Pandemic effect 'to extend well into next year': Otago Uni expert

University of Otago public health professor Michael Baker. Photo: Supplied
University of Otago public health professor Michael Baker. Photo: Supplied
Don't expect the coronavirus pandemic to be over by Christmas.

Instead, New Zealand is set for a long, drawn-out battle with the virus as different waves of the pandemic hit separate countries at different times, experts say.

Tough travel restrictions are buying New Zealand invaluable time in the fight, but the complicated spread of the virus elsewhere means it will keep knocking at our door, says University of Otago public health professor Michael Baker.

He urged Kiwis and businesses to embrace travel and social restrictions as the new normal.

"Anyone who says it will be over by Christmas hasn't thought about it enough," Baker said.

"I mean which Christmas, this one, or Christmas next year?"

Complicating the virus' spread was the different ways different countries had chosen to tackle it.

New Zealand was one of the few regions - along with the likes of Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong - still intent on containing and stamping out the virus before it spread.

In Europe, where more than 1500 people had already died, many Governments had accepted they could no longer contain the virus.

They instead looked to "flatten the curve" and lessen infections rather than stamping them out, Baker said.

Other countries were more of a ticking time bomb.

"Unfortunately for much of Africa and South Asia and maybe some parts of the Middle East and Latin America, it is going to be extremely hard for them to do much at all because they don't have the infrastructure or money," Baker said.

Even in the United States, the outlook could potentially turn grim due to its underfunded Government agencies and lack of comprehensive health care, he said.

A vaccine could halt to the coronavirus' spread.

Yet, despite promising early work, a vaccine could take 12-18 months before it was released, Baker said.

Helpful anti-viral drugs could also be released, but it was also unknown when that would happen.

All these uncertainties and different approaches made it hard to predict how the outbreak would play out, but indicated it wouldn't be over soon, Baker said.

"We are going to have overlapping pandemics all over the world, which will be starting at different times in a staggered way," he said.

"So this is a global phenomenon that is going to extend well into next year."

In the meantime, New Zealand's tough travel restrictions in which all people returning from overseas had to self-isolate for 14 days were "absolutely the right thing to do", Baker said.

They bought the country invaluable time.

This allowed experts to study the successes and failures of other countries and give health services and Government departments more time to ramp up their preparations.

They also got New Zealand closer to the point at which a vaccine or other helpful anti-viral drugs arrived to the rescue.

"There is no question the Government is doing the right thing," Baker said.

"Every country on earth would like to have the breathing space New Zealand has got at the moment."

"No one would say, 'oh let it rip if you have an alternative'."

Auckland University's Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Massey University's professor Mick Roberts also backed New Zealand's travel restrictions as the "best thing to do".

Wiles said the restrictions should be in place for as long as the virus was spreading in the rest of the world.

However, it was important the Government quickly turned to the next step of ramping up preparations.

Countries such as Taiwan had been highly successful so far in containing the coronavirus' spread by running thousands of tests for it, and then keeping a close track of those who were supposed to be in isolation to ensure they did so.

Taiwan, in particular, has only 50 confirmed cases despite neighbouring China's cases soaring to more than 80,000.

The people in areas such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore also had a "collective memory" of the 2003 Sars and other outbreaks, and so more willingly participated in public health measures, Baker said.

"For the moment we can just breathe a huge sigh of relief, but the next phase is to stamp it out and we need to ramp that up very fast," he said.

"The message to all businesses, institutions and people in New Zealand is to absolutely embrace this new norm because it is so much better than the alternative."

Should New Zealand emerge from the virus with a reputation for managing its affairs and public health better than much of the rest of the world, there could even be an economic silver lining and faster recovery on the other side, Baker said.

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