Finding Covid Normal

Toorak Times Editor-at-Large Tracie Barrett considers different country's responses to Covid-19

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A musician friend in Aotearoa/New Zealand was telling me about the live gigs he has been playing lately, and those he has booked, and there’s a resurgence in both audience numbers and in those staying to hear the band’s final number. I asked if he felt that was because people were valuing live music and being in a live audience and the simple pleasure of a night out, but he quickly disabused me of my handy journalistic notion.

Audience numbers had already begun picking up pre-Covid, he said, and were more the result of a generation who grew up with music having launched their offspring into the world, so having time and money on their hands. He assured me that life was basically back to normal in Aotearoa, although with a heightened awareness of the disease, and a general acceptance of what needs to be done to retain that normality. Currently there are added restrictions in Auckland, which has active cases, but the rest of the country is pretty much business as usual. Covid Normal, as it were.

Friends and former colleagues still in South Korea and China have told me similar stories. South Korea never went into lockdown, but instead made aggressive testing, tracking, and tracing the mainstay of their response. They have had subsequent clusters after their first such outbreak, but have managed to contain and treat most of these without too much economic turmoil. Like many instances of clusters and super-spreader events around the globe, those not caused by innocent unawareness that a person was contagious, were mostly caused by deliberate flouting of the health advice given. People who were feeling sick, or even knew that they were sick, continued their usual routines and spread the virus among their many contacts.

In China, the world watched the rapid and often heavy-handed response to the Wuhan outbreak once it reached the ears of Beijing and was acknowledged. (An ancient Chinese saying that translates as “The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away” helps explain the delay in that happening. Government officials at provincial and local levels don’t like to take bad news to the capital and the Party, and their personal and career concerns don’t always align with those of their constituents or their leaders.) China’s economy was hit hard by the virus initially, but statistics released last week indicate a swift economic rebound. Friends in Beijing tell me their kids are back in school, their businesses are open and trading, and events and gatherings are again the norm.

China is also now relying on a planned and immediate response to any outbreaks. When a dozen cases were identified in the city of Qingdao earlier in October, the instant counteraction was to test the entire city – of nine million people! China proved in May that such an ambitious plan is possible, when it tested the 11-million-strong population of Wuhan – the origin of this novel coronavirus.

I’m not saying that every country should or could follow the roadmap of China, or South Korea, or even Aotearoa in their response to this global pandemic, but do we want to follow the United States or parts of Europe either? I am the first to acknowledge that residents of China do not have the personal freedoms we take for granted in most of the Western world, but the same cannot be said of South Korean residents and definitely not of Kiwis. What those people share, however, and I include the Chinese people in this, are cultures that consider others and have shown their willingness to make some personal sacrifice for the greater good.

Having spent more than 15 years working throughout Asia, it was a norm to wear a mask if you felt at all unwell. It didn’t need the threat of a deadly pandemic for people to do this, it was the simple civility of not wanting to pass their case of sniffles or whatever on to fellow workers and others with whom you came in contact.

South Korea has also shown its people’s acceptance of giving up what many Westerners see as basic freedoms. University of Colorado Denver researcher Jongeun You credits South Korea’s investigation of Covid cases and contacts as a key factor in the country’s success in handling the pandemic. There’s an important part of that, however, that may be unique to South Korea, a country that quickly built itself into a global power from being a scorched earth economic disaster following the war there less than 70 years ago. This is a people who are accustomed to working together for the greater good. As reported in an excellent Science Daily article on You’s research, an Institute for Future Government survey this year found that 84 percent of South Koreans accept a loss of privacy as a necessary trade off for public health security.

In Aotearoa, I feel that being a small country where your neighbour truly is your neighbour has helped in the acceptance by most of the populace of the government’s decision to “go fast and go hard” in response to the virus. Everyone went into lockdown, with the inevitable complaints and grumbles, on the understanding that doing so would be rewarded with a faster recovery. Part of this is also cultural, in a country that mostly reacted to the tragedy of the Christchurch mosque killings by embracing their Muslim neighbours loudly and proudly. There is a real sense of all being in this together, rather than a host of ads and slogans trying to convince them of that fact. (For those living in a box, the landslide return of the Labour Party to power in Aotearoa this past weekend was a clear referendum from the people on its handling of the Covid crisis.)

Aotearoa is also reacting quickly and decisively to any outbreaks, as evidenced by the continued stricter restrictions in place for Auckland until the outbreak is contained. It’s a response that has scientific backing and one that seems to work in vastly different countries, cultures and communities.

More importantly, it has the buy-in of the populace, and New Zealand proves this is not simply the common, and misguided, trope that Asians are sheep who will follow their governments mindlessly. It’s the response of otherwise diverse countries and peoples who value and respect education and experts and scientists, and value and respect the lives and livelihoods of each other.

That’s a Covid Normal I’d like to see spread globally.

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