Covid 19 coronavirus editorial: Bubble, border breaches complicate strategy


New Zealand’s transtasman travel bubble turbulence should be placed in a wider context.

Travel links to Western Australia were hurriedly paused on Saturday night after an MIQ worker in Perth tested positive for Covid-19.

It is hard not to believe New Zealand’s risk has been raised or at least complicated by the bubble and border breaches. We have slightly opened up – in a cautious way – just as the virus is engulfing a country with a billion people.

Infection rates in Australia and New Zealand are similarly low, but in two weeks there have been two outbreaks in Perth, and an airport breach at Brisbane. Covid traces have also been found in Melbourne wastewater. And a traveller from the Cook Islands reportedly skipped quarantine to fly from Auckland to Perth.

Beyond Australasia, the world is now in starkly divergent phases of the coronavirus pandemic and those gaps will likely grow over the rest of the year.

While some regions will experience more tragedy and misfortune, others will be pushing full steam ahead on recovery thanks to better vaccine supplies.

But health experts have said the coronavirus has to be subdued everywhere for the overall threat to recede.

The centre of these coronavirus trends at the moment is India as a virus variant races through it and pyre fires for the dead light the skies. India produced another global daily record of more than 400,000 new cases on Saturday.

New Zealand’s Government acted quickly to reduce travel risk from India. From today, Australian residents and citizens who have been in India are banned from returning and face fines and jail if they break the rules.

New Zealand has been eyeing a travel link with the Cook Islands but the combination of border incidents, India’s surge and our limited vaccinations is concerning. Only 232,588 doses have been administered since February 21.

We can’t view Australia as the weak link either.

New research has described New Zealand’s MIQ facilities as being up to four times more likely to be breached than their Australian counterparts. And nine Customs workers here have been sacked for refusing the vaccine.

Auckland University Professor of Medicine Des Gorman told RNZ: “We’re not vaccinated. We’re incredibly vulnerable. Our elimination strategy leaves us absolutely reliant on two things – a secure border and effective contact tracing and at the moment none of those are up to the level we’d like to have to have any sense of security.”

Variants from the UK, Brazil and South Africa have spread well beyond their original borders. The Indian variant has been spotted in at least 17 countries.

Although vaccines offer important protection, there are periods of vulnerability – between the two doses and a short period after the second jab before immunity is at its highest.

A UK study by Imperial College suggests people need to have both shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for good protection against variants.

On top of India’s crisis, the Asia region, which has been slow to vaccinate, is generally experiencing a virus resurgence. Thailand is going through a third wave, Pakistan has sent soldiers to 16 cities to enforce restrictions and Japan has begun a coronavirus state of emergency.

Dr Tom Frieden, former director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, tweeted a warning: “Don’t be blinded by the light at the end of the tunnel. There isn’t enough vaccine and the virus is gathering strength & speed. Global cooperation is crucial”.

The light at the end of the tunnel is brighter in the US and Europe where vaccines are being produced and rollouts are much more advanced.

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