Our final Groundhog Day?

Dr Oliver Hartwich
Insights Newsletter
28 January, 2022

We are still five days ahead of Groundhog Day (celebrated on 2 February each year), yet we feel like we have been here before. Only Punxsutawney Phil and Andie MacDowell are missing.

Our Kiwi summer break this year deserved its name. However, Omicron’s arrival in the community brings us back to the same issues we have faced for the past two years.

Once again, questions of tests, masks, isolation requirements, border controls and vaccination protocols dominate the news.

As I wrote in my final Insights piece for 2021, New Zealand should move beyond the pandemic this year. Despite Omicron and the havoc it may wreak over the coming weeks and months, I still hope so.

The Government has radically changed its strategy – or, perhaps more accurately, Omicron has changed it for them. The super-transmissible variant left no other choice but to abandon the previous elimination approach.

The infections, hospitalisations and deaths we will see are no-one’s choice. But though the forced change will be brutal for some, there are positives as well.

We can already see what an impact New Zealand’s high vaccination rate has had.

During the pandemic, only 52 of our 15,842 Covid cases have died. Our rate of 0.33% is much lower than, for instance, the rates of the US (1.2%), the UK (0.95%) or France (0.73%).

New Zealand’s high vaccination rate will hopefully also protect most of us from severe Omicron cases, especially as the variant appears milder than its predecessors.

The Government has already signalled that, with Omicron widespread in New Zealand, the border will re-open. After two years virtually cut off from the world, that will be most welcome.

Other developments we can expect (or hope for) include better treatment options, increased immunity after the Omicron wave, and perhaps new vaccines.

Possibly, or even probably, the Covid pandemic will end in 2022.

When that happens, we must refocus. We will have to deal with the economic fallout from the events of the past years. That means reducing government debt, shrinking the Reserve Bank’s balance sheet, and getting house prices under control.

Education will need to be redoubled, not least because school closures and distance learning have hurt students’ attainment.

Our next step is to create an environment that will enable those industries which suffered the most during the pandemic to recover and grow.

Unlike Groundhog Day, there is nothing funny about Covid. But just as in Groundhog Day, it will all eventually be over. Hopefully, this year.

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