John Armstrong: Coronavirus has the public alarmed, but what of the government?

The upwards hike of some 60 per cent in the death toll in China from the coronavirus in the past two days will shake most people to their very core.

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The declaration was made this morning, with vulnerable countries – potentially unable to cope with a local outbreak - in mind. Source: 1 NEWS

Such a jump in that ugly tally ought to silence the hopefully dwindling minority who continue to argue that there has been a hysterical and unjustified overreaction to the spread of the virus.

True, the increase in the number of deaths to 213 compared to the total of 132 cited on the previous official update on Wednesday is arguably not that large in terms of actual numbers.

True, measuring the scale of the increase in percentage terms can make things worse than is actually the case.

True, the latest tally may include fatalities that occurred much earlier in the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan but were not reported for fear of repercussions from Chinese authorities who would prefer to keep bad news hidden from scrutiny by superiors.

Nevertheless, numbers of cases and deaths continue to make fools of those downplaying the crisis.

The latest totals of those who have succumbed to the virus is a frightening moment in frightening times. But it is not the only such scary moment.

The Chinese government's latest update also stated there are more than 102,000 people “under medical observation” in Wuhan and the wider Hubei province.

Of further worry, China now has more cases of coronavirus than it had of SARS, the respiratory infection which spread across that nation in 2002 and 2003 and which killed close to 800 people in 17 countries.

As the statistics continue to get worse, one thing remains constant. That is the mantra chanted by New Zealand’s health authorities.

“Concerned, but not alarmed” has been the repeated response of senior officials in the head office of New Zealand’s Ministry of Health providing updates of the crisis at media briefings.

These updates have one common feature. They are out of date before they have been written.

When it comes to action, New Zealand officialdom has likewise been consistent —consistently feeble.

There has been one exception — Winston Peters. In his guise as foreign minister, he has laboured mightily to mount a rescue mission to extract New Zealand citizens trapped in Wuhan.

The delay to getting the all-clear for a New Zealand Government-chartered Air New Zealand plane to land at that city’s airport tells you a lot about the supposedly mutual benefits to be derived from years of careful diplomacy exercised with the purpose of building strong contacts between Wellington and Beijing.

Forget the toasts and exchanges of pleasantries made by presidents and prime ministers at receptions in both capitals.

When the chips are down and co-operation is the priority, the Chinese have chosen to be their obstructive worst when it comes to allowing foreign aircraft to land at Wuhan airport even though it is in their country’s interests to be shod of foreign nationals.

The truly big question, however, which is odds-on to be staring Jacinda Ardern and her ministers fairly and squarely in the face in coming weeks and month centres on whether New Zealand’s overstretched public hospitals could cope with a flood of patients infected with 2019-nCoV — to give the virus its official name.

It is now only a question of when — and not if — the day arrives confirming the first New Zealand case of coronavirus.

Accordingly, the public is entitled to expect that some kind of well-developed, reliable, workable and overarching plan or “strategy” — as public servants like to term such initiatives — has been drawn up by the country’s health bureaucracy ready for implementation to cope with what at this stage of proceedings seriously looks like having the potential to produce a large influx of very sick patients who will necessarily have first claim on beds in public hospitals.

Unfortunately, the abiding impression is one much to the contrary. And impressions count. They count in terms of reinforcing or undermining public confidence that the health system can manage.

Of course, impressions also count in the political milieu. They count in determining voters’ ratings of Government performance — and never more so in an election year.

On that score, Ardern’s Administration is in danger of registering a fail in its handling of the challenges posed by the coronavirus.

There is a marked lack of leadership on the matter. Sure, Health Minister David Clark has fronted media briefings. But is not someone inclined to grab an issue in his portfolio and milk it for all its worth.

Instead of hogging the limelight, he seemingly prefers to maintain a public profile somewhat akin to a limbo dancer who sets the bar at its lowest possible setting.

The upshot is that there has been something of a vacuum — one which the Ministry of Health, which falls under Clark’s bailiwick, has in large part has seemed reluctant to fill.

Since the first reports of deaths in China of some of those unfortunates who contracted the virus, the ministry has appeared to be reactive rather than proactive.

It has tried to steer a course which gives little hint of how catastrophic the spread of the virus might yet prove to be for fear of causing the public to panic. Thus has it trotted out the “concerned but not alarmed” line.

The public is alarmed, however. Just witness the mass donning of face masks in public places for evidence of that.
Ominously Ardern and company, the public is starting to ask some very pertinent questions. Questions like why aren’t passengers who have flown from China to New Zealand via a third country being monitored for the virus at this country’s border.

Questions like where is the much-needed Government-sponsored nationwide TV, radio and print information blitz.

Like everyone else, the Prime Minister will be concerned by the rapid and most unwelcome turn of events. For her sake and her government’s sake, it is about time she got alarmed.