GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell –

On 15 January BusinessDesk published my article comparing internationally the effectiveness of New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic since early 2020: Giving the world our best shot

I used two main comparators – mortality rates per million people and full vaccination rates (whole rather than eligible populations).

New Zealand’s mortality rate was possibly the second lowest in the world at 10 per million behind China and much lower than countries closer to us in population size with developed economies such as Ireland, Denmark, Finland and Norway.

Our vaccination rates are impressive, even a little higher than the European Union which negotiated with the pharmaceutical companies as a powerful bloc and included vaccine producing countries in its midst.

Response from a “versatile, accomplished executive leader”

This led to a highly critical response from a David Page on LinkedIn. Levering off his offloading is useful because his approach is typical of many of those strident critics of New Zealand’s pandemic response.

Page is evidently an inspirational person and leader because he says so. He describes himself as “…a versatile, accomplished executive leader with 20+ years of commercial and operational leadership across multiple industry sectors, 15+ years in sales and marketing and business development, and 10+ years of experience in programme and operational management within health.”

Further: “I bring a track record of transformational change and championing business capability enhancement, underpinned by expertise in leading high-performing teams of up to 2300 people across multiple sites in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.”

As this self-description suggests Page is over-endowed with the immodesty gene.

The Page attack

Page’s attack is more on my comments about what was required to ensure such a low death rate (the elimination of community transmission through zero tolerance strategy) than vaccine implementation. In his own words:

Your pride in NZ’s ‘achievement’ speaks volumes and is typical of a small-mindedness that pervades NZ’s response.

What of the impact on general health from deferred ops? The social effects on children, families and livelihoods from domestic violence to loss of income to mental health? What, indeed, was the economic cost to be borne by generations to come?
You do not refer either to fortress NZ, a state without natural immunity, isolated by propagandised fear, and dependent therefore on a program of booster upon booster, with no end in sight.
Conveniently, you do not refer either to the persecution of 40% of Kiwi, many of whom are health professionals – victimised with livelihoods destroyed by mandates that are an abomination in any democratic, liberty-loving nation claiming to value human rights, kindness and inclusivity of all citizens.
Typically for a health technocrat, you don’t consider the full balance sheet – you present the same old hackneyed upbeat, backslapping ‘achievements’ that puffed up media types project onto a dejected, fed up populace too tired to argue.
One measure of success is the mortality rate, but on every other measure, NZ has failed. A hermit state is a dead one.

This was followed by a brief ‘call to arms’ declaring that “We can’t let this propaganda [my article] go unchallenged.” Four presumably co-thinkers are highlighted in this second post. An embryo of a campaign?

Rodney King and desensitising human deaths

There are two main features of Page’s vociferous response. First he appears to place low value on human life especially given that he does not challenge the veracity or accuracy of the mortality data. New Zealand’s elimination strategy saved thousands of lives depending on who among many developed economies one might select.

But, for Page, mortality rate is merely one indicator and no better than others!

Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King, 1991

This indifference is chilling. It reminds me of the Rodney King case. King was an African-American who was a victim of police brutality after an arrest in Los Angeles in March 1991. His severe beating (struck over 50 times) was filmed from a person’s nearby balcony and the footage sent to local news station. It was quickly covered by news media around the world and caused a public furore.

The four officers were acquitted leading to riots lasting six days with 63 deaths. Subsequently two officers were imprisoned following a guilty verdict in a federal civil rights action while King successfully sued the Los Angeles Police Department with an award of $(US)3.8 million in damages.

What particularly interested me in the King case was the defence legal strategy in the first trial leading to the unexpected acquittal. Surprisingly the defence lawyers played again and again the beating footage to the jury with all its vivid brutality, more than the prosecution. The effect was to desensitise the jury to the brutality leading to the acquittal.

Those like David Page who dismiss the remarkable achievement of a very low mortality rate in New Zealand which saved thousands of lives are clearly de-sensitised to the massive loss of life due to Covid-19 which has been well reported in mainstream and social media. This leads to him and his ilk, hopefully unintentionally, to place a low value human life.

If the Rodney King-type desensitise effect does not apply to these critics of New Zealand’s pandemic response, then the only other plausible explanation is callous indifference to massive loss of life.

Empiricism deficit syndrome

The second main feature of David Page’s critical response to my article is the complete lack of evidence to justify any of his assertions. He suffers from what I would call an empiricism deficit syndrome (to the best of my knowledge this has not made its way into the medical textbooks but give it time).

By way of example:

  • To the extent that there was deferred operations and negative social effects on children, families and livelihoods, this also occurred in the rest of the world, including Europe and North America, But it was proportionately lower New Zealand. In fact, at least until the arrival of the delta variant last August, there was no evidence of worsening mental health or domestic violence.
  • The pandemic has incurred an economic cost to all countries. But what can’t be ignored is that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development rated New Zealand’s economic performance under the pandemic the best of its member states.
  • Natural immunity was attempted by Sweden through its unofficial alternative herd immunity strategy. Had New Zealand followed Sweden we would have had around 7,000 Covid deaths. Further, Sweden also embarked on vaccination with a rate a little lower than New Zealand.
  • The figure of 40% of Kiwis being persecuted is devoid of any evidence. In fact, New Zealand was ranked as one of the freest countries in the world under the pandemic.

Expressing it kindly

There are legitimate evidence based criticisms that can be made of New Zealand’s coronavirus response. Epidemiologists are a case in point (I have also been critical).  But these represent failings rather than failure.

The likes of David Page don’t understand this distinction and don’t understand empiricism. I don’t know him from a bar of soap but suspect that the soap has greater cognitive capacity.

I’m expressing this as kindly as I can.

Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Otaihanga Second Opinion

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