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COVID-19 Background

Background to the Pandemic

On December 31 2019, China identified an outbreak of severe respiratory illness related to individuals attending a wholesale seafood market, which was ultimately found to be caused by a previously unrecognised Coronavirus (2019-nCoV or Covid-19).   Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which include the common cold, but also more significant illnesses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Covid-19 spread rapidly through the Hubei Province of China, and by the end of January 2020 there were over 9000 cases (and 213 deaths) in China, and was Covid-19 reported in at least 21 countries.    By the end of February, there were approximately 85,000 cases spread throughout the world, and by March 31 2020, over 740,000 cases and 35,000 deaths were reported.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Covid-19 situation a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, and on February 11, declared it a Pandemic.

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Health established a National Health Coordination Centre on January 28th, declaring Covid-19 a ‘notifiable disease’.    Representing the start of a series of travel restrictions, from February 3, foreign citizens who flew to New Zealand from China were denied entry.   Despite progressive international travel restrictions, New Zealand identified its first Covid-19 case on February 28.  On March 14, with the number of identified cases slowly growing to six, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that from 0100 on March 16, all travellers to New Zealand must ‘self-isolate’ for 14 days on arrival.     At the same time, public gatherings of more than 500 people were prohibited, with a significant impact on sport at all levels in New Zealand.   By March 19, New Zealand’s borders were (with a few exceptions), closed to all except New Zealand Citizens and residents.

Saturday March 21 Prime Minister Ardern  announced the Covid-19 Alert Levels, that specified the public health and social measures that were going to be taken to combat the spread and impact of the virus.

  • Level 1  Prepare
  • Level 2  Reduce
  • Level 3  Restrict
  • Level 4  Eliminate

New Zealand was immediately placed at Level 2, but by Monday March 23, with confirmed cases at approximately 100, New Zealand was moved to a Level 3 alert, with Level 4 following at 2359 on Wednesday 25 March 2020.   Level 4 risk assessment was that there was sustained and widespread transmission, with widespread outbreaks, and resulted in all people being instructed to stay home, except for essential services.  Travel was severely limited, and there was a major reprioritisation of health services to support Covid-19.

On April 3, 2020, the New Zealand Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield made further orders relating to the Level 4 Covid-19 status (Section 70 (1) (f) of the Health Act), amongst other things, clarifying that recreation is possible only if it is performed as ‘…readily accessed from their residence’ and ‘does not involve swimming, water-based activities… or other activities of a kind that expose participants to danger..’  This placed very tight restrictions on movement outside of an individual’s residence, and further restricted the exercise capability of all New Zealanders.

Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020

With the world engaged in a battle with an emerging virus, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee were closely monitoring the situation.   Despite publicly declaring its commitment to the Games going ahead in July 2020, it was clear that both organisations well aware of the risks of Covid-19.   By Mid-February, the IOC had established a joint task force involving the WHO, Tokyo 2020, the host city of Tokyo and the Government of Japan, to address the rapidly evolving Covid-19 situation and its potential impact on the Olympic Games.

With a view to ensuring Athlete health and a fair event, on March 25 2020 the IOC elected to postpone the Olympics, and on March 30 the Olympic and Paralympic Games were postponed until July 23 and August 24 2021 respectively.

Covid-19 Infection

The 2019-nCoVirus may cause a range of symptoms including fever, cough and breathing difficulty.  The incubation period appears variable, with estimates varying from 2 to 14 days.   Covid-19 is spread by droplets from person to person, and under ideal conditions, the virus may survive for several days on some surfaces.  Importantly, it is now recognised that individuals may be infectious for 48 hours before becoming symptomatic.

The majority of Covid-19 infections are mild, consistent with a typical ‘cold’, or mild chest infection.  However, approximately one in five patients may progress to severe lung disease.  Currently, the death rate appears to be in the region of 1-2%, but this does vary around the world.

There is currently no effective vaccination, and no proven treatment for the virus – although there is extensive research occurring internationally in both of these areas.