With New Zealand’s announcement that they have managed contain the coronavirus one month after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern placed the country in strict lockdown, I can’t help to wonder how they managed to contain the disease so effectively. How come NZ is capable of executing such an effective pandemic response? What is the key element that every other country is missing?
I’m a numbers guy, so the first thing I checked is the timeline of NZ’s COVID-19 outbreak.
Graph at https://dennisren.com/COVID19
Ardern announced that NZ would be placed under a strict lockdown on March 25th. Almost exactly 14 days later, on April 8th NZ had already flattened its curve. This isn’t some sort of coincidence. 14 days is also the upper limit of the incubation period for the coronavirus. Having effectively no more cases reported 14 days after the shutdown means that New Zealand effectively stopped the spread of the virus the moment the country was placed under quarantine.
The genre of Social Distancing what was practiced in New Zealand obviously worked, what is the US and Europe doing wrong? The answer is simple, We aren’t adhering to it strictly enough.
Take a looks at the brief comparison of the change in citizen mobility in New Zealand and the United States.
Data source: https://www.google.com/covid19/mobility/
I hope you find it obvious now the United State’s Social Distancing orders are simply not being followed by its citizens well enough. Looking at the traffic to retails and recreation alone. NZ is about 5.5 times more effective at reducing unnecessary contact in this category alone. (55% remaining traffic vs 10%).
Social Distancing ONLY works when it’s effectively implemented. If a community has a significant population that isn’t committed to practice effective social distancing, the spread of the virus may be slowed down, but can not be easily eradicated without a great toll on lives and the local economy. Exponential viral spread needs an exponential response.
The Freedom Problem
An unfortunate reality in the US is that many local leaders in the US are facing great political pressure to keep their constituencies in lockdown, which is NOT a political issue to begin with. It’s America after all, and people love their freedom to death. But caving into the political pressure under the current circumstance is a bad idea, here’s why.
Let’s do a simple mental exercise. An official essentially has three options when it comes to dealing with this pandemic:
Shutting down the economy and enact quarantine is effective at containing the virus, as proved by New Zealand’s case. But the community will incur the loss of productivity for the duration of the shutdown. In most places though, the stockpile of strategic supplies should keep up with the demand of essentials for the duration of the shutdown.
Not shutting down at all will kill tons of people. More specifically, 0.5-5% of the community will be eradicated, since everyone is suspectable to infection. Willing letting people die is unacceptable, that’s manslaughter. But just for the sake of argument, the economic toll of losing such a significant portion of the population is going to likely cost way more than the loss of productivity for a month.
It may be politically favorable to choose the rather moderate option of a partial shutdown. In the politically polarized US, this move may just keep you in the office for a little longer. Well, Mr. Mayor/Governer, the bad news is, a partial shutdown may do as little good as no shutdown at all. The spread of the virus can’t be slowed to eradication, meanwhile, the economy is running at low productivity. Worst of all, this is going to cost the community way more time than the complete shutdown scenario. Lower productivity will cause a shortage of essentials and food, which could cost even more lives.
Officials in the US who don’t want to manslaughter need to start acting with more backbone to commit to a comprehensive, enforced, and data-driven shutdown focused on reducing human mobility. In today’s world, freedom for humans also means freedom for the virus, freedom for our enemy. However, if we can all agree to limit our freedom for as short a 1 month, we can eradicate our enemy from our communities. No more politically moderate partial shutdowns! Because a partial shutdown or no shutdown is way less optimal, we need to either commit completely to an effective shutdown or pay the price with human life.
Hope everyone stays safe and healthy out there!