Heather Roy

3 April 2020

It’s a great discussion for around the BBQ – What group is the most valuable to society? Some say it is the researchers and scientists with new and amazing discoveries. Others think entrepreneurs taking these ideas to market and the masses are our most valuable contributors. Or maybe it’s the wealthy with their spending power when it’s directed towards good?

Society values it citizens in many, sometimes quite bizarre, ways. In these exceptional COVID-19 times it seems obvious to me the most valuable people now are those who are immune to the virus.

Immunity usually results from having contracted a disease and recovering from its effects. With some diseases there is a natural immunity, but it appears that isn’t the case with COVID-19. In the modelling being done to analyse the spread of the virus in populations the assumption made is that everyone is at equal risk of catching the virus from an infected person.

The immune – those who have caught the virus and are now recovered – are those who can and should be allowed to work and care for people in whatever way they are able. People are understanding of our current lockdown because of the need to slow the spread of the virus by staying in their bubble, firstly for the selfish reason of not wanting themselves or their family to be unwell and secondly to relieve the strain on our health services.

However, what isn’t being thought about is the madness of ‘locking down’ those who have recovered and are now immune to the virus. As of today (3 April) 868 people have tested positive for COVID-19 with 103 of them now recovered. That’s the known count according to the Ministry of Health website. In reality there are undoubtedly more – people who have caught the virus but had few if any symptoms and are now recovered. Who are they? Where are they? How many are there? What are their skills and how can these be put into play to work on recovery strategies?

We don’t know the answers to these questions because not enough testing has been done. Ministry of Health figures show 29,485 tests have been done as of 2 April – that’s around 0.6% of the population who have been tested. Reports from around the country show testing is being authorised erratically. When some say they haven’t been out of the country they are refused testing, while others with tenuous symptoms are tested. In some areas, swabs are in short supply which severely limits the number of tests. Knowledge, they say, is power. If we had a better idea of the state of the population it would allow the decision-makers to make the smart decisions. A snapshot in time of 0.6% of the population means no conclusions can reliably be reached.

We need to do as the WHO has decreed and test, test, test. This strategy is the polar opposite to that currently being carried out in New Zealand, which is a rationing strategy, by testing only those with symptoms. While we wait for a vaccine to be developed, manufactured and distributed (12-18 months by most estimates) countries must make decisions from understanding gleaned from the sources we have available. For now, that is knowledge from testing and the more the better.

If I was a journalist at the Prime Minister’s daily press conferences I’d be asking these questions of her:

  1. Why, despite her previous rhetoric, are more tests not being done and is this a strategy change?
  2. Is there a shortage of lab staff to do the testing?
  3. Are there not enough test kits available and if not, why not?
  4. Is there a shortage of sophisticated equipment in labs to do more tests?
  5. And on the lockdown – what is the exit strategy for recovery?

If New Zealanders are to have confidence in government and comply with our lack of freedoms these are reasonable questions to ask.

New Zealand is nose-diving into an economic downturn, the extent of which most kiwis have never witnessed. Economists say it may take two generations to return to our pre-COVID status. The sooner recovery provisions begin, the less impact on the economy and the wellbeing of New Zealanders. Countries like Iceland and South Korea are doing a lot more testing for COVID-19. When this is followed by allowing those who are immune to get back to work quickly economic recovery will be faster and effective. The strength of an economy lies with taking the most valuable and deploying them appropriately. Our most valuable are the immune. Let’s stop locking them away while the economy burns.