders are likely to be feeling a mixture of relief and complacency. The country dodged a bullet - now there is just the journey back to normality.

However for those prepared to look honestly at the challenges facing New Zealand a return to normality is neither simple nor guaranteed. In fact, there are strong arguments that New Zealand’s much triumphed “eradication” may have instead painted the country into corner.

At this point in time two likely futures radiate out in front of New Zealand and neither is pretty. There are others of course, mostly involving heroic suspensions of reality by academics such as Michael Lee who prove just how far removed from reality our tertiary institutions have become. Instead let’s focus on the two most probable.

Future 1: Covid19 is not eliminated and breaks out or returns

New Zealand’s drastic seven week lock down at levels 3 and 4 was effective in the same way that burning down your house eliminates bed bugs is – it worked but it generated catastrophic collateral damage. It has led directly to the largest and most rapid increase in joblessness in New Zealand’s history, which will have unintended consequences we will be dealing with for years – see here.

However, the real problem is that despite the run of zero cases it is likely Covid19 is still in New Zealand. We know that overall 97% of infected persons are either asymptomatic or develop only very mild symptoms. This means it is likely there are New Zealanders who still have Covid19 who don’t know it and as restrictions ease they will begin to re-establish chains of infection. Professor Sir David Skegg of Otago University warned of exactly this possibility just days ago. New Zealand’s poor contract tracing capability means any outbreak is likely to be difficult to contain without re-imposing the draconian level 3 and 4 style lock down we recently emerged from.

The problem with re-imposing lock today is two-fold:

Frist, the March 24 lock down was enabled at least in part by mass panic induced by hysterical media reporting. In the absence of solid data, the media breathlessly reported mortality rates that were vastly over inflated. What we know now 10 weeks later, is that even the US Centre for Disease Control admits that mortality rate for covid19 is 0.26%. This is approximately the same as the flu, 10 times less than the WHO’s estimates and 100 times less than early (now clearly inaccurate) reports from China, Iran and Italy. The CDC estimates the death rate from COVID-19 for those under 50 years old is 1 in 6,725 and almost all those who die have comorbidities or underlying conditions. Those without morbidities are more likely to die in a car accident and schoolchildren are more likely to die being struck by lightning than Covid19. This didn’t stop hysterical responses from teachers and parents alike throughout the country when schools returned a few weeks ago.

Second, what we also now know which we didn’t on March 24 is just how catastrophic the economic damage would be. New Zealand’s unemployment is on track to more than double to 10%, over 1,000 jobs are being lost per day. Government debt is expected to balloon to $200 billion by 2024, more than NZ$40,000 for every man, woman and child in New Zealand. The economic damage to New Zealand of just seven weeks of lock down were enormous and will be felt for generations to come.

Now that New Zealanders *know* that Covid19 is extremely unlikely to kill them but is extremely likely to cause severe economic damage their willingness to be stampeded back into home detention is far from certain. What all but the most arrogant or ignorant governments recognise is that they rule with the consent of the governed and even Jacinda Ardern’s honeyed words are unlikely to convince New Zealanders to ask for or acquiesce to lock down v2.0.

What this means is that if there is an internally generated second wave of infection in New Zealand it may well simply spread because a) our contract tracing capacity is extremely poor and 2) no one is prepared to sacrifice their future for what increasing numbers of people correctly recognise is an illusory threat. In which case Covid19 will rip through New Zealand, do little damage to the vast majority of the population but will tragically end the lives of a very small number of almost universally already very sick, old people.

If that is the case it begs the obvious question: what was the point of lock down in the first place? All the jobs lost, the billions of dollars spent, the medical operations delayed and the plans destroyed – all for ending up in the same place? When New Zealanders realise they were misled they are likely to be very unhappy. Which is why the politicians want this issue kicked as far down the road as possible and why every effort is being made by the legacy mainstream media to focus on meaningless death counts and distract from any empirical based reporting that actually reveals the truth: that bluntly Covid19 (as even the CDC now admits) is not particularly lethal.

The bad news is this is the good news future. Which bring us to the second (and worse) potential future.

Future 2: New Zealand eliminates Covid19 and becomes a South Pacific Prison for its Citizens

If we somewhat heroically assume New Zealand does somehow eradicate Covid19 then what?

Returning to the house burning metaphor, having burned down our own house to treat bed bugs we come to the horrible realisation that all the neighbours’ houses still have bed bugs. Whatever hope we may have to eradicate Covid19 in New Zealand one thing is certain - it will not be eliminated from the rest of the world.

So, what then? New Zealand is confronted with a lose:lose scenario. We can lower the draw bridge and let the world back in but if we do so it is highly likely we will reimport Covid19 for three simple reasons:

1. It spreads asymptomatically so you can’t rely solely on symptom-based diagnosis, testing is required but…

2. even if New Zealand somehow managed to tested every single person entering the country (we had roughly 10.5M international arrivals in Auckland airport alone in 2019 so that is 28,000 tests per day in Auckland alone, vastly above New Zealand’s testing capacity) and
3. we know that Covid19 tests are notoriously unreliable.

Hence it is highly likely someone, somewhere will slip through. There is an excellent summary of the challenges New Zealand faces by Professor Juliet Gerrard here.
What if someone does slip through? Can’t we just “stamp it out”? In short, it’s possible but extremely difficult without reinstituting lock down. We know for example that up to 25% of the US’s covid19 cases came from just one person.

"if we ease the lockdown too much, of course, if there's a single person out there in the community... it could start again and spread like wildfire.”

Professor Luke O'Neill - School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin.

Catching Covid19 once it gets back out into the community without a lock down will be all but impossible unless New Zealand radically improves its contract tracing capabilities, which it has shown no effective capacity to do since Covid19 emerged six months ago (one would have thought improving contact tracing would be a high priority but apparently it’s not).

The implications of all this are obvious: if the government re-opens the border a second outbreak is not just possible but probable. If Covid19 becomes re-established in New Zealand then the country will face the desperate choice outlined above: another lock down or abandoning the entire sacrifice we made through the first lock down.

On the other hand, what if we chose not to lower the draw bridge, if we keep our borders closed, what then? Eventually Covid19 will burn its way through the rest of the world – there is no stopping it now. It will become established as just one of the many corona viruses that circle the global. The world will move on, borders will re-open and herd immunity will eventually be established.

But New Zealand, isolated behind its 2000km moat, will slowly but surely suffocate to death economically, politically and socially. We are a small, isolated trading nation, we simply cannot afford to remain cut off like North Korea from the rest of the world. Forget what academics and politicians tell you about doing business remotely – you can maintain a business that way for some time but you can’t grow one. The hundreds of New Zealand businessmen and women who left their families every week on Air New Zealand flights to grow companies pre-covid19 didn’t do so for fun – they did so because they had to.

Suffice to say the economic growth we use to pay for our schools and hospitals, our cars and houses, will trickle away. The future of our children will become the future of children cut off behind the Iron Curtain, stifled and stunted by governments “protecting them” from the rest of the world. If you want to see what New Zealand looks like under this future look to North Korea, Venezuela or Cuba or any of the Soviet Bloc countries pre the fall of the Berlin Wall. For a more detailed explanation of some of the consequences of turning New Zealand into the prison of the South Pacific see here.

What about a vaccine?

For those pinning their hopes on a vaccine there is some bad news: first a vaccine is likely to not be ready until mid-2021 at the earliest and New Zealand has chewed through over $10.9 billion dollars in 10 weeks. Second (and more critically) there is a very strong possibility there will never be a vaccine for Covid19. Humans have never managed to create a vaccine for any of the many corona viruses. Even the WHO admits there may never be a vaccine. This is highly problematic because the government seems to be relying on a vaccine as its exit strategy and Ardern has warned border restrictions will probably last until a vaccine is developed. There are also highly vexatious questions about a Coid19 vaccine including:

1. can the government compel the population to be vaccinated (there is a large anti-vax movement in New Zealand); and
2. should the 99.99% of the population that is healthy accept a vaccine for a virus that is extraordinarily unlikely to ever make them even mildly sick; and
3. whether it is morally or even legally defensible to restrict travel by those who don’t accept a rushed vaccine, effectively turning them into prisoners in New Zealand.

What Now?

The consequences of New Zealand’s improvised response to Covid19 are now coming home to roost. Panicked by hysterical media coverage the terrified public demanded a lock down and the Ardern government responded, burning down our house and causing immense economic carnage. Then riding high on Stockholm Syndrome like support and reinforcing it with the false narrative that it went “hard and early” (it did not by the way) Ardern has painted herself (and the country) into a corner. If she lifts the restrictions or the border and Covid19 breaks out again she must force New Zealanders back into lock down or admit that the first lock down was a mistake and the sacrifices for nought. Or she reopens the border and we end in the same place. Richard Prebble, former Labour Minister, correctly observed:

…politicians rarely acknowledge mistakes. Governments spend millions of dollars, good money after bad, to avoid admitting a mistake. Governments rarely go broke and so can go on trading in insolvency to the point where ministers, if they were directors, would be facing imprisonment [paywalled at the NBR]

New Zealand now faces a very dark future. It is possible of course that some unforeseen miracle, some deux ex machina, may occur and we are rescued but reality doesn’t typically mirror the positive endings of Hollywood movies.

Our country is in perilous trouble and the only path out of the trap is for our leaders (political and academic) to admit they made a terrible mistake. That mistake is the refusal to recognise the obvious truth that Covid19 is not, when you look at the big picture, especially dangerous (for hundreds of articles proving this see here and also here). This is the key to getting out of this mess. Once you recognise that Covid19 only affects a tiny portion of the population you can start to craft policy responses that actually deal to the problem in a logical, coherent fashion: for example by re-opening the border but heavily protecting nursing homes, where up to 80% of the deaths have occurred. Until we do this however nothing will change because we are fighting the wrong enemy.

I am not holding my breath for a sudden attack of sanity among our ruling elite. For the pre-eminent example of why see this excellent article by the Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Professor Juliet Gerrard. Professor Gerrard does a superb job of analysing the issues New Zealand faces about re-opening the border but completely fails to test or even question the core assumption of how lethal Covid19 is in the first case. I simply do not understand how you can be a scientist, let alone the Chief Scientist, when you make mistakes that fundamental. If that is the Prime Minister’s Chief Science advisor we can safely assume the ship is captain-less.

The Future

I am reluctant to ever make predictions because by definition they are almost certain to be wrong. However, in this case I am going to loosely sketch what I believe New Zealand’s likely future looks like. Covid19 will burn its way through the rest of the world – it is unstoppable. In New Zealand Ardern’s political pony is now firmly hitched to Covid19 – politically she cannot admit the mistakes she has made. Supported by academics with zero political or economic understanding and beloved by a feckless media she will bluster her way through to the election while trying to distract from data that shows a) the world is slowly shaking off Covid19 and b) New Zealand’s economy is sinking into a quagmire.

I can’t guess the multi-factorial outcomes of an MMP election: a lot will depend on how long it takes for the economic damage reports to reach the public’s ears and how much Ardern can block up those ears with debt fuelled government hand-outs. Eventually however whoever is in power in New Zealand will have to accept the inevitable: they will *have to* re-open the borders and watch Covid19 do what it has done everywhere else: slightly shorten the long lives of a small number of already very sick old people. Their deaths will be tragic and very public (unlike those for example of cancer sufferers whose treatment was delayed by lock down). The ship of New Zealand will come to rest exactly where it would have otherwise, Covid19 will be among us causing little harm to all but a handful, but we will be vastly indebted, causing harm to many.

And Ardern? My guess is she will fly off to the UN to where people still believe her fairy tales, while the rest of us keep living the horror story she penned for us.

Alex Davis is a business executive and director of several companies in New Zealand and overseas. 

He blogs at The Emperor's Robes HERE.

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