Yesterday as I was passing through the supermarket checkout I overheard two women in an adjacent isle complaining that New Zealand is doing no better than other countries and is now seeing a rise in new infections after being COVID-19 free for weeks They were convinced that the 14 cases now active in NZ are the beginning of a second wave. They are wrong.
Their concern appears to be widespread as the public demand for testing has soared over the past week to the point that demand exceeds the ability of the health system to process tests in a timely manner. The health authorities have had to apply limitations on eligibility for free testing.
We are now testing at a rate of 10,000 per day, which by way of comparison is equivalent to the US population being tested at the rate of 700,000 per day. The difference is that not one test over the last month has returned positive, whereas in the US, approximately one in nineteen tests is a positive result. NZ: 0%, US: 5%.
So why am I confident that the two women are wrong? True, there are now 14 active cases after being COVID-19 free for weeks, But those 14 cases are actually evidence that our system of managing the pandemic is working as planned.
For those who are unaware, NZ closed its borders completely way back in March and they will remain tightly closed for the foreseeable future. The only people permitted to enter the country are NZ citizens and permanent residents. Everyone else is excluded (although exemptions may be granted in exceptional circumstances). In effect we are closed off from the rest of the world
Expat Kiwis are returning home in ever increasing droves, and it does not seem that it will ease for some time. Everyone arriving in New Zealand is placed into “managed isolation” – quarantine facilities that are now overseen by the military. The number of daily returnees has stretched the capacity of the quarantine facilities in Auckland beyond breaking point, and new facilities are being set up in other parts of the country.
All those put into managed isolation are tested at day 3 and day 12 of isolation, before being permitted to leave after 14 days. Currently there are around 4300 people in isolation, and this is expected to increase significantly over the coming weeks and months.
All COVID-19 tests that have returned a positive result are from returnees while they are in managed isolation. These are people who have brought the virus with them on their journey home. So long as the virus is on the loose in the rest of the world, those returning will bring COVID-19 with them. It does not mean that it exists within the NZ bubble of 5 million people.
Community transmission of COVID-19 has been eliminated from Aotearoa New Zealand and remains so. As long as all cases are confined to isolation facilities, it doesn’t matter what the number of infections are. At the height of the pandemic here, there were less than 90 active cases on any given day, and even if the number of cases among returnees in isolation ran into the hundreds, its a reflection of the situation outside the country, not inside it.
Currently, hotels emptied by the lack of tourists are being used as isolation facilities, but as the rate of returning expats increases, the pool of suitable accommodation will become more and more fragmented, increasing the risk of of COVID-19 escaping from isolation.
How many Kiwis will return of the coming months and possibly years? how long is a piece of string? There are half a million Kiwis living in Australia, and hundreds of thousands scattered across the rest of the globe. I can foresee a situation where it might be necessary to restrict the flow rate of our own nationals into the country.
Public opinion here is swinging towards hostility of those returning home due to the perceived risk of returnees reintroducing the virus into the community, and the fear that they will swell the ranks of the unemployed , or worse, take jobs from those already working here. Now where have I heard similar sentiment before, but applied to a different group of people? The simple fact is that immigrants to this country are now almost exclusively Kiwis!
I’m more sympathetic towards returning expats, and this is one situation where the wife and I have agreed to disagree. Actually I’ve agreed to disagree, she’s adamant she’s right and I’m wrong. As far as she’s concerned they are placing us all in danger, and they are being selfish by choosing to return home at this time. And this is coming from someone who is an immigrant herself!
There’s probably as many reasons for returning home as there are returnees, but I think a major factor for many will be the lack of a support network in a crisis. For example Kiwis living in Australia are not eligible for unemployment benefits or other forms of social security, even though they are required to contribute to those services in the form of taxes and levies at the same rate as Australians. I dare say the situation is similar in other jurisdictions.
The cost of managed isolation is around NZ$4000 per person, and let’s face it, hotels are not really set up for prolonged periods of confinement. Currently the taxpayer foots the entire bill and there seems to be growing public demand for most all all of the cost fall on those who are quarantined. I disagree. Having to stump up with airfare up to ten times higher than pre-pandemic days, many will not be in a position cover isolation costs as well.
As an alternative to using hotels for isolation, there is one very under used resource that wouldn’t cost any more be person than currently, but would for a more pleasant confinement. Anchored all over the world are large cruise ships that would provide more secure isolation and provide facilities that would no hotel can. Why not transfer a few such ships to NZ waters where they could provide more beds than the total capacity of all the hotels in the country?