On Saturday I showed the then-current version of this chart.
As I noted on Saturday morning
It is much the same locally-exponential pattern we’ve seen in so many other countries. If current rates of increase continue then by the end of tomorrow Australia will have per capita numbers akin to those in the US or UK yesterday. That is the sort of impact exponential growth has.
Australia now has as many, slightly more, cases per capita than the US and UK had on Friday.
What about New Zealand? In this chart I’ve shown the Australian numbers divided by five (to put them on the same per capita basis as New Zealand).
Perhaps at a very first glance, New Zealand doesn’t look too bad. But look across the chart not up and down. Our latest observations are where Australia (in equivalent population terms) was just a week ago. There is no evident or obvious reason to expect that in a week’s time we wouldn’t be something like where they are now (or if there is such a reason no political ‘leader’ has been willing to try to articulate one).
And yet our government continues to pretend to believe there is no community transmission, confirmed or not. It is simply extraordinary. Reversing the presumption now – in light of what has happened in ever other similar country, but most notably in Australia with whom until almost now we’ve had a Common (travel) Virus Area – seems much the safer option.
Sadly, it seems on a par with how the government and the Ministry of Health have treated the threat from the start. It was, after all, only about three weeks ago that the Ministry was tweeting, on its official account, that there was more to fear from rumours, stigma etc than from the virus itself. Nine days ago, on their website they asserted that the risk of outbreak was low. And presumably acted/advised accordingly?
And then there is the elected government and the Prime Minister in particular (the Minister of Health has been largely invisible and apparently irrelevant). Because it is so easy to lose track of what was said even a few days ago I went back and read the transcripts of her post-Cabinet press conferences since the start of the you (28 January was the first). Admittedly the questioning was often equally lethargic, but it was truly startling just how complacent the Prime Minister had consistently been. There was no apparent sense of urgency, no apparent recognition that significant spread globally was – if not a certainty – a very high probability against which the whole of government and the private sector should be preparing, and no attempt to get out in front and alert the public to the serious threat that was looming.
Now, you might argue that our Prime Minister wasn’t much different to those abroad, and from what one sees that might be a fair comment. But it isn’t exactly an excuse for any of them is it, with the full horror of Wuhan already in view by the end of January. You might also argue that few/commentators were sufficiently alarmed either, which is probably also fair. But the government is the government – hugely well-resourced by any other standards, and fully linked in to the intelligence and threat assessments of other countries. On the economic side, it is not much more than two weeks ago that the Prime Minister was playing down the risk of recession – laughable, if not so serious, even then – when now we are heading into the deepest (and they are all temporary) and most sudden deep slump in New Zealand history.
When they have finally taken actions, they’ve usually been like knee-jerk reactions (often a mere day or so after denying any intention of anything of the sort, going all the way back to the first China travel ban, which they were bounced into by Australia a day after telling the Chinese foreign minister they’d do no such thing). And, most concerningly to me, there is simply no evidence of a strategy, and no willingness to engage the public on the options, choices and risks around threats and policies that have huge huge economic, social, and civil liberties implications for us all – not for days, but potentially for months or a year or more. It is simply inexcusable, and almost beyond belief (even as we have to watch it day by day). The four-stage scheme they rolled out on Saturday is certainly no strategy, and although it might have been a welcome start six weeks ago, coming out with no substance in a much-vaunted Prime Ministerial address on Saturday, it had all the feel of having been dreamed up on the back of an envelope on Friday afternoon. There is no evident strategy. There is no evident exit strategy for anything done so far, or anything they have in mind. Some of the specifics even look untenable, notably the detail of their schools policies.
In fact, the more I’ve reflected on the issue over the weekend, the more I wonder how much relevant planning has been done at all. I was recalling the huge effort that went into pandemic planning in the public sector in abour 2005/06, which I had quite a lot to do with (the economic dimensions of). The problem with that work, as I reflect back now, is that it was mostly based on something like a re-run of 1918, where a huge proportion of the population was off work sick, or caring for the sick, but that the country was never “locked down”, and it envisaged the pandemic passing through perhaps in waves, but pretty concentrated ones, as in 1918/19. I don’t recall anyone giving any serious thought to the idea of closing the border indefinitely (short closures sure), to locking down the economy and social interactions for many months at a time. Perhaps in the subsequent decade, official agencies revised their planning – I hope so, but I was in public sector economic agencies until 2015, and never heard a hint of that. And given how lethargic the whole of government was in January and February you have to worry that officials, in our greatly diminished public service are just now making it all up as they go along.
One specific dimension that got my goat was the PM lecturing (and that was her tone, repeatedly) the country about stocking up in supermarkets. She assures that everything not only is fine now, but always will be, no matter what stage of the crisis we get too.
First, looking backwards, one of the supermarket chain heads at the weekend said buying last week was just ahead of that in the run-up to Christmas, “but for Christmas we have a long time to prepare”. That seemed like a fair point for him to make, but why had the Prime Minister and the government not been working with supermarkets weeks and weeks ago to emphasis the fast-building threat and urging them to increase production to cope with possible surges in demand. Such demand was entirely foreseeable, conditioned on a recognition of the risk. The public shouldn’t be hectored by the PM for what is her failure and that of her government.
But the bigger issue is forward- looking where she has been grossly over-promising. It might be reasonable to suggest people slow down for a few days and let the supermarkets restock (having herself been neglectful from the start), because it probably is reasonable to assume that supermarkets will remain stocked in the early days of any lockdown.
But the Prime Minister seems not to recognise at all that in such a climate many people will prefer to avoid supermarkets if at all possible, and to have inventory in the home rather than in a public place. That will be especially so if and when the health system becomes overloaded – as people warn it may within a month or so – and people reasonably fear that if they and their families get sick they may not be able to get decent treatment.
And I trust the government to keep supermarkets open in some form or another throughout, and am moderately confident the basics will be kept available – perhaps intermittently at times, and for some goods. New Zealanders should not starve (Irish peasants used to have adequately nutritious diets of milk, potatoes and oats). But, frankly, most people want more than milk, potatoes and oats. And none of us knows (a) what production the government will deem essential, (b) what factories will still be adequately staffed (and distribution channels have to hold up), and (c) what other countries will deem essential. Because, you see, although the PM talks blithely of international trade in goods continuing, that only means much if international production of things New Zealand imports continues. As just one example, I just had a look at the back of the dishwasher powder container, and was surprised to learn it comes from……..Poland. Hard to imagine production of dishwasher powder would be an essential in Poland if/when they are in lockdown. It is quite plausible that lots of non-basic non-perishable goods could rapidly become quite hard to get. Buying extra now is utterly and totally rational, whatever the Prime Minister says. To not do so would mean putting a great deal of faith not just in the good intentions and words of the government, but in some tail-event optimistic scenario about how everything will work in a period – that as even the Minister of Finance put it – could last for months.
Personally, I simply have no confidence in anything they say or do anymore.
(And, please note, nothing in this is advocating any particular set of anti-virus policies now. There are genuinely hard choices. My kids are still at school this morning (we had the conversation yesterday). But there is no evidence of strategy, there is no evidence of engagement with the public re what the future holds, there is no evidence they’ve thought through the limits of the state (as Matthew Hooton put it on Twitter the other day, there are some things more important than public health, but what does the PM think those are?) and so on. It is a pretty egregiously bad performance so far, all compounded – this is an economics blog – by the manifest inadequacies of the economic policy response to date from government and the Reserve Bank – and yes, I have just seen the latest RB release.)