No Minister

Competent or incompetent pandemic response?

I figured it’s time we had a counter-factual on this blog to argue against the accusations that NZ’s response to COVID-19 has been incompetent. It really is way too early to say how well countries have dealt with a pandemic that’s only just getting started, but everyone else is doing it so why the fuck not?

Comparisons with Taiwan or South Korea are obviously invalid. They are high-tech societies with no liberal tradition of individual freedom and some very relevant recent experience in dealing with coronavirus pandemics, so any comparison between their pandemic response and NZ’s would be unfair.

Right-wing commentators tend to compare NZ’s performance against Sweden’s or Australia’s so I’ll refer to those two, particularly Australia, with a side look at the USA for an example of what genuinely incompetent governance looks like.

One of the most significant things to look at is pandemic preparedness. It’s relevant because I keep seeing people saying how the government should have closed our borders and implemented a mass testing and quarantine programme back in February. This is like saying that the British government in late 1939 should have immediately invaded Germany with overwhelming military force and overthrown the Nazis. Well, yes that certainly would have worked, but there’s one small flaw in that idea…

If you look at the global index of pandemic preparedness, Australia is ranked 4th and Sweden 7th (USA and UK are at 1 and 2 respectively). NZ is ranked 35th, lower than Mexico and Indonesia. 

Now, that in itself is a reflection of government incompetence, but it took incompetence by many different governments, both Labour and National, to get us that low. The current government gets a share of the blame, but a relatively small share (ie the Clark and Key govts had 9 years apiece to do something about it, the Ardern govt’s had less than 3). It’s described further here: New Zealand’s poor pandemic preparedness according the Global Health Security Index.

So, all that coulda/woulda/shoulda blather about what draconian measures the government could have taken back in February are based in fantasy, not reality. NZ didn’t have the preparedness to move that far, that fast.

Next, the response itself. Initially, conservatives compared us poorly against Sweden. Now that Sweden is showing that its approach means thousands of dead, hospitals struggling AND large-scale economic damage, they’ve turned to comparing us with Australia.

Australia’s case numbers and deaths per million pop. are about the same as ours despite having only locked down to the equivalent of our level 3, which will inflict less economic damage than we’ll have suffered from level 4. That makes it tempting for right-wingers to claim the Ardern government over-reacted to the pandemic. These claims ignore two things:

1. Relative preparedness, as described above. Australia started this with superior capability to deal with a pandemic.

2. That lack of preparedness also translated into the pandemic hitting NZ harder and faster than Australia, necessitating a more drastic response. Epidemiologist Brian Cox explains it in The Herald:

His analysis shows that New Zealand’s rate of confirmed cases per capita was far higher than Australia’s at the start of the lockdown, but drew level after about three and a half weeks and is now well below Australia’s.

Although, this graph probably shows it more clearly:

So, given our relative lack of capability for dealing with a pandemic, if we’d gone with Australia’s approach we’d have a case load and deaths per million way higher than theirs by now (and which would of course be being peddled on this blog as evidence of the Ardern government’s incompetence).

Lastly, the USA is an example of what genuinely incompetent governance looks like.  On the pandemic preparedness index, the USA was number one by a significant margin, and yet it’s now poster boy for most cases and most deaths.

How could that happen?  Well, as one commentator expressed it to The Guardian:

A global index released in October concluded the US was more ready than anywhere else to fight a pandemic. But the scorecard, based on WHO methodology, focused more on technical capacity than government processes…

That’s a very diplomatic way of expressing it, I thought.

Written by Psycho Milt

May 1, 2020 at 11:10 pm

Posted in New Zealand

Tagged with

%d bloggers like this: