Michael Baker is an epidemiologist and public health physician with the University of Otago and a Professor in the Department of Public Health. He was one of the most vocal, local experts to express concern about New Zealand's initial response to Covid-19.
I was at school in Auckland when my father got a job at The Waikato Times so we were dragged, kicking and screaming, to Hamilton. We moved to the countryside near Horotiu and it was actually great fun. We lived in a cottage on a dairy farm and we'd help the farmer bring in the cows. Back then dairy farms were quite small and diverse, so we played with all kinds of animals. I was most impressed how pigs would eat anything. I'll never forget the sound of them chomping into whole pumpkins.
I was always drawn to biology. I loved getting out in the bush and, for a long time, I wanted to be an ecologist but, after high school, I went to Auckland to study medicine. I also became very involved in environmental matters and set up Auckland University's Environment Group. Those were the days of Think Big, when a huge social divide was opening up and I worried about the clearing of native forest, our consumptive lifestyles and environmental pollution.
We organised various protest actions. Once we did a mass cycle ride over the Auckland Harbour Bridge, to make the case for a cycleway. We also invaded Auckland's first MacDonald's
and staged a sit-in because we saw it as the epitome of the sort of industry we didn't want in New Zealand. The tour of '81 really radicalised my generation and I was drawn to the feeling of solidarity, and the belief we could build a better world. That idealism has never left me.
One very formative experience, I squatted in The Big House, an anarchic 20-bedroom house in Parnell. When I moved in Bruno Lawrence and Blerta had just moved out and The Crocodiles with Jenny Morris rehearsed there. It was a bit like an episode of The Young Ones with punks and skinheads and assorted students. Some skinheads were a bit unpleasant so they had to go, but punks were mostly adorable, with sweet natures and funny haircuts. I was the geeky med. student in the attic. I got to know the generous owner who helped me buy the house (that's a long story), which I still own today.
I wanted to specialise in either emergency medicine – I loved the excitement of not knowing what would come through the door - or psychiatry - as I quite liked mad people. But my life changed when a friend working in Parliament told me a junior doctor was being sought as a medical advisor for the Minister of Health. I didn't have experience in health policy but I applied, was interviewed and got the job so I hopped in my car and drove to Wellington. I thought I'd take a year out of clinical medicine but I never went back.
I arrived during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the Minister asked me to find gaps in the current strategy. Injecting drug use was a huge issue and needle sharing was causing terrible outbreaks overseas. We took a pragmatic approach and made clean needles and syringes available. There was some resistance, but in a short space of time we had the world's first national needle exchange programme and we never saw an HIV epidemic in
injecting drug users here. Seeing that taught me how good governments can save lives and bad ones can kill people. I then did the five-year public health medicine training programme and a whole new world opened up. I didn't realise it at the time, but 30 years later I'm still fighting epidemics.
In January I saw Covid-19 reports coming out of China and I thought there's a disease to watch. I did my first interview in early January and began writing about the disease. By the end of January it was clear it was going to be a global pandemic and I was asked to join the Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group to advise the Ministry of Health on the response.
On February 6, with my colleague Prof. Nick Wilson, we put out a scientific blog urging New Zealand to prepare for a potentially severe global coronavirus pandemic. This was clearly a very infectious virus that had potential to result in millions of deaths. But people and countries can have a strange sense of exceptionalism, that something won't hurt us the same way it will hurt everywhere else, and we felt people weren't taking Covid seriously enough.
A turning point came at the end of February when I read the report on the WHO Mission to China showing that this disease, unlike influenza, could be stopped and eliminated even after community transmission had been established. I realised that we were fighting the wrong virus and needed to switch from an influenza approach to a SARS approach. This meant we could eliminate this virus, and not just mitigate it by flattening the curve.
This was the most intense and surreal experience of my working life. For two weeks I was talking constantly with news media, policy staff and politicians, saying we needed to take a different tack, ramp up testing and contact tracing, stamp it out and keep it out. It also became clear that we didn't have enough systems in place to stop the virus, so I began advocating for a lockdown to give us a chance at elimination.
The week before the 4 level framework was announced, I found myself going to meetings where people looked at me blankly or disagreed, suggesting that a lockdown was a huge overreaction because we still had only a few cases. That feeling of being a lone voice, out on a limb, that I had it all wrong, was very uncomfortable. Fortunately, many people were starting to agree, including key business leaders.
In my bubble are my wife, nine-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son. We're fortunate to have a comfortable, dry house and I've still got a job. One key to surviving mentally, I ride my bicycle everywhere, and part of me finds the quiet roads quite blissful. Going for walks and saying hi to neighbours from a suitable distance is also enjoyable, that feeling that we're all in this together.
This experience has reminded me of the power of good government and good science, when they work together, to make a difference to people's lives. Over three or four critical days when everything was on a knife-edge, I had some of the most exceptional conversations I've ever had and I wept when our Prime Minister announced that New Zealand was going into lockdown. The unthinkable became thinkable as the entire country shifted its direction. It is tough but I think we will look back on this as the most profound public health intervention in our history.