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Twelve months of living with Covid

Written By: - Date published: 8:58 am, February 1st, 2021 - 21 comments
Categories: China, covid-19, Europe, health, jacinda ardern, uk politics, us politics - Tags:

A year ago the World Health Organisation declared that the coronavirus outbreak constituted a public health emergency of international concern, WHO’s highest level of alarm.  How much has changed since then.

Before then reports were coming out of Wuhan China about the appearance of a novel virus that had caused some concern.  From the Nature website on January 20, 2020:

The world is racing to learn more about the outbreak of a new viral infection that was first detected in Wuhan, China, last month and is causing increasing alarm around the world.

As Nature went to press, officials in China had confirmed more than 4,500 cases of the virus, which causes a respiratory illness, and some 100 deaths. Around 50 cases had also been confirmed in other countries, in Asia, the United States and Europe.

Researchers fear similarities to the 2002–03 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which emerged in southern China and killed 774 people in 37 countries. Both are members of a large virus family, called coronaviruses, that also includes viruses responsible for the common cold.

China has taken unprecedented action to try to halt the outbreak — including putting Wuhan and nearby cities on ‘lockdown’, restricting travel in and out of the cities. For now, the World Health Organization (WHO) has held off declaring a public-health emergency of international concern — the agency’s highest level of alarm — after a meeting of officials last week, but that could change.

The danger posed by the virus was underestimated at the time:

High rates of pneumonia among the first people infected had many researchers worried that the Wuhan virus was especially pernicious. Those concerns have receded slightly, as more mild cases have turned up. With some 100 deaths in more than 4,500 reported cases, the virus does not seem to be as deadly as SARS — which killed around 10% of the people it infected. But “It’s too early to be sanguine about the severity”, says Neil Ferguson, a mathematical epidemiologist at Imperial College London.

Given what happened subsequently the early estimates were optimistic.  And by March it was clear that the world was in a unique situation, not seen since the Spanish Flu in 1919.

China’s response was impressive.  It locked down cities, built new hospitals in a matter of weeks and strictly enforced the rules.

By March the alarm bells were ringing.  On March 10 WHO Director General Dr Ghebreyesus said this:

In the past two weeks, the number of cases of COVID-19 outside China has increased 13-fold, and the number of affected countries has tripled.

There are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives.

Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals.

In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher.

WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.

We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.

Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.

Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.

We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.

And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled, at the same time.

WHO has been in full response mode since we were notified of the first cases.

And we have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action.

We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.

Meanwhile in America nothing happened.  The then President of the United States appeared to be incapable of dealing with the problem rationally.  Dan Obeidallah at CNBC wondered if he should be charged:

Trump knew Americans were relying on him to provide information to keep themselves and their families safe from the deadly virus. But still, he knowingly lied to the public about the risk of Covid-19. The most glaring example was one we learned about in September when the journalist Bob Woodward released audio tapes of his conversation last Feb. 7 with Trump. In that call, Trump told Woodward point blank that Covid-19 “is deadly stuff,” adding that it’s five times “more deadly” than “even your strenuous flus.”

Yet, weeks later, on Feb. 26 — with a nation desperate for information on this quickly spreading virus — Trump stood up in the White House, looked into the camera and lied to the public, saying, “I mean, view this the same as the flu.” This was days before the first American death from the virus was reported.

From there, Trump served up a buffet of lies about the risks of Covid-19, from repeatedly comparing it to the flu to a jaw-dropping one during his July 4 address to the nation in which he misled Americans with the false claim that “99 percent” of the cases were “totally harmless.”

How many of the over 400,000 Americans who died on Trump’s watch would still be alive if Trump had not intentionally misled the public about the deadly virus — likely because he believed it helped him politically?

Trump varied alarmingly between claiming it was all China’s and the WHO’s fault to there was nothing to worry about.  The deranged grouping that is the Republican Party base believed every lie and falsehood that he spun and thought that social distancing and the wearing of masks were part of the Communist takeover manifesto, not sensible policies designed to save lives.

Other nations ruled by alpha males also fared badly.  Italy was the first European nation to struggle, the UK, Brazil and Russia saw rates spike and an indifference to the disease has seen cases and deaths go up and up and up.

New Zealand’s approach was different.  We had the benefit of a small amount of time to see what was happening overseas.  And our status as a collection of islands away from transport hubs certainly helped.

And as reported by Henry Cooke in Stuff the possibilities back in March were pretty terrifying.

New research suggests up to 80,000 Kiwis could die from coronavirus without strict measures such as the country-wide lockdown.

It also shows that the lockdown may have to last far longer than a month to keep the strain on the healthcare system manageable.

But one of the paper’s authors said New Zealand’s speed at adopting a lockdown could mean we “stamp out” the disease much faster.

The modelling from the University of Auckland’s Te Pūnaha Matatini was provided to the Government before it made its lockdown decision, and builds on research overseas that has informed governments around the world in instituting dramatic lockdowns. On Sunday, initial modelling suggested as many as 60,000 Kiwis could die if stringent measures weren’t implemented.

Assuming 20 “seed cases” and a transmission rate of 2.5 the model looks at what would happen if no attempts were made to stop the spread of the disease.

It finds roughly that within 400 days roughly 89 per cent of the population would get infected, far exceeding the capability of our hospital system to cope and causing up to 80,000 deaths.

The research models that New Zealand’s hospital could deal with about 40,000 cases – so if more than 4 million people had the disease it would be vastly exceeded.

Much like the Imperial College paper which this research builds upon, the authors find that individual measures like closing schools and universities would not be sufficient to prevent large casualty rates.

Only a full mix of suppression strategies – population-wide social distancing with a lockdown and the closure of almost all businesses and schools – could keep the case numbers down enough for the healthcare system to cope, with a mortality rate of just 0.0004 per cent: About 20 people.

However the cases would spike the moment these measures were lifted, unless a vaccine had been developed in the meantime.

It is history that the Government chose to follow the scientific advice without compromise.  The team of five million dutifully fell in behind and New Zealand has, so far, not seen the spike in cases that other nations have.

Other parts of the system have gradually improved.  The quarantine system has seen a handful of glitches after over 100,000 people have been through them.  The contact tracing system is getting better and better.  The very occasional breach of the quarantine system has been tidied up.

The world is now getting to the vaccine stage and the US and the UK are scrambling to get as much as they can.  But this is no silver bullet cure.

As I said earlier in a highly connected word we are all in this together.  Rich nations getting the jump on the supply of vaccines will not help.  The disease will still sear its way through poorer nations and until the world’s population reaches herd immunity levels no one is safe.  This could take years.  Until then I cannot see any alternative other than to keep our borders closed, at least to the nations that have community transmission.

It is also a sign of failure.  Now that it is clear that some of the advanced nations’ approaches have failed they are relying on vaccines to get them out of precarious situations.  And crossing their fingers that further mutations will not render the existing vaccines obsolete.

The European Union has struggled.  Having such wide open boundaries and a variety of responses makes it almost impossible to eradicate let alone contain.  But you can see the differences in approaches and results that meant that Germany and Denmark contained the spread much better than

But looking back I think we can all agree that the decision to go hard and go early was the correct one.  And that eradication rather than management of the virus was the preferable option.

One final comment.  The nations that failed mixed up a slew of anti scientific propaganda with concern that their economies would be hurt.  One year on I believe we can safely say that the economy and community health are inseparable and related and we cannot have one without the other.

21 comments on “Twelve months of living with Covid ”

  1. Anne 1

    Third to last paragraph. A wee glitch there ms. Second sentence fades away. 😉

    It is also a sign of failure. Now that it is clear that some of the advanced nations’ approaches have failed they are relying on vaccines to get them out of precarious situations.

    What that indicates is that the so-called "advanced nations" are not advanced nations at all. It is also pertinent to note that they are all led by right-wing conservative governments.

    I'm still trying to get my head around the reasons why these types seem incapable of seeing the wood for the trees. A good historical example was their inability to recognise the inherent danger of the nuclear arms race back in the 60s,70s and 80s.

    Yes, it is partly to do with their worship of 'the money god' above all else, but there is something else more deep seated. They seem to lack the necessary imagination to be able to cognate the long term effects of ignoring major problems as they arise. CC denialism is another case in point.

    If someone can elaborate on my somewhat simplistic thesis I should be grateful.

    • Peter chch 1.1

      Your criticism of the 'Advanced nations' is a little odd.

      This virus started in China (a 'developing country' – by their own claims (when it suits them)). Maybe it escaped from a lab or maybe from abysmal live animal storage and killing, either way, this is from where it originated and where the negligence lies.

      Further, the virus was allowed to escape to ravage the world by virtue of the CCP lies, suppression of truth, and by allowing the Chinese NY mass travel to proceed so that the CCP did not lose face.

      In Europe, Africa or the Americas, lockdowns are only a time buying strategy, not a solution. Vacine alone provides a solution. These nasty 'advanced nations' that you seem to despise are where the vaccines were developed.

      And where is the virus most out of control? South America, hardly 'advanced nations'.

      But you are at least correct on one thing: yours is indeed a 'simplistic thesis '.

      • mickysavage 1.1.1

        If it came from China then how come China has been so successful in stopping its spread?

      • Drowsy M. Kram 1.1.2

        Why is there such a marked disparity between the transmission of COVID-19 (see the graph at the end of MS's post) in the US/UK versus NZ/Taiwan/China?

        Why have UK/US citizens (representing ~5% of the world's population) suffered 25% of global COVID-19 deaths to date?

        Wouldn't discount the influence of poor (political) leadership, a 'reluctance' to follow the science, and the flat-out cussedness of some populations/cultures, on COVID-19 health outcomes by country. Maybe it's unhelpful to consider whether or not these influences are more prevalent towards one end of the ‘left-right‘ or ‘developed-developing‘ spectrum, but it's still reasonable/important to try to understand why.

        • Phil

          Why is there such a marked disparity between the transmission of COVID-19 (see the graph at the end of MS's post) in the US/UK versus NZ/Taiwan/China?

          … Maybe it's unhelpful to consider whether or not these influences are more prevalent towards one end of the ‘left-right‘ or ‘developed-developing‘ spectrum

          For every US/UK criticism of right wing leadership you can point to, for example, Japan's centre-right government as being a pretty good demo of how to manage the crisis. They've "only" had five and a half thousand deaths. For being a large and very densely populated nation that's pretty good going.

          Then of course there's the Swedish anomaly as an example of poor leadership on the other side of the political spectrum.

        • Peter chch

          Agree Drowsy. But let's not actually give any credence to the Chinese numbers.

          But yes, 'rightist' countries like Taiwan and 'Leftist' countries like Vietnam have both done exceptionally well. May be something as simple as yhe lack of social media controls in the west, which allows conspiracy theories to flourish, something many Asian countries squash very quickly.

      • Anne 1.1.3

        That comment of yours @ 1.1 Peter chch was totally unnecessary and you misinterpreted what I said.

        It had nothing to do with China who have handled the virus extremely well. It related to those countries with right-wing govts. such as the US (under Trump) UK, Brazil and others of a similar ilk to Brazil.

        In this instance those countries were NOT advanced. They were so far behind the ball game they are now in dire straits. And that was in spite of their scientific communities whom they chose to ignore.

        Keep your snide little comments to yourself in future.

        • Peter chch

          Mickey, partly because we have had clear leadership, a population that supports our government, and our isolation and island status.

        • Peter chch

          Totally incorrect Anne. China flunked it big time by allowing the mass exodus from Wuhan during g Chinese NY 2020. This is how it spread beyond the borders of China.

          And try searching on Baidu (Chinese search engine) or looking in Weibo. You will see that there are many many pockets of Covid all over China. And Xinjiang it is pretty much out of control.

      • Liberal Realist 1.1.4

        @ Peter chch – how do you know the virus 'started in China'? Sure, China was the first nation to report SARS-COV-2 but did it originate there? Maybe, maybe not.

        SARS-COV-2 was detected in Spain in March 2019 (from a waste water sample), there's every possibility that it originated somewhere other than China.

  2. tc 2

    Watched Soderbergh's 2011 'Contagion' the other week, many parallels with the hollywood treatment of mass vaccine production which's was effectively a nasal spray.

    "crossing their fingers that further mutations will not render the existing vaccines obsolete. " is the key Micky.
    Thanks to the herd immunity and other countries failure to contain SAR-covid's had plenty of material to play the mutation game with.

    A long way to go with potentially multiple vaccine rounds and the legacy impact that recovered covid sufferers place on their health systems….looking at you america !

  3. Sanctuary 3

    I saw a piece in the paper the other day saying how we can't keep riding our "luck" with elimination, how "lucky" we were that the South African variant community case assiduously used the COVID tracer app. But you make your own luck. We weren't lucky she used the app. She used the app because our leadership has been the best in the world, fullstop. Our leaders have made us want to use the COVID app because keeping COVID out has now attained the level of a great national project, a patriotic crusade for victory in our own national tale of Kiwi exceptionalism. Being anti-lockdown and anti-vax is to be unpatriotic and not a team player, cardinal sins when it comes to COVID. In particular, in our Polynesian communities – where nationalism is less encumbered by the blushes of colonial cringe and the self-interest of membership of a globalised managerial class – have shown great responsibility in getting tested if requested and have been given via the wage subsidy and sick pay and the patriotic oppobrium that fall on the heads of any employer who refused sick leave the ability to stay home and isolate.

    it seems to me the first cracks in the national will to beat COVID are coming from the most pampered quarters, where the reliably whiney Andrea Vance – https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/opinion/124106175/faceless-bureaucrats-now-making-our-life-and-death-decisions – and the rest of the self-styled new era of social justice warriors of Stuff are proving a fine conduit for a truculent middle class that frequently finds having it's privilege checked in terms of access to MIQ beds intolerable.

    Still in a few short months we will hopefully have the vaccines and the sullen war weariness of our brittle middle class will become a stampede to get out of the country and a tidal wave of complaints about how awful the MIQ system was. But we will all be alive.

    • Incognito 3.1

      Vance raised a number of good points in her piece IMO but for balance read this Stuff article published the day before Vance’s: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/124103230/covid19-officials-reverse-decision-and-grant-man-dying-of-brain-cancer-room-in-miq [linked in Vance’s piece].

      Regarding luck being a factor in our success and having dodged a major bullet so far: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/300217372/what-luck-the-weather-and-maths-have-to-do-with-us-avoiding-lockdown-so-far featuring a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, with a PhD in applied mathematics, who “loves numbers and understanding how diseases spread”.

      • Anne 3.1.1

        From your second link Incognito:

        Maybe it’s time to build purpose-built facilities, rather than relying on hotels, he says. It might cost a lot, but less than the impact of another lockdown.

        And, besides, he points out, if we built proper facilities now, we would have them for the future.

        “Because we do expect pandemics to become more frequent – this is the third coronavirus we’ve had in 10 years.

        That makes a lot of sense. But the Govt. needs to hurry up. We're only a few months away from Winter.

        • Incognito

          Not that straightforward, I reckon. A dedicated quarantine facility will take time to build. I’d wonder what we do with a state-of-the-art facility somewhere in the wop-wops when it is not needed because there are no active/urgent cases. Does it sit empty or will it have an alternative use, e.g. a long-care treatment facility for physical/medical rehabilitation or something like that? It can’t be too essential in ordinary times, i.e. when at Level 0 (zero).

          In addition, there are some other issues to consider:

          He [a spokesperson] said there were currently no plans to establish MIQ facilities in any other locations.

          “A key constraint on adding new facilities is the essential workforce who care for returnees. We need nurses, defence personnel and police to run these facilities, and this is a limited workforce.

          “In addition to workforce supply issues, there are a number of complex issues that need to be considered when operating in a level 4 environment. This includes the limited number of suitable facilities that are in locations where there is also a suitable hospital facility and proximity to appropriate transport hubs.”


          I have not heard anything from Government about planning for the future. It’ll take some review by some commission for this Government to do anything sensible it seems.

  4. Treetop 4

    The most important aspect to prevent community transmission in NZ is to control the border. Compliance of the rules has resulted in NZers having a lot more freedom than in most countries.

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