New Zealand's Tragedy of Competence and Cohesion in the Coronavirus Pandemic

by Neil H. Buchanan

Note to readers: I have published two new columns this week on Verdict, which I hope that many of you will check out and possibly even find interesting:

-- "Dead Democracy Walking," published yesterday, represents a pivot point from writing about the possible death of the U.S.'s imperfect experiment in constitutional democracy and the rule of law to taking that imminent death as a given; and

-- "Statehood for D.C. Could Not Be Reversed," published this morning, demonstrates that D.C. statehood ought to be an easy call, even under the strained logic of filibuster lovers like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, because it could not be reversed by Republicans even after they establish one-party rule.  But I also point out that ultimately it does not matter, because "Dead Democracy Walking."

I am planning to write yet another Verdict column to be published this Thursday, where I will explore the future of federalism under one-party Republican autocracy.

Here, however, I will not follow up on any of that.  Instead, I will return to yet another ongoing crisis that is both tragic and unnecessary.

In the grand scheme of what we now call first-world problems, among the least important must surely be that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused me to have to delay my planned research sabbatical trips to New Zealand and Australia, which I had arranged for Spring semester (in the Northern Hemisphere) 2022.  This is somewhat odd, because as of this writing, it appears that I will be able to travel to the UK and the EU this Fall, apparently without needing even to quarantine.  Much can change, of course, and things are still trending very much in the wrong direction (and not only in Florida).  As it stands, however, whereas NZ and Australia are already off the table five months out, the UK and EU are a go within the next month.

Again, this falls far short of a genuine problem, especially because it is merely a delay and not a cancellation.  If travel is possible once again by the following year -- and, OMG, we certainly have to hope that it will be -- I will make a research trip to the Antipodes starting in January 2023.  That seems like a long time in the future, and sooner would be better than later; but I wish to emphasize that this is not the whining of the privileged.  I certainly know how fortunate I am.
Rather than focusing on my situation, I want to take this as an opportunity to think about how New Zealand and Australia have been handling the pandemic.  Even as long ago as this past Spring -- that is, long before the Delta variant began to ravage the world -- my contacts in both countries cautioned me not to take for granted that a trip that was then almost a full year in the future would be allowed to happen.  They warned me that both countries are so proud of their low death rates and so worried about renewed transmission that their leaders will be very slow in reopening to outsiders.  My response: "Hey, if I were the leader of either country, I'd want to keep Americans out, too.  Especially Floridians!"

Being an eternal optimist, however, I assumed that things would indeed move in the right direction, at least quickly enough for a trip to happen all the way in the distant future to be known as 2022.  But when the Delta variant, along with the inevitable results of right-wing insanity and Republican governors' political posturing, became impossible to ignore earlier this month, I grew worried and contacted one of my colleagues in New Zealand.  Here is what he wrote:
Currently we’re in what’s called “level 4 lockdown”, which means that virtually all businesses are shut except for supermarkets, petrol stations, pharmacies and medical facilities. Click and collect can operate but only for supposedly essential supplies. Universities and schools are all shut, too. Basically you’re not allowed out of your house except to (a) exercise or (b) buy groceries at a supermarket or (c) get medical treatment. You’re not allowed to visit anyone (or meet them in any public place) and they’re not allowed to visit you. 
Amazingly, almost everyone is complying with this, more or less. The reason is that until  a week ago we had it better than just about anywhere in the world, as far as I can see – no restrictions on anything and the number of covid cases in the country was literally zero (except for recent arrivals doing compulsory 14 day quarantine in dedicated hotels). The reason for the current lockdown (the first since ages ago) is that someone – just one person – arrived with covid from Sydney (where it seems to be getting right out of control), and so we’ve had an outbreak. 
In order to enter NZ, you have to pre-book your 14 day stay in what they call “managed isolation” in a hotel. The way this works is that a number of hotels are operating pretty much like prisons for this purpose – soldiers on guard, etc – and there’s an acute shortage of spaces, so difficult to book.
A jumble of thoughts came to mind.  Most obviously, WOW!  The idea that even a small country is mostly complying with that level of public health measures is almost inconceivable to those of us stuck in a place where people are taking horse de-wormers while calling Dr. Anthony Fauci the Antichrist and physically threatening school superintendents and public health officers.  New Zealand's population is almost exactly equal to the Boston metro area's, so it is not as though we are talking about small absolute numbers.

It is also notable that what looks to a New Zealander like Australia's being "right out of control" is a classic example of perspective -- looking large both from New Zealand's perspective but also from Australia's own, with the current wave being much worse (more than double the case rate) than the two waves there in 2020.  Even so, Australia's population of more than 25+ million is not far from Texas's 29+ million, and Australia's worst spike (the current one) shows a 7-day average of 1099 cases, while Texas's most recent 7-day average is 16,474.  (New Zealand's is 60.)  For COVID deaths, Australia's 7-day average is 3 (not a typo: three), while Texas's is 209.  (New Zealand's is zero.)  Perspective, indeed.

Yet this is, in the big picture, what I describe in the title of this column as a tragedy for New Zealand.  (I should note that it is also a tragedy for Australia, but: (1) I wanted to keep the title to as few words as possible, and (2) New Zealand is having even more success than Australia.)  Why is it a tragedy?  Because no amount of public-spirited responsibility on the part of the Kiwis (or Aussies) is going to change the overall path of the global pandemic, nor will it protect them from the ripple effects of others' irresponsibility.

I hasten to emphasize that the direct benefits in New Zealand and Australia of public health measures that Americans would view as beyond extreme are immediate and obvious.  Certainly, no humane politician in either of those two countries would think: "Oh blimey, the rest of the world is bollocksing this up.  Bob's your uncle."  (Apologies to my friends in NZ and OZ.  I couldn't resist -- and I'm sure that I got the idioms wrong, anyway.  Sorry, mates!)  Of course it makes sense for both countries to continue what they are doing, considering that the alternative is to change course in the knowledge that doing so would doom untold numbers of their citizens to death.

Even so, those countries will continue to be harmed, through no fault of their own, for as long as countries like the United States and the United Kingdom continue to bollocks things up.  Although they are among the wealthiest countries in the world, Australia and New Zealand do have vulnerable people living within their borders, and both populations are modestly middle class to a significant degree.
Moreover, both of these geographically isolated countries are excruciatingly dependent on foreign interactions to maintain their relative prosperity.  I know second-hand that the universities in both countries have seen their budgets decimated by the disappearance of foreign (especially mainland Chinese) students.  These financial hits are resulting not in mild haircuts but in radical downsizing, the elimination of entire departments and sub-university schools, and large-scale forced early retirements of faculty.

This means that even as the Kiwis and the Aussies keep themselves alive, they are on a program of forced austerity that the rest of the rich countries have not had to endure.  In one sense, one might think of New Zealand and Australia as something like the national equivalent of people like me, who could continue to do our work from home and stay safe even as COVID ran rampant around us.  But just as every one of us knows that this relative economic comfort cannot continue indefinitely, so do New Zealand and Australia understand that the basic logic against economic isolationism is a special imperative for them.

Finally, an American colleague recently brought to my attention an additional aspect of this tragedy for New Zealand and Australia.  She pointed out that the way things are going in the U.S. and elsewhere means that we will ultimately (but through a horrible process) reach the point where COVID is endemic, and a large part of that will be because almost all of us will have been exposed to the virus.  The survivors, including those who were thankfully asymptomatic, will still need boosters (just as we need annual flu shots), but we will have blundered our way toward something like herd immunity by having exposed our surviving population to the coronavirus, until it is no longer novel to our bodies.  The best-run countries will not allow that to happen, which is good, but it does mean that the failure of the world at large to contain this early on will put the least-exposed people at unnecessary risk.  One hopes that near-100 percent vaccination rates in those countries will allow things to return to something like normal, but there are no guarantees.

In the end, this is among the most brutal examples of how the least responsible people can make everything worse not just for themselves but for everyone else.  We all deserve better, but instead we are living through this.