Gordon Campbell on how New Zealand can get itself a safe, purpose-built Covid isolation facility

69ef8c5745c1bbb75281Over the past few months, one of the few things that the “Covid elimination” strategists and the “we have to live with Covid” advocates have agreed on is that New Zealand sorely needs a purpose-built managed isolation facility. Using hotels located downtown as makeshift isolation facilities has been a necessary, but dangerous solution. Vaccination alone – even at 80-90% levels – will never succeed in keeping the infected at a safe distance from the un-infected. If we’re going to be “living with Covid” at the borders or in the community, we will need to proceed as safely as possible, and get the main isolation facilities out of the city centres.

Unfortunately though, it is a lot easier to say “We need a purpose-built facility” than to build a new one in a timely fashion, and at reasonable cost. New Zealand’s recent history of building convention centres doesn’t inspire much confidence about our ability to do that kind of job, on time. Arguably though, we don’t need to build the whole darn thing from scratch.

Australia can offer us some handy pointers. It has a “re-purposed” quarantine facility in the Northern Territory that used to be a dis-used workers camp called the Howard Springs facility. It is now called the Centre of National Resilience:

About 850 people are currently able to quarantine at the former Howard Springs mining camp on Darwin’s outskirts. The camp has been renamed the Centre of National Resilience and houses Australians repatriated from overseas. All Australians on Commonwealth facilitated flights into the Northern Territory are required to undertake 14 days of mandatory supervised quarantine at their own cost.

Reportedly, this old mining camp has been re-designed into an attractive accommodation centre, situated at a safe distance from Australia’s population centres, but close enough (25 kilometres) to Darwin for relatively easy access. Does New Zealand have an existing re-purpose-able facility that is(a) close enough to an international airport to be a practical option but also (b) far enough away from downtown and containable enough to be safe while (c) having the existing capacity to feed and house its intended clientele? My suggestion : Burnham Military Camp, near Christchurch.

Bear with me while I make the case for re-purposing Burnham. Burnham’s own website helps to make the case:

Burnham Military Camp [has] around 1,300 people working there. It is located 28 kilometres south of Christchurch. It was established in 1923…at the time it was envisaged, the camp would last 15-25 years. While the camp has evolved over the years, its form and function has been largely based on 1940s planning and its now in need of capital investment.

Right. So it needs a refit, and the government is already planning to spend big bucks to refit Burnham. If that revamp was channelled instead into re-purposing the camp as a quarantine/managed isolation facility, quite substantial savings seem possible, overall. Also, as the Burnham website says, the camp has a recent track record of flexibly responding to social need in times of an emergency:

Burnham camp played a pivotal role in the devastating Canterbury earthquakes. At that time, the main dining room had 3.000 people at a sitting.

So there is already an onsite capacity to feed, as well as to house, the people who would be the temporary inhabitants. Moreover, the cost of a purpose-built facility has to address – in the construction phase – the question of where to house the construction team. Here again, Australia’s experience at Howard Springs seems relevant :

With housing in strong demand in the Top End, the project envisioned an on-site village that not only offered a comfortable respite from daily construction work, but a place to call home.

Meaning: during the construction phase of the re-purposing of Burnham, the camp itself would be home to the construction workers, thus preventing any impact on the already overt-heated residential rental market in Christchurch. Not many alternative sites for a purpose-built facility can offer the same advantage, of not distorting the adjacent property market.

Burnham – Gain or Loss?

Is Burnham expendable, for this purpose? It may be the biggest Army camp in the South Island, but that isn’t saying much. Linton, near Palmerston North is the Army hub of operations. Using Burnham as, in effect, a civil defence operational facility in response to the virus would also be consistent with a lot of this country’s recent political messaging. Commonly – in the absence of a military threat to this country or to the Pacific region – politicians have been prone to justifying the expenditure on the armed forces in terms of the civil defence roles the military plays, in providing assistance in times of emergency. If that’s truly the case, as Werewolf argued recently, it would be cheaper and more efficient to treat the armed forces as being a civil defence force. The equipment for that role would certainly be far, far cheaper.

(To digress : in practice, this change in perception would mean we wouldn’t need to spend multi-billions of dollars on re-fitting the Anzac frigates or kitting out our Poseidon aircraft with high tech surveillance gear… given that the only use of such advanced technology is to detect ( currently non-existent) Chinese submarines in the South Pacific. We don’t need such advanced stuff to find lost sailors at sea, or to patrol our EEZ. A drone or two might do such jobs just as well. The money we’d save – by not constantly buying the gear to do cosplay exercises in uniform within outdated Cold War defence configurations – could be used instead to combat the actual threats we face : from state-sponsored cyber security raids and from terrorism, home-grown and foreign. )

Back to Burnham

In sum, using Burnham as a quarantine/managed isolation facility would be consistent with the general direction of current practice. To the nation’s eternal gratitude, the military is already heavily involved in security work at our current makeshift managed isolation facilities. The armed forces have shown their efficiency in that role. As a result, New Zealand has largely avoided the disastrous Covid consequences that Australia has experienced from their use of private sector security guards.

In that sense, adapting Burnham into being our re-purposed facility would merely expand the anti-Covid role that the military is already playing, and many of those 1,300 people on site at Burnham would not need to re-locate. With a bit of extra training, many of them would be readily deployable within the new facility. The reality is that ANY purpose-built facility situated anywhere else in New Zealand would still have a large military component in its regular staff. With Burnham, they would be housed on the premises. And the security of the site would be more reliably air-tight.

It would make economic sense, too. At the moment, Burnham is planning to spend millions of dollars on bringing its energy profile up to scratch:

Burnham Military Camp has received a major boost to plans to move to a greener heating and cooling system. The Government, as part of its $200 million clean-powered public service fund, has announced it will contribute $3.84m towards the new system. The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) will contribute $5.76m…. It is part of the Government’s $2.1 billion indicative funding to 2030 to continue the regeneration of the Defence estate, to ensure it is fit for purpose and meets the Government’s sustainability goals.

So… apparently, there are already moves afoot to refit Burnham to meet modern needs. Having Burnham recast as a purpose-built Covid isolation facility to combat the threat that the Delta variant is posing to New Zealand’s security looks like an ideal way of “re-generating the Defence estate” for the realities of this decade, and beyond. The public would probably be right behind such a move.

Footnote: Is there no end to the enduring mystery that is Ashley Bloomfield? At today’s ( i.e. the September 1) media briefing, the MOH director-general’s mobile phone went off at about 46 minutes into the proceedings. Bloomfield quickly shut it off and pocketed the phone, but only after it had rung the first few notes into the Specials’ hit cover version of “ Message To You, Rudy” – a cautionary tale to all the rude boys out there, to take care, and think about the future. How cool, and apt. And how much in sync with the notion that beneath that buttoned-up exterior, there is a wilder, hipper ska-rockin’ incarnation of Ashley that only his deepest confidantes know about. Here’s the Specials…

Taliban Diplomacy

As predicted, the Taliban plan to rule Afghanistan with a Supreme Leader and a 12 man ruling council. (Hmm, twelve male followers and a Supreme Leader. That has a familiar ring.) Yes, the three key figures in the 12 man executive have planned and carried out some of the most brutal terrorist actions in recent history, and they’ve also headed the world’s biggest drug ring. But the West does a roaring trade with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, also countries not known to be beacons of democracy.

The Taliban are now in the position of the dog that chased the car. Now that they’ve got Afghanistan in their jaws, what do they do with it? Everywhere they look, there is a pressing humanitarian disaster – in public health, in food insecurity, from Covid. They need the UN. They need the West’s humanitarian efforts to continue, and they will need the IMF and Wor;d Bank to provide them with the finance to rebuild. In order to provide the West with the political cover at home that the UK, US, France and Germany will need to justify doing deals so soon with the Taliban, the new Afghan government will need :

  1. at least a façade of looking inclusive, which means the Taliban may have to swallow hard and add the hated likes of Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah to the Team of Twelve
  2. to allow the (Afghan-born) US, UK, European (and Australasian?) citizens with valid passports and entry visas to leave with their families for foreign destinations if they so wish
  3. to put visible efforts into shifting at least some of Afghanistan’s opium farmers into less socially destructive (but just as profitable) rurally based activities. Easier said than done.

In other words, the endless war is not over. The Taliban are in power, but they’re all but powerless to resolve the country’s problems. (If their incompetence meets resistance, they will crack down harder, which will make it even more difficult to attract foreign aid and investment.) Clausewitz once defined war as the continuation of politics by other means. As the Taliban probably realise already, the reverse is also true: diplomacy and global trade are war by other means, and in that conflict, it is the big powers (China, the US, Europe and Russia) that hold most of the cards. Lets hope the outside world plays those cards for the benefit of ordinary Afghan citizens, and not merely for geo-political advantage.

New Kanye!

New, as in, OK to good this time. This week has seen the release of a new Kanye West album (called Donda, after his mother) that has more good tracks dotted among its sprawling 27 track, one hour 48 minute duration than one might have expected… Given West’s recent marriage breakup, his mental health issues, his political hi-jinks and his bizarre public statements. True, even the best tracks on Donda still require you to step between the cowpats of self-aggrandisement and religious overkill. Yet mid-flight evasive action has become the norm for the Kanye West listening experience.

Case in point is this track “Pure Souls” which gradually shifts its focus from a cynical “ the truth is only what you get away with” to what The Truth has saved him from. Sure he went through stages/just to hop on new stages, but how can he sell his soul any more, now that Jesus has saved it ? So…you might well ask…what state of salvation has Jesus and His prosperity gospel delivered unto Kanye ? Plainly, it still involves a lot of mixed feelings, peer resentments ( Drake is almost a Satanic presence throughout) and some equally mixed messaging. Straight after chiding his audience for not realising that their musical heroes are mere entertainers, we get this :

This money sanctified, so I gotta say it again

They said I was mad at the Grammys

But I’m lookin’ at my Grammy right now
Pulled up on Ye, and I said, “They don’t understand me”

Which leads into another pot-shot at Drake (“my dawg better pipe down”) and reminders to us all that he, Kanye, came up from the trenches and trailblazed his way to riches and acclaim, and so maybe God will forgive him for all his sinning …And for all his bling, which God hath provided in plenty to his now-cleansed and pure-hearted warrior. ( “After all the jokes/I was the one that was chose.”) Yet despite and because of all this zigzagging between boasting and humble bragging… “Pure Souls” is also a fascinating showcase for West’s talent as well as his eccentricities. ( Can you be forgiven for being sincerely full of bullshit ?) On this track, West feels like he’s still wrestling with his demons, and not merely parading them: