Despite fresh instances of the highly infectious Delta strain of COVID-19 being recorded every day, the lockdown in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, was relaxed from "alert level 4" to "level 3" yesterday.
The decision poses a risk to working people's health and life. Like other governments across the world, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party-led administration is prioritizing the demands of big business over a science-based public health response.
On August 18, the entire country was placed on strict "level 4" lockdown, with the government claiming that the goal was to prevent a Delta breakout. Since then, 1,123 instances have been discovered (861 of which have recovered), dozens of individuals have been admitted to hospitals, and one person has died. Another 15 new cases were reported today, following 23 the day before.
The rest of the country was released from the lockdown on September 8, although "alert level 2" restrictions, such as required masking in enterprises and public transportation, remained in effect. If the virus escapes Auckland, the lack of limitations in schools, in particular, increases the chance of it spreading.
While "level 3" remains a lockdown, with the government recommending individuals to "work from home if they can," it is anticipated that between 200,000 and 300,000 people have returned to work. According to a poll conducted by the Auckland Business Chamber, 80 percent of enterprises could continue in some capacity. "Now we want to see a flexible level 3 to enable as many businesses to ramp up productivity and operations as quickly as possible," the Chamber's chief executive Michael Barnett told the New Zealand Herald.
Contactless services are available in cafes, restaurants, fast food restaurants, and other retailers. There are also construction sites open for business. With small class sizes, schools and early childhood education centers can reopen.
According to epidemiologist Michael Baker, moving to level 3 in Auckland was "a gamble" that "increases the risk that we won't contain the outbreak." He warned that "undetected chains of transmission could be simmering on," and that while the virus could still be eradicated, it would be a matter of "luck."
On Wednesday, Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist, told Radio New Zealand that the government should "stick with elimination." She said that COVID-19 had cost an estimated 9 million years of life in the United States, where shutdowns have never been adequately executed. "The reason it's so high is because... about half of those years are lost due to deaths in 25- to 64-year-olds, people who would still have a significant life ahead of them," she explained.
The National Maori Pandemic Group, which consists of public health specialists and doctors, urged the government to keep Auckland at level 4 and extend the lockdown to the Waikato region, where three cases were discovered over the weekend. The source was a remand prisoner freed on bail to reside in Waikato after serving in Auckland. The cases emphasize the dangerous border between Auckland and the rest of the country, traversed every day by thousands of individuals, mostly transport workers.
Professor Sue Crengle, a co-leader of the Group, told Radio NZ that she feared a replay of the disaster in New South Wales, Australia. Due to lax limitations, the number of cases has risen in the state. Like Australia's indigenous people, Maori and Pacific Islanders are more vulnerable to COVID-19 because of poor health and significantly higher levels of poverty. The Auckland outbreak has primarily impacted Pacific people in the city's working-class neighborhoods.
The low level of vaccination makes the situation much more perilous. Pfizer's vaccination has been given to just over a third of New Zealand's population. Only 75% of healthcare personnel are entirely vaccinated, according to the country's District Health Boards. The figure is 89 percent in Auckland.
Another critical concern is reopening schools and early care centers so that parents can return to work. More than a third of the cases in Auckland have been in children and teenagers. A city early childhood teacher told the World Socialist Web Site that she is concerned that teachers will be "risking our lives if compelled to work." "Like everyone else, we are susceptible to the virus. It also puts children at risk because they are vulnerable and can spread the illness across the community.
She went on to say that early childhood educators were not even encouraged to wear masks and that enforcing social separation when working with young children was impossible. "We must exercise caution, especially given the fact that this virus has claimed the lives of so many people around the world. Even though incidences have decreased, the Delta variety spreads extremely quickly and may still be present someplace. She stated, "We don't know yet."
Not only the government but also the primary and secondary teacher unions have dismissed such concerns. As unions in the United States and other nations where schools have played a key role in spreading the Delta variation, these pro-business organizations are enthusiastic about the reopening policy.
Ardern argues that the government is continually working to eradicate COVID-19 from society, a plan that has widespread public support. Only 27 people have died due to the epidemic in New Zealand, thanks to reasonably strict lockdowns.
The corporate media and political establishment are increasing pressure on the government to abandon the approach and allow the virus to spread. On September 21, Stuff journalist Luke Malpass said that "elimination as a worthwhile public policy goal will have failed" if the Auckland lockdown is not removed in two weeks. He demanded that the focus be changed to "learning to live with Covid."
According to Opposition National Party leader Judith Collins, the decrease to "level 3" in Auckland demonstrated that the Labour administration had already "given up on the elimination strategy." She believes the government should have vaccinated more individuals and anticipated a "surge" in hospitalizations.
In reality, the administration is planning to abandon lockdowns. On September 18, Health Minister Andrew Little told Newshub that reimposing "level 4" would be "unlikely" if 90% of the eligible population had been vaccinated. Hundreds of thousands of children under 12 are not included in this figure, and vaccination alone is insufficient to prevent epidemics.
Every week, hundreds of people die in Australia, some in their own homes due to a lack of access to hospitals in a state of emergency. The government is planning for greater outbreaks, which would completely overwhelm the health system, which is woefully underfunded and overworked. Little stated ominously, "I'm attracted to the Australian model" of admitting fewer COVID-19 patients to hospitals and allowing "as many people as possible to recover at home, in the community," with hospital "monitoring."