• Dr Michael Oehley

Covid-19: What Just Happened? What Happens Next?

Near the end of 2019 I posted a blog predicting that there would be international health outbreaks in 2020 - but I was thinking similar to previous outbreaks like Ebola and Yellow Fever which occur regionally/locally; or like Dengue fever which is endemic across the world and has caused increasing health burdens. I never for once imagined a situation in which the entire world would come to a standstill - economies gutted, tourism shutdown completely, global air travel nearly extinct, and a world held hostage by a fast-moving outbreak! It has been like something out of a badly written Hollywood movie - and here we all are.

It seems reasonable now, as New Zealand passes the halfway stage of our four week Level 4 lock-down, to start asking questions about what next? What happens if New Zealand's Covid-19 case numbers drop substantially - can we exit lock-down safely? Will our economy be permitted to re-open? What about our borders? What does the short-to-medium term future hold for us? I am going to present my viewpoint on some possible scenarios below - but remember, I don't have a crystal ball. These are my opinions, based on what I perceive is most likely to happen (using my knowledge and experience as a travel doctor, the available epidemiological evidence, and some knowledge of how vaccine development works).

1. Best case scenario - Normal New Zealand, the Island

Likelihood - approximately 40-50% chance

In this scenario New Zealand achieves complete eradication of Covid-19 on our shores. New case numbers (currently 30-40 confirmed cases per day) continue to drop over the next 2 weeks until there are 0 new confirmed cases per day for the first two weeks of May 2020. The Ministry of Health is able to confirm that New Zealand is completely free of Covid-19 through thorough testing of 10,000 "healthy" individuals to prove that there is no hidden transmission of asymptomatic carriers.

All new arrivals through our borders are quarantined for 14 days, and New Zealanders who choose to travel overseas are forced to accept that they will be quarantined upon arrival to New Zealand for 14 days.

In this scenario, New Zealand can resume "normal" operations (except for tourism), and we will have to wait for a Covid-19 vaccine to become widely available before our borders can re-open normally. This is likely to take a minimum 1-2 years - as global demand for this vaccine will exceed supply and (wait for it) could take 5-10 years if there are setbacks or problems with the newly created vaccines (such as unexpected adverse effects). Ideally New Zealand scientists need to be working on a vaccine ourselves, or make a deal with the Australians to share their vaccine supplies if they create one. I doubt the United States or other nations will freely share their vaccines until they have vaccinated their own populations.

I would expect unemployment to reach 10-15% in this scenario, but with good governance we could quickly return to normal employment levels by 2022 (but I am not an economist, so this is merely speculation).

Ultimately future travellers will require evidence of Covid-19 vaccination to travel across borders, much as you presently require a Yellow Fever International Health Regulations Certificate to travel to certain countries.

2. The middle ground scenario - New Zealand, interrupted

Likelihood - approximately 40-50% chance

In this scenario, which is still very likely, New Zealand is unable to completely eradicate Covid-19, but the collapse of thousands of businesses and rising unemployment mean that we have to restart our economy after the lock-down has been extended to 8-12 weeks. In this situation, Covid-19 outbreaks will occur frequently and there may even be a surge in cases through the winter months of July and August, necessitating frequent returns to Level 4 lock-down. This will cause economic chaos and ongoing uncertainty for businesses and individuals.

In this scenario, expect unemployment to hit 15-20% (or more) and for New Zealand to experience a prolonged, brutal economic depression. If and when a vaccine is available, and international borders are re-opened, New Zealand would probably take 3-5 years to get our dead tourism industry back on its feet - though I suspect it won't be the same for many, many years.

3. The worst case scenario - New Zealand, crippled.

Likelihood - approx 5-10% chance

Fortunately, this outcome has become less and less likely by the day, as the lock-down measures appear to have been working. However, if we are unable to eradicate Covid-19 there is still the very real possibility that we experience a massive exponential surge in cases during the winter months - causing our health system to be overwhelmed, potentially causing tens of thousands of deaths, and leading to a prolonged and devastating national lock-down similar to the three months just experienced by the province of Wuhan in China.

This scenario would potentially cripple New Zealand's economy for generations, so this is why it is so important that people continue to abide by the rules of the present lockdown.




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