Weighed in the balance

The feckless leadership of this country heading into the deepening coronavirus crisis has been pretty astonishing to behold.  Of course, there is the Governor of the Reserve Bank (and his statutory MPC offsiders), whose complacent utterances and utter inaction have been well-documented here this week.   And there is the Ministry of Health which has been actively discouraging people from stocking their pantries, constantly talking down any areas of concern, refusing to seriously engage with the public on the worsening overseas situation (including Australia, with whom we share a fairly open border) and is still telling us the risks of community outbreak are low.  This was still on their website a short time ago

MOH virus

(And when a reader asked the Ministry of Health for the justification for this stance, the only reply he got was along the lines of “we clear all our statements with clinicians” , as if these anonymous “clinicians” are different from people in any other field of expertise, where there will be a wide range of views, particularly amid extreme uncertainty. )

And then of course, there is the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health. The latter, despite being an elected politician, simply seems to channel his officials –  and perhaps only in the aftermath when all the OIAs are in will we know whether officials are tailoring their stance to suit ministers, ministers are so incurious as not to ask the hard questions, or both.

But in a crisis the focus should naturally fall on the Prime Minister.  It is for rare events of this sort of magnitude that we elect people who purport to be leaders.  But again we’ve just had constant minimisation, “pat on the head –  there, there” idle reassurances,  and a sense of always dithering and being behind the play.  There is no sense that our Prime Minister has any conception as to just how bad the global situation is getting, how serious the Australian situation is becoming, or any willingness or ability to articulate a coherent alternative view (if she has really thought hard enough to come to one).  There is no fronting the public about how no health system can adequately cope with large outbreaks, and only last week in Parliament she was still trying to play down the prospect of even a mild recession in New Zealand.  More recently, nothing serious has been heard confronting the very serious economic dislocation we face, whether or not the happy talk from her and her officials re low risk of community outbreak happens to come to pass.

Who knows why?  People speculate that it is all about the Christchurch commemoration –  whether for cynical reasons or because some short-term empathy with those victims has totally distracted her from a focus on the much larger threat that is now about to overwhelm us, and for which she –  as Prime Minister –  can actually affect outcomes.  But whatever the explanation it is pretty inexcusable to have a “leader” so totally in reactive minimisation, avoiding fronting with the public, mode.

But not to divert too long or too far from the main focus of this blog – economics and economic policy – I thought it might it would be good to give some coverage to some survey results out this morning, asking leading economists in both the US and Europe about the outlook.

The virus situation in Europe is currently worse than that in the US, so lets look at the European results first.

europe igm corona

Weighted by expertise, 82 per cent of respondents expect a “major recession” (none of the silly debate that still seemed to be in focus in New Zealand even last week as to whether we’d have two slightly negative quarters).

And although for most macro policy purposes, it doesn’t much matter whether the disruption is coming from the demand or supply side (contra the Reserve Bank public handwringing), 47 per cent think the main effects will be coming from the demand side.  Only 12 per cent disagreee.

(In New Zealand, so far, there is little doubt that almost all the effects we’ve seen have been demand-side ones –  reduced (mostly foreign) effective demand for our goods and services.)

And here are the US results

US igm panel corona

Not quite as bleak –  yet –  but almost.

The release doesn’t say when exactly the survey was taken, although I’m guessing very recently.

There is not a shred of reason to believe that the New Zealand situation will be any different, and that would be so whether or not we somehow manage to avoid community outbreak (I’m sceptical, but I guess we should always allow for the possibility the Ministry might be right).   Much of the world economy is now shutting down –  perhaps not for long, but no one can be sure of that – in a way for which there is almost certainly no modern (post Industrial Revolution) precedent.

And yet you still hear nothing of this from our Prime Minister, our Minister of Finance (let alone our central bank – and numerous senior central bankers have been choosing to talk in public this week).  It is simply irresponsible, if they realise, not to be fronting the issue and offering honest leadership. If they still don’t realise, it is simply inexcusable, and not one of them would then be fit for the offices they hold.  Crisis reveal whether those holding office are really leaders: at present you could really only say of ours, weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Perhaps they will all yet redeem themselves.  We must hope so, as a matter of urgency.


32 thoughts on “Weighed in the balance

  1. It is well beyond the capability of our PM to show leadership in an ongoing crisis like this.
    Dressing up & hugging people for photo opportunities is the limit of her ability so this is all way beyond her. However her officials & the Reserve Bank Governor are supposed to be recommending actions that would result in some decent leadership. They are either incompetent or being ignored -I suspect a bit of both.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The apparent zero preparation is a bit of a worry. Looks like a real big bet on us not getting it here. Hope Jacinda is right.

    It would be a lot more reassuring to over-preparing. I think they have called wrong on this one.


  3. I wonder if Ministry of Health reports cases of pneumonia or pleurisy ?

    In Thailand they do and what we saw in February was that there were essentially no COVID-19 cases but the cases of pneumonia exploded…

    Given what’s happening all around us, I have ZERO faith in our medical establishment.

    Also, this accords with my own experience. In October I came back to NZ from Singapore and came down with a mystery virus. Coughing until I couldn’t breathe – honestly panic attacks as I coughed -, tight chest, sweats and fever and muscle aches and then it got to my chest and OMG the pain (I’ve had pneumonia and pleurisy and it was exactly like that… couldn’t lie down at one stage and slept in an arm chair). I went to the Dr and they said I didn’t look well, took bloods. I went back a week later and they said I has a virus – my white cells were low but everything else ok). Was told to take ibuprofen and rest. I was working from home so saw no one. It took about a month to recover. If COVID-19 is like that or worse then pity help people.

    Now I’m not sure what that was, but the health system did NOTHING for me… are they even looking for COVID-19 now? I’m not convinced.

    Liked by 2 people

      • I met up with friend who was just back from holiday in Asia. He was coughing and spluttering throughout our 2 hour lunch. At the end of the day I had headaches, a fever and coughing and body aches as well. I put down 2 shots of whiskey and a apple cider vinegar in a glass of warm water followed by a hot brew of coffee. All symptoms gone by the next day.


  4. Well said about the tiny group of anonymous clinicians.
    Some observations:
    – Among the tens of thousands of travellers who arrived in New Zealand from China in the weeks before Covid-19 was a thing, and among the hundreds of thousands who continue to arrive from everywhere not yet subject to a travel ban, is it remotely conceivable that there have not been persons incubating the virus?
    – The number of tests (PCR on nasophayrygeal swabs) doen still numbers in the hundreds, and are tightly rationed to those who meet the “case definition”. Basically this means extreme confirmation bias. No-one who has not travelled from China, Iran, Italy and has respiratory symptoms will be considered for testing.
    – The test has unknown and probably rather disappointing sensitivity (this is a measure of the proportion of persons with the disease that will be picked up. Only if a diagnostic test has 100% (or close) sensitivity can it be relied on to rule out a disease. That this test doesn’t is demonstrated by the fact that the first (recognised) case in New Zealand had two negative tests before the third came up positive. The Chinese experience is that even seriously ill cases can have negative nasopharyngeal swabs (the usual in New Zealand), even if they have the virus demonstrated in blood or stool. Yet whenever testing is mentioned the implication is that negatives rue out the disease.
    – Most (pretty well all) other respiratory viruses, like influenza and the common cold (some of whcih are coronaviruses) spread more effectively and cause more symptoms in the winter months. If this is true of SARS-Co-2 (the virus which causes Covid-19 the disease), then the relative sparing of the Southern Hemisphere to date, including New Zealand, is a matter of season, not good management.

    My guess, and I would be very pleased indeed to be shown to be wrong, is that Covid-19 is smouldering away beneath the radar in NZ, but come the colder weather we will see an explosion of serious cases. This will coincide with the seasonal ‘flu epidemic, but while the incidence and morbidity of influenza is constrained by vaccination, that of Covid-19 will not be. Given that seasonal flu regularly test the limits of both general practice and hospitals, the additional burden will be crippling.

    It is too late, and futile, to try to keep the virus out, the only possible way to make the impact manageable is, starting now, to instill habits of social distancing to flatten and thus spread out the epidemic curve.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. All but four of the major events this weekend have been cancelled, and I expect people will be staying away from the ongoing ones in droves.

    I’m quite confident Jacinda will be getting the best advice she can, purely from the point of view that to be seen as responding incompetently would be politically disastrous. You can guarantee Annette King has been consulted, and probably Helen Clark, as well as the most trusted and competent officials.

    I’m not so sure of Orr, but wouldn’t he be trying to avoid an economic panic?


    • Your confidence is touching, but how good is that advice? How able is Jacinda to judge how good it is? As for those past Ministers of Health: Annette King’s legacy is the destruction of the internal market created by Simon Upton, and that of Helen Clark the destruction of GP obstetrics.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I wish I shared your optimism, but the public sector capability has been quite severely degraded.

      Take, for example, the Treasury which has a new Secretary – govt’s chief econ adviser – who has precisely no background doing/advising on national economic policy. Perhaps she is just great, but it would be surprising – she too was appointed by Peter Hughes, and her only published public speech was less than inspiring. There are some competent people in the second tier, but none who stands out. That might not matter much in normal times, but this is an exceptional event.

      Liked by 2 people

    • faffinz, you speak of “most trusted and competent officials.” I doubt that Ms Ardern has much ability to choose who to trust, and who is competent. She will find herself provided with advice from whoever in the Ministry is charged with giving it, and that may have little to do with trustworthiness and competence, but a lot to do with the Peter Principle and the Dunning-Kruger effect.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Well, Michael, I think your conclusion in reference to her presenting “the most restrictive measures of any country” is pathetic.
    That is all I have to say and all I will say.


  7. “Weighed in the Balance”

    1) Coronavirus NZ:
    Everyone coming to New Zealand must isolate for 14 days, Prime Minister Ardern says

    2) Seasonal Flu:
    Every year an estimated 290,000 to 650,000 people die in the world due to complications from seasonal influenza (flu) viruses. This figure corresponds to 795 to 1,781 deaths per day due to the seasonal flu.
    World pop 1900 = 1.6bn, World Pop now = 7.77bn, say 466,200 deaths per year (roughly half the 290 & 650) in 2020 = 0.00006, and circa 96,000 deaths in 1900
    so (96,000*120 + (466,200-96,000)/2 * 120) = 11.5m + 44.4m =
    Total since 1900 = ~56m

    3) Spanish Flu:
    17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million

    4) Road Fatalities:
    Nearly 1.25 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day. An additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled. https://www.asirt.org/safe-travel/road-safety-facts/
    It is estimated that motor vehicle collisions caused the deaths of around 60 million people during the 20th century – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epidemiology_of_motor_vehicle_collisions
    So roughly we are up to 60m+1.25*20m =
    Total since 1900 = ~85m

    5) Coronavirus:
    3.4% Mortality Rate estimate by the World Health Organization (WHO) as of March 3
    a) say ~3.4% – no vaccine, worldwide spread over time as a flu, no reduction in strength of virus = 0.034*7.77bn = 264m max
    b) Worldwide spread over time, no vaccine, but everyone acts like Korea – 8086 cases, 73 deaths = 0.9%, = 70m and still as bad as 2,3,4.

    We’re going to need a vaccine to shut this one down.

    Liked by 3 people

      • That’s not obvious at all. There may be no *viable* vaccine for CV19. Why? Because all previous attempts for SARS/MERS failed miserably, causing huge morbidity/mortality upon live virus challenge. Animal safety studies on mice, ferrets, and primates showed these vaccines to be dangerous. ADE (Antibody-dependent enhancement). The implications for reinfection are also concerning (there is evidence for this in SARS also).

        Right now there are at least two trials starting next week skipping animal safety trials and going straight to phase I for CV19. This may be a huge mistake. There are several experts in this area sounding the alarm. There are no vaccines for any coronavirus, as there aren’t any for many other viruses like HIV. And it’s not for lack of trying. Will things be different this time? I don’t know, but the meagre results of the stupendous amount of money spent on the 40+ year war on cancer is not promising. Better to place our hopes (and spend our research effort) on antivirals.


      • – Some Israeli researchers have announced a breakthrough in the development of coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine
        – The researchers from MIGAL said they had developed an effective vaccine against avian coronavirus infectious bronchitis virus which can be easily adapted to create COVID-19 vaccine
        – The researchers said their goal is to produce the vaccine in the next 8-10 weeks and to achieve safety approval in 90 days


        Probably not as far away as you might think.


      • When you read up on the history of these vaccines, it is in all likelihood much further away than you think, all commercial propaganda notwithstanding. It doesn’t matter what these researchers say. Making a vaccine or adapting one is one thing, making sure it is safe is quite another. Enhanced immonupathology or pathogenic priming via the immunogenic parts of the spike protein matching human proteins (homology) and causing an autoimmune-like response with severe outcomes is a real thing. And anyway, other groups are already going to phase I this week.
        The latest short paper on this topic:


      • And I’ll just add, the key quote is in the last paragraph:

        “Should ADE be proven to be a mechanism of pathogenesis, both treatment regimens and vaccine development will need to take this phenomenon into consideration to ensure it is mitigated and in the case of a vaccine, avoided altogether.”

        Currently, based on my reading, none of the developments of vaccines are avoiding this, as they are based on the same spike protein concept. Given its repeated failure for bot SARS and MERS, that does not bode well. But you never know, and, alternatively, there may be a way around it. Probably it will take time. However, I would be extremely concerned about the fast introduction of vaccines without the proper testing as now seems to be happening. I’ll reiterate, it could result in severe morbidity/mortality upon live virus challenge in the wild.


  8. This is all very confusing and baffling… Seems the PM could be accused of being just ‘smile and wave’ as John Key was back in the day; rather unfairly it turns out…

    Maybe it will take a couple of deaths in NZ from coronavirus to spring the Govt to action… which is a very depressing thought… I also fear it amy be true…


    • Given that we lose 500 people a year to ordinary flu, it will have to be more than a couple of deaths to scare most kiwis.


  9. Panic will not help anyone. We all know enough now to individually reduce our personal risk and stock up our homes sensibly.

    Cargo planes will not be affected in the new measures so essentials including medicines will flow. We are lucky also to be a food producer country.

    I watched PM on Q&A this morning and felt things are being managed adequately. As she said, projections are constantly changing and decisions need to follow new information.
    * Huge tests capacity from this week – over to your GP.
    * Economic support package to be detailed to us Tuesday morning
    * Self isolation, backed by compulsory quarantine, for everyone coming in (except from PIs). Evidently 10,500 have already gone through self isolation and spot checks are made. Neighbours etc can dob in evaders.


    • The good thing about most neighbours in NZ is that they are usually more than 6 metres apart. Self isolation can work pretty well especially if you have 1000 sqm of garden space in central Auckland. More worried about the mosquitos though. They seem to have gone up exponentially in numbers in the warm weather. Might have to worry more about malaria than about Covid19.


  10. The reality is that we have eight confirmed cases in New Zealand and no deaths at this point. Compare that to other countries with such a high tourist/visitor rate compared to population. For me, as someone who likes to base judgments on evidence rather than historic bitterness, blatant political bias or the alarmist squeals of the uneducated, the results speak for themselves. Ministry of Health and the PM and their respective teams have done an admirable job to date and have now stepped further up to the mark. I would much rather have our PM at the helm – who has proven how well she can handle a crisis – than a number of other world leaders I can think of. And I would rather have our health system, which is being rebuilt after years of poor political and managerial leadership (albeit slowly) than many others I can think of which will be basing triage decisions on nationality or ability to pay.


    • My experience with our health system, through my Mother’s injury through her fall and broken and surgically replaced vertebra and the excellent aftercare, the difficult birthing of my 2 children plus my own bloodclot in the eye causing temporary blindness. The NZ health system is top notch. Best in the world.


      • And suddenly the world will wake up and actively recruit our health professionals. Offer enough money and almost anyone can be tempted. If our govt decides to drop helicopter money they should do so on our health workers from the cleaners up. Today those cleaners are life savers and they work 24/7.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Hospitals are overwhelmed once you get to about 0.02% of population infected. 1-2% die with good hospital care, 5-10% without – which no democracy will countenance – politically we will always choose to limit it. Rate of spread is about 10x per fortnight up until point you have strong social isolation measures imposed. That is where NZ is now – underground infections growing and waiting to blossom into epidemic in a few days or weeks, when govt will finally, reactively, shut down social interaction – like other democracies have.

    It seems highly likely that this late move to quarantine once it is already endemic and can only be managed and held down to acceptable levels by continued stringent isolation measures is the most expensive approach to take – it has to be maintained for potentially years until vaccines are available. Where rooting it out early with two weeks of universal lockdown and testing of all symptomatic plus mandatory 2 week quarantine of all arrivals would allow NZ to resume pretty much normal life – sans international travel/tourism.

    Western governments have proven themselves utterly incompetent in this crisis, their desire to put off bad news and delay reaction and not plan is pathological. Authoritarian/technocratic East Asian governments have performed far more rationally and will save their economies vast sums of money as a result.


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