Dunne Speaks: What’s In A Word?

Column – Peter Dunne

What’s in a word? Well, not a lot it would seem, if New Zealand’s experience dealing with Covid-19 is any guide. Words now seem apparently to have no definitive meaning, but rather mean that just what those uttering them imagined them to mean at the time. Just like Humpty Dumpty said to Alice, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

On 25 March the Prime Minister announced the Level 4 lockdown to Parliament, explaining that its purpose was to “manage the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic within New Zealand” because “there was early evidence of community transmission of COVID-19.” Hence the accompanying “Go hard, go early” slogan and the “flattening the curve” tag-line.

Two weeks into the lockdown, on 9 April, just before the Easter weekend, the Prime Minister was talking about breaking the “chain of transmission”, and, consistent with the earlier comments, about managing the spread, noting that with just 29 new cases reported that day “we (were) turning a corner.” She described the campaign as a marathon, but then, in a phrase which has come to be problematic, added that the aim was to keep “eliminating” the virus from New Zealand.

That appeared to be a significant step-up from the earlier ambition of “flattening the curve”. This was at a time when more and more people were starting to be hit hard by the economic consequences of the lockdown, and the calls upon the government’s substantial assistance subsidies and assistance were growing daily. Was it just coincidence, or had there been a conscious decision based on the clear success to date that, rather just trying to manage the spread of Covid-19, New Zealand now had the opportunity to be bolder and become the first country in the world to eliminate it completely? If so, had any assessment been done of the economic and social costs of doing so, and whether it was even a feasible objective, given that at some point New Zealand would have to reopen its doors to trading partners which might have adopted a lesser standard?

Debate and speculation about the true nature of the government’s policy continued for the next couple of weeks while the number of new cases being identified kept on falling. The reduction was such that after a one-week extension to Level 4, the Prime Minister was able to announce a move to the less restrictive Level 3 from 28 April. Foreshadowing that announcement on 16 April, she observed this was possible because “there are promising signs our go hard and go early elimination strategy is working and the lockdown is breaking the chain of community transmission.”

But here is when the fun began. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, eliminate means to “get rid of” without qualification. It is final and absolute. On that basis, therefore, it was reasonable to assume that by talking of elimination New Zealand was seeking to get rid of Covid-19, once and for all. But, again, things are not simple, as the Prime Minister later told Radio New Zealand that “when I talk about elimination it does not mean zero cases, it means zero tolerance for cases.” She further explained that “the idea of Covid being completely gone, that is eradication – so there are important differences there.” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary does not think so – it applies the same “get rid of” definition to eradication, as it does to elimination.)

While we were working all that out, Professor Michael Baker, part of the Otago Medical School cabal that seems to have been driving so much of the policy response to date, joined the fray. He felt that the coming Level 3 period would be “a good opportunity to work on the definition of elimination.” Even more helpfully, his colleague Professor Nick Wilson intervened with his view of how elimination should be defined. According to him elimination means “no active cases at all in the country for at least a period of four weeks of extensive testing and other surveillance systems in place.” In his mind, elimination is clearly some way off.

When the Prime Minister announced on 27 April that New Zealand had “currently” eliminated Covid-19 from our shores, it was not clear whether she was applying the Dictionary’s definition, or her own redefinition. Alice’s reply to Humpty Dumpty that “the question is whether you can make words mean so many different things” was starting to appear ever more relevant.

The mounting confusion was all left for the Director-General of Health to try and clear up on 28 April. New Zealand had not yet eliminated the virus, he explained, because “elimination is not a point in time – it’s not ‘we’ve got to the end of alert level 4, we’ve eliminated it’. It’s not something that you can just say ‘done and dusted’ – it is an ongoing effort.” According to the Director-General, elimination is something else again. Adopting neither the Prime Minister’s, nor the Concise Oxford Dictionary’s, nor Professors Baker’s or Wilson’s definitions, he described elimination as “a small number of cases, a knowledge of where those cases are coming from and an ability to identify cases early, stamp them out and maintain strict border restrictions so we’re not importing new cases.”

So, there we have it. New Zealand’s Covid-19 strategy has all along really been about “flattening the curve”, which we have achieved remarkably well, not about getting rid of Covid-19 after all. The bigger question now becomes, has it all been worth it? Certainly, in terms of controlling the spread of Covid-19, the answer must be a resounding yes. However, as people start to think about picking up the threads of life once more, debate will intensify about whether the mounting economic and social costs which will last for years to come have been worth it, or whether a steadier approach such as Australia’s might have been better for our country in the long term.

But since words apparently now have only the meaning those using them choose to apply to them, it is probably not worth getting into that debate!

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