Culture shock

Culture shock: why New Zealand’s response to COVID-19 worked

“How was school today?” I asked.

“Chill,” came the response.

I have two daughters in a public high school here in New Zealand. I have found this to be a standard response when we ask them how school is going. Whether they’re reporting on tests, reports, or evaluations, it all seems “cold.” They are allowed to work at their own pace and are not graded in a system where a child can “blow the curve” to earn the only A in the class. Instead, each child competes only with himself, as guided by the prof. Their academic success or failure will never be based on a single test or a single assessment. There are plenty of opportunities to redeem yourself, catch up with your peers, and be successful. It seems to me, as a newly arrived parent of two happy and academically accomplished teenagers, that the education system here emphasizes cooperation, interpersonal skills and communication, rather than classroom competition and the strict adherence to numerical rating systems.

The collaborative element of Kiwi culture doesn’t stay locked behind school doors, either. A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of New Zealand lab professionals and got a firsthand idea of ​​why their COVID-19 response was so successful. At the very start of the epidemic, their national government invested a huge amount of money in a “go hard, go early” strategy to combat the spread of the virus.

The mission of the Ministry of Health was to convey these new public health protocols to the twenty District Health Boards (DHBs) across the country, which they did quickly and efficiently. DHB then turned to their own local infectious disease experts to implement policies that worked for each clinic or hospital department, with an emphasis on coordination and communication, both among themselves and upstream. of the management.

New Zealand’s tough and early strategy could only work so effectively because government administrative officials asked public health scientists what they needed, then provided and funded it. Then they let scientists set their own timetables and policies to allocate the resources they had – personnel, drugs, personal protective equipment (PPE), lab supplies, everything – ethically and fairly. Doctors who participated in this plan of attack told me that no one they knew suffered from burnout, even during the height of the pandemic. Everyone got involved in the process, and the communication went from top to bottom and top to bottom.

New Zealand’s leaders have taken credit for the success of this lifesaving approach, and they deserve it. As an outsider now working inside this system, however, I think there is something about the culture here that has played a big part in this success as well. New Zealand’s academic, political and scientific institutions all emphasize communication, empathy and cooperation.

Competition as a driver of success and societal success may work when you have unlimited resources and a level playing field, but it will fail in a pandemic – and when it fails, disadvantaged groups will suffer disproportionately. . We have seen it and still see it in the United States, where states have been forced by the apathetic insufficiency of federal leadership to compete for resources to fight COVID. PPE went to the black market and laboratories ran out of reagents. More than a quarter of a million Americans have died and the death toll will likely double before the new year arrives. Market-based health care and its competition for limited resources has brought us the worst peacetime disaster that we have ever seen as a nation.

This disaster was preventable, and its perpetuation is not inevitable. Vaccines are on the horizon. How are we going to produce them, acquire them, distribute them? The United States would do well to study New Zealand’s model of empathy, cooperation and communication, to ensure an equitable distribution of vaccines in the spring. With the tragic consequences of the holiday reunions only peaking after the New Year, the new federal administration will hopefully rise to the challenge of uniting the country to defeat COVID-19.

Judy Melinek, MD, is a forensic pathologist and CEO of PathologyExpert Inc. She is currently working as a contract pathologist in Wellington, New Zealand. Her New York Times bestselling memoir, co-authored with her husband, writer TJ Mitchell, is Work hard: two years, 262 corps and the training of a medical examiner. They also embarked on a series of forensic mystery novels with First Cup, available from Hanover Square Press.