Coronavirus: 'Dumb good luck', not expert management, behind NZ's COVID-19 success - expert

A local expert in health system planning says a new report looking into how COVID-19 became a pandemic is far too soft on the World Health Organization (WHO). 

And he says New Zealand's success is at handling the pandemic mostly down to "dumb, good luck", after following the WHO's mistaken advice.

The COVID-19: Make It the Last Pandemic report, compiled by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response co-chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, found a "toxic cocktail" of poor decision-making and a lack of global coordination was to blame.

Clark, appearing on The AM Show on Thursday, said the WHO had limited powers - placing most of the blame on China. 

But Des Gorman, a University of Auckland professor of medicine who's worked internationally in health system preparedness, said the report was a "bit light" when it came to pointing out the WHO's mistakes.

"I've worked a lot with the WHO, particularly in the Western region and the Middle East, and some of the people you work with at a country level are very good people, but at an international level it's a political organisation that behaves politically.

"You've got to remember we voted for the current Director-General because Ethiopia voted for us to get onto the Security Council. This is a political organisation that behaves politically."

The WHO has been repeatedly accused of going soft on China. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on January 29, 2020, and praised the dictatorship's handling of the outbreak, saying it had done "many good things to slow down the virus". Behind the scenes, WHO staff were frustrated at the delays in getting information out of Chinese officials, investigations later found.

The WHO declared a 'public health emergency of international concern' at the end of January after Dr Tedros' meeting with Xi - the highest warning it can give - but didn't use the word pandemic until March. 

"Really, the word probably should have been used earlier," said Clark, appearing on The AM Show before Dr Gorman. 

The report noted most countries didn't act in any serious way against COVID-19 until after the WHO called it a pandemic, and recommends new categories be set up when dealing with fast-moving viruses like SARS-CoV-2. 

Dr Gorman said governments around the world didn't help matters by ignoring the threat posed by the virus, which has since gone on to kill millions of people. Despite the international praise, ours also dropped the ball, he said.

"There were some countries ready. I came back to New Zealand in February from the Middle East where I'd been working, and Singapore, and the countries that had been sensitised by SARS were ready, actually, and they rolled it out," he told AM Show host Duncan Garner.

"I came through [Singapore's] Changi Airport and the military was out - I knew they would be because I helped them develop their plan. I got back here, it was like a BBQ at your place - it was breathtakingly informal." 

Des Gorman.
Des Gorman. Photo credit: The AM Show

Dr Gorman said he contacted the Ministry of Health in the second week of February to tell them to shut the borders right away.

"I was told too many people were coming back to manage - what about trade, what about tourism? They said the WHO was still arguing against travel bans. Now, the WHO finally called it a pandemic on March 12 (NZ time) - you've got to remember we didn't close until March 19. In that week... 40 percent of all the viral subtypes walked into the country."

He says he was told the Government was basing its response on advice from the WHO, which was still recommending against travel bans.

"My response was, 'So what?' We place far too much confidence in the WHO. Those countries that had been sensitised weren't listening to the WHO - they were moving, and moving fast."

But more than a year on, New Zealand is one of just a handful of countries without community transmission of the virus, we have one of the lowest death tolls in the world, and our economy is performing better than expected. Both Singapore and Taiwan have recorded community cases in recent weeks. 

"I'm more than happy to concede I'd rather be in New Zealand than almost anywhere else," said Dr Gorman.

"I think the results of that are first of all a lot of dumb good luck;  secondly, I think we're an isolated country, we have lots of sunshine, lots of wind, we don't live on top of each other, we don't live in buildings with common ventilation, we don't live with animals. So geographically, demographically, socially, we were always going to do well.

"Then on top of that, that first lockdown - which was in my view inhumane because people died alone, people were alone when they gave birth - but that first lockdown was highly effective. It came miles too late, but it was highly effective. 

"So we're in a very good place, but we shouldn't confuse that with effective management. We shouldn't confuse that with being ready for the next pandemic. You can't just keep relying on dumb good luck and geography." 

Clark said most countries didn't do enough in February 2020.

"All I can say is thank goodness flights from China were stopped in early February, then we stopped anyone from Iran and then progressively we stopped anyone coming in. That was absolutely essential. 

"But like the rest of the world we were at a standing start - we hadn't had this experience in 102 years. But once we got the message, we did act quickly. But I think globally, February was a month where countries around the world didn't do enough."