By Jim Metson

New Zealand’s Covid response has been praised for being led by research, expertise and evidence. Let’s use the same approach for all the big challenges we face, writes Jim Metson.

While the arrival of the Delta variant into New Zealand was not unexpected, the sudden and prolonged plunge into lockdown has rattled our community, particularly in predictably hard-hit Auckland.

There is little novelty in lockdown the second year in a row, and with the return to any form of ‘normal’ seemingly uncertain in the age of Delta, the mood across the country has quickly turned sombre.

Prior to Delta the pathway to control of Covid-19 and a gradual opening up of borders seemed clear, although far from straightforward. Now, these plans have been shelved as the Government focuses on stamping out the current outbreak before debating next steps.

These latest developments highlight the climate of uncertainty as the Greek alphabet of the Covid pandemic drags on across the globe. As we navigate our way through the current lockdown and into the next stage, there is one certainty – data, evidence and science will continue to underpin our response.

We can draw inspiration from this science-led approach and its potential to bring about the much-needed transformational change required to tackle New Zealand’s other big challenges. Research, evidence, expertise and data have been the game-changers during the pandemic.

Researchers quickly understood the health system impacts while those accustomed to modelling ecosystems and other complex phenomenon, quickly pivoted to the Covid-related modelling which ultimately informed the Government’s approach.

A similar research and evidence-based approach must be employed to tackle the deep social inequities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. In Auckland, Māori and Pacific communities have borne the brunt of Covid, with Māori and Pacific peoples at greatest risk of needing hospitalisation from the virus, and at much younger ages than the rest of the population.

University and community experts have been instrumental in informing the Government’s approach by advocating for a community-led response including Māori and Pacific led vaccination campaigns and contact tracing efforts. This approach can serve as a model to address other critical public health and social issues facing New Zealand’s most vulnerable communities.

The public broadly accepts this research and evidence-based approach which harnesses many disciplines to shape our response to the complex policy issues we face. The approach to policy that has shaped our response to the pandemic needs to be brought with similar urgency to New Zealand’s raft of challenges.

World-leading response

The list of such challenges is long. It includes the certainty of climate change and the response this demands, the collapse of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity, creating sustainable tourism and agritech sectors, the poor quality and lack of affordability of our housing, and the way social inequity has widened to a gulf of failure, spanning generations.

As a country we do not want simply to recover from Covid back to the way we were, but to use the reset that it offers to move away from an ultimately unsustainable dependence on commodity tourism and agriculture.

Covid-19 may well have permanently changed the way we live and work. It has highlighted the significance of digital skills and a strong technological backbone whether for rural or urban workers. The lockdowns have delayed but not altered the urgency of the country’s significant infrastructure deficit, calculated at $75 billion. Addressing that deficit will determine everything from our climate response to transport and roads, schools and hospitals and the quality of our water.

In addressing these opportunities, research must play a critical role in advancing the nation. Our universities and research institutes are home to world leading experts in areas such as health and well-being, affordable building technologies, Māori and Pacific housing, child poverty, the impact of climate change, and how we sustain our environment. These teams are well connected internationally and positioned to enable critical national discussions, as they have in supporting the Covid response.

Research and innovation must be harnessed to tackle these major infrastructure challenges, futureproof our systems and processes and create the capabilities and leadership necessary to build the smart environments that will act as talent magnets and position the country at the frontier of innovation and creativity.

Covid has demonstrated the power of researchers from many disciplines working closely with Government, with an urgency characterised at times as a ‘wartime’ response. We need a similar urgency in addressing other issues.

It is notable that the response to Covid induced economic headwinds has in many countries been a substantial investment in R&D and innovation to move up the knowledge and productivity curve, particularly in targeted areas such as green energy.

Our science and evidence-led response to the pandemic has been widely lauded as world-leading and an international exemplar. There is every reason to continue to use this approach to shape a more equitable, better and prosperous future.

For more information on COVID-19, head to the Ministry of Health website.

This article was originally published as part of The Challenge series and was republished with permission. 

The Challenge is a continuing series from the University of Auckland about how researchers are helping to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges.

Professor James Metson is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research, at the University of Auckland.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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