Tuesday, November 02, 2021

The slow reopening

The slow and gradual reopening of the areas still under Level 3 is continuing, and this time the changes will be be meaningful for people still living under what’s otherwise Lockdown. At 11:59pm tonight, the Waikato+ (the parts of the Waikato and areas south under Level 3 Lockdown) will move to Alert Level 3, Step 2. Auckland may follow next week.

There are rules for each Step, and under Level 3, Step 2:
  • retail can open, with customers keeping 2 metres apart, and staff and customers required to wear face coverings.
  • public facilities like libraries, museums and zoos can reopen, with face coverings required and people keeping 2 metres apart.
  • outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people can go ahead, with the removal of the 2-household restriction. Physical distancing is strongly encouraged to help prevent the virus spreading between households.
  • outdoor organised exercise classes, like yoga and bootcamps, can expand to 25 people, including instructors, with 2-metre physical distancing required.
These changes are potentially risky: Allowing people into shops may make them points of infection, what the Ministry of Health calls “exposure events”. However, with vaccination rates continuing to rise (as of today, 76% of the eligible population is fully-vaccinated, and 88% have had at least one jab), the risk is reducing all the time. That’s because this is now a disease of the unvaccinated: The vast, vast majority of people who become infected are unvaccinated, as are the vast, vast majority of those who become quite ill, and the vast, vast, vast majority of those who are hospitalised. So, although we keep getting new record-setting daily totals, our hospitalisation rates aren’t rising anywhere nearly as quickly, something the Ministry of Health attributes to the rising percentage of the population that’s fully vaccinated, especially in Auckland, and also that the disease is affecting younger people people who are better able to fight it off (for weeks the average age of hospitalised people as been in the low to mid 40s). In fact, many of the people with Covid who have been hospitalised were actually there for something else entirely, and in some cases, only found out they were positive when they turned up for other reasons.

These changes will also make a big difference to ordinary people. Retail will be reopening in time for Christmas shopping, something that’s especially important for Auckland, which has been under Lockdown with no retail shops allowed to open (apart from supermarkets and pharmacies, of course). That will be good for New Zealand’s economy, with a third of the population able to patronise local shops again, but it will be even more important for people’s state of mind and mental health.

These changes are pretty huge for me personally. I’ll be able to go to the home centre to pick out the plants I want to buy, something I was beginning to think couldn’t happen this year. I’ll also be able to get supplies for various projects that I could have picked-up using “click and collect”, but the pandemic fatigue made me uninterested and unmotivated. This will let me feel like I’m getting stuff done.

The bigger impact for me is on my mental and emotional wellbeing. Being able to go to a shop and be around other human beings is huge for someone who lives alone, especially because Lockdown restrictions have meant I had to remain by myself nearly 24/7 (going to a supermarket, when that’s just about the only option, isn’t good enough). Even more important, all the family here in Hamilton will be able to get together outside, if we want to, the first time in more than a month that’s been possible.

Here’s the reality that goes along with all of this: People will absolutely break the rules. We know this because people are continuing to ignore restrictions now, and it’s unlikely they’ll suddenly start behaving themselves. This is one of the big risks that could make the virus spread even faster. However, on balance, I think it’s a risk well worth taking.

New Zealand simply cannot stay locked-down much longer. That’s just a fact. Fully-vaccinated New Zealanders cannot be held hostage by the unvaccinated forever, and they’re rapidly running out of patience. Based on current projections, Auckland is likely to get to 90% fully-vaccinated by the end of the month, and so, move on to the new “stoplight” system. However, much of the country is lagging far behind. It looks like the South Island will reach 90% by around December 10, however, what’s projected to be the last DHB to get there, Northland, isn’t projected to get to 90% until January 17. Will Auckland and the South Island get to have basically normal life by Christmas, and fully enjoy their summer, while most of the North Island remains subject to lockdowns and restrictions?

Yesterday, reporters asked the prime minister if the entire country would have to wait until DHBs with relatively small populations get to 90% when the big ones—with the vast majority of the country’s population—have achieved the goal. She didn’t give a definitive answer, but did suggest they might take into account how many people were still not fully vaccinated, and not percentages alone.

The problem is that the DHBs lagging the farthest behind have disadvantaged, largely Māori, populations, people who are highly vulnerable to serious illness if the virus gets to them. Also, the New Zealand population is highly mobile, especially in the summer, meaning the chances of the virus being spread are really good—in fact, Christmas itself has the potential to be a nationwide “superspreader event” of sorts.

There are several options. First, stick to the plan and wait for the disadvantaged people in those largely rural DHBs to get to 90%. That will mean that people in areas that are over 90% fully-vaccinated will disregard the rules, and without the Vaccination Certificate programme in effect, the unvaccinated in every community will have a great opportunity to catch Covid and spread it to others.

Or, the government could decide that a lower percentage is “good enough” and switch to the new system before every DHB gets to 90%. That would mean the very populated regions would get to have summer, and it would give a strong incentive to the laggards to get vaccinated, since they’d be unable to do any of the “fun” things that the fully-vaccinated would be doing.

The government is starting marketing campaigns to drive home the point that people won’t be able to do “fun” things unless they’re fully-vaccinated, and that time is fast running out to get their first jab so they'll be fully vaccinated by summer. The marketing efforts are especially targeting young people, and young Māori people in particular, because those groups are lagging behind the most.

Maybe the efforts will get people motivated to get vaccinated now, but I think everyone, from the prime minister on down, needs to reinforce the message by constantly repeating the fact that only the fully-vaccinated will be able to do the “fun” stuff (and, possibly, continue to be employed). They also need to launch the Vaccine Certificate programme as soon as humanly possible so businesses have the opportunity to work out how they’ll implement it and people have time to get their smartphones set-up. Then, as soon as the law changes are passed the new system can start the very next day. Doing all that would make it much easier to switch to the new system quickly, even before all DHBs hit 90% fully-vaccinated.

No matter what happens, some people will be unhappy, some angry, and some will get sick and, probably, some will die. Those are the realities we now live with no matter what the government does or doesn’t do. The government has to strike a balance between protecting people from the virus—and that includes protecting the unvaccinated from themselves—but it also can’t allow those of us who did what was asked of us to be held hostage indefinitely by those who didn’t, or, worse, wouldn’t, get fully-vaccinated.

The one thing that’s certain is that change is coming, and this slow reopening will continue. The hard, cold reality is that it’s up to EACH OF US to make sure we prepare ourselves by being fully-vaccinated.

Update: At 5.30pm this afternoon, the government held an impromptu press conference to announce that due to two cases of Covid in Northland that are unlinked to any other cases in the region, the upper part of Northland will go under a Level 3 Lockdown at 11:59pm tonight. Cabinet will review the region’s Alert Level on Monday, the same day it reviews the Levels of Auckland and Waikato+.

I made the graphic up top to show the amount of time that various parts of the country had spent under Lockdown (Alert Levels 3 and 4) as of November 1. It doesn’t include the “steps” modifications, but the Alert Levels are still forms of Level 3 Lockdown, and the "steps" only affect Auckland and the Waikato+. The Step 1 change was the only one in effect on November 1 and wasn’t a huge modification; any future versions of the list would have to account for Steps 2 and 3, which are largely parts of the old Alert Level 2 that most of New Zealand is currently under.

No comments: