Fran OSullivan: More lessons to be learnt from Covid


There were sobering words from former Prime Minister Helen Clark this week, when shecautioned the Apec CEO Summit: “we’re still in the middle of a pandemic”.

“More deadly variants may emerge if strong public health measures do not accompany the global push to vaccinate populations against the virus.

“The longer Covid is allowed to let rip, the more likely it is that more transmissible, more deadly variants may emerge,” Clark told chief executives.

Clark co-chaired the World Health Organisation’s panel on the Covid response and has been a strong contributor to how we think about New Zealand’s own response — particularly when it comes to re-opening to the world.

Covid-19 is just the latest in a long series of pandemics that have shaped the course of history and hold lessons for today.

The virus is again on the upsurge in parts of Europe. Record new cases of Covid-19 were recorded in Germany mid-week. Hospitals are under pressure. It has been said that this fourth wave of Covid could prove to be the worst since the pandemic began. That’s even though in Germany, nearly 70 per cent of the adult population isvaccinated.

This underscores why the Ardern Government is correct to continue to shoot toget 90 per cent of New Zealanders double-vaxxed before allowing increased travel within this countryand more freedoms such asenjoying hospitality — even when wemove into the “traffic light” system in a few weeks’ time.

This is hard on businesses.

Earlier this year, the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) set out four scenarios for the Covid virus’ long-term evolution. Scientists had suggestedthe virus might have passed through enough people to select its best variant, but the group said it is still entirely possible that future combinations of mutations could make it even more deadly and transmissible.

Among them, variants that would cause severe disease in a greater proportion of the population than had occurred to date, such as previous coronaviruses Sars-CoV and Mers-CoV, which had case fatality rates of around 10 and 35 per cent respectively. The use of anti-viral strategies might also give rise to drug-resistant variants. The fourth — more happy — scenario was that the virus might just run out of steam.

At the point Sage reported, there had been 217 million infections and some 4.7 million deaths. But Sars-CoV-2 has shown the world what it is capable of with infections now topping 251 million and more than 5 million deaths.

This poses critical problems forour government as it continues to grapple with the need to get more Māori vaccinated in Auckland and drive up numbers in provinces which are lagging.

No doubt, Jacinda Ardern does want to bring Christmas cheer and enable families to get together.

But opening Auckland’s border does carry risk. It’s not a simple decision and needs to be taken carefully. Requiring people to be double-vaccinated or produce negative Covid tests is onerous. But so ishaving to cope with the spread of the virus elsewhere, which is why Ardern has to continue her mix of carrot and stick tactics until the vaccination goals are reached.

Another lesson from pandemic history is that we are all in this together.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) — among others — has cited the 1918-19 Spanish flu as having led to increased global co-operation onpandemic preparedness. The WHO response to the pandemic and the global push to develop vaccines at speed has been phenomenal.

New Zealand has also played its part as host of Apec this year, with Ardern working with 20 other Asia-Pacific leaders at a mid-July meeting to take down trade barriers to vaccines and their constituent parts. This matters.

The pandemic has also resulted in an expansion of the role of the state worldwide — not simply when it comes to healthcare, but also border restrictions and more. Combating thepandemic’s impact on economies has led to governments mounting extraordinary fiscal stimuli to support businesses and their workers.

The piper will have to be paid.

The New Zealand economy has come through well. But a future which includes higher taxes to retire debt seems inevitable.

In New Zealand, the state has also taken a much larger role in education, water management, infrastructure and more.

Here there has been antipathytowards public-private partnerships to deal with Covid, such as MIQ. But more recently there has been more collaboration on issues like the Auckland border and Covid testing.

We have seen the ascendancy of the Ministry of Health. But conversely, a reluctance from government to take the advice of esteemed private sector people like Sir Brian Roche to set up a stand-alone pandemic operation.

Intriguingly, the WEF identified the Black Death of 1347-51 as having stimulated major economic and technological changes.

On the plus side, today’spandemic has hastened the uptake of digital trade.

Increased digitisation was cited as a plus by many at the CEO Summit.

When Covid struck and borders clamped down, some five to eight years of projected digital transformation was crammed into the first eight weeks of lockdown as people worked from home.

Cross-border data flows have increased. But the digital divide has also been exacerbated, affecting developing economies, women, people with disabilities and minorities.

There are emerging issues on data governance. As Australian academic Shiro Armstrong told the summit, it is time for a WTO on digital trade and data.

In one of the great ironies of our time, the internet is a great enabler but also has the capacity to be the great disabler with an increase incyber-security incursions.

But we are also seeing inflation on the rise, and major cost increasesfor freight, global supply chain matters and more which are all problematic.

Another lesson is that the poorest suffer most in pandemics. In New Zealand, a house price boom together with a failure to provide sufficient public housing has alienated people.

And not just well-educated millennials who may take the opportunity to leave New Zealand once the pandemic is over. But also the homeless and socially disadvantaged put into inner-city hotels and motels. There has been a rise in crime — some of it violent — in Auckland.

There will be much to tackle in the New Year.

But learning the lessons from this pandemic (and preparing for the next) should be among the critical tasks.

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