On the global stage, it might look laughable that New Zealand is holding a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Analysis has shown New Zealand’s pandemic response resulted in one of the lowest rates of excess mortality in the world – sparing thousands of extra deaths experienced even in “elimination” countries such as Taiwan and Australia.
A commentary published by Otago University public health experts compared our mortality rates against five other high-income jurisdictions in the Asia-Pacific region. Across the entire pandemic period, New Zealand had minus 215 excess deaths per million, which equated to around 1103 fewer people dying than in a scenario in which the Covid-19 crisis never happened.
If we’d experienced a similar per capita excess mortality rate with other jurisdictions, then the country may have experienced 1856 extra deaths (Japan), or 2127 (Taiwan), 2577 (Australia), 3798 (Singapore) or 5167 (South Korea).
The costs of New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic are largely known, to the public purse at least. A Reserve Bank report in May 2020, estimated GDP was around 37 per cent lower during the period of alert level 4 than it would have been without any restrictions. This meant a lockdown over four and a half weeks that equated to $10 billion of lost production, reducing annual GDP by 3.2 per cent.
The Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund was established in April 2020, following a $12.1 billion package announced on March 17 that provided an initial response to the immediate impacts of the first Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown. It began as a $50 billion fund, with subsequent increases required to ensure that sufficient funding was available to manage the impacts of the Delta and Omicron outbreaks.
The fund was closed at Budget 2022 with a final tally of $61.6 billion, of which $58.4 billion was allocated to response and recovery initiatives, leaving a remaining balance of $3.2 billion.
The remaining funding was repurposed, with $1.2 billion set aside for any immediate Covid-19-related public health needs that couldn’t wait until the next Budget cycle; $1.0 billion, or $250 million per annum, to offset investments funded from the Budget 2022 operating allowance; and $1.0 billion for a package of measures to support low- to middle-income New Zealanders to manage the rising cost of living.
A cost-of-living crisis now threatens to plunge the country into recession.
Also, we are only beginning to assess the cost in areas such as education, mental wellbeing, and social cohesion - as being explored in our Rebuilding Better series. Despite our efforts, long Covid will cost the country for an as-yet undefined time.
Yes, lives were saved, but much was lost. Whether those lives were worth saving is not an issue. What is, is whether those lives could have been saved without such a financial cost and the social upheaval of extended lockdowns.
What is needed now is the answer to the big question: What should New Zealand do differently when a similar threat strikes?