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Epidemiologist says NZ can learn from Taiwan's lockdown-less Covid-19 response

A leading epidemiologist says New Zealand should learn from Taiwan’s Covid-19 response, which didn’t require a lockdown, because it took a proactive approach. 

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The Otago University epidemiologist says New Zealand’s response was reactive, while Taiwan’s was proactive. Source: Breakfast

University of Otago Professor Michael Baker co-authored a paper that was published in leading medical journal The Lancet comparing the two countries. The paper found New Zealand took a “reactive” approach, while Taiwan took a “proactive” one.

“They avoided a lockdown. They did everything right,” he told TVNZ1’s Breakfast this morning.

“The fundamental difference is they'd invested in their public health infrastructure.”

Amid the New Zealand Government’s declarations that the country “went hard and went early”, Baker said Taiwan acted faster than New Zealand. 

Taiwan with a population of more than 23 million has 548 infections according to Johns Hopkins University. New Zealand with a population of 5 million has 1,914 Covid-19 infections.

Taiwan shut its borders to mainland China from the end of last year, and already had a digital contact tracing system established. 

Baker said Taiwan’s response was informed by its SARS outbreak in the early 2000s.

“They have a culture of mask use after SARS, and they really increased their production.”

But, because New Zealand only had one probable SARS case in 2003 and no further cases since then, it was using an existing flu pandemic plan, Baker said.

“The influenza plan is for a different virus, of course.

“Built into that is not the idea that you’d stop the virus at the border or a pandemic.”

He said this meant New Zealand’s response was initially more about “mitigation” and “flattening the curve”, rather than eliminating the virus, which New Zealand didn’t adopt until later. 

Baker is calling for an inquiry into the country’s pandemic response, and said now was the correct time to do it because Covid-19 would be around for at least “a year or more”.

He also recommended a single Government agency be created to handle the pandemic response. 

But some Taiwanese residents have criticised the methods their authorities have used to monitor people in self-isolation. People can risk fines of nearly NZ$50,000 if they fail to comply.

Health officials also call self-isolating people daily. If a person fails to answer a check-in call, police turn up at their door.

There is also criticism for Taiwan’s use of surveillance. Authorities have worked with telecommunications companies to track people in quarantine through their cellphones.  

In October last year, New Zealand scored 54 out of 100 in an international measure of pandemic preparedness

This put New Zealand at 30th place among 60 high-income countries that were reviewed. 

The assessment scored the country poorly on its ability to do "early detection and reporting epidemics of potential international concern".