One of the many disappointing discoveries in this whole Covid-19 saga is the state of the science of epidemiology. Following its prescription, the Ministry of Health has vastly expanded its capacity to trace and test for the coronavirus. Somehow I had the impression this would be the precision tool of epidemiology, its Exocet missile that would replace the carpet bombing of an entire city's street life.
But it took just one outbreak in one family in Auckland to put the whole city back into social and commercial lockdown.
I am not a scientist of any description, just someone who is usually in awe of their achievements, especially in medicine and technology. Vaccination is among those wonders, but even in the absence of a vaccine, it seems to me we should not be this vulnerable to a new infection. The virus may be new but the threat is not new. It is as old as history.
Epidemics rank with wars, famines and financial system failures among the causes of social catastrophe through the ages. Thanks to nuclear science we haven't had another world war in my lifetime, thanks to capitalism we don't suffer shortages of food or anything else, and thanks to governments we can survive a financial crisis.
But for epidemics, we find, we have no answer except to shut our borders and retreat into ourselves until we get a vaccine – if we get a vaccine – or the virus goes away – if it goes away. This is not life, and as a policy response, it is not sustainable. Sooner or later people will not be contained, life will out.
You'd think epidemiology would have concluded long ago that it was not sustainable, and developed much more sophisticated techniques for tackling a new contagion. It is not a new science and not a neglected field judging by the number of epidemiologists on TV. I've lost count of how many we have met this year from Otago University's Wellington campus alone.
But epidemiology appears to be more of a social science than a medical one. Like social science, it is better at measuring problems than solving them. It has developed sophisticated statistical methods of measuring the pace an infection spreads and its fatality rate but when it comes to containing it we are told to lock down.
That is disappointing enough, worse, the professors don't seem even slightly embarrassed about the primitive state of their science. Quite the contrary, they urge social distancing on us with righteous urgency and seldom an expression of regret for the social and economic costs.
New Zealand has been their model pupil, the high achiever who raised the bar from "suppression" of the disease to "eradication". That goal suffered a severe setback this week but eradication is naturally popular and will get the Government re-elected.
The goal is, however, unrealistic and eventually will change. It is just a matter of how much damage we do to business, jobs, the economy and the public accounts before we change.
Back in April when we were locked down at level 4, we had at least one epidemiologist at the University of Auckland, Dr Simon Thornley, who called the lockdown an over-reaction to this virus and suggested we'd do better to concentrate on protecting the elderly in rest homes and others in vulnerable conditions.
Little more was heard from him back then, but a few weeks ago I received an invitation to a symposium at Parliament this Monday to be hosted by David Seymour and featuring Thornley and a number of international speakers in epidemiology and related fields. The symposium was billed as "Covid Plan B" and I signed up for it.
Alas, it has fallen victim to Covid Plan A. In the uncertainties of this week's restrictions, the gathering was cancelled and it is now to be a webinar, which is probably how the overseas participants would have had to attend anyway but I was looking forward to live discussion. Zoom is not the same.
The symposium featured questions posed in a different time, like last week: "What conditions would necessitate a new lockdown? What are the alternative measures? If the case rate remains tolerable here and/or overseas, when and how do we open the border?"
Now we know what conditions would put us back in lockdown – just four cases of Covid-19 that could not be traced to a known arrival at the border was enough to send Auckland back into level 3 and the rest of the country to level 2.
A second lockdown leaves a different shock from the first. The fact this outbreak was enough to shut shops, suspend live trading, prohibit crowds, and seal a city will have shaken the business confidence that was returning.
There has to be a better way, a Covid Plan B.