The alert system signals the start of a new phase in NZ's battle against COVID-19. Siouxsie Wiles explains what it means, with illustrations by Toby Morris.
OPINION: For the last few weeks, I've been urging you to prepare yourself, your family, business, and community for COVID-19. Now it's time for real action.
Yesterday the Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield announced another 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand, bringing our total to date to 52. Those cases include two that are potentially from community transmission.
Shortly afterwards, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a four-stage alert system for COVID-19. The alert system sets out how each and every one of us can stop the spread of this virus in New Zealand. Even though most of us will only experience a mild-to-moderate version of COVID-19, many of our whānau, friends and colleagues may not. That's why it's so important we take this virus seriously, and all play our part. Up till now, we've been at alert level one. For most people this has been business as normalish, but with an awful lot more handwashing.
But yesterday the Prime Minister moved the whole country up to alert level two (reduce contact). She made it clear different parts of the country could move up and down the levels at different times. That means Auckland could be at level two while Wellington moves to level three, and vice versa. Or we could be at level two today and move to level three tomorrow, or the day after - then back to two again at some point in the future.
The alert system sets out how we can stop the spread of this virus in New Zealand. To see how important our actions are, I want you to imagine you are part of an ever-expanding chain. Because people can spread the virus for a few days before they have any symptoms, each person who contracts the virus can unwittingly pass it on to several of their whānau, friends and colleagues. Then each one of them can unwittingly pass it on to several of their whānau, friends and colleagues.
The good news is, we can do things that will reduce the chances of us spreading the virus. That means we can break these chains and potentially stop hundreds or even thousands of people getting COVID-19. Check out The Spinoff cartoonist Toby Morris' excellent illustration to understand how individual discipline can have an outsize impact.
What does it mean for us to be at Alert Level 2?
Level two is about keeping a safe distance from people outside of our household. You should be aiming to stay two metres apart at all times, but absolutely spending less than 15 minutes in that "close contact" zone. It means no more BBQs, parties, or social events, if you can't stay one-to-two metres apart from other people. It means as many of us as possible need to be working from home. It also means every business where people can't work from home needs to do things like stagger shifts and lunch breaks to reduce the amount of contact people have with each other.
If you must go to work, start keeping a diary of where you have been and who you've spent more than 15 minutes with. That way, if you contract the virus, you can help health officials trace, contact and isolate everyone you've been close to. Several countries have brought in apps that help with this. Hopefully we'll have one for us soon too. It's also important we limit domestic travel. Please don't travel around the country unless it's absolutely necessary, as this will help us limit the spread of the virus.
At level two, everyone over the age of 70 should stay at home as much as possible. Such are the health disparities, groups such as Māori and Pasifika should make it more like 60. That means no visits from the grandchildren, or other friends and family. It doesn't mean people can't drop things off, or wave from a safe distance. I know this is going to be really hard - so please also keep up regular social contact by phoning, Skyping, Facetiming, or other communications devices.
Get creative! You could have an online dinner party or coffee catchup. If you're a family where grandchildren and grandparents are living in the same house, then it's a good idea to take kids out of school and ask other members of the family to stay home too. If they can't, they need to be very careful and wash their hands and preferably have a shower and change their clothes when they return home.
Level two is also the point at which those of us with certain medical conditions should also stay home if possible. Because this is such a new virus, we still aren't absolutely clear all the medical conditions which put people more at risk, but the list so far includes respiratory conditions such as COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and perhaps severe asthma, diabetes, heart conditions, high blood pressure, kidney problems, and those undergoing treatment for cancer and blood conditions. While we don't yet know if pregnant women are badly impacted, it's probably best for them to stay home, too. As with those over 70, if you are living in the same house as someone who has one of these conditions, keep the kids home if possible.
I want to make a quick comment on the language used by the Prime Minister and the alert system. Everywhere it tells us what we should be doing. I use the exact same language in my house when talking to my teenager. You should tidy your room. You should go to bed. The reason I phrase my instructions like this is because I don't want to be a dictator. I want my teenager to agree with me that she should tidy her room or go to bed, because it's the right thing to do. So, if you think the Prime Minister or the alert system are merely offering guidance, let me put it more bluntly. Wherever you see the word should, replace it with must. Because if you don't do the right thing now, we will all regret it in a week.
And if it wasn't already clear - absolutely, unequivocally do not go to work if you are unwell, even if you think it's just a cold. Call ahead at your GP if you experience a fever, dry cough, or breathlessness. Keep washing your hands when you've touched surfaces touched by other people. Try not to touch your face. And keep up with your non-contact greetings. If you aren't sure what to try instead of a hug, Toby Morris has you covered!