Scary times. We've had the return of community transmission, and learned just how far and how quickly Covid can spread. Learned also that the Ministry of Health did not have the border as secure as we had thought, as the Government had been telling us, as the ministry had been telling the Government.
Learned that both the Government and the ministry have different ideas from each other and from the rest of us about the meaning of "test everyone". I'm still reeling from that one.
We've watched in sympathy and dismay as the virus escaped into Victoria and perhaps now has taken hold in Sydney.
Back in lockdown ourselves, we've discovered some members of the "team of five million" want to leave the team. Have already started to leave.
Despite appeals to wear masks in public, we've seen that very few people do it. Despite widespread dismay at the inadequate border testing regime, we've also heard a steady chorus of complaints from people who think they should be exempt.
Nick Leggett, from the Road Transport Forum, for example, trying to make the case that truckies who do the wharf run shouldn't have to be tested.
We've heard all that, seen the agonising queues, read about system failure, and we've discovered just how hard containment really is.
Meanwhile, we've been reading the theories. It's the Government out to get us, somehow, for some reason, in a conspiratorial attack on our right to liberty and even to life itself. Some people really need to get out more, as soon as that's allowed.
And on top of all that, a small but influential number of commentators have emerged to tell us Sweden got it right, our elimination strategy cannot work, all we're doing is ruining the economy and the sooner we accept Covid cannot be beaten the better.
Is it true? The election looms. Choosing a Government fit for purpose has rarely seemed so important.
The Swedish solution
Sweden is the country that announced it would seek herd immunity in order to "live with" the virus. There has been no lockdown and the borders were not closed. In theory and to a degree in practice, the elderly and others who are especially vulnerable have been given special protection.
For everyone else, the idea is that you catch it, and then you either die or you get over it or you're immune. If you're under 60, and you're not vulnerable in some other way, you're extremely unlikely to die.
For a few weeks, Britain flirted with the same idea, before the fear of science overtook the Government and the plan was abandoned. It was too late, though: Britain now has the third-highest death rate from Covid-19, on a population basis, anywhere in the world. Sweden, with 5800 reported deaths in a population of 10.23 million, is sixth.
There is so much wrong with the Swedish solution: in its aims, its effectiveness, its impact on the economy as well as health, in its alignment with reality. Auckland University epidemiologist Rod Jackson wrote a compelling rebuttal of the strategy for the Herald earlier this week.
At the heart of his argument, Jackson says herd immunity is not just a bad idea, it's probably an impossible one. It requires at least 60 per cent of the population to become infected, but no country anywhere, he says, has yet reached even 10 per cent.
Jackson puts Sweden, despite the open policy, at only about 6 or 7 per cent. (He doesn't use reported infection rates, as they're dependent on testing and other factors that make them unreliable. Instead, he extrapolates from the number of deaths, which are assumed to represent about 1 per cent of the infected population.)
If the statistics are bewildering, or you think they're contestable, Jackson suggests you look at it this way. Going for herd immunity, without a vaccine, means the general population must stay away from the vulnerable. You may never be able to visit Grandma again.
Oh, and it doesn't seem to help the economy either. The journalist Marc Daalder at Newsroom has done an excellent deep dive into the Swedish solution and, like Jackson, he found the arguments seriously flawed. In summary, his key points are:
• Neither our border testing nor our track-and-trace capability have been as robust as they should be, but the system is improving and will keep doing so. As we get better at controlling community transmission, we won't need such big lockdowns as we have right now.
• If we'd copied Sweden, Covid-related deaths in New Zealand so far would not be 22, but around 3000. If we stayed the course for herd immunity, the death toll by the time we got there would be 15,000 to 30,000.
• Focusing on death overlooks the health impacts of Covid on survivors. Daalder lists "brain damage, insomnia, vertigo, irregular heartbeats, long-term shortness of breath, hypertension and joint pain" and also "heavy lung, aching back and chest, heart pains, fatigue". It's a new disease: nobody knows how long these conditions will last, or whether others will emerge.
• It's disingenuous to argue the Covid health response here has disrupted non-urgent surgery and other healthcare, because that's happened in Sweden too, to a far greater degree. Doing nothing to stop community transmission is a sure way to fill hospital beds.
• Turns out Sweden is in no better shape economically than New Zealand. One big reason: although our lockdowns have been severe, life at level 1 and 2 here is freer than under the Covid-norm in Sweden. This is because Sweden still has many restrictions, such as those intended to keep the elderly safe.
• Daalder quotes Westpac chief economist Dominick Stephens: "If New Zealand loses control of the virus, that would be a game changer for the economy ... Countries that have implemented successful lockdowns are generally doing much better economically than countries that have not – illustrating that the 'choice' between health and economy was always a false dichotomy."
• The Swedish solution proposes that vulnerable people be kept in isolation while the virus infects the rest of the population. Daalder enumerates just how many New Zealanders that is: a million people aged 60 and over, 250,000 people with type 2 diabetes, 700,000 people with asthma, the 30 per cent of all adults who are clinically obese and the 1.5 million of us who smoke or used to smoke. Yes, there is overlap among those groups. Being extremely optimistic, let's say it's only a quarter of all adults we'd need to isolate. More, among Māori and Pasifika.
• There is growing uncertainty among medical experts about whether Covid antibodies really will provide immunity after infection, as they are supposed to. Without a vaccine, herd immunity may never be possible.
Daalder quotes microbiologist and infectious diseases expert Siouxsie Wiles on the views of those promoting the Swedish solution: "I still don't understand what their alternative looks like, other than privileged people living their lives while less privileged people get sick and potentially die."
The lucky country
The lucky country is not Australia, it's us. It's true we've been a determined team of five million, but we've also been exceptionally lucky.
We're a small country with a big moat, which makes border controls easy, relative to most.
In general, island nations have fared better. Although don't forget Britain. And what about the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which contains two countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, each with about the same number of people? The Dominicans have had 10 times as many Covid cases as the Haitians. Why? You start with luck but you still have to manage it.
It was luck that meant Covid came to us late: we had the luxury of learning from the experience of others how the virus operates and what works in dealing with it. That advantage is ongoing: from genetic analysis to border controls to the value of masks, we continue to learn from the rest of the world.
The best example is the lesson of speed. Just a few weeks, sometimes even days, have been the difference between success and catastrophe. Luck gave us time to learn that lesson. Still, we had to learn it: how many American states chose not to learn anything from New York?
It wasn't luck that gave us a New Zealand kind of leader. One who is not uncaring of the plight of ordinary folk, lacking self-awareness yet full of self-importance, a bully incapable of humility, an ignoramus afraid of science, a narcissist too frightened of failure to ever admit it or, therefore, learn anything from it. A leader unmotivated by any true sense of service.
We don't elect those people. They don't impress us. Will this change, one day? Pray that it doesn't.
It was luck, however, when the hour came, that gave us not just a rational and public-spirited Prime Minister, but one unusually highly motivated by both compassion and caution. After all, a global pandemic wasn't in the minds of voters or Winston Peters when she was chosen for the job.
Not that Jacinda Ardern herself is motivated by chance. It's not luck, but her own judgment, that has held her true to those animating principles of compassion and caution. She's so risk averse, if we were in a war she probably wouldn't send the troops out, which you might want to argue would be counterproductive. Against Covid, however, compassion and caution turned out to be precisely right, not just for our health but for our economy.
The great gift this Government gave New Zealand in the pandemic was its insight that a health-focused strategy would also allow us the best outcome economically. That's widely accepted today, although not universally. But it wasn't at the start.
Politics in the time of corona
Now what? We need a new plan. One that helps preserve the old jobs and businesses we still need and create the new ones we will come to need. That grows prosperity. That builds greater resilience into the economy and society: for whatever Covid still has to throw at us, for pandemics to come, for the climate crisis and the heaving mass of resource and population pressures it has generated.
For the dangers that will be visited on us by leaders elsewhere who lack the caution and compassion we value here.
Not surprisingly, the parties don't agree how to do this. The Greens have been releasing a full policy programme, with costed proposals to overcome poverty and confront the climate crisis at their heart. They're way out in front on this.
Labour agrees with both the goals but has said little about how it would like to achieve them. Largely, it's relying on its record: a strategy that was serving it well until community transmission was discovered on August 11 and the most appalling lapses in border security were revealed in the days that followed.
Labour will be rethinking its appeal right now. The decision on Wednesday to replace private security firms with direct Government employees and the army – time to get tough! – is surely just the start.
Labour has a massive debt and spending programme which is largely supported by National. But National wants a quicker paydown of debt than Labour proposes and has ruled out tax rises, which Labour has not done.
National's plan implies cuts to public spending. Labour's does not. National says it has much more to announce.
Act, meanwhile, has been very open. "Act says we must stop the spending splurge immediately," declared a recent media statement. The party wants steep tax cuts and a balanced budget "within the term of the next Government".
It's hard to overstate what that means. A chainsaw massacre of almost everything the Government spends money on, including Covid crisis funding, accompanied by the wholesale privatisation of services. Can't afford decent teachers, better hospitals, well-trained police? Sell them.
Act hasn't spelled this out yet, but what it has said leaves little room for other options.
Is that what we've gone through all this lockdown pain for? To get us used to much worse? Act 2020 makes Roger Douglas look like a man with a wet bus ticket.
Which brings us back to the Swedish solution. Party leader David Seymour says we "must reopen our borders to countries with similar or lower rates of Covid-19 infection (eg, Australia, Taiwan and South Korea) as soon as safely possible".
Who would disagree? The words "as soon as safely possible" can mean anything you like. But what does he really mean?
When the new outbreak was announced, Seymour said, "We cannot afford for the initial three days to turn into a lockdown without end."
Again, no one disagrees, but the statement suggests far more than it says. Seymour promised that Act would continue to play a "consistent and constructive role", while also complaining that Aucklanders are "effectively under house arrest".
That's not "constructive". Complaining that people are under house arrest is not far removed from inciting them to rebel.
As for NZ First, the party has a solid record of obstructing progress in the Covid rebuild. It sided with large property owners to block and then water down rent relief measures to help shopkeepers. It stopped light rail for Auckland in its tracks, even though it's the most-needed new infrastructure project in the city.
And why has the Government not even been able to announce any progress on the return of foreign students, as South Australia has done? What explanation can there be, apart from the influence of the xenophobes in NZ First?
Competence and command
Compassion and caution have been great, but let's add a couple of other "c-words". Competence and command.
Right now, it's all about border control. We need a rebuild plan but until we get the border right, the rest is nothing.
The parties know this: the Government has supercharged its setup, with a new control group and much greater army engagement. National has produced its own tough plans. Sweden? Not on the agenda.
It's so important. I heard from a business owner in Auckland this week. He runs a mid-sized visitor attraction offering entertainment, hospitality and education, catering to overseas visitors, schools, out-of-towners, locals. Everything from parties and conferences to walk-up crowds.
After the first lockdown, he said, "We worked ourselves into the ground and had got back to around 70 per cent of where we should be when, wham, this one arrives." Now he expects they'll "get back to maybe 30 per cent".
The country bounced out of the last lockdown, delighted to get out and spend a bit of money. This time it may not be like that. Covid could be lurking. We know we could be locked down again. And again. My correspondent called it "the absolute fear".
He doesn't blame the Government for the lockdown. "No one can slam them for the first bout of Covid. It was a really good response – not perfect but really good." He supports the elimination strategy.
But he's "so pissed" about how the border has been managed. He was astonished when Health Minister Chris Hipkins told us that making testing compulsory for border staff involved some "big levers to pull". Why didn't Hipkins realise, he asked, that he should have pulled those big levers ages ago?
"No excuse for what we are suffering now. We could suck it up if we thought they'd made a pretty good fist of things. But not the case."
In 2017, he voted Labour. He was "sick of Key and wanted to see more aspirational leadership and policies".
My correspondent doesn't want idiotic Swedish solutions. He doesn't want to trash the health-focused response: he gets that it's the best way back to prosperity. He just wants it done competently. He wants the Government to assume command, bring in the best people, step it up and do it right.
So we can get on with the election debates that should really matter: how to fix the country.
But the border comes first. The border is where confidence – a fifth "c word" – gets broken or made. Fixing the border has become the key to winning our confidence, and that, in turn, will be the key to winning the election.