Waylaid Dialectic

April 19, 2020

Did New Zealand get its Covid-19 response wrong?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 2:10 pm

Even if I was immune to Corona virus, I’d be social distancing. Half-baked stupidity isn’t good for your health. Op-ed pundits, academics, podcasts, friends. It’s painful.

So, to self-medicate, I’m going to look at the options the New Zealand government had when it put the country into “lock-down”.

1. Throw granny under the bus.

Under this approach we would have done nothing. To save the burden on our economy, we would have kept everything open. To save the burden on our health system we wouldn’t have treated those with the virus.

The best justification for this is some sort of utilitarian calculus: it’s a pity about the people who will die, but the cure is worse than the disease; we’ve just got to let people die.

I’m a utilitarian. But I’m not that stupid. There are costs to the lock-down. Economic suffering will bring human suffering. This matters – it should be taken into account. But, in the long run, human well-being is helped most by a just social contract. One in which we don’t abandon a large slice of the population to an epidemic. Lock-down will cause suffering. Doing nothing would have caused more. You have to help people who are ill.

That brings me to the next option.

2. Throw the health system under the bus.

Under this option New Zealand would have treated people with COVID-19 but done little to prevent the spread of the virus. The obvious problem with this is our health system wouldn’t have coped. Northern Italy probably had a better health system than New Zealand, and it was completely overwhelmed.

This is true, regardless of debates about how deadly the virus actually is. At present, we don’t know how lethal Corona virus is because we don’t know how many people have caught it and been effectively asymptomatic. Maybe the virus is less likely to cause serious illness than is currently thought. If that’s the case, it’s much more virulent than currently thought. And either way, the short-term consequence for the health system is the same: overwhelmed.

An overwhelmed health system isn’t just tired doctors and nurses. It means people dying of Corona virus who would have otherwise lived. It means people with other health problems also dying.

And that would continue until either a vaccination, very good treatment options, or herd immunity (currently estimated at about 50 per cent of population; so a lot of suffering until we get there).

3. Fiddle while Rome burns.

An alternative would have been to try and contain the virus using the low impact techniques we had been using. Nice idea, but it wasn’t working. The first chart below is daily cases. Blue is pre-lock down. Red is after. Data are from the Ministry of Health.

daily cases

(Data downloaded 18/4/20.)

The next chart compares New Zealand’s disease trajectory with a select group of countries. The y-axis shows total cases. It’s on a log scale. As a rough approximation, the slope of the curve shows you how fast the illness is spreading.

The x-axis shows days since the 50th case. The period covered for all countries is the first 27 days since the 50th case. Different dates, same period in the epidemic’s growth. New Zealand hit the 27 day mark yesterday. Other countries hit it earlier and so their lines are truncated.

The vertical red line is when New Zealand entered lock-down.


Data come from the European Centre for Disease Control, and are based off WHO data.

Our trajectory was very similar to Great Britain’s. Now (although it’s not covered in the chart) they are in lock-down. But too late. Many more people have died in the UK. They will likely be in lock-down much longer than us. It took a few days, but as you can see, after we entered lock-down our fate diverged from that of the UK – a lot.

It is true that many of our early cases were acquired overseas (presumable also true everywhere but China). But even when you chart cases that were definitely locally acquired, as I’ve done in this link (based on my interpretation of Ministry of Health data) we had a real issue.

Sweden is sometimes talked of as an example of how we could have kept the country running. The chart below (once again ECDC data) compares New Zealand and Sweden.


4. Take a punt on Australia

The final alternative to New Zealand would be to do as Australia has done. Contrary to the way it’s sometimes portrayed, although it took a while, Australia ultimately engaged in a similar approach to New Zealand. A lot is closed in Australia, many people are working from home, or not working, and the government still feels the need for a huge stimulus package. But more is open. In Canberra, to give you one example, cafes are closed, but you can get takeaway coffee. If you use ECDC data to compare epidemic curves for Australia and New Zealand, this is what you see.


Australia took it’s time, but it has managed to slow the spread of the illness. It’s doing about as well now as New Zealand.

This may show we could have quashed the spread of COVID-19 with fewer constraints. It might also be trying to tell us something else: perhaps lower population densities in Australian cities help? Perhaps, a warmer, drier climate helps?

Or perhaps not. We could have taken a punt on the Australian approach. And we may have gotten everything we currently have with less suffering. Or we might not.

Imagine you’re where our government was when it put New Zealand in lock-down. The virus is spreading rapidly. You won’t throw granny under the bus. You can’t throw your health service under the bus. The approach you were taking wasn’t working. So you do something likely to work. Perhaps you could have done a little less. Australia, wasn’t an example then though.

So you opt for lock down. It will cost the economy, and this will hurt people too, but you can act to reduce those costs. And — as a panel of the world’s most eminent economists thinks — doing nothing would likely have hurt the economy more.

So you opt for caution. This is exactly what a responsible government should have done.


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