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Sensemaker: Zero Covid v Delta

Sensemaker: Zero Covid v Delta

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Kamala Harris accused China of coercion and intimidation in its naval activity in the resource-heavy South China Sea.
  • The leader of the hard-right Proud Boys group in the US has been sentenced to 155 days in jail for burning a Black Lives Matter flag and possession of a high-capacity magazine for his gun.
  • A Russian man named as Vaas Feniks Nokard reportedly swam 24 km from the Kuril Islands to Japan, although Japanese officials said he arrived by boat.

Zero Covid v Delta

In most countries a national lockdown because of a single case of Covid would be unimaginable. In New Zealand it’s what’s happening. Looking back, it makes some sense as a continuation of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s wildly successful zero Covid strategy. Why change now when you have a total of 26 deaths from the pandemic, or 5.2 per million, compared with 131,680 or 1,944 per million for the UK?

Looking forward, the lockdown looks restrictive but also expensive and wrongheaded. With the Delta variant, Kiwi-style zero Covid may have met its match, and that has implications for the rest of us. Consider:

  • The Delta variant’s R number is between six and seven, roughly twice as high as for the original one. One carrier can infect at least seven others. A lockdown has to be extremely tight to contain an outbreak.
  • Despite the national “level 4 alert” (full lockdown) announced a week ago after a single community infection in Auckland, as of yesterday the outbreak had spread to Wellington and elsewhere and infected 106 others. These are tiny numbers by European standards but New Zealand has had none at all for half a year.
  • You can contain a Delta outbreak with lockdown as your main weapon, but it helps to be a one-party totalitarian state. China reported zero new locally-transmitted symptomatic infections yesterday for the first time since July, but only after a new Delta outbreak in Wuhan had spread to half the country and been beaten back with massive rolling test and trace efforts and regional lockdowns affecting tens of millions.
  • Australia has much more in common with New Zealand and is preparing to give up on zero Covid in favour of reliance on vaccines and an acceptance of rising case numbers. They are, Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison says, inevitable. 
  • New Zealand’s economy is feeling the pain of isolation. Tourists and overseas workers and students can’t get in and Amazon has just shifted production of its Lord of the Rings TV series to the UK despite tax incentives worth tens of millions of dollars. 

A million expat Kiwis want to be able to get home for Christmas but as things stand the borders won’t reopen until 2022. They are in this fix because New Zealand is under-vaccinated, especially by rich world standards. Only 20 per cent of adults have had two doses compared with 60 per cent in the UK. Without higher rates a Delta spike means a spike in deaths and that is not a part of Ardern’s plan.  

Why the low vax rate? Five months ago her government was basking in international praise as big crowds with no masks watched New Zealand win the America’s Cup in Auckland harbour and no one had the virus. Also, years of budget surpluses and steady growth meant the cost of the closed borders was bearable. There didn’t seem to be a rush to buy the vaccine. 

Now there is. The challenge is more complicated than sitting this thing out. “Can we get the genie back in the bottle, and then hold out for long enough to get the population adequately vaccinated, and then open borders?” Sir Peter Gluckman, a former chief science advisor to the government asks in the Telegraph. The answer’s yes, if New Zealanders can bring themselves to say goodbye to zero Covid.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Rotten luck 
John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the Sex Pistols, lost a court fight with his old bandmates over a music rights dispute. Lydon refused to license the punk band’s music for an forthcoming TV biopic, Pistol. His lawyers say the show, which is based on guitarist Steve Jones’ memoir and directed by Danny Boyle, portrays Lydon as “the annoying little brat with the great bone structure who’s always asking for more”. The band agreed in 1988 that no single member could hold a veto over their music rights. So there was little chance of overriding its majority decision. Lydon reportedly said in court that the contract “smacks of some kind of slave labour”.

New things technology, science, engineering

Facebook own goal
Facebook has suppressed a report it thought might cause a PR problem because it highlighted the popularity of content that could be construed as promoting vaccine hesitancy. The report analysed the most viewed hyperlinks and pages on Facebook between January and March this year. Most of the links are fairly innocuous, but the most viewed was to an article published by the South Florida Sun Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune about the death of a Miami doctor. Headline: “A ‘healthy’ doctor died two weeks after getting a Covid-19 vaccine; CDC is investigating why.” The article claimed his death could be America’s “first death linked to the vaccine”. It was updated after a medical examiner concluded that there wasn’t “enough evidence to rule out or confirm the vaccine was a contributing factor.” But not before it became a catalyst for vaccine-sceptical conversations online. The NYT says six of the top 20 sharers of the link were Facebook pages that regularly post anti-vaccination content. We know from independent research that vaccine misinformation is a big issue for social platforms. But so is transparency. If Facebook is worried about PR it shouldn’t have shelved the report.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Balls about Fort Detrick 
Even in the US, most people haven’t heard of Fort Detrick. But a lot of people have in China, where nationalists and on-message diplomats are talking up an entirely bogus theory that Covid originated there. The army base is 50 miles north of DC and hosts part of the US biological weapons programme. There is zero evidence of any link between it and Covid but Chinese state TV has produced an hour-long documentary on its “dark history” and a foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, has retweeted a nationalist rap song asking “how many plots came out of your lab?” The context is of course a revived debate on whether the virus in fact escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a leading centre of bat-borne virus research on which Joe Biden has commissioned a report due soon. One of the interesting aspects of this story is the role of Zhao, Beijing’s best-known “wolf warrior” diplomat. He has quite the megaphone.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Millennial rain
At least 22 people are reported dead and 40 missing after flash floods in rural Tennessee. An intense and unexpected rainstorm west of Nashville dumped a reported 21 inches of rain within 24 hours on Saturday, which will break state records if confirmed. The chances of rain this intense are “much more rare than 1 in 1,000”, says a former hydrologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Even so, flooding is complicated. The NYT reckons it’s too early to attribute this to climate change.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

PayPal users in the UK will now be able to buy, sell and store cryptocurrencies through the platform. Well known currencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin will all be available for purchase. PayPal launched a similar service in the US last year; the move was hailed as a big step forward in terms of mainstreaming cryptocurrencies. But PayPal customers still won’t be able to use cryptocurrencies to pay directly for goods and services. They’ll have to cash them in and exchange them for real world currencies first – few businesses currently accept cryptocurrencies as payment. Still, we’ve come a long way from the gold standard.

Thanks for reading and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Phoebe Davis

Produced by Sophia Sun and edited by Xavier Greenwood.

Photographs by Getty Images