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If You Can't Be An Example, Be A Warning

Bill Peddie —

A crisis reveals some real strengths and weaknesses of a nation’s way of life. Covid-19 (SARS Cov-2) has cast an unexpected and even unwelcome spotlight on many nations’ failure to live up to their traditional self-beliefs.

 Throughout the 20th century and through the beginning of the present century, each time a large crisis turned up, some of the better developed nations in the West turned to the United States of America for guidance. This time, after watching America with its vast resources and economic power fumble and fail to bring the pandemic under control with anything like the expected success, we now have to start asking what has gone wrong. With the wisdom of hindsight some of the more obvious blunders had already started to leave their mark. Although in the global scene viral diseases like polio and even measles were now considered much better controlled by vaccinated populations, a slew of related and new viral diseases, many of which had been shown to have jumped species, were now appearing. 

Over recent years epidemiologists had been reminding the governments of the world that some species, like bats, are known to carry literally thousands of viruses. By the time Covid-19 arrived, the process for designing and testing vaccines for new threats was becoming streamlined and there were agreed procedures for ensuring safety and effectiveness. So what went wrong when Covid-19 arrived? 

Key governments who might have led the way had revealed their priorities by showing little enthusiasm for funding the World Health Organization. Before the pandemic started, President Trump had withdrawn 30 US representatives from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s office in China, and followed this by withdrawing the single US epidemiologist embedded in the CDC office who might have given a more timely warning of the spreading Covid-19 virus. The Trump administration failed for two years to appoint anyone to the US guaranteed post on the WHO Executive Board. The same social media which provided multiple platforms for misinformation with the first SARS outbreak, ramped up and filled cyberspace with serious misinformation.

That our New Zealand government and our moral watchdogs (including the mainstream churches) had not been warning us of such oversights may also reflect our priorities. 

Prior to the Covid spread, many of the richer nations had been diverting a good part of their public health funding. Governments may have felt putting money into investment activity would gain more public support. One unexpected consequence was discovering too late that animals carrying potentially dangerous viruses had been deprived of their traditional habitats and were now in more direct contact with humans. Destroying swathes of the Amazon forests and the felling of tropical forests to set up vast palm oil plantations have established long-term, if unintended biological consequences. Among the substantial industrial changes in China, there were plenty of plausible paths that any new virus could take to the potential human hosts. Wuhan may well have been the local source of the current pandemic yet there was nothing unique in the emergence of yet another SARS-type virus.

Ironically, while the US government had allowed their stocks of PPE gear to be depleted, with Covid-19 they then had to turn to China for supplies. It may be that the US unintentionally helped ensure the rapid spread of the new disease via the increasing ease of travel.

The American health system, which annually spends on average three times per head of population on health issues than New Zealand, had been neglecting public health safeguards. Healthcare in the US was neglected, particularly for the native Americans and the non-white population. The highest death rates in America from Covid-19 turned out to be in native American groups like the “Navajo Nation” followed by the black population. Contrast this with our distribution of health care in New Zealand. Well – um – moving right on. One intriguing contrast is the Covid-19 death rate per million between the US and a handful of more insignificant nations. For example, in New Zealand, our current Covid death rate per million is a very conservative 5 per million whereas in the US it is approximately 2,156 per million. Those who currently advocate we follow the US lead in privatising the New Zealand health system might do well to remember that for the last few years in the US, the major cause of bankruptcy is listed as being unable to pay medical bills.

Setting aside the need to increase the vaccination rates – or joining the perpetual argument about what the government should have done better, there is a more relevant question. What should be included in a set of appropriate responses from ourselves as church members? What do our information kits look like to help answer the anti-vaxers among us? Are all our shut-ins currently getting assistance with shopping and transport to medical centres? What help is our church offering to local businesses? Have our leaders been encouraging their parishioners to follow best practice? How have we reorganized our local food banks for Covid? For a church whose congregations include many from the Pacific, what Pacific needs are a focus for our giving?

Without such programmes we are telling our community that our claimed love for others as Christians has no substance. Since the epidemic started some churches have become rather better known as super-spreaders than as organisations showing genuine concern for those in need. Our church congregations are a cross section of society and unvaccinated parishioners are more likely to be vulnerable to the current virulent strains. At a minimum we should at least be checking to find out if scientifically or medically literate folk from the local communities are being invited to share information to explain why health experts are supporting the current vaccination efforts.