THE LOCKDOWN WEEK 2 – CONCERNS…
By Dr Muriel Newman
“I have said it before, and I will say it again: the same political or journalistic treatment applied to any episode of seasonal flu would terrify us just as much as the current epidemic. Just as the staging – with real-time counts of victims – of any major health problem would make us shudder with fright just as much, if not infinitely more!”
– Jean-Dominique Michel, Geneva, Switzerland.
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As New Zealand’s state of house arrest moves towards the end of week two, more information is emerging about Covid-19. In spite of wall-to-wall news coverage of the disease as it rages around the world, it turns out that in the absence of pre-existing pathologies it is relatively benign.
A new study from Italy’s health officials confirms this. It shows that more than 99 percent of COVID-19 deaths involved older people with pre-existing medical illnesses. The average age of those patients was 79.5 years and almost half had three or more chronic pathologies.
In other words, for the majority of infected people, the disease is so mild that many don’t even know they have it. Most who develop symptoms, find it’s not too different from the flu.
However, for the group that’s known to be at risk, namely the elderly and those with pe-existing medical conditions, it can be extremely serious, even deadly. While there are also isolated cases of younger people who have succumbed to the disease, their numbers remain relatively small.
This information challenges the need for a country-wide lockdown, since those most at risk from COVID-19 are a relatively small and readily identifiable group. If they remained in self-isolation until a vaccine is available – or until the country develops widespread ‘herd’ immunity – with stringent social distancing and good hygiene, as well as effective testing and case management, surely there’s no reason why the country shouldn’t be able to return to some semblance of normality.
Although reports are now showing increasing success in treating serious cases of the disease with anti-viral agents such as chloroquine – and in preventing unnecessary deaths through the timely diagnosis and treatment of cytokine storm syndrome – opening up the country would require the Government to be effective in preventing the spread of the virus.
Yet the latest news reports highlighting how people still cannot get tested, how frontline health workers still cannot access protective equipment, and how officials are still in denial over the benefits of facemask protection for the public – see HERE, continue to cast doubts on the Government’s capability in that regard.
Furthermore, since COVID-19 is an imported disease, questions are being asked about why our border controls haven’t been tighter?
The island nation of Taiwan – a country of almost 24 million people located just off mainland China – took control of its borders almost as soon as the epidemic emerged. They ensured anyone infected was isolated and heavily monitored. All citizens were required to wear face masks in public to prevent the spread of the disease. Temperature screening was also widely used to identify anyone displaying early symptoms who needed testing. As a result of these measures, the country has recorded only 376 cases and five deaths. A lockdown was not needed.
With the virus now spread widely around the world, everyone arriving in New Zealand from overseas should be quarantined.
At present, only symptomatic arrivals are quarantined for 14 days. Those without a self-isolation plan are placed in an isolation facility, but everyone else can travel to their place of residence to undertake self-isolation there.
Since mid-March, when the Prime Minister announced that border controls had been tightened, we were led to believe that all returning travellers going into self-isolation were being monitored. It now turns out they weren’t. For weeks travellers in so-called self-isolation have been visiting supermarkets and other public places potentially transmitting the virus.
It’s only in the last few days, that the Police have told us they have finally put in place a monitoring system that works.
The reality is that most of the jurisdictions that have successfully contained COVID-19 have isolated those carrying the virus. Instead, our Government sends them home, and as a result, other family members are being infected. That’s one of the main reasons why the number of cases has risen to over 1,200 and why the ‘cluster’ outbreaks have continued to grow.
It’s not as if there’s a shortage of isolation facilities either – every community will have motels or hotels that could be used for the purpose of housing those with COVID-19 until they test negative and have developed immunity. There’s also no shortage of campervans, should they be required.
On March 23rd when the Prime Minister announced she was ordering the country into a lockdown, New Zealand had only 102 recorded cases of COVID-19. This raises the question of why the Government wasn’t able to get on top of the spread, without needing to close down the economy.
Those countries that have successfully contained the disease – namely Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and China – have all shown what needs to be done: comprehensive testing and tracking, the isolation of known cases, effective social distancing, good hygiene – including the wearing of face masks in public, and self-isolation for at-risk groups.
Had these measures been put in place by our Government, the spread of COVID-19 could have been controlled without shutting down the country.
The effects of the lockdown are evident in a new survey of 1,000 Auckland businesses. Over a third believe they will not survive the four week lockdown and will be forced to close permanently. Not only will there be massive job losses, but the impact on those who’ve spent years struggling to build their businesses, only to find them being destroyed by Government policy, will be devastating. Economists warn there will be “higher rates of suicide, heart attacks, strokes and long-term health problems as a consequence of the pressure being faced now” – not to mention when “the Government eventually tightens the reins, to repay the costs of the current rescue package”.
And what about the impact of the shutdown on those who are seriously ill, whose hospital treatment has been cancelled? Will the Government’s obsession with being seen to be saving the country from this disease end up killing New Zealanders who could otherwise have been saved?
There’s also concerns about the potential for COVID-19 to spread through public hospitals. It’s why countries that have successfully contained the disease, treat those infected in isolation hospitals, allowing public hospitals to continue treating their other patients.
The offer of help from the private hospital sector should have been accepted from the beginning. The thankfully small number of COVID-19 patients that have so far needed hospital care could have been accommodated in their facilities. That would have avoided the present situation where front line public hospital staff and patients have already had to go into isolation as a result of cross-infection with COVID-19 patients.
The lockdown provisions that have effectively put us all under house arrest, are quite extraordinary for an outdoors loving nation.
While most New Zealanders have accepted the situation without question, the Prime Minister’s call for people to ‘dob in’ their neighbours on one hand, while telling us “be kind” to each other on the other, is of particular concern. Turning the population on itself during a crisis is fundamentally damaging Kiwi democracy.
With signs that public tolerance is now wearing thin – more so when a government Minister (of Health no less) flouts the rules being forced onto others – more people are now expressing the view that this Government is out of its depth.
The shock closure last week of Bauer Media, publisher of many much-loved magazine titles such as the New Zealand Listener, Woman’s Day, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, North and South and Next, is a case in point. Jacinda Ardern responded to the news by saying, “I am extraordinarily disappointed and frankly gutted to see, what has been a part of New Zealand history, close its doors fairly abruptly today.”
She blamed the closure and loss of 230 jobs on the company for not accessing the Government’s business support package. But what the PM failed to acknowledge is that it was her mindless decision to ban magazines from supermarkets that triggered Bauer to close the doors.
The Magazine Publishers Association revealed it had worked closely with them and other publishers to try to convince the government to reverse their ‘non-essential’ ruling, pointing out that magazines have tightly controlled supply chains and are not a safety risk.
But their appeals fell on deaf ears and small minds. The industry claims that magazines are the only media format now banned from operating during the lockdown and the only product banned from supermarkets.
Such we-know-best Government madness is intolerable, especially when magazines should have been available to help millions of families endure this prolonged period of forced home detention.
There’ve been many stuff-ups.
The Warehouse was told it could trade, then it couldn’t. Now it can – but only on-line for State ‘approved’ goods.
Butcher shops understood they could open, then they couldn’t. Then, after the pork industry revealed millions of pigs would have to be slaughtered, they were told they could open after all to process pork – but not sell it – except to supermarkets. Now, after millions of tons of meat has been destroyed, butchers have been told they can open and sell to the public – but only on-line.
Vegetable, fruit and flowers growers have also been forced to destroy their produce even though they assured the government they could produce their goods for market safely.
They are now amongst the hundreds of thousands of businesses throughout the country that are watching their losses mount as their life’s work slowly but surely ebbs away.
Meanwhile, under State orders, Kiwis patiently wait for food in lines reminiscent of the bread queues of the Soviet Union.
During the lockdown, Parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee has been meeting to scrutinise the Government’s actions. Chaired by the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, their meetings are live-streamed on Parliament’s website on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9am.
The former Vice-Chancellor of Otago University, renowned epidemiologist Professor Sir David Skegg, addressed last Tuesday’s meeting, suggesting that Singapore is a country that has managed the epidemic well (the NZCPR outlined their plan HERE). He was critical of governments that rely too heavily on modelling: “There’s a limited role for mathematical modelling, but I’m worried that some are dazzled by the maths and don’t realise how uncertain the estimates are.”
We all know from the Armageddon projections of climate change that have been thrust upon us over the years, how modelling is sometimes used to frighten the public.
Bizarrely, the government commissioned Otago University to produce a ‘worst case’ scenario about the virus infection that was so far-fetched it predicted doctors and nurses could strike in the midst of a COVID-19 health crisis: “In other worse case scenarios hospital staff could go on strike…”
The university’s scaremongering, which claimed that without the lockdown there could be up to 27,600 deaths, was released by the Government in time for it to lead the six o’clock news.
This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, Medical Anthropologist Jean-Dominique Michel, a public health expert from Geneva in Switzerland, is scathing about exaggerated modelling and governments that rely on it:
“Most projections aimed at imagining the number of possible deaths are nothing short of madness. Many rest on an artificial, maximal ‘forcing’ of all values and coefficients. They are established by people who work in offices, in front of computers, and do not have the slightest idea of the real world of field work or of clinical infectiology, resulting in absurd fictions.
“We might credit them with being creative and producing science fiction, but unfortunately their projections cause massive damage.
“I appeal to my colleagues in the Faculty of Medicine and other academic institutes to stop producing and peddling false, anxiety-provoking models. These experts protect themselves by recognizing the excessive nature of their formalizations, while journalists scrupulously mention it (to their credit), but they are nevertheless just as diligently constructing the impression that the world is coming to an end. Not only is there absolutely no reason for this, but in addition, it is in itself profoundly harmful!
“The reality, once again, is that this epidemic is far less problematic and dangerous than what is claimed. It is the lack of an accurate policy that is hazardous.”
With all of the indecision, contradictions, and failure to follow the lead of countries that have controlled the virus without destroying their economies, one can’t help but feel our leaders are making this crisis deeper than was necessary.
THIS WEEK’S POLL ASKS:
*Do you think the Government has underestimated the economic damage their lockdown is causing?
*Poll comments are posted at the end of the main article.
*All NZCPR poll results can be seen in the Archive.