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Posted by Iain on Sept. 4, 2020, 12:42 p.m. in COVID-19
The battle lines seemingly are now drawn. The national economy or the health of the nation. Is it naive to think you can have both?
After 102 days of no community transmission what appears to be a border lapse saw the re-emergence of Covid-19 in the community a few weeks ago in New Zealand. Limited to Auckland and the Waikato city of Tokoroa, Auckland was put into level three lockdown around three weeks ago once again restricting work and movement. For the first time we had road blocks in and out of Auckland (a nightmare for workers and probably just as bad for the police and army – suffice it to say it didn’t work very well). That basically meant working from home where possible and restaurants, cafes and schools were closed.
That changed at midnight on Monday this week when Auckland joined the rest of the country in level two which basically meant everything was open but social distancing, regular hand washing and mandatory facemasks on public transport (and recommended when leaving home), saw some relaxation and return to “normality".
New Zealanders, and most Aucklanders, are a stoic and now it seems clear, a fairly compliant lot. Earlier in the year the entire country was locked down for seven long (and for a time, relaxing) weeks. It was pleasantly surprising how few transgressions there were.
The Government claimed it could, through its ‘kind’ management and oversight keep New Zealanders safe from community transmission if we just followed its directives.
Well we did, we took the economic hit Covid is back among us…
The economic damage has been serious and although unemployment continues to be a pleasing 4% (unofficially 5%), underpinned largely by the Government’s wage subsidy and the printing of billions upon billions of dollars, there’s no doubt in my mind that keeping Auckland locked down for any longer than two and half weeks, was always going to be the biggest political challenge facing the Government, only seven weeks out from the election (moved from September to October). And costly – another billion dollars in lost economic activity every two weeks Auckland is closed.
Although most epidemiologists called for another week or two in lockdown given we still have small cases popping up regularly in Auckland I don’t think the government, until now hellbent on some heroic cause to eliminate the virus from the community, could risk the political fallout of continuing to choke economic activity in Auckland, the nation’s engine room.
I think in some respects that while they’ll never admit it, they have got ‘real’ and realised virtually no country apart from Taiwan and Thailand has successfully suppressed the virus and prevented its re-emergence after widespread lockdowns.
So now we get to see what happens.
Each day anything from two to five new cases appear, thankfully and so far all linked to one another (making them somewhat easier to trace and isolate). The pleasing aspect is the Government rolled out an effective testing programme with over 100,000 tests being completed in the past three weeks.
They say the disease is ‘contained’.
Epidemiologists are not so sure.
With everyone back at work and moving around already the signs of social distancing is being largely ignored. Schools are back. Movie theatres, cafes, bars and restaurants are open but limited in the numbers allowed in. Large gatherings (apart from funerals) have been banned in Auckland but Aucklanders are now free to travel around the country. This concerns many outside of the region.
I suspect we will see a small spike in cases but this will be the true test of how well the Government, caught short back in March, has learned and prepared over the past five months. Like many people, I always thought elimination or eradicating the virus would be next to impossible long term - too many people are arriving here from overseas with it. I really do question why we continue to let people in from countries awash with this disease like India - surely a negative test within a few days of travelling should be a prerequisite for travelling (and yes I realise people can still pick it up along the way especially whilst in transit).
The question now is can we learn to live with it and contain it sufficiently so that there’s never more than a few hundred people self isolating or in managed quarantine (those found to be positive are shipped off into quarantine hotels) and keep the rest of the economy moving?
Having spent $36 billion in four months on fiscal stimulus the economic wheels are definitely still turning. Many exporters, particularly of primary products and wine(!) are doing really well. Among the service and manufacturing sectors the nervousness is palpable. The economy sprung back after the first lockdown ended and while the Government is at pains to reassure us that we won’t ‘need’ to lockdown to level 3 again, because they have systems in place, I can’t help thinking that is wishful thinking. I am starting to think that economics now has its nose ahead of health.
I think it is also fair to say patience has run out with the legions of bureaucrats across multiple Ministries, who let’s face it, at the best of times couldn’t organise a good knees up in a brewery. A group of highly regarded and talented business and IT professionals have designed a blue tooth ‘CovidCard’ that would be warn like a lanyard around the neck. The idea being no need to scan QRC codes and no need for a cellphone when you enter any premises. The CovidCard would record (privately) which other cards you came within a few metres of, allowing for quick and easy tracing in the event someone you came into contact with so if someone you’d had a close contact with turned out to be positive you could scuttle off and get yourself a test. The Government has been trying to get us all to use their Covid phone app and to scan QR codes. They haven’t been successful overseas and are only being used some of the time by some people here.
These bright things from the private sector have walked away this past week citing ‘useless’ bureaucrats with their own agendas operating inside the Ministry of health (among others).
I look with some envy across the Tasman where the Australian government is talking about tax cuts to stimulate a private sector led recovery. Here it seems the left wingers in Government think they have all the answers and their thousands of bureaucrats will lead us back to where we were pre-Covid. It seems to me the Labour Party want us to marry them, to honour and obey till the polls do us part.
Looks to me like we will be more like Queensland or New South Wales in future - inevitable outbreaks given no border that has any overseas travelers crossing it today is going to be 100% secure - but dealing with the outbreaks quickly and effectively, allowing the significant majority of wealth generators to keep doing what they do so well. While the bureaucrats bungle away behind the scenes but with their hands on the tiller.
Our smug complacency having reached that 102 day ‘no community transmission’ milestone has been well and truly shattered but for now anyway Aucklanders have done the right thing and got this beast under control again. The cost of $500 million a week though is simply too high to be ignored.
Now we face the next chapter of this battle and the true test of the Government’s strategy to contain, suppress and try and eliminate the virus.
So far, a guarded, so good. We cannot and I am sure will not tolerate any more lockdowns.
Until next week.
Posted by Iain on Aug. 21, 2020, 1:39 p.m. in COVID-19
New Zealand and Australia long ago socialised education, healthcare and social security. I’ve always believed in it because it has allowed our nations to avoid the worst of the inequalities seen in so many countries that don’t underpin their societies in this way. An imperfect model to be sure but I haven’t seen any better model.
When I was ten years old (and I should point out an ardent communist - it didn’t last) my Uncle said to me that I should always remember that in a democracy there is two Governments - ‘an elected one and the permanent one’. He pointed out to me, being inside the political scene, that the civil service was the permanent Government. It is they who really run things. That has always stuck with me and I am reminded of it on an almost daily basis.
After thirty years dealing with the ineptitude and chaos that is immigration departments, particularly in NZ, now more than ever I’m questioning the whole idea of handing over so much control to people who may be well intentioned but have zero clue how to run large organisations and where there is it seems virtually zero accountability. I’m not for privatisation and this is not some neo-liberal rant, but there has to be a better way of running things in departments that offer a service like visas. Or protecting us from a virus, in ways that don’t expose locals, migrants and employers to worse outcomes than necessary in the way this pandemic has.
With Auckland back in Level 3 (not lockdown but severely limiting exposure to each other) I see real parallels between the Ministry of Health and its handling of the epidemic response and the headless chicken act we witness daily inside the immigration department.
In June the Minister of Health announced that ‘border facing staff’ would be routinely tested for the coronavirus. This week, more than two months and another lockdown later, we learned it never happened. Only under questioning in Parliament did the Minister of Health admit it. Less than 40% of ‘border facing‘ staff had ever been tested and that was being done on a voluntary basis. In the private sector world I inhabit someone would have lost their job if for no other reason than repeated inferences testing was being done on these staff was being delivered at daily press conferences was simply untrue. When the PM, cornered this week, was forced to admit she didn’t know either but given her cabinet had instructed months ago it was to happen, all she had to say was ‘Our expectations haven’t been met’. Oh really PM? You never asked for a report confirming that the one group of workers, the one group more than any other single group in this country that should be tested, was being tested? I know you’re busy PM, but why?
Given her politics I suspect too much believing that bureaucrats can and will deliver what the politicians want. Flawed thinking in my experience.
The Ministry couldn’t roll out the testing everyone including the PM thought they were despite having at least four months to do so. It seems they didn’t seem to feel the need to inform their political masters. Which to mind says something about where true power lies.
The reason finally given for this obvious failure? Making the test mandatory represented a potential infringement on the civil liberties of those workers. Apparently ordering a third of the nation to stay in their Auckland homes doesn’t play on their minds in terms of curtailing personal freedoms and liberties.
I get the feeling much of our (smug) success of going 102 days without community transmission was as much about good luck as good management. Ministers had expectations of the bureaucrats the bureaucrats couldn’t deliver. The PM, her cabinet and people were kept in the dark.
The same thing is going on inside the immigration department.
A few weeks ago it was announced that most work visa holders whose visas were expiring this year would get an automatic extension. That was a sensible, pragmatic and clearly political decision. The one obvious missing piece to that puzzle was the partners and children of those work visa holders. What about them? Oh, we were told, they must apply for their own extensions. Form, fee, passport, evidence of relationship, etc. Call me stupid, but where’s the logic in that we asked?
Yesterday it was announced that partners and children would now also be covered in the same way. Finally(!) but several weeks of fear and frustration for migrants already dreading the daily news cycle and how their plans and dreams might be dashed with every sunrise. That earlier decision had clearly been made with no comprehension it appears of the consequences for the families of those work visa holders.
I appreciate politicians are supposed to make the big calls but given most Ministers lack any clue about their portfolio (what Minister of Health ever worked as a Doctor, or what Minister of Immigration ever worked as an immigration adviser?) I can see how the bureaucrats sometimes get stuck in the middle of dumb policy but most do have input as Ministers ‘seek advice from officials'. Unfortunately I have yet to find any INZ manager that understands how the real economy works, how the private sector operates, how decisions are made by employers in a competitive marketplace because almost exclusively none of them have ever worked anywhere but inside government.
Coupled with this ‘information deficit’, as they’d probably describe it, the immigration department is trapped in an accountability vacuum because some idiot decided after some dodgy goings on by a Deputy Secretary of INZ years ago, that no manager or supervisor can direct subordinates on what decision to make on a visa application. That’s true!
We have then a powerful ministry, unaccountable to its customers and Ministers that don’t have any real clue about their portfolios.
Why does the civil service get it so wrong so often?
I’m convinced having had a ring side seat at the circus for three decades it’s simple. They have no competition for their service. When they serve up the slop service they do we can’t go down the road to a competitor, because there aren’t any. As a Government monopoly they can never go out of business. Poor service and appalling decision making has no impact on their tomorrow like it does for those of us who are kept sharp by the fear of losing our homes if we don’t deliver what our customers pay for.
At least in the health sector, although it is tax payer funded there is a high degree of coordination between the public and private sectors. Many Specialists for example are self employed but operate in public hospitals.
I believe in socialised health, education and giving guarantees to the retired of a life of dignity, as all New Zealanders do.
What I don’t much care for is the way New Zealand and Australia have handed so much power to civil servants who are not accountable to the ‘customers’ they ‘serve’.
Heads should roll over the lack of border staff testing. Heads should roll at INZ for their constant operational failures and their dismal response to this pandemic.
But they won’t.
That socialist ideology that serves us so well in so many areas of our society and binds us together far better than in many other societies is not always suited to delivering products and services like visas and a great many other services.
A little accountability and sensible management would be a good place to start however.
Until next week
Posted by Iain on March 27, 2020, 1:10 p.m. in COVID-19
You remember that Meryl Streep movie, in which, as she arrived at the concentration camp in Germany during World War II, she was forced to decide which one of her two children would live and which one would die? The choice wasn’t made for her, she had to make the unthinkable choice herself. Harrowing in the extreme, I can still picture the scene. Seems our national and global leadership are now facing similar choices and our nations and the world better hope they make the right ones.
The problem is, internationally, there seems such little co-operation or commonality of thought. Despite the science.
What is clear is that none of us can escape the virus. Even on lockdown the science suggests given how infectious it is, between 40% and 80% of all humans are eventually going to get it. What a lockdown attempts to do is to ensure we don't all get it at the same time. Because, if we do, around 18% of those to catch the virus will need hospitalisation, around 4% of them need to be in intensive care units and we know that it will prove fatal to somewhere between 2% and 4% of those catching it.
That will crash health systems everywhere as we've seen in Italy and we are now witnessing in the United States, beginning with New York. (Don’t get me started on what a ‘for profit’ health system looks like during an epidemic. Those against socialised health systems take note of how bad it is even when you aren’t making decisions based on making a dollar out of the illness or operation!).
Already in Italy ‘Sophie’ has had to make her choices on who lives and who dies.
A week or so ago, I had a very interesting discussion with my business partner Myer, because Australia is taking a very different approach to this pandemic than New Zealand. As someone living in Melbourne, Victoria, at least he has a State government that seems to be taking this more seriously than some of the other states and the federal Government, despite the platitudes. Myer is terribly worried about the health consequences of not locking down the whole country.
According to the Australian Prime Minister, his medical experts have suggested you can also slow down the speed of the spread of the virus without a full national lockdown. That does seem rather at odds with the medical advice being given to every other government globally. At the best of times it is hard to get the State and Territorial governments that form part of the Commonwealth of Australia all singing from the same song sheet. Right now it seems impossible as the squabbling continues.
Australia it seems is following more of the American model of, to some extent, let this virus rip because to do otherwise it's going to destroy the economy. I find that so strange given they run a publicly funded healthcare system for the most part, so they don’t have the health insurance and profit motivated companies and hospitals to deal with.
For a nation that promotes giving everyone a ‘fair go’ and which is for the most part a socialist democracy, their decisions at national level see puzzling.
It seems to me there are only three courses of action:
1. Full national lockdown including shutting down freedom of movement within countries and closing of national, and where appropriate, state borders. The New Zealand, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan model.
2. Partial lockdown relying on social distancing and mass testing, tracing and isolation to prevent the rapid spread of the virus — the Singapore and South Korea model
3. Let the virus rip and basically allow the old and otherwise medically compromised to die - the ultimate in ‘taking one for the team’. The United States and Australian Federal Governments are two obvious examples.
Of course the big debate I'm sure that our Government, like all Governments everywhere had, revolved around those three options, knowing that the choice they ran with was always going to cause harm — the key I guess was trying to decide where the balance lay between health and the economy. There was no obviously right answer because we haven’t been in this position before.
The fundamental question to be answered was what price are we willing to pay to ‘flatten the curve’? That price being in terms of economic and physical health.
Is locking down of entire countries, where they essentially shut themselves off to the world as New Zealand has now done, the way to cure the infection but causes the death of the economic system as we know it?
Those following the New Zealand model are taking a very humanitarian view where every life is precious and although it's important to keep the economy functioning as best we can, the economy is not going take precedence over "flattening the curve" and saving as many lives as we can. That might come at a proportionally greater economic cost potential, but it is the path new Zealanders have chosen.
The US, and to a lesser extent the Australians, seem ready to throw a lot of people under the viral bus. If, as the early modelling suggested, around 2% of Australians who catch this, die, that is the price that their political leadership seem willing to pay in order to try and keep the wheels of their economy, kind of, turning.
Some rough maths — if 60% of Australians get it that's going to be something like 13 million people, minimum. That’s almost 2 million people needing to be in hospital. If 4% of them die, that's around 500,000 people. It's quite a big number to try and justify but it seems in order to attempt to keep the economy moving, that’s a price they are willing to pay.
In the US, the death toll potentially based on pretty simple maths runs into the low millions of deaths but that seem the price the White House is willing to pay to keep Wall Street happy.
I do note, importantly however that actual death rates are not matching the death rates predicted in the modelling. They are orders of magnitude lower. For example the ‘models’ suggested 400,000 deaths could be expected in Italy but the experience suggests a few thousand.
No matter what the death rate, there will be many countries where enforcing a complete lockdown will simply be impossible to police. I watched a video last night shot in South Africa hours after the three-week lockdown was announced. It was ‘business as usual’ out in the lower socio economic suburbs and townships. The middle class and wealthy people already live behind high walls, electronic gates and high security and will find it quite easy to isolate themselves (as long as the electricity stays on and that already doesn’t happen with any certainty). I wrote week or so ago, once this virus gets into the townships of South Africa and every informal shanty town across Africa, Asia and South America, the consequences are too frightening to contemplate - I suspect the death rates will be very high and their economies will be in real danger of absolute collapse.
I am no expert, but in New Zealand I think it's fairly clear we are going to be able to flatten the curve, but clearly not eliminate the infections and that will mean our hospitals are going to come under enormous pressure in the next few weeks. We will however preserve some chance of them not being overwhelmed.
And what follows the lockdown?
In my view there is simply no way that our borders will reopen when the lockdown ends. As we are seeing in China and Hong Kong the past week there has been a spike in reinfection as international travellers are bringing the virus home.
That means months of limited cross border travel.
I think at best what it means is for many months after the infection has worked its way through the New Zealand population, we will limit who can enter the country. As a nation of exporters that will be difficult. The economy is going to take a giant hit. Our government at least has the capacity given its balance sheet to borrow big and borrow cheap to grease the commercial wheels. For a few months anyway.
I suspect as and when we allow people back into the country they are going to be forced into two weeks of mandatory quarantine — not just self controlled isolation. At least I hope so because this virus is here to stay in one form or another.
I expect the government will set up quarantine centres/areas where people will have to be for two weeks after they come to the country.
Long term semi closure of the borders seems the only way of going when so many countries are acting in a slow or cavalier way or don't have the public institutions to enforce a lockdown. I read last night that in Pakistan some of the Imams are not cancelling Friday prayers for example. I see in many countries Christians are still gathering for their worship and sharing communion wine out of the same goblet. I guess if God is on your side your health system won’t collapse and your people won’t die (or presumably something better awaits when you do).
All economies are going to be smashed to a greater or lesser extent and the next few months will see millions of people around the world lose their livelihoods. That will lead to social instability. And that in itself might put entire economies out of action.
I am not saying the way our Government has approached this is the only way. Being a series of large islands surrounded by a lot of ocean makes our borders very easy to control of course. Pakistan, South Africa and to a lesser extent even the US cannot shut themselves off entirely.
Getting through the next month or so in lockdown is presenting its challenges for us at IMMagine but we are all online, our filing systems are all cloud based and so far so good. I couldn’t be more proud of the team. Lots of thinking ‘outside the box’ has meant most clients probably don’t know we have scattered to the four winds across Auckland and Melbourne.
The Immigration Department as an essential business is working as best their antiquated systems allow. Their communication continues to be woeful but luckily I have a senior manager doing his very best to answer our questions as best he can. At least we know what visas are and are not being processed.
A shame the $38 million, and counting, the department has spent in recent years to get all resident visa applications filed and processed online, has not led to any ability to actually file them online. You have to love government IT projects (not).
Last, but by no means least I always say ‘never waste a good recession’ and we are now well advanced with plans to be able to start presenting our popular immigration seminars, online. We should be presenting the first in the next couple of weeks.
Until next week
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