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As New Zealand Eliminates COVID, Epidemiologist Says “We Look at Trump’s Behavior & We’re Horrified”

Web ExclusiveMay 26, 2020
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To learn how New Zealand has largely eliminated COVID-19, we continue our extended interview with Michael Baker, an epidemiologist who is a member of the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Technical Advisory Group and advising the government on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He describes how the country’s response compares to the government actions in the United States and worldwide.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we bring you Part 2 of our discussion of New Zealand.

Yes, much of the world is looking at New Zealand as a beacon of hope. It just hasn’t just flattened the curve of the coronavirus, but apparently squashed it. New Zealand began its lockdown early, went hard with widespread testing. What did all of this entail, and what can we learn? Is it just that it’s a small nation of 5 million? Or does it have a lot to teach much larger nations in the world that are dealing with massive infection and death rates, like the United States?

We continue with our interview with Michael Baker, professor of public health at the University of Otago in Wellington, New Zealand, epidemiologist, member of the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Technical Advisory Group. He’s been advising the government on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s slogan is “Stay home, stay safe, and be kind.” Juan, why don’t you start with the first question?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dr. Baker, I wanted to ask you — in our earlier segment, we were talking about the failures of the United States government in being able to adequately deal with confronting the coronavirus, but 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 realized 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 minimize 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 immunize your population. That was what the U.K. tried for a period and then realized 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 immunizing 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. So, some of these economic consequences are unavoidable.

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.

In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern has displayed this empathetic leadership style and has engaged people and taken the country with her. And also, I think the science messages coming out have also been very well accepted and understood by people. So, I think that that congruousness of everything is very helpful.

But I think when you have, unfortunately, a leader like President Trump, where his behavior is so at odds to what appears to be good practice and good science, I think it must be very frustrating for Americans, because I know the Americans I talk to have similar views to New Zealand. They want to find effective ways of managing this threat. Most people, I think, know what needs to be done. So you do need, I think, leaders to be articulating that.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Michael Baker, any final thoughts?

MICHAEL BAKER: Well, two points I’d like to comment on. One is that I think in the U.S., you know, there are opportunities to change tack on managing this threat, and learning from not just New Zealand, but several countries, I think, have got very effective strategies.

And one thing that does concern me is, at the moment, looking at the mortality rate. In New York, it’s obviously very high. It’s getting up to 0.15% of the population. Now, if that — if the rest of the U.S. has the same experience, that would mean that you might have half a million people dying from this pandemic before it’s over.

So, I think there’s a lot of opportunities in the U.S. to avoid that happening. But if states open up and move out of lockdown without — when there’s still widely circulating virus, you are going to have the second wave and third waves and multiple waves going into the future. And I do know — I do talk to epidemiologists in the U.S. who are desperately worried about those events. So, I just hope that the health authorities there are able to implement rational policies to avoid what I think is a pretty terrible scenario occurring.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve also talked about the connection between the pandemic and the climate crisis. If you can talk about that?

MICHAEL BAKER: Yes. Well, one of the — one of my big lessons from all of this is that we have to be looking to the future at the kind of threats that you could describe as existential threats for humanity. And with a pandemic, we have, I think, failed quite badly at a global level to anticipate something that was very well described, with very good science, that was only a short distance ahead of us. It was almost in front of us. It was just a few weeks to a month or two away. And the world has really failed, I think, to assess that risk, listen to science and act in a coordinated way. And that’s why I feel very concerned, and I really hope that we’ll learn from this, this pandemic. It’s obviously not over yet. But it will be a temporary shock. It will be a horrible shock, and it’s going to potentially cause many millions of deaths across the planet. But after, you know, maybe two or three years, it will hopefully be under control in various ways.

But what it — the big lesson for me is that the far more severe threats on the horizon are about climate change and loss of biodiversity. And while those threats are going to increase and intensify over the next few years to the next few decades, they will be far more severe for humanity than the pandemic. And that’s why I really hope that we will take the lesson from this event and apply it to these other threats. So, that means listening to scientists, strengthening our global health agencies, like World Health Organization and U.N., and really taking a coordinated global response to these events. And so that’s my huge hope from this very destructive pandemic that we’re in at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Just one final question. In The New York Times, Amanda Taub recently asked, “Why Are Women-Led Nations Doing Better with Covid-19?” She suggested their “leadership style offers promise for a new era of global threats.”

In addition to New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Taub wrote that, quote, “Germany, led by Angela Merkel, has had a far lower death rate than Britain, France, Italy or Spain. Finland, where Prime minister Sanna Marin, 34, governs with a coalition of four female-led parties, has had fewer than 10 percent as many deaths as nearby Sweden. And Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, has presided over one of the most successful efforts in the world at containing the virus, using testing, contact tracing and isolation measures to control infections without a full national lockdown,” Taub wrote.

She goes on to note, quote, “By contrast, the male-led governments of Sweden and Britain — both of which have high coronavirus death tolls — appear to have relied primarily on epidemiological modeling by their own advisers, with few channels for dissent from outside experts.”

And, of course — and that’s what Taub wrote — but then, of course, you have, for example, President Trump. And we have — we are the epicenter of the pandemic. Your thoughts, Dr. Baker?

MICHAEL BAKER: Yes. Well, I have read about that association, and it seems pretty consistent to me. I’m not a political scientist. But looking at those leaders, I think they have done extremely well. And you could hypothesize all sorts of reasons why their style of leadership has been much more effective. Perhaps it is that they they’re more open to talking with scientists. And, of course, many of our leading scientists are also women. So, I’m not sure. I think there’s a lot of discussion we need to have about that, that different style of government. But certainly, I think depoliticizing these issues, getting all political parties to recognize these existential threats are not going to follow any political line, they just need good, solid, pragmatic leadership. So, whether there’s something different about female leaders that enables them to do that, I think, is a really important question to look at.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Dr. Michael Baker, professor of public health at the University of Otago in Wellington, New Zealand, epidemiologist, member of the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Technical Advisory Group, that is advising Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her slogan’s “Stay home, stay safe, and be kind.” They have eliminated the coronavirus in New Zealand.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us. Be safe.

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