Covid-19

Let’s not end lockdown early

Are we nearly in the clear? It's too early to tell and we can't take anything for granted, says Professor Nicholas Agar of Victoria University of Wellington.

Our nation’s fight against Covid-19 seems to be going well. As a Kiwi, I’m enjoying the global applause for our “go hard and go early” response. According to a piece in the Washington Post, we aren’t just flattening the Covid curve, we’re “squashing it”. It credits the “sense of collective purpose” Kiwis are bringing a very stringent lockdown regime.

But now the novelty of lockdown is wearing off. We are starting to hear calls for us to relax a bit. After a 76-day lockdown, things are finally getting back to normal in Wuhan. From April 15, Denmark will initiate a “very slow and gradual reopening”.

Writing in Newsroom, Ananish Chaudhuri offers a “different perspective”, saying “a lockdown in places like Auckland or Wellington may make sense. It is not clear to me that large parts of the South Island, with low population density, need to be locked down”.

According to Chaudhuri, we are overly focused on direct harms from the coronavirus and overlooking the harms that will inevitably result from our regime of rigorous self-isolation. He wants people to be free to “decide their risk-tolerances”.

A guest post on Kiwiblog asks whether our lockdown should end early. Again, it cites our low population density and lack of congested subway systems. These should spare us the fates of New York and London.

One of the great things about our leaders has been the crystal clarity of their political communications. This, even more than the specifics of our lockdown, is what we should be celebrating.

It’s the exact opposite of what Donald Trump currently offers Americans, oscillating between counselling Americans to prepare for a “very painful two weeks”, expressing hope that the US would shake off the pandemic “by Easter”, pushing unproven antimalarial therapies, and berating the World Health Organization. No wonder Americans are confused about exactly what’s expected of them.

In politics, a simple almost-right message that inspires people to comply beats a complex exactly-right message that seems to fluctuate with the latest scientist’s speculation or celebrity tweet.

Many people are currently scrutinising the stats and reassuring themselves their own personal risk of death from Covid-19 is low. The thing we should be emphasising now is the way Covid-19 has defied confident predictions about its spread and lethality. For me, the first big shock came from the pair of images of the Wuhan whistle-blower Li Wenliang – first image, a young apparently healthy, masked doctor; next image, the heroic doctor as a patient on a respirator on the point of death.

Given all the uncertainty about Covid-19, being too clever about our own personal risk could be a disaster. Humans are notoriously bad at understanding and quantifying risk. Suppose we were to continue the lockdown in only Auckland and Wellington and discontinue it in parts of New Zealand with low population densities. A predictable consequence of this is the end of the lockdown for all New Zealanders.

I’m a Wellingtonian who is currently entirely free of Covid-19 symptoms. I’m in touch by Zoom with symptom-free colleagues. So why shouldn’t I relieve the tedium of lockdown and get together for some low-risk dining, hand shaking and hugging? This is the part of me that feels sympathy for Minister of Health David Clark’s decision to drive 20 km to a beach and, separately, take a stress-relieving, but entirely physically isolated, bike ride. What’s the harm in that?

By the way, I’ve always felt annoyance about the tedium of the process I’m subjected to every time I return to New Zealand from an overseas conference. I’m a 55-year-old university professor and therefore an objectively improbable drug mule or gun runner and obviously informed about the importance of not bringing oranges back into the country. Part of me wants customs officials to direct their attention at younger, more dishevelled travellers. But then I reflect and see the value in the one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t rely on the fallible risk assessments and biases of individual customs officials.

It’s great our numbers in New Zealand are trending down. But we mustn’t be too smug about this. What’s even more important than a count of the daily new cases of Covid-19 is that the virus stop delivering surprises – and not just the standard surprises that accompany any disease diagnosis, but really, really big surprises. A virus that can penetrate all the protections available to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to put him in intensive care is likely to have more shocks to deliver.

We don’t have to reduce Kiwi coronavirus cases to zero for it to be right for us to relax. But we do need much greater confidence that Covid-19 won’t upend our cosy expectations with some entirely unexpected fresh twist.

Perhaps we will look back and decide this lockdown was all a bit overdone. Perhaps the relaxed approach of the Swedes will turn out to have been better. But we can’t know this now. Let’s avoid the hindsight bias of assessing our current “go hard and go early” measures against what could be obvious in April 2021. Perhaps we will know then the lackadaisical Swedes were right and we could have gone “softer and later”. But we can’t know that now.

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