Claire Trevett: The next Covid 19 monster the PM will have to wrangle is fear itself


PM Jacinda Ardern’s biggest future Covid-19 challenge will not be stamping out this Delta outbreak or getting the vaccination rate high enough to start to reopen the borders.

It will be stamping out the fear that New Zealanders now have of Covid-19 so that she can reopen the borders.

The trickiest decision Ardern will have to make over this pandemic will be when to do that – a move that will end the elimination goal and leave us relying on vaccinations and needing a nimble health response rather than lockdowns.

Ardern’s biggest challenge in delivering on it is to make people not scared of Covid-19 anymore.

Once fear is there, it is very hard to get rid of.

We have been told a high vaccination rate will dispense with the need for lockdowns in future: that it is a choice of vaccinations or lockdowns.

That has been the main message to try to push along those vaccination rates in the last six weeks.

However, Ardern has so far chosen not to put much emphasis on the other potential outcome of high vaccination rates: the borders reopening.

She has also refused to set a vaccination level at which the borders might reopen, although it is becoming increasingly obvious that 90 per cent is not so much a target as a bare minimum.

Just before the Delta lockdown, Ardern released a cautious roadmap for that.

It was responded to with trepidation by some. Polls continued to show strong support for elimination, and opening the borders would be the end to elimination.

The Australian bubble was also greeted with wariness even at a time both countries were Covid-free.

That will be an obstacle for the Government when the time comes to reopen the borders.

There will inevitably be significant, but not universal, resistance to it – much of it because of that long-entrenched fear of Covid.

Ardern has made much of New Zealand’s success so far hinging on taking the best scientific and health advice and turning it into action.

She has used that advice to reassure people, and, yes, sometimes it has also had the effect of scaring people.

To reopen borders, she will need to convert the fear that has been invaluable in keeping Covid-19 out into an acceptance that the trade-offs for having Covid-19 here once we are vaccinated are worth it.

That will be no easy task and this week will not have helped.

The fear of Covid-19 is a fear of death. No politician in this country has been brave enough to say what death rate for Covid-19 would be acceptable to them.

However, let us assume the best-case scenario would be similar mortality rates as the flu: about 500 a year.

The headline figure from Shaun Hendy’s modelling forecasting 7000 deaths a year at an 80 per cent vaccination rate has been accused of being alarmist by some.

Modelling is an attempt to predict some certainty out of uncertainty – and the 7000 figure was if the vaccine being used was only moderately effective against a variant.

The highlighting of that figure will do little to assist Ardern in dampening the fear of Covid-19, even among the vaccinated.

That was already going to be a very tough job because until now Ardern had relied on fear of Covid-19 to secure compliance with the restrictions she was imposing on people.

Hendy’s modelling was released partly to prompt people to go and get vaccinated. Ardern has also pointed to the need to get vaccinated to help protect children, for whom vaccines are yet to be approved.

She has also highlighted the higher number of children infected in the Delta outbreak and the more severe health impacts compared to the first variants of Covid-19.

I am not arguing it was an unjustified fear or that Ardern was fearmongering: it was a valid response to the threat posed by Covid-19. However, it comes at a cost in the longer term.

While the latest Delta outbreak has increased fear, it could also end up being a critical factor in changing public attitudes to reopening New Zealand.

Seven weeks of lockdown in Auckland have given people a taste of the reality most of the world had already been bitten by, but which New Zealand was spared from.

It was a bitter medicine, but it was a medicine.

Last summer, unvaccinated and unmasked Aucklanders were crowding at the Viaduct watching the America’s Cup, while many Northern Hemisphere cities were masked and closed down.

This month, the streets of Auckland were deserted while the vaccinated and unmasked residents of New York were squashing in to watch the US Open Tennis Championships.

They’d been through the worst.

It showed not an unsustainable, safe Covid-19-free life but a vaccinated life with Covid-19.

Many people – experts, politicians, business people, those stranded overseas, migrants, and armchair critics such as myself – have given their reckons on the right time to reopen.

The only one whose reckons actually count for much is the Prime Minister’s.

Unlike all those commentators, Ardern is the one who has to make it happen and persuade the public that it will be okay.

Critically, it is also she who will then be held accountable for it.

If she waits too long, she risks losing the goodwill of people who got vaccinated on the basis of promises of a golden future. The pressure will build and build.

If she goes too early and the modellers’ worst scenarios come true, it is she who will be blamed.

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