In ordering a lockdown and putting New Zealand into a state of emergency, the government is firmly fixed on reducing the spread of Covid-19 to save lives and, ultimately, eliminate the disease.
That’s the health side of the equation. Roger Partridge argues a coherent Covid-19 strategy would also taken into account the economic one:
Professor Sir David Skegg raised the 64-thousand-dollar (or perhaps 64 billion-dollar) question in his testimony before Parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee this week. He asked whether the government had a clear the strategic objective for its unprecedented level-four lockdown.
Since the subtitle of Alert Level 4 is “Eliminate”, Sir David’s question might seem unfair. And Director General of Health, Dr Ashly Bloomfield, quickly clarified to media that elimination is indeed the goal.
But if elimination is the objective, it is troubling that Minister of Health David Clark referred to a goal of reducing the epidemic’s effect to successive “waves” of infection in his testimony before the Committee. There will be no waves of infection if elimination is successful.
Lack of consistency in messaging about the Government’s strategic objective is worrying. But there is a more fundamental concern with the elimination objective: the absence of a clear timeframe. Of course, we can eliminate the disease. If the four-week lockdown does not work, the government simply forces us into lockdown for longer. But at what cost?
A cost-benefit assessment sounds heartless when the goal of the lockdown policy is to save lives. But the country-wide pause has already triggered a domino-effect of business failures and job losses. Just as the coronavirus spreads exponentially, so does harm from the lockdown. For firms and workers, each day of lockdown causes more business failures and job losses.
It is easy to count the deaths of, or at least with, Covid-19. It will be harder to count the social costs, including lives lost, from both later treatment of other health conditions and the economic devastation, but they will be real.
These economic effects have health and wellbeing implications too. And at some point, the harm to the wellbeing of Kiwis from the lockdown may become greater than the benefit to the wellbeing of New Zealanders from continuing with it.
This will include more suicides, more domestic violence, more alcohol and drug abuse and delayed treatment for health conditions including cancer which could make a life or death difference.
Most estimates show unemployment soon running into double figures. Overseas estimates suggest if Governments are not careful unemployment could exceed 20% or even 30% – levels not seen since the Great Depression.
The hardship caused to hundreds of thousands of Kiwi families from widespread unemployment, the evaporation of job opportunities for the new generation of school leavers and the losses to the productive side of the economy which funds our social services and most of the population’s livelihoods, must all be factored into the Government’s strategic choices.
The business failures and job losses have both and economic and social cost that will feed off each other.
They will also result in less tax paid while demands on the public purse will increase.
Until it addresses this complicated equation, the Government’s Covid-19 strategy is at best only half complete. A well-informed strategy must consider both curves – the epidemiological curve and the economic curve.
In the meantime, Professor Skegg had some clear advice for the Government on the areas it must lift its game to give us the best chance of achieving the goal of elimination. The Government must fix the shortcomings with Covid-19 testing. It must enforce strict quarantining at the border. And it must improve contact tracing.
If the Government gets these tactics right, perhaps it can sidestep the bigger strategic decision. But it is fast bearing down on us.
In the meantime, the Government must be more transparent with New Zealanders on the difficult strategic choices the country is facing. If it isn’t, we risk drifting in a direction that may do more harm than good.
This response form the Prime Minister suggests she doesn’t understand that:
“A strategy that sacrifices people in favour of, supposedly, a better economic outcome is a false dichotomy and has been shown to produce the worst of both worlds: loss of life and prolonged economic pain,” Ardern said. . .
She is saying there would be fewer lives lost and less economic pain if the lockdown continues as it is which is not necessarily so. A better economic one would be a better social and health one too with fewer deaths from other causes.
The economic and social costs wouldn’t be so high if the government was to opt for safety rather than essential as the guide for which businesses can operate.
National on Sunday called for more businesses to be allowed to open up if they could prove they could operate safely.
“Our economy has already faced unprecedented devastation since the Government closed it down, we should be doing all we can help revive it and protect businesses and jobs,” economic development spokesman Todd McClay said.
“To date the decision making has been too arbitrary and there are too many inconsistencies. For instance, allowing dairies to open but not local butchers or greengrocers, agriculture to continue but not forestry, cigarettes to be manufactured but community newspapers cannot be printed.”
“If a business proves it can operate safely, provide contactless selling and ensure physical distancing then they should be able to operate.”
What’s the difference between butcheries, greengrocers and fishmongers following practices that keep their staff and customers safe, and supermarkets operating as they are now?
What’s the risk in greens keepers working by themselves on a golf course?
Why can’t more businesses that sell online be able to do so? If it’s safe to sell a heater or a winter jumper why not a scanner or a shirt?
Why couldn’t some road works be done safely while there’s so little traffic? Why can’t some building continue as long as the tradies work alone or at safe distances from each other and without sharing tools? If an urgent repair to a vehicle can be done safely, why not a warrant of fitness?
All the arbitrary emphasis on essential rather than safe is doing is allow overseas online businesses to compete with domestic ones which might not survive the shutdown.
While Baur might have pulled out of New Zealand anyway, the government’s declaration that only daily media was essential has killed some of our best magazines.
The latest update on Covid-19 cases does show that the lockdown appears to have stopped the steep spike in cases seen elsewhere.
That doesn’t mean we can relax, but it ought to allow the government to take a broader look at its strategy and its social and economic costs.
The lockdown does appear to be achieving its aim of flattening the epidemiological curve, but the government is not doing nearly enough to consider the economic curve and the social costs that will result from that.
Flattening the Covid-19 curve is good but not at the cost of flattening the economy more than is necessary.