Our Covid masks are off, but we are not equal to the world

Janine Starks is a financial commentator with expertise in banking, personal finance and fund management.

OPINION: Masks may be off but New Zealand’s public health response to Covid-19 could remain a wart in the side of our economy for years to come.

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To be clear, I’m talking about the strategy that came after our initial success and Covid-19 was here to stay.

Let me explain why I’m worried. It was summed up by two polarized views this week. One pushed for a continued prevention strategy, the other resisted it.

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Masks are now (mostly) off, but that's a red herring when it comes to being equal to the world and its response to Covid.


Masks are now (mostly) off, but that’s a red herring when it comes to being equal to the world and its response to Covid.

dr Siouxsie Wiles expressed the need for invisible public health measures that continue to function in the background of our daily lives: rapid antigen tests (RATs) must stay and be free. We need to teach people how to test properly. We should encourage voluntary testing before going to restaurants or gatherings. We should continue to isolate where positive and pay people as this encourages reporting. We need the continued use of CO2 monitors in closed spaces, air purifiers where ventilation is difficult, and ventilation assessments in business premises.

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This was promptly followed by a tweet from another commenter, Matthew Hooton, who said: “Reads like the writings of a total fanatic. RATS every time we go to a restaurant, show someone or visit. Ventilation ratings in all business premises to keep us safe. Apparently permanent.”

I can see his perspective. If you’ve lived in New Zealand throughout the pandemic, it must appear that she’s speaking a foreign language.

But if we put the quote ‘completely fanatical’ in a British newspaper, they would die laughing. Because that’s what the British did; tested before going to restaurants, shows, company parties and grandma’s house. Yes, all voluntarily. They did so throughout 2021 and into the winter of 2022 when infections were high.

Janine Starks says in New Zealand our personal responsibility only kicks in when we know we have Covid.  It's hard to change that in people's minds now - and it's making us fall behind other countries.

Marion van Dijk/stuff

Janine Starks says in New Zealand our personal responsibility only kicks in when we know we have Covid. It’s hard to change that in people’s minds now – and it’s making us fall behind other countries.

Kiwis don’t because our public health policies didn’t educate us or provide the means to do so. It’s not really our fault when I think about it.

The UK’s ability to get pharmacists to throw seven packs of free tests to the public is a spectacular spectacle. This also applies to the online ordering system, where they end up in the mailbox and every member of the household can always order a pack of seven.

Brits have never had to show a vaccination card for a coffee, but have instead been educated that vaccinated people get Covid-19 (lots of Covid-19), so pre-testing for gatherings and constant personal monitoring was the public health strategy.

The British school tests took place twice a week. Should it be necessary again, it is a matter of course for every child.

I went to a boozy club cyclist lunch during that time. Two had to withdraw due to preliminary testing. At another event, an exceptional 80 out of 500 withdrew after their pre-event RAT turned positive. On Christmas morning every family member was tested and on New Year’s Eve we did a RAT before going to a friend’s house. These are voluntary requests. They are not bulletproof, but the spread of infection and economic damage are reduced.

The UK Health and Safety Agency educated employers on their legal obligations regarding ventilation and strongly encouraged the use of carbon dioxide monitors. It is still considered a legal requirement of their risk assessment.

With the UK summer coming to an end there are currently no free tests available, no school tests and masks are quite rare. People don’t pre-test before going to meetings. But the government could flip the switch quickly and the public is well educated. Prevention is in their psyche, but not in ours.

Wile’s argument was financial. Regular preliminary examinations and monitoring reduce diseases and the costs for the economy. We just missed the boat.

In New Zealand, our personal responsibility begins when we know we are ill. It’s very hard now to change that in people’s minds.

It leaves us behind other countries in our preparation for future variants and the next inevitable wave. It also exposes our economy, education and healthcare systems to financial risks.

The cost of sickness and productivity to employers, missed schooling, and taxpayers funding less visible ancillary conditions is immense. Long-Covid, heart attacks, strokes and higher incidence of dementia in those infected create economic whiplash.

A lot of people will shake their heads at Siouxie Wiles. A sense of freedom awaits, as does the triumph of finally catching up with the rest of the world and being mask-free.

But is she really a fanatic? Outside of New Zealand, her comments would never be seen as such. Other countries dropped these measures over the summer, but they are well prepared to pull the trigger if needed in a new emergency. We should at least talk about the seasonal implementation of measures that we didn’t take the first time.

The mask is a diversionary maneuver. Health policies and messaging need to be overhauled. We will all be penalized financially if we don’t do it.

Janine Starks is the author of www.moneytips.nz and can be contacted at [email protected] She is a financial commentator with expertise in banking, personal finance and fund management. Opinions are a personal view and of a general nature. They do not constitute a recommendation for any individual to buy or sell any financial product. Readers should always seek specific independent financial advice, appropriate to their own circumstances.

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