New Zealand government eases COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland
Yesterday, lockdown in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, went from ‘alert level 4’ to ‘level 3’, despite daily reports of new cases of the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19.
The decision is a bet with the health and the life of the workers. Like international governments, the Labor Party-led government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is putting the demands of big business ahead of a science-based public health response.
The entire country entered a strict “level 4” lockdown on August 18, with the government saying its goal was to eliminate an outbreak of Delta. Since then, 1,123 cases have been identified (861 of them have recovered), dozens of people have been hospitalized and one has died. Today 15 new cases have been reported, after 23 yesterday.
The lockdown was lifted for the rest of the country on September 8, with “alert level 2” restrictions still in place, such as mandatory masking in businesses and public transport. The lack of restrictions in schools, in particular, increases the risk of the virus spreading if it leaves Auckland.
While “level 3” is still classified as a lockdown, with the government advising people to “work from home if they can,” between 200,000 and 300,000 people are reportedly returned to their workplaces. An Auckland Chamber of Commerce survey found that 80% of businesses could operate in some form or another. House chief executive Michael Barnett told the New Zealand Herald: “Now we want to see a flexible Level 3 to allow as many companies as possible to increase their productivity and operations as quickly as possible. “
Cafes, restaurants and fast food stores, as well as other retailers, may open for contactless services. Construction sites are also operating. Schools and early childhood education centers may reopen with small classes.
Epidemiologist Michael Baker told the Guardian moving to level 3 in Auckland was “a bet” that “increases the risk of not containing the epidemic”. He warned that “undetected chains of transmission could simmer”, and if it was still possible to eliminate the virus, it would depend on “luck”.
Speaking to Radio NZ on Wednesday, microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles urged the country to “stick to elimination”. She pointed out that in the United States, where closures were never properly implemented, around 9 million years of life have been lost due to COVID-19. She said “the reason it’s so high is… about half of those lost years are due to the deaths of 25 to 64, people who would still have a considerable life ahead of them.”
The National Maori Pandemic Group, made up of public health experts and doctors, had urged the government to maintain Level 4 in Auckland and called for the lockdown to be extended to the Waikato region, where three cases have been detected during of the weekend. The source was a defendant who had been released on bail from Auckland to live in Waikato. The cases highlight the dangerously porous border between Auckland and the rest of the country, which is crossed by thousands of people every day, mostly transport workers.
Prof Sue Crengle, co-head of the group, told Radio NZ she feared the disaster in New South Wales, Australia, could repeat itself in New Zealand. The number of cases has exploded in the state due to lax restrictions. Like Australia’s indigenous population, Maori and Pacific Islanders are at higher risk of COVID-19 due to poor health and much higher levels of poverty. The Auckland epidemic has mainly affected the inhabitants of the Pacific in the working-class areas of the city.
The situation is made more dangerous by the low level of vaccination. Just over a third of New Zealand’s population has received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine. District health boards across the country revealed yesterday that only 75 percent of health workers are fully immunized. In Auckland, the figure is 89%.
Another major risk is the reopening of schools and childcare centers so that parents can return to work. More than a third of Auckland’s cases involve people aged 0-19. A city early childhood teacher told the World Socialist Website she feared that teachers would “put our lives in danger” if they were forced to work. “We are vulnerable to the virus like everyone else. It also puts children at risk, who are also vulnerable ”and can spread the virus in the community.
She added that early childhood teachers were not even encouraged to wear masks and it was impossible to enforce social distancing when working with young children. “We have to be careful, especially when this virus has killed so many people around the world. The Delta variant is spreading very quickly and it may still exist somewhere, although cases have declined. We don’t know yet, ”she said.
These concerns have been dismissed not only by the government but also by primary and secondary teachers’ unions. These pro-business organizations fully support the reopening policy, as do unions in the United States and other countries, where schools have played a central role in spreading the Delta variant.
Ardern says the government is still aiming to eliminate COVID-19 from the community, a strategy widely supported by the people. Due to relatively strict lockdowns, New Zealand has only recorded 27 deaths from the pandemic.
There is increasing pressure from sections of the corporate media and the political establishment to abandon the strategy and allow the virus to spread. Thing Columnist Luke Malpass said on September 21 that if the Auckland lockdown was not lifted in two weeks, “elimination as a laudable public policy goal will have failed.” He demanded a passage to “learning to live with Covid”.
National Opposition Party leader Judith Collins told media that the fall to “level 3” in Auckland showed the Labor government had already “given up on the elimination strategy”. She said the government should have vaccinated more people and prepared for a “wave” of hospitalizations.
The government is in fact preparing to come out of lockdowns. Health Minister Andrew Little said Newshub on September 18, re-imposition of “level 4” would be “unlikely” once 90 percent of the eligible population is vaccinated. This figure does not include the hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 12, and vaccination alone is not enough to prevent epidemics.
The government is clearly preparing for much larger epidemics, which would overwhelm the severely underfunded and understaffed health system. Worryingly, Little said: “I’m drawn to the Australian model” of admitting fewer COVID-19 patients to hospital and getting “as many people as possible to recover at home, in the community “, with hospital” surveillance “. In Australia, dozens of people die every week, some at home, unable to access hospitals, which are in a state of crisis.