While the Government considers its options on the management of the pandemic, it would be fair to say that for many people there is some confusion as to what exactly is expected of us and what policies can we expect in future.
It is something of a conundrum that at the very time when New Zealand is suffering more COVID-19 deaths each week than it suffered in the entire first two years of the pandemic, we are lifting most restrictions. Yes, we are still being encouraged to get a third dose (or booster) of the vaccine, but mandates of most kinds are gradually being relaxed, the borders are opening, and social norms are changing as many people find it easier just to go about their everyday lives without masks and vaccine passes and gradually extend their circle of normal interactions.
And yet – other countries that have lifted most restrictions have quickly found that the virus has resurged. Furthermore, although our surges are waning, it remains a chastening fact that we have experienced daily averages of 10-20 deaths and tens of thousands of reported cases, many of the deaths being older citizens, and many being in aged care residences.
Is this the “new normal” – lifting restrictions, going about our daily lives in a normal fashion, but also accompanied by surges of reported cases, hospitalisations and deaths, and all this with the frightening and near-certain likelihood of the emergence of new variants of the virus in the future?
There is a hiatus, and people are understandably a bit confused – we are removing restrictions, but we are suffering record cases, hospitalisations and deaths, and there is more to come. We need a new policy, a “new normal”; we have been through stages of elimination, active suppression, and then mitigation – could it be now that we should just proceed to a policy of “encouraging good, precautionary behaviour”?
This issue was brought home to me when I noted that the authorities at the University of Auckland have lifted vaccine mandates. Everything the university has done throughout the pandemic to date has been well considered, as one would expect of a science-based institution, and also entirely responsive, as staff have taken part in large zoom calls to debate institutional policy. And the lifting of vaccine mandates for entry to campus is no different. This has been properly considered, and follows a change in government policy.
Arguably, and on strictly epidemiological and public health grounds, lifting the vaccine mandate on campus will not make much difference either way. But to me, as a social scientist, this seems a bit arbitrary when what we want to do is encourage a pattern of behaviour to carry us through – to cope with the next variant, and the next set of precautionary restrictions, which are bound to involve some kind of certificate of “vaccine-worthiness”, both to protect ourselves and those around us.
I am also a user of public transport, and I have noticed that, while every single passenger on a bus may be masked, often the driver is not. When I asked the most recent driver who was unmasked why this was the case, he claimed to have a medical exemption. When I asked him for the grounds of that exemption, he refused to give them. In other words, a bus driver – by observation, a potentially at-risk white male in his 60s – is prepared to put himself and his passengers at risk by failing to use one of the last protections available to us, on the basis of an undemonstrated medical exemption. It is hard to believe that there could be a medical reason for not wearing a mask that would outweigh, at peak outbreak of a highly-transmissible variant of COVID-19, the health risk of working unmasked in the contained environment of a bus with dozens of passengers (albeit masked) trooping in and out in close proximity.
While the Government is in the process of lifting most restrictions, possibly under public pressure but also presumably with public health advice, we should start to think of many of these restrictions as “enablers”. Masking is restrictive, but it allows us to use public transport more safely. Vaccine mandates are restrictive, but they may encourage us to go out more to restaurants and the like.
With further surges in Omicron likely, and new variants of the disease on the horizon, and with many restrictions being lifted, we need to maintain patterns of good, precautionary behaviour that will better protect us as citizens, families, friends and colleagues in future.
Peter Davis, elected member of the Auckland District Health Board, and Emeritus Professor of Population Health and Social Science at the University of Auckland.