New Zealand’s huge success in fighting coronavirus based on learning from China

Democracy Now interview with New Zealand epidemiologist Michael Baker

By Brian Adams

It is well known in the West that New Zealand has had huge success in fighting the coronavirus. But some people have attempted to carefully conceal that New Zealand’s success was based on learning from China.

However, those who were responsible for New Zealand’s success do not attempt to conceal that they based it on the lessons learned from China. And that this led them to abandon their earlier course which is still unfortunately being followed with disastrous consequences in the US, UK and large parts of Western Europe.

The Democracy Now website carried two interviews clearly outlining the real position – one with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Michael Baker, professor of public health at the University of Otago in Wellington, New Zealand – an epidemiologist and a member of the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Technical Advisory Group. Baker advised the New Zealand government on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The second was just with Michael Baker.

The parts of these interviews with Michael Baker dealing with China and the Asian strategy of eliminating coronavirus are below. The are reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States.

The full interviews contain Baker’s analysis of many other issues – the difference between the elimination strategy pursued in the Western Pacific compared to the US and Western Europe, the ‘horrific’ errors of Trump, and a detailed analysis of Western responses to coronavirus. Readers are strongly recommended to read the interview as a whole.

Baker clearly outlines how New Zealand’s strategy was based on China. He also notes the agreed scientific definition of elimination of a virus: ‘elimination, which is essentially — I mean, technically, it means 28 days with no new cases.’

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‘AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Wellington, New Zealand, where we’re joined by Dr. Michael Baker… Can you talk about what New Zealand can teach not only the United States, Brazil and other far more populous countries, but what you recognised early on and what you did, Dr. Baker?

MICHAEL BAKER: … I think there are several lessons when you look across the globe at how different countries have responded, but I think one of the main messages is to respond decisively and have that combination of good science and good leadership. And countries that have succeeded have done this.

And in the case of New Zealand, we had the same pandemic plan as many other countries, which was a good plan, but it was for a different virus. It was for influenza. And by late February, we realised this was more like a SARS virus, so we had to change our direction very rapidly.

And I think across the Western world, there was this strange idea of complacent exceptionalism, that somehow the virus might behave differently when it hit the Western world compared with how it was in Asia. But, in fact, we looked to Asia for examples of a good approach, and — for example, the way China contained the virus, and other Asian countries were managing it — we realised that elimination was possible, so we changed direction very quickly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Baker, this whole issue of, in most of the advanced West, the focus has been on flattening the curve or mitigating the virus. Could you talk about that discussion that went on in those early days about trying to eliminate it completely?

MICHAEL BAKER: Yeah. Well, that’s exactly right. I mean, the approach for dealing with influenza pandemics is a mitigation one. You cannot contain it. So, basically, the wave is going to wash over you, and the strategy is all about, as you say, flattening the curve, reducing demand on the healthcare system and not overwhelming it, trying to protect the most vulnerable. So, we are very familiar with those approaches.

But when we looked at the success of mainland China, and also Taiwan, in particular, with actually preventing the virus, stopping it at the borders, and also doing contact tracing to stamp out cases, we changed tack very quickly. And so, you do things in a different order, if you realise that. You actually throw everything at the pandemic early on. So, at the point that we had a hundred cases, no fatalities, around the 23rd of March, a decision was made to go for this elimination approach.

And that meant putting the whole country into a very intense lockdown for the best part of six weeks. And that did three things. It basically stamped out chains of transmission, because the whole country was effectively in home quarantine. It also enabled us to build up a lot of capabilities that we really didn’t have at that point. And that was to do a lot of testing, a lot of contact tracing, and also improve our board of quarantine. And the third thing it did, it basically just explained to the whole country what physical distancing was all about, because we had never experienced a pandemic before. We were barely affected by SARS. And so, at the end of that — it’s a pretty harsh approach, but at the end of that, there was very little virus being transmitted in New Zealand.

So, we’re now coming out of lockdown by degrees. And it’s very different from coming out of lockdown overseas, because we’re trying to come down into a virus-free New Zealand. And the evidence now, based on a huge amount of testing that we’re doing, is that there is not circulating virus in New Zealand. We’re just getting the very tail end of some of the outbreaks.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about some of the particularities of New Zealand, number one, of being an island nation, to what degree that helped in your being able to stamp out the virus? And also, the role of your healthcare system, to what degree that made it easier or more difficult to deal with the pandemic?

MICHAEL BAKER: Yeah. Well, being an island, it’s much easier to manage your borders. And really, that’s the number one thing you have to do. But, actually, some countries with huge borders, like mainland China — in fact, Vietnam, Mongolia — appear to be succeeding very well with the same elimination approach. So, it doesn’t — you don’t have to be an island. And, of course, many Pacific islands have taken an even more extreme approach. They’ve just, if you like, lifted the drawbridge entirely and have excluded the virus. So, it’s not a necessity to be an island…

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dr. Baker… I wanted to ask you about other parts of the world, specifically the British Commonwealth, of which New Zealand is a part. Your sense about how the U.K. has dealt with coronavirus, and the failings that you might see from afar on the other side of the world?

MICHAEL BAKER: Yeah. One of the things is what framework countries use to look at this hazard, how they managed it. And the world is really split into — you could see now three major blocs.

There are countries which really took their cue from Asia and are now pursuing a containment-elimination approach. And that includes now Australia and New Zealand.

Then there are countries, the high-income countries of Europe and North America, which basically didn’t assess this as something they were going to contain, and they initially went for a kind of mitigation approach, like the influenza model, and quickly, quickly realised that, actually, it was a more severe threat than seasonal influenza, and then have generally taken a suppression approach after that of dampening down transmission. But that means they’re stuck, really, in this long-term process of going in and out of lockdown, trying to keep transmission down and minimise fatalities.

And the one variation on that is a kind of a version of the mitigation approach, which I think only Sweden is now pursuing, which is also called herd immunity, where you, if you like, take your foot off the brake a bit and allow transmission, in the hope you’re going to immunise your population. That was what the U.K. tried for a period and then realised it would be very destructive. The trouble with that model is that you do finish up with a lot of fatalities, a lot of sick people. And it doesn’t appear that you’re getting the benefit of potentially immunising the population.

So, there are different models. And I guess the third situation is for many low-income countries. It’s very hard for them to have the resources to do very much at all. Countries like Brazil are somewhere in the middle, like many emerging economies, where it’s probably a two-tiered or multitiered situation, where the wealthy can protect themselves in various ways and the poor are living in conditions where they’re very exposed to virus, very high levels of crowding, very poor access to healthcare, and with, obviously, fairly dire consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Baker, what do you say to those who say, “Well, you know, you have 5 million people. It’s an entirely different situation for countries of hundreds of millions or, you know, more than a billion, for example”? But what do you say to that? When you talk about the elimination model versus the mitigation model, what exactly do you mean in lay terms? I mean, it is astounding to say you’ve eliminated coronavirus.

MICHAEL BAKER: Yeah. Well, if you want to scale up, you only have to look at mainland China. And I know there’s some suspicion about the data there. But I do talk to colleagues there, epidemiologists, and there’s no question that you now have 1.4 billion people living in China, with obviously a very long, difficult border, who are largely protected from this virus now, with very little circulation. There’s the odd case, imported case, at the borders. Most of the cases actually are Chinese people fleeing back to China to avoid exposure or the pandemic in the West.

And the two big benefits of elimination, which is essentially — I mean, technically, it means 28 days with no new cases. That would be an epidemiological definition. Parts of China now have been in that situation now for some time, and certainly Taiwan is in that situation. Hong Kong is approaching that situation. It means that you prevent people getting sick, you prevent the fatalities — say, 1% of the people dying — and also you can start to get back into your normal life, and the business can start to resume, and — for these countries are now coming out into having a functioning internal economy. And it’s not hard to imagine — there’s already a lot of conversation about freeing up travel between countries that have eliminated this virus. So there are many benefits with this approach.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Baker, what — in the United States, we talk a lot about the economic impact of sheltering in place. What was the economic impact on New Zealand? And how long was the total period of lockdown there in your country?

MICHAEL BAKER: Yeah. Well, the economic cost is huge. But a lot of it is unavoidable, because many industries, like tourism — is a big industry for New Zealand, international tourism — is altered anyway, and there’s a global recession…

Internally, we will be much better off with eliminating this virus, because we will be emerging, I think, in the next few weeks. I mean, we are getting back now to a fairly normal existence for most people. But I would say in the next three to four weeks we’ll emerge to the lowest level of containment, which means just managing the borders, with most of our local industries and activities returning to normal. So that’s a huge dividend. And you can then go about your life without fear of being exposed to this virus. At the same time, most of Australia will be reaching that point, and I think we’ll start to resume travel between these countries. And, of course, much of the export industries have been very little affected by this, because, of course, they don’t involve the movement of people across borders particularly.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about your prime minister, and a leader, about leaders as role models. President Trump refuses to wear a mask in public. Last week, he toured a Ford manufacturing plant in Michigan that was repurposed to make, yeah, masks, personal protective equipment. He refused to wear a mask while speaking to the press inside the plant or when being shown walking around. All the executives around him had masks on. The signs everywhere said you have to wear a mask. He defied an executive order from the Michigan governor, as well as the plant’s own rules. He said he wore one earlier. There was some furtive picture taken of him by someone unofficially, standing at the back. But he said he did not want to wear one in public, speaking to reporters. This is what he said.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I did wear — I had one on before. I wore one in this back area. But I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.

AMY GOODMAN: He talks about a mask like a pill: I took one in the back area. But a mask is as effective as it is when you are wearing it. And then, on Memorial Day, of all days, remembering the dead, he did not wear a mask. The presidential candidate running against him, Joe Biden, and his wife also went to a veterans memorial. They did wear masks. And Trump later retweeted a picture of Joe Biden wearing a mask, mocking him. If you can talk about the significance, Dr. Baker, of why masks are important, but also why leadership matters, and what Jacinda Ardern has done?

MICHAEL BAKER: Yeah. Well, certainly, we all look at Trump’s behavior and are quite horrified at that, because how can you lead a country by example by refusing to — or exempting yourself from the standards that you are or should be advocating for people in the U.S., and, I guess, even globally, because, of course, I think the world has always looked to the U.S. for a great deal of leadership?

And in the science area, I mean, the Centers for Disease Control has always been one of our great sources of advice and is a huge global leader in science, and unfortunately, for various reasons — and I know a lot of it’s political — has been absent, or seemingly absent, from the COVID pandemic world. And it’s very disappointing for us. So, again, we are getting much more of our advice from Asian countries instead because of this absence of leadership from the U.S.