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NZ must follow China’s lead to contain virus, says medic


Otago academic calls for ‘massive, aggressive’ response to Covid-19 as government announces self-isolation measures

New Zealand will require a “massive investment” in public health resources to contain the spread of the highly contagious Covid-19 coronavirus, a University of Otago medical academic has said.

Philip Hill, co-director of the university’s centre for international health, has called for “clear criteria” for closure of NZ institutions and funding for rapid response teams that can quickly test people for the virus.

His comments coincide with tough measures announced by prime minister Jacinda Ardern on 14 March that will require all people arriving in NZ to self-isolate for 14 days.

“The Pacific are exempted from this measure; they are the only ones. Anyone from this country, though, will be required to automatically self-isolate should they exhibit any Covid-19 symptoms on arrival in New Zealand. All of these restrictions will be reviewed in 16 days’ time,” she told a media conference.

“This decision will mean New Zealand will have the widest-ranging and toughest border restrictions of any country in the world. We are also encouraging New Zealanders to avoid all non-essential travel overseas.”

Hill is a leading researcher on infectious diseases. In an editorial published by independent news platform Newsroom NZ, he says NZ needs to follow the examples of China and Taiwan in moving quickly to contain the virus.

“China mounted a massive, sophisticated, countrywide public health assault on the virus,” he writes.

“Dr Bruce Aylward from the World Health Organization described this as 90 per cent comprising painstaking identification of cases and isolation of their contacts, tailor-making their response using big data, well-managed staff and by observing the local context of each mini-outbreak.”

Hill says that many national pandemic plans “tend to read like a fighter going into a fight planning to be knocked out”.

“This is because they are based on influenza, which is extremely hard to contain due to its short one-to-two-day incubation period and the large number of asymptomatic influenza A virus shedders,” he writes.

“An influenza epidemic does not respond particularly well to basic public health measures. But the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is not an influenza virus. While China was the first country to encounter this virus, it has also provided us with the answers to containing it, not so much in the lockdown of Wuhan but in the response across the rest of the country.”

He says Taiwan also took a “big data analytical approach that included real-time alerts, online reporting of risk information—including detailed travel history—and symptoms”.

“Cases were actively identified, and their contacts monitored. The government addressed the issue of disease stigma and compassion for those affected by providing food, frequent health checks, and encouragement for those under quarantine. As a result, Taiwan has reported fewer than 50 cases of Covid-19.”