Jacinda Ardern’s war on Covid complacency

Halfway through the lockdown, government restrictions to prevent the spread of coronavirus seem to be taking hold. But the latest suite of measures show the Prime Minister is awake to the dangers of overconfidence, Sam Sachdeva writes

“This is going to be a marathon.”

Jacinda Ardern’s choice of metaphor to mark the halfway point of New Zealand’s four-week lockdown was telling, in more ways than one.

It reflects how many of us are feeling about the elasticity of time, the days indoors dragging out with the finish line for the restrictions still some way in the distance.

But more importantly, the line forms part of a cliche that is nevertheless fitting for the current circumstances - that beating coronavirus is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.

Weighing that quote against the latest numbers announced by Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield at the same press conference on Thursday, you could be forgiven for some cognitive dissonance.

With just 29 new cases in the day prior - the lowest number since before the lockdown began, and just over a tenth of what we could have seen under worst-case modelling - and the infection rate curve showing distinct signs of levelling off, there would seem to be some cause for celebration.

Indeed, some business leaders and others have pushed for Level 4 restrictions to be lifted before the current April 22 deadline, citing the economic damage that would be wrought by an unnecessarily long lockdown.

In principle, that is a reasonable point (despite what some critics say). There will be a tipping point at which the effect of businesses going bust and workers losing their jobs, with the associated mental health and wellbeing concerns, is more detrimental than the tail-end of Covid-19.

The problem? It’s not clear we are anywhere close to that tipping point, and as Ardern cautioned, “If we move too early, we will go backwards.”

That is why, instead of hitting the accelerator out of lockdown, the Government has applied its handbrake in the form of extra restrictions.

Quarantine vital to lift lockdown

Foremost among those is the decision to require all new travellers to undertake at least 14 days of quarantine in government-approved facilities - or what has been rather euphemistically deemed “assisted self-isolation”.

There have been suggestions that Ardern caved to public pressure, with tens of thousands signing a petition circulated by the National Party and some media commentators jumping on the issue.

It is true that some epidemiologists were arguing for a more thorough approach to new arrivals some weeks ago - but more than a few people jumped on the bandwagon after the Government had indicated it was heading in that direction.

A hard-line approach to border controls is a necessity for moving away from Level 4 restrictions and lower down the scale, given the exponential growth that is still occurring elsewhere in the world.

Political pressure surely played some role, as did anecdotes of travellers not adhering to self-isolation protocols, but so too did the diminishing numbers of New Zealanders returning home - now down to numbers which Ardern says has made a fully-fledged quarantine scheme more feasible.

Quarantining is just one tip of the trident, with further increases to testing rates, as well as technological solutions to aid in tracing the contacts of confirmed cases, making up the other two prongs.

Perhaps the biggest risk to New Zealand is complacency, people taking for granted that infection growth rates will continue to drop and abandoning their diligent hygiene and physical distancing practices.

The changes are needed, but they also serve the useful purpose of reminding Kiwis the battle is far from over.

Perhaps the biggest risk to New Zealand is complacency, people taking for granted that infection growth rates will continue to drop and abandoning their diligent hygiene and physical distancing practices.

The camper vans pulled over by police en route to holiday spots for Easter weekend show that there are already some failing to take the rules of lockdown seriously.

Then there is the potential blowback to any extension of top-tier restrictions.

Most Kiwis have been compliant, but that task has been made easier by the sense that things could move back to normal in a matter of weeks.

But some researchers have already suggested the Level 4 lockdown may need to be extended to truly eliminate the virus from our shores - and even if that does not occur, a move down to Level 3, or even Level 2, still carries far more restrictions on movement that many may assume.

Keeping the public on high alert in the face of dropping case numbers and prolonged restrictions will not be easy, but the Government must succeed.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was an axiom that did the rounds on social media: “When you're dealing with exponential growth, the time to act is when it feels too early.”

As we think about the path out of lockdown, it seems useful to flip that line on its head.

When you’re dealing with exponential growth, the best time to move away from those actions - and back to normal - may be when it feels too late.

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