April 22, 2021
Dr Rawiri Taonui Covid Maori | Travel from India suspended but not other Hotspots
The government made the right decision to suspend flights from India from 11 April. During January and early February, passengers from India made up just 16.7% (11of 66) cases that tested positive upon arrival or later in Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ). This was lower than the 21 from the United States and Britain who made up 31.8%.
However, with the advent of a new 4th Mega-Wave now sweeping the globe since the second week of February, the number of positive cases from India rose sharply to 60% (135 of 226) of positive cases at the border or in MIQ. These cases drove the number of positive cases in MIQ to a dangerous 108 active cases, well above the peak of 85 during the 3rd Wave that precipitated the Pullman Event and the Papatoetoe Cluster. Had the government not decided to act, New Zealand was heading toward a significant MIQ breach into the community.
The international data supports the decision. India is one of the countries worse affected by the 4th Wave with the seven-day average now at 264,000 new cases per day, the highest sustained level of cases endured by any country during the pandemic. Other countries have expressed concern about the number of positive cases arriving from India. Canada reported that 30% of all new cases at the border are from India. Hong Kong has banned flights from India, citing an average of four positive cases on every flight from the sub-continent.
Negative Test Fraud
There is also widespread evidence of negative certificate fraud. India is not alone in this regard. In the absence of encrypted documents and airline staff without the time or means to check the authenticity of certificates, the pre-departure negative test requirement most countries introduced during the 3rd Wave (September to January) has never worked. Fraudulent certificates are widely available. Negative certificate fraud is widespread. Cyber-surveillance company Checkpoint reported 1,200 sites on the dark web selling fraudulent documents, including a buy-two get one free offer.
The episode has exposed a gap in our management of Covid-19 hotspots. For instance, more than 20 flights have arrived with positive cases from the United States and Britain since the introduction of the pre-departure negative certificate regime. If there is a hint of racism, it is that the government did not take similar action, as did other countries, to suspend flights from those hotspots.
The government needs to revisit our border policy. Countries with positive cases arriving at our border read like a list of current Mega-Wave hotspots, including Europe, Brazil, Pakistan, and others.
Paradoxically, if we need an international example, it is India. In late December, India suspended travel from Britain to combat the rise of B117. In February, India more comprehensively banned flights from all but 27 countries to stem the 4th Wave. Those responses were too late. With a weaker health infrastructure, B117 now dominates the sub-continent.
Britain is another example. To protect their vaccination programme, Britain has added India to their 40 country Red List, which bans non-citizen arrivals from those countries. The Red List includes multiple countries from whom we receive positive cases at the border.
The New Zealand Border
While our overall border protections are more robust than other countries, the lesson is that the absence or late application of a strategy to reduce positive cases coming across the border risks dire consequences. The absence of a government strategy in this regard has allowed seven of the new variants to make their way into New Zealand generating a total of 165 cases between 3 December and 11 April.
A strategy does not necessarily need to ban travel from multiple countries, but it should cap entries from hotspots. The government has previously pleaded that New Zealand citizens and permanent residents have a right to return to New Zealand. That is true. However, figures from travel between April and December last year show that 34.3% of arrivals in New Zealand were not New Zealand citizens and 40.9% were not permanent residents.
The start-up of Trans-Tasman Quarantine Free Travel (TTQFT) will free up about 1,300 spaces in MIQ. The government has said it will hold about 500 spaces in reserve, use the balance to accommodate arrivals from low-risk countries or decommission less adequate MIQ facilities like the Pullman Hotel.
With border traffic set to increase dramatically with TTQFT, a 4th Mega-Wave driven by new variants averaging 790,000 new cases per day across the world, the increasing frequency of breaches at our border (six so far this year), the government needs to decommission inadequate facilities and reduce border entries from Covid-19 hotspots.
Extending the Suspension
One feels compassion and admiration for India. India has led the ONE Group, a collective of 80 developing countries, asking the World Trade Organisation to release Covid-19 vaccine patents so they can join the manufacturing effort and create vaccine equality with rich countries. Rich Western countries that dominate the pharmaceutical industry have vetoed the initiative. No country has fought harder for others only to suffer more.
The suspension of flights from India will end on 28 April. With no end in sight for the 4th Wave, New Zealand should extend the suspension.
Noho haumaru, stay safe and self-sovereign
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