- Michael Bakerprofessor of public health at the University of Otago in Wellington, New Zealand. He is an epidemiologist and a member of the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Technical Advisory Group.
New Zealand implemented one of the earliest lockdowns and has largely succeeded in eliminating the coronavirus under the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Some of the country’s success has been attributed to her leadership, trust in science, and clear communication during the crisis. We get an update from Michael Baker, professor of public health at the University of Otago in Wellington, New Zealand. He is an epidemiologist and a member of the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Technical Advisory Group. Baker has been advising the government on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their slogan is “Stay home, stay safe, and be kind.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to New Zealand, which implemented one of the earliest lockdowns in response to the pandemic, has largely succeeded in eliminating the coronavirus, after the number of infections peaked in April. There was just a single confirmed COVID-19 case reported in New Zealand last week. This comes as a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck the capital Wellington Monday while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was in the middle of a live TV interview.
PRIME MINISTER JACINDA ARDERN: We’re just having a bit of an earthquake here, Ryan. Quite a — quite a decent shake here, but if you see things moving behind me. The beehive moves a little more than most. Yep, no, it’s just stopped.
AMY GOODMAN: Starting last week, Prime Minister Ardern began transitioning New Zealand, a Pacific nation that’s home to more than 5 million people, from lockdown level 3 to level 2, allowing most shops, restaurants, schools and workplaces to reopen. Some of the country’s success has been attributed to Ardern’s leadership, trust in science, and clear communication during the crisis. Instead of launching a war, she urged people to unite against COVID-19, and often calls the country, quote, “our team of 5 million.” In March, after putting her 21-month-old daughter to bed, Ardern hosted a Facebook Live session from her couch as New Zealanders submitted questions.
PRIME MINISTER JACINDA ARDERN: Excuse the casual attire. It can be messy business putting toddlers to bed, so I’m not in my work clothes. …
But some of the key things that I’ve been asked about are things like, you know, “Can we go for a walk?” Penny, you’ve asked — you’ve got four children. Can you walk with all of them, or should you just take two at a time? You can walk with the people that you will be with for the next month, the people that you’re living with. You can walk with them. They’re your — the people that will be in your life consistently over this period of time, and you can walk with them. But if, when you’re walking, you pass by someone, keep your — keep your distance. Keep two meters between everyone. I imagine New Zealanders are going to be doing a lot of long-distance waving while we’re out and about.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Jacinda Ardern in March. On Sunday, the prime minister thanked her nation for staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic to break the chain of transmission and save lives.
PRIME MINISTER JACINDA ARDERN: Thank you for staying home and saving lives. Together, we have kept the virus under control and played our part to avoid the widespread devastation we’ve seen overseas. But I know it’s at times been really tough. So thank you for all the sacrifices you’ve made over the past few months. From the children who missed out on precious time with their grandparents to the families who have had to say goodbye to loved ones from afar, New Zealanders have given up a lot to keep each other safe.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Wellington, New Zealand, where we’re joined by Dr. Michael Baker, professor of public health at the University of Otago. He’s an epidemiologist, a member of the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Technical Advisory Group. He’s been advising Prime Minister Ardern on the response to COVID-19.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! Thank you for staying up so late. I’m holding The New York Times. Front page of this weekend, “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, an Incalculable Loss.” The whole front page lists hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of names. We have something — under 5% of the population, but more than a quarter of the deaths in the world. Can you talk about what New Zealand can teach not only the United States, Brazil and other far more populous countries, but what you recognized early on and what you did, Dr. Baker?
MICHAEL BAKER: Well, greetings from Wellington. It’s a great pleasure to be on your program.
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 realized 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 realized 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 realize 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.
The second point about the healthcare system, I think it helps to have a socialized health system, because, obviously, you can deliver testing more easily. You can manage your hospitals more effectively. And so I think that’s helped in Australia, New Zealand and, I guess, also in some Asian countries that have a highly centralized healthcare system.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about what you see the U.S. has done wrong? I mean, it’s just astounding the richest country in the world is the epicenter of this pandemic. And if you can also talk about the racial disparities that we’ve seen, particularly African Americans, far greater death toll than their population in the United States should be, very disproportionate? What happened in New Zealand with the Maori, with the Indigenous population, with low-income New Zealanders? Most importantly, what do you think the U.S. is doing wrong?
MICHAEL BAKER: Yeah, well, firstly, looking at the inequalities, unfortunately, that seems to be a feature of pandemics and infectious disease in general, is they magnify social inequalities. And with our current government, inequalities is one of the central driving concerns with the healthcare system and with the pandemic response. So equity has been a major driver. It was also one of the reasons we have put, obviously, a huge amount of resources into the elimination approach, because the most pro-equity thing we can do is to keep the virus out. And that is the situation now.
When I look at the United States, obviously, I’m very disappointed — or more than disappointed, because it is a tragic situation. And usually for leadership we look to the U.S., particularly the Centers for Disease Control, we look to the U.K., Public Health England, and with this — and also the World Health Organization — and, unfortunately, I think there was a severe error of judgment in assisting this pandemic, because there was a period when it was containable, but the advice was not to shut borders, and there was a complacent attitude. So, I think that’s the number one problem, is that our major health agencies in the Western world have really let us down — and, I think, governments, as well — because this was an entirely preventable global catastrophe. So I think that’s the number one requirement, is that science and leadership have to work together and recognize these threats and manage them accordingly.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, could you talk about the issue of the legitimacy of leadership in terms of being able to effectuate these kinds of severe or stringent policies? Obviously, in China, they had to call out the military to completely isolate Wuhan, but in New Zealand you didn’t really have to deal with any kind of a major enforcement, per se. Could you talk about that in the few seconds we have left?
MICHAEL BAKER: Yeah, I think really empathetic leadership, as we’ve seen in New Zealand, helps. But, actually, Australia has got a different style of government, and they’ve also succeeded. But really, the best-performing country on Earth has actually been Taiwan, I think, because they acted very early. They didn’t need a lockdown. And that was because they had a very strong public health agency, and they started managing their borders in January. And they did everything right. So, I think they’ve had a model response.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Baker, we’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to continue with a post-show and post it online at democracynow.org, from New Zealand. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Be safe.