Even though we are experiencing some wartime-like restrictions, I do not believe that global efforts in response to COVID-19 constitute war. However, so many readers have become accustomed to the misuse of military terms (war on terror, war on drugs etc) that it is sometimes the only way to reach a broader audience in society. With due apologies to the technically knowledgeable, this article sets out to describe New Zealand’s challenge in terms of battles, campaigns and war.
To ‘win the war’, the end-state we seek is to overcome the COVID-19 virus. Based on previous pandemics, that won’t happen till we have a vaccine developed and deployed internationally. We need about 70% or more of the global population to have been vaccinated or recovered from the virus before some sort of ‘herd immunity’ will take effect. Then we can truly start to repair global travel and trading structures.
Scientists everywhere are working on a vaccine. Regardless of which laboratory it comes from, the large-scale production of it will rely on the pharmaceutical company factories and their specialist distribution networks. Next time, someone is slagging ‘Big Pharma’ just imagine this event without them. While they are manufacturing a COVID-19 vaccine, other drugs will not be made. Hopefully, the lessons learned now will see PHARMAC take a wiser view of sole supplier status for so many medicine contracts in New Zealand.
We are nearing the halfway point in an initial four-week lockdown in NZ. It’s being portrayed as a ‘battle’ to ‘stamp out’ the virus. That is simply political rhetoric driven by a Health Ministry spreadsheet. We are engaged in a delaying defence. In military terms, that means ‘buying time’ by trading ground and not becoming decisively engaged in order to, say, build a new main defensive position somewhere else. In our case, we are trading two very valuable assets – personal freedom and economic growth – for time to build-up our medical response capability to cope with a normal winter’s worth of illness + accidents + elective surgery + COVID-19. Pandemics always come in waves, with latter ones frequently more virulent than earlier. So, let’s be realistic. This ‘battle’ is one engagement in a whole string of battles that New Zealand must fight. The ‘bullets’ are test-kits. Intelligence on which to base tactical decisions comes from test data.
When a theatre of military operations is defined and relatively independent, we can consider it a campaign. “A campaign is a phase of a war involving a series of operations related in time and space and aimed towards a single, specific, strategic objective or result in the war. A campaign may include a single battle, but more often it comprises a number of battles over a protracted period of time or a considerable distance, but within a single theatre of operations or delimited area. A campaign may last only a few weeks, but usually lasts several months or even a year” (Dupuy). All the battles that have to be fought and won in OPERATION COVID-NZ can be described as a campaign.
What is the new main defensive position that New Zealand is building at the cost of our freedom and prosperity? No-one knows and I believe that includes politicians and officials who, based on the inconsistency of the daily media announcements, are just making stuff up as they go. And the media fixation with the 1pm daily ‘body count’ detracts from serious discussion of important issues. This is ably demonstrated by the famous quote from the Vietnam War. U.S. Colonel Harry Summers, talking with North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap after the fall of Saigon, said that North Vietnamese troops had never defeated Americans on the battlefield. The Vietnamese nodded thoughtfully. “That is true,” he replied. “It is also irrelevant.”
That point is equally true in the COVID-NZ campaign. If the battle for the hearts and minds of Kiwis is lost, it doesn’t matter how ‘flat the curve is.’ How long is too long for your grandparent to wait for their long-scheduled hip replacement or colonoscopy? If the ministry wants to present a true body count then why not throw in all the suicides that occur during lockdown and the deaths on surgical waiting lists while operating theatres are closed?
The ‘Battle of Lockdown-NZ’ has the potential to have one or two sequels if not concluded satisfactorily. This is not just about people’s freedoms but also about how to safely restart the economy. In Germany, the discussion as to how to bring a country out of lockdown is taking place openly. That discussion is overdue in NZ yet the expertise is there and public opinion has to be carried along with it – and not just through Labour Party daily polling.
In a best-case scenario, OPERATION COVID-NZ is ‘won’ sometime in the first half of 2021. However, just as victory in Europe in 1945 didn’t mean the end of WWII, the end of the COVID war doesn’t occur until international travel and trade is normalised worldwide. That, in the context of likely economic depression, political instability and conflict is very difficult to predict. Let’s get the simulations running now and engage the massive think tank sitting at home on their social media and entertainment channels.
Other COVID-NZ articles by the author
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