Captain’s Log, Stardate 222022

I’m writing this as a note to my future self more than anything else. It’s easy to forget what happened when, so this is a record of how things are right now and what’s happened since the last update in May 2020 (which seems like a very long time ago!). It’s been almost two years since the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. So where are we at?

To the numbers first. Below are the ‘confirmed’ cases / deaths (so both figures are potentially much higher). Actual cases are probably double or triple this number because a lot of countries do minimal testing.

Updated 02/02/22, as reported to the WHO

This is a staggering number of people. If you say it quickly, 5.6 million people doesn’t sound as bad as say, deaths from the World Wars (~40m and 85m) but it’s still a very large and scary number.

The pandemic has come in waves as new variants emerge and take hold. We’ve had Alpha (UK, Sept 2020), Beta (South Africa, May 2020), Gamma (Brazil, Nov 2020), Delta (India Oct 2020), Omicron (Multiple, Nov 2021).

Looking at the graph below, you’d think that Africa has been pretty lucky to have so few deaths. In reality it’s just that they don’t record deaths so this number is invariably much higher. COVID has been managed so differently the world over depending on who’s in power and how many resources the country has. Nothing new there. Our approach (more on this soon) has been both lauded and criticised – what you think governments should do to manage COVID usually depends on what side of the political divide you’re on.

Riding the wave – pandemic deaths Dec 2019 to Dec 2021 by region

For a long while Delta was the primary strain – it’s easier to catch than the earlier versions and so has overtaken the others. New Zealand was fairly successful at keeping Delta at bay. Now we have Omicron – it’s even more infectious and harder to detect.

So what has little old New Zealand been doing since I last posted?

We went “hard and early” with a full lockdown that all but stamped out the virus in New Zealand (except at the border). The government instituted a Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) process for all new arrivals at our border. This effectively stopped the virus from taking hold within New Zealand – we “flattened the curve”.

Eventually though, the Delta variant snuck into the community in Auckland, which led to a lockdown of Auckland and Northland between August and December 2021. The rest of the country was operating mostly as normal during that time. Just as we were starting to recover from Delta, Omicron came along and everything changed again. We had our first confirmed community case of Omicron in Dec 2021.

COVID-19 cases in New Zealand Mar 2020 to Jan 2022

At the end of 2021 the Government changed from an Alert Level framework (Level 4 = full lockdown, Level 1 = business as usual) to the COVID-19 Protection Framework or “Traffic Lights”. We are currently in Red, attempting to slow the spread of Omicron. The emphasis has shifted from ‘stamp it out” to managing COVID in the community and learning to live with it.

The reason we’ve been able to say goodbye to lockdowns is because we now have vaccines available. These were first developed in mid-2020 and New Zealand started vaccinating its adult population at the beginning of 2021 and its children (5-11 year olds) in Feb 2022. The vaccine requires at least two doses and the recommendation is that we have a ‘booster’ as well – so really three doses for good protection.

Despite a small vocal minority of people who have actively campaigned against vaccination, we’ve had a very high uptake – this is what has allowed us to begin the process of opening up safely. The vaccine makes it significantly less likely that you’ll catch COVID, means you’re much less likely to pass it on, and makes the illness far less serious for most people.

Having said all that, after several months of freedom – pretty much working and socialising as normal (but with the added fun of wearing a mask in public), I’m back working from home and only going out for essential trips. We’ve been encouraged to work from home and limit our travel. Omicron is expected to hit hard, and while it’s not as deadly as earlier variants the clinical advice is that we should be trying to avoid catching it. At the moment there is limited community spread and only a few cases in the community in Christchurch.

It feels like we are in a strange holding pattern waiting for the next wave to crash in. Who knows what will happen next.