As Covid begins to look like nothing more than the old-fashioned flu in drag, Long Inflation rears its ugly head. By Jane Clifton
We're generally good sports, but overnight the population of New Zealand has been dragooned into a game of invisible paintball that is already straining our concept of fair play.
Omicron gives everyone a fifty-fifty chance of getting splattered, according to the experts. Catch it, and chances are you take a bunch of friends and family down with you into home isolation. Everyone else carries on playing unless and until they succumb – but with an ever-diminishing level of certainty about pretty much every normal activity they try to undertake, from buying bread to sending their children to school.
The new system is designed to flatten the infection curve so serious cases peak a couple of months hence and don't overwhelm hospitals.
It's nominally more palatable than yet another all-out lockdown. But politically, the new "red light" setting is every government's worst nightmare because it can't possibly be equitable. At least when whole districts were subject to the same "level" rules, everyone faced the same menu of restrictions.
The new regime – necessarily – will be experienced more like shrapnel. No one will ever know when their turn for home self-detention will come, and those who escape infection will probably have to pick up the workplace, childcare and other burdens left by those who have succumbed. Everyone is likely to suffer, but not equally.
It's fair to ask, will the Government survive this? Its peremptory suspension of isolation facilities for in-comers has been a last straw for many separated families. However prudent the measure, its terse announcement on social media was shoddy communications.
The opposition is in broad agreement with the "red light" compromise between full lockdown and letting things rip. But its criticism that testing capacity is inadequate, and that the authorities seem obsessed with retaining total control rather than trusting people to responsibly self-test, may be bang-on.
If the pandemic tanks Labour's popularity, it will probably be because of a long-standing lack of frankness about vaccine and test-kit supply and underestimation of people's intelligence and goodwill. Governments can trust most people to understand that getting medical supplies in global pandemics is difficult, just as it can trust most of us not to wall ourselves up behind hoarded mountains of dunny paper.
Still, it's worth remembering that our health authorities couldn't even bring themselves to advise mask-wearing at the pandemic's onset because they didn't think us competent to get it right.
The Government's more immediate worry is compliance fatigue. The prowling tiger that was Delta has given way to what some people see as more of a scrappy tomcat. Although weaker in lethality, Omicron can still kill and impair long-term more people than is humanely bearable, including children. Our high vaccination levels can drastically blunt its damage, but cannot defang its bite.
It's a moot point of dubious taste, but were we dealing with something rather more decisive than a coronavirus – Ebola, say, entailing catastrophic haemorrhaging and total organ failure – we would have greatly economised on the ideological and logistical debates we've been having about proportionate precautions. Ebola's graphic horror would render the inalienable right to hug a granny, and the totalitarianism of compulsory "face nappies", irrelevant. Somehow, the fact that death by a scarier version of the annual flu is still death continues to elude many people.
Further confounding people's capacity to keep faith that this is still an emergency is growing evidence that this may literally be the common cold, albeit unusually weaponised. Researchers now believe Covid is a close relative of the virus that merely gives us the sniffles. Worse, the popular idea that we'll reach herd immunity, and everything will be hunky-dory, may be pure romance.
As two years' intensive absorption in microbial soap opera has shown us, coronaviruses mutate so readily, there's no lasting immunity. This pandemic could simply be a specially melodramatic season in the long-running saga of the four coronaviruses that are believed to cause colds and flu.
The one that causes the common cold, it's now hypothesised, may be the ever-mutating ancestor of the little-remembered "Russian flu" epidemic of the late 1800s, which felled an estimated million people, causing the same symptom range as Covid, including loss of taste and smell.
Some people may be more resistant to Covid than others because they've already caught it and built resistance to the Russian flu's successor organisms.
Those who thrill to Wuhan laboratory conspiracy theories will be disappointed to learn that the Russian flu evolved naturally from a cattle virus jumping the species barrier.
Clash of clichés
Meanwhile, it's funny how for every useful cliché, there's another snappy maxim that stands it on its head. The Timaru vaccine refusers demanding rates rebates from their council for banning them from some facilities seem pretty pleased with themselves for opening an uncomfortable can of worms for the authorities. Ban people from the stuff they pay for because of retrospective changes to conditions of use and there are the makings of a political, legal and talkback-radio bonanza.
But the refuseniks need to bracket their can of worms with the other invertebrate saying about the ability of worms to turn.
What if the great majority of vaccinated citizens took a class action against the unvaccinated to recoup the costs to the economy of their delaying border openings and freedom of movement? What if they also sought compensation from them for the avoidable impost on the health system every time an electively unvaccinated person needs hospital treatment for Covid, displacing treatment of a vaccinated person with cancer or some other serious, less avoidable illness?
Britain's ICU Omicron burden is overwhelmingly caused by the unvaccinated. Australia's emergency admissions skew heavily towards the younger unvaccinated demographic.
In any case, we need to husband our energies for the next epidemic: inflation. The worst infection in 30 years, and there's no vaccine. No immunity. No short-term cure. It can't kill you, but Long Inflation is a miserable condition.
With horribly corny timing, the minute house prices started levelling off here, inflation arrived to start undoing the good.
Never mind Covid, this coincidence will test people's immunity to conspiracy theories like nothing else.
• This column was originally published by the NZ Listener before border reopening plans were announced