The high costs of zero covid.
For more than a year already, both Australia and New Zealand have been largely isolated from the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the Australian state of Victoria and its capital city of Melbourne have recently had to impose yet another preemptive lockdown in order to suppress renewed community transmission of the coronavirus.
If they get really unlucky, the citizens of Victoria will have to spend another local winter season in full lockdown. Moreover, many Australians haven’t been allowed to leave the country since early 2020.
Due to repeated failures of the hotel quarantine system for incoming travelers, both New Zealand and Victoria are currently considering, or already planning, a “purpose-built covid quarantine facility” (see example above), already known from places like Vietnam and China.
New Zealand and Australia are also facing a high pressure to quickly vaccinate a very large part of their population, but the vaccines currently in use are already somewhat ‘outdated’ and sub-optimal in terms of their effectiveness against some of the new coronavirus variants, and local reports of blood clots, Guillain-Barré syndrome and other serious vaccine adverse events are mounting.
While it is true that in terms of coronavirus disease, Australia and New Zealand are high-risk populations – due to very high rates of obesity and metabolic disease – the economic and societal costs of lockdowns and isolation have also been substantial. In fact, if one considers both GDP loss and new public debt, New Zealand is one of the worst affected countries in the world. Moreover, in Australia, the number of suicide attempts among children and young adults has doubled.
Meanwhile, China itself is also facing renewed coronavirus outbreaks in several parts of the country, and authorities have again imposed some very strict lockdowns on major cities, despite having already vaccinated hundreds of millions of people – see our updated video gallery (18+) showing recent lockdowns, quarantine facilities and mass vaccinations in Chinese cities.
“Zero covid” essentially means “zero mistakes”, and such a goal was simply unrealistic for most non-island countries in the world (and even for many islands). Furthermore, in early 2020 it was far from certain that an effective vaccine would already become available by the end of the year.
At any rate, the examples of New Zealand and Australia show that “zero covid” is entirely unfeasible without early and strict border controls. Indeed, “zero covid” was unattainable even for most Asian countries, including India, Nepal, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. For instance, Indonesia had a seroprevalence of about 15% by January 2021, comparable to many Western countries.
There are only a few Asian outlier countries remaining, such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the Mekong countries of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In these countries, the coronavirus has been circulating at a low level, but there have so far been no major, nation-wide outbreaks.
Whether this is because of some elusive “pre-existing immunity”, or because of a lower basic reproduction number (similar to Western children) – maybe due to genetic or metabolic factors (e.g. very low obesity rates) or cultural factors (e.g. nasopharyngeal lavage) – continues to remain one of the major unsolved mysteries of this ‘strange pandemic’.
Update: Australia in lockdown (July 2021)