Coronavirus Covid 19: Expert hits out at WHO after lockdown confusion

A leading Covid-19 expert has hit out at the World Health Organisation for its handling of the pandemic – and suggests New Zealand should instead look East for direction.

Professor Michael Baker’s criticisms come as public comments around lockdowns by Dr David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy for Covid-19, have caused some confusion.

In one interview with UK magazine Spectator this month, Nabarro said he believed lockdowns should only be used to buy authorities time to set up effective public health systems.

But that general statement didn’t apply to New Zealand’s unique case, experts here have since pointed out.

And this morning, WHO spokeswoman Dr Margaret Harris fronted to RNZ to clarify messaging around lockdowns, stressing that countries needed to “do it all” rather than solely rely on lockdowns.

In any case, Baker, an Otago University epidemiologist who has staunchly advocated New Zealand’s successful elimination strategy, said the pandemic had shown a need to be “very cautious” about acting on advice from overseas organisations.

Western agencies like the WHO, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which New Zealand had traditionally looked to, had “let us all down badly” over Covid-19.

“Their risk assessments of Covid-19, and proposed responses, have been either absent or frequently wrong.”

Baker argued WHO was late to formally declare a pandemic, and its staff had at times advised against closing borders and mass masking.

“These are exactly the measures that have saved New Zealand and many other countries from the worst effects of the pandemic,” he said.

“At the heart of this problem, WHO has never seemed to grasp the value of the elimination approach which is being successfully pursued by New Zealand, most states in Australia, and much of East and South-East Asia.”

The elimination approach’s use of tight border management and “short, sharp” lockdowns differed from those drawn-out lockdowns used in Europe and North America, which could only suppress the virus.

“Part of the problem is that WHO and the other major organisations we have traditionally relied on for advice are based in Europe and North America and have tended to see the pandemic from their own regional and frequently dysfunctional perspective,” he said.

“New Zealand is now looking East and learning from countries such as Taiwan that have mounted a particularly successful pandemic response that has not only protected public health but also ensured a more rapid economic recovery.

“As we are seeing, our region can forge an independent and successful direction in response to a major global health challenge like the current pandemic.”

Professor Michael Plank, a mathematician and modeller with Te Pūnaha Matatini and the University of Canterbury, said as New Zealand was in a very different position to most other countries, our response would sometimes look different.

But he pointed out the WHO advice about lockdowns was largely consistent with the way New Zealand had used them – in tandem with a range of other measures like testing, contact tracing and quarantine systems.

“The WHO advice is that lockdowns should be the last resort and should be targeted and used in combination with other measures,” he said.

“But if you know you are going to need a lockdown, it is better to do it sooner rather than later.”

Another expert, the University of Auckland’s Dr David Welch, said a case in point of New Zealand’s rare status was the man who tested positive with Covid-19 five days after leaving managed isolation – likely as a result of touching a contaminated bin lid.

“In most parts of the world where Covid is more prevalent, this type of transmission event would make essentially no difference to the size or trajectory of the outbreak and could be ignored,” he said.

“But in Aotearoa New Zealand, it could be the difference between zero community cases and a new community outbreak.

“We thus need to be more aware in New Zealand to these rare events, and tune our response to account for them, while perhaps ignoring coarser measures that are being recommended elsewhere.”

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