A day is a long time in the COVID-19 coronavirus saga. It is now even more clear than when I wrote on Tuesday that COVID-19 is winning the war here in New Zealand.
In the last five days, confirmed cases have jumped from 6 to 20. This is despite minimal testing occurring as to the presence of community transmission.
We are on the brink. It is either immediate imposition of tougher regulations or we face a European-type breakout.
Every hour that the Government delays with tougher regulations, then the disease runs away from us, and the consequent control measures will have to be even tougher. The stakes are huge.
As background, over the last three years I have been closely involved with the Mycoplasma bovis saga here in New Zealand. I have written some 25 articles about Mycoplasma bovis as events unfolded. With extreme frustration, I watched that relatively benign disease, indeed extremely benign disease compared to COVID-19, as it spread through New Zealand’s cattle herds.
For two years, that cattle disease continued to run faster than the Government control measures, despite the Government requiring the slaughter of over 200 herds and allocating $800 million for the task. I watched as officials moved far too slowly, denying the tracing delays that were occurring, and apparently believing their own propaganda.
It took a major shake-up last year within the Ministry of Primary Industries, led by a new Director General, after two years of denial and make-believe within the Ministry, to start making progress. That war is still far from won.
With the much more dangerous COVID-19, the first step that needs to be done today is make it mandatory that self-isolation has to apply to everyone in a house. The notion that some people in a house can be self-isolating while others in that home are living their normal lives is not working. It is proving a disastrous flaw.
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The Prime Minister has today (Wednesday 18 March) given ‘advice’ to travellers who arrived before the regulations were put in place at 1am Monday morning that they should now also self-isolate. However, that is no more than advice. It is essential that it too becomes mandatory, and the Government puts in place under urgency any regulatory authorisation that is needed for this to occur.
The third mandatory requirement has to be the immediate closing-down across New Zealand of all group activities of more than say eight people. All pubs, clubs, restaurants, cinemas, high schools and universities would therefore need to be closed. The only possible exception should be for primary and day-care centres.
Keeping primary schools and day-are centres open also poses a big risk, but the social consequences of any prolonged closure are such that there is perhaps room for debate on this matter. Perhaps that decision could be left until the weekend, as each day tells a new story as to where we are on the battlefield. However, everything else on the list needs to happen right now.
If we get this right then we still have a chance of stamping out the disease. But every day it gets tougher. Let there be no doubt, we are now in a war. And the way we are currently going, we are in big danger of losing that war. Every day and every hour count.
*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd, and has had a longstanding interest in epidemiology. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org