There is no greater fool than the one who says the Covid-19 pandemic is over, Marc Daalder writes

Comment: Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen governments embark on identical quests for certainty across the globe.

Those journeys have all been futile.

The President of the United States has declared Covid-19 a thing of the past on at least four occasions. In June 2020, then-president Donald Trump said the world was nearing the end of the pandemic. Four months later, he said the end was in sight (and tested positive for the virus hours later).

In July 2021, Joe Biden declared success against Covid-19 in an Independence Day speech. And just a month ago, he once again said the pandemic was behind us.

The virus has time and again made fools of anyone who promises certainty in the future.

Summer resurgences in 2020 proved the pandemic was not one-and-done. More transmissible variants – first Delta, then Omicron – upended predictions that vaccination would end the Covid-19 crisis. And the steady emergence of Omicron subvariants has exposed the hopes of reaching harmless endemicity through one monumental wave as little more than wishful thinking.

Despite the fervent prayers of politicians who feel trapped between waning social licence on the one hand and waning population immunity to the virus on the other, Covid-19 shows no signs of fading into obscurity.

The science on the virus and its future is clear: Barring an evolutionary leap towards a much milder strain or a miraculous vaccine that more fully prevents transmission, we can expect waves and troughs of Covid-19 for the foreseeable future.

In fact, a more severe variant which reintroduces the need for harsher population-level restrictions is no less likely than a milder one.

The only certainty politicians ought to promise is that Covid-19 is here to stay and that no one can accurately predict the future beyond that.

This is why it is reckless and foolish to remove powers to tackle the virus from the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act, as the Government proposed on Tuesday.

Having this legislation on the books is uncomfortable in a democracy. It grants governments vast, wide-reaching powers to respond to outbreaks of the virus, including lockdowns, border closures and mandatory isolation of cases and overseas entrants at quarantine facilities.

Former Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, who made the announcement while the current minister Ayesha Verrall is overseas, is right to suggest that these measures are only justified in an emergency.

But given the unpredictability of the pandemic thus far, there’s no way to rule out the possibility we might find ourselves in an emergency in the near future.

Less than a week after the Government announced a plan to reopen to the world while maintaining the elimination strategy in August 2021, the whole country was in a Level 4 lockdown after the discovery of Delta cases in the community. That was the end of elimination.

In late November 2021, the Government revealed a new plan to open the borders and transition to managing Covid-19. The next day, the Omicron variant was reported to the World Health Organisation by South African scientists.

The Government says that, if measures beyond isolation and mask use are needed, they can be reintroduced via emergency legislation. But things change quickly with Covid-19 – even more quickly than at the start of the pandemic, when a lack of regulatory preparedness for epidemics meant the first week or so of the Level 4 lockdown ended up being ruled unlawful.

The fact that Hipkins himself refuses to rule out a future in which lockdowns or MIQ or even more anodyne measures like QR code scanning are needed shows the move to trim these powers from Covid-19 legislation is pure virtue signalling.

The Government says it is removing its power to impose lockdowns, but also that it may need lockdowns in the future and still has the means to impose them.

New Zealand ministers are following in the footsteps of their overseas counterparts by promising certainty to the public through unilateral disarmament in the war against the virus. It’s an extension of the Prime Minister’s pledge, when the traffic light system was scrapped, that we can “claim back the certainty we have all lost over the last three years”. 

“This will be the first summer in three years where there won’t be the question of ‘What if?’, where events won’t be cancelled because of Covid cases, where our borders are fully reopened and there isn’t the fear of being separated or stranded – the first summer where we have our certainty. And that means, I hope, the first summer where the Covid anxiety can start to heal,” she said in September.

These are familiar themes, echoing Joe Biden’s July 4 speech of 2021.

“Thanks to our heroic vaccine effort, we’ve gained the upper hand against this virus. We can live our lives, our kids can go back to school, our economy is roaring back,” the President promised.

“So, today, while the virus hasn’t been vanquished, we know this: It no longer controls our lives. It no longer paralyses our nation.”

Almost as many Americans have died since that pledge as in the harrowing months before it. When Omicron came on the scene, schools closed, events were cancelled and the US health system was overwhelmed. Elsewhere, countries locked down to try to fight the new variant.

The latest guarantees from the Government that, somehow, this time will be different should be greeted with a healthy scepticism.

Wishful thinking about the end of the pandemic may win votes, but it’s unlikely to win over the coronavirus.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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