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Another Good Read

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By Simon O'Connor 

Like everyone, living in this lock down is a surreal experience.  Plans have changed, priorities re-ordered, relationships are being redefined.  By order, we are confined to our homes; are restricted in what physical activity we can undertake; have had the media limited; and our businesses closed.

While my workload has increased substantially in the last few weeks as literally hundreds of constituents a day engage with their concerns and queries, it has also provided me some time to reflect on what is happening as a result of this coronavirus/Covid-19 outbreak.  To that end, I wanted to write a longer opinion piece discussing some of the decisions that were made here in New Zealand in response to Covid-19, some of the dynamics in play today particularly through media, and then some thoughts on what we need to do in the future.

EARLY DECISIONS

It must be said, up front, that any decision maker(s) works only with the information they have at the time.  I say this, as already we are seeing people using current information – or hindsight – to suggest different decisions should have been made.  While we must certainly challenge poor decisions so that we learn and improve (as I will), it is not fair to expect any government or health agency to have made decisions based on knowledge that did not exist.

The swift move to a lock down – or level four – was, by and large, good and right.  Unlike some countries (for example, the United Kingdom) which announced immediate restrictions with no lead-in time, New Zealand had around 48 hours to move between levels three and four.  However, even New Zealand’s transition from level three to four lacked some common sense particularly when we consider food, travel, and essential businesses.

That so many cafes, restaurants, food suppliers, and others had to close almost immediately led to enormous food wastage.  This was unnecessary.  Similarly with travel, and acknowledging the government did extend deadlines eventually, there was unnecessary stress placed on people returning to their homes and needing access to the Cook Strait ferries or domestic flights.  More time, and again we are only talking 48 hours or so, may well have provided more planning around what was to be deemed essential business and which was not.  Instead, we ended up in a muddled situation that has led to much uncertainty, stress, and frustration.  It also, arguably, was an early catalyst for a vigilante mentality in some who took it upon themselves to report what they perceived was every breach.  Such behaviour damages civil society and relationships between people and, sadly, will not be forgotten once we leave the lock down. 

But mistakes were also made, most notably around introducing a quarantine.  It took too long, simple as that.  There are attempts already to rewrite history and make excuses for why it took so long, but the statistics clearly show that the virus’s sole vector (or avenue) into New Zealand was from overseas.   To use a simple metaphor - who defends a castle by calling everyone inside yet leaves the draw bridge down?  New Zealand did.  To continue the metaphor, government called on everyone to come inside the castle, leave their businesses behind, lock themselves up, and prepare to defend themselves … yet did not pull up the draw bridge and close the border effectively.  Nor did we sufficiently test or track those coming into the country.  This should have been a priority even if imperfectly introduced.  As it stood, little to nothing was done other than requesting forms to be filled out and ‘pinky promises’ made that people would follow the rules.  We should learn from this.

WHERE WE STAND TODAY

As figures stand today, New Zealand is doing well from a health perspective and thanks must go to everyone involved from those on the front line to those making the various decisions.  However, like everything, it also depends on which figures we choose to look at and who we compare ourselves to.  It is particularly to the latter that I want to address this section.  Our media, in particular, have devoted much coverage and sometimes opprobrium to the United States or Italy, and the likes of President Trump or Boris Johnson, yet less comment is made on the likes of Australia or Scott Morrison for example.  The former examples certainly make our government response look fantastic, relatively speaking, while the latter begins to raise questions of some of the decisions made on this side of the Tasman.

I think it is fair to say that New Zealand’s overall results are good but mixed.  New Zealand’s death rate is certainly lower than in most other countries, which is a blessing.  Our testing rates, however, are rather low compared to others.  Our hospital system has coped well, but we still appear short of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or the equipment is failing to reach the front line in a timely manner. 

As I say, if we compare ourselves to the United States or Italy, our death rates, for example, are exceptionally good.  Australia, however, has relatively similar numbers to ourselves if we take into account our population difference and yet they have not completely shut down their economy. 

I do take on board those saying we must be careful of comparisons.  They are correct or rather, we must always make a comparison while acknowledging there are nuances and subtleties.  However, I must also note that many of these same experts, academics, and commentators remain very happy to compare so as to promote New Zealand’s approach and Prime Minister.  If we are going to compare to promote, then it is also correct to compare to critique.

So this section questions and speculates on some of the dynamics in play, particularly what appears to be a deliberate attempt by some to argue for a New Zealand exceptionalism – that is, that the choices made here were exceptional as too the person(s) making them.  As readers will anticipate, I do not fully agree with this position.  We have done well, but we are not exceptional or being led in a way that is somehow unique.

First, it must be said that no two countries are the same.  New Zealand has natural advantages in relation to an outbreak such as Covid-19.  We are an island with a low-density population; we have a good existing health system; a better demographic spread than many other countries; and a single governmental system as compared to the likes of America or Germany with their confusing federal systems.  It is also worth noting that here in the Southern Hemisphere the traditional winter influenza season is not yet upon us.

Secondly, I would question how media have often chosen to report, or contrast, what is happening here as compared to other nations.  There seems to be a fascination with what is happening in parts of Europe and in America.  Less appears to be said of what is happening in the likes of Australia.  I will keep coming back to Australia as our closest neighbour, a critical ally as we progress forward, and as a country that is doing similarly to – and in some cases better than – ourselves.

This fascination often moves towards the macabre which in turn can breed a hysteria which some in media (and across social media) appear to be encouraging.  It certainly helps sell the news, but it does not help us as a society approach things calmly and rationally.  For example, playing looping videos of supposed mass graves in New York ignores the reality that some of those dying have no loved ones or next of kin present and need burial somewhere.  It is without a doubt that New York was under-prepared (both at the state and federal government level) and consequently struggling with the numbers of death. However, and again, to hysterically talk of mass graves doesn’t paint the whole picture at best and deliberately misleading at worst.

Obsessing on the numbers coming out of the likes of Italy or even the United States does nothing if context is not factored in, including aspects I noted earlier.  New York State is not an island and, I would suggest, has a confused governance system which makes decision-making slow.  None of this takes away from its failures and there must be reporting of what is happening here, yet the way some reports are being constructed appear a rather blatant attempt to weaponise the crisis to promote some leaders and demonise others.  There is a distinction between rightful criticism and scapegoating.

There also appears to be a willingness to compare worse case scenarios or predictions with the actual situation and then singularly suggesting the difference is all the work of one person or government.  While making comparisons is important, to see media and others so quickly and readily attribute the difference as some sort of messianic action of one person or group is just wrong.  If reporting has more to do with promoting certain people than informing the public about the virus, then we have activism over academia, propaganda rather than journalism.  We should also be questioning the early modelling – was it accurate?   Certainly, actions taken by government ‘flattened the curve’ but we must also simultaneously ask whether early modelling was well-considered or instead leant towards the sensational.

We also have the fact that New Zealand’s trajectory is not that much different from other countries; our path is not that exceptional.  As I alluded to earlier, Australia’s Covid-19 per capita numbers are similar yet our respective countries have taken different approaches when it comes to the economy.  Put simply, Australia has restricted activities whereas New Zealand has effectively quarantined everyone to their homes.  Yet, despite the similar approaches and results, we have reporting here in New Zealand which lauds Prime Minister Ardern and either ignores or criticises Prime Minister Morrison.  We even have memes on social media that suggest, somehow, that a leader’s gender is a material component of success.  Put probably too crudely, but many in media and in politics appear more than happy to promote any person who is liberal and ‘progressive’ over leaders who are conservative. While there have been commendable responses to Covid-19 around the world, from both male and female leaders, the willingness to ignore facts and overlook inconvenient truths in order to promote identity politics should concern all those who believe in democracy and civic society.  The leader of Denmark is applauded for her leadership yet almost 300 people have died – 30 times more than New Zealand yet a comparable population, while again, the likes of Australia’s Scott Morrison is ignored as he doesn’t fit the stereotype demanded.  The merit of action should be based on decisions made (or not made), the application of reason and science, and of course, the final results.  Merit and accolade should never be given simply because of a person’s age, gender, belief system, or political leanings.  Sadly, we are seeing a commentariat very willing to continue its pursuit of identity politics where the ‘who’ is more important than the ‘what’ and ‘how’. 

LANGUAGE IS EVERYTHING          

A quick point on the importance of accuracy around language. There is a big difference between dying ‘of Covid-19’ and dying ‘with Covid-19’. Reporting to date appears very loose in language, describing every death as ‘of’ Covid-19. This is just not true with many people having significant underlying conditions which has contributed to their death and who have also had Covid-19. Arguably, continuing to portray every death – here and overseas – as due to Covid-19 leads to poor decision-making and an acceptance by the population of current practices.

MOVING FORWARD

It is all too easy, of course, to reflect simply on the past and the present.  What are some suggestions for New Zealand moving forward?

We must begin by enlarging our view to incorporate more than just ‘health’ issues when thinking about Covid-19.  The economy is taking a battering.  Unlike Australia and some Scandinavian countries, for example, we have effectively closed everything down or facilitated monopolies for those remaining open.  We have created tension between those called ‘essential’ and those who know they are essential.  To use Scott Morrison again, his view that every job and worker is essential is correct.  It does not matter if you pack a supermarket shelf or mow lawns, your job provides the essential monies you need to look after yourself and family and contribute to society in a way that is meaningful to you.

I think one of the challenges we currently face is that many Kiwis do not yet comprehend the pain that is to come, but not necessarily through a fault of their own.  Our current situation is surreal and, for some, even novel.  A time off even.  They understand there is trouble to come but have not yet seen or experienced it to fully appreciate what is about to happen. It will not be until businesses are allowed to re-open and people find their beloved café, grocer, or hardware store are gone; it won’t be until their own job is lost or someone in their family contracts Covid-19; or when the mortgage cannot be paid or the Visa card paid off.  These very real dynamics are, in my prediction, just around the corner and it is a domino effect.  As one sector struggles, others will soon follow.  We have already seen the substantial cuts in Air New Zealand, the liquidation of Burger King, and the damage in media (with NZME reducing staff and Bauer going under).

But the costs are not simply economic and it would be all too easy to fall into a stereotypical ‘fight’ between personal health and the economy.  Other costs are what I would term relational.  The lock down has already seen a significant rise in the likes of domestic violence and will likely, as during the GFC, see an increase in suicides.  We cannot underestimate the grief and harm for families not able to be with loved ones in their final hours or to attend funerals.  In turn, anxiety and other issues relating to mental well-being will increase. Furthermore, social isolation has a particular impact on our elderly, with loneliness having very real social, emotional, and physical implications.

And so, we need to end this lock down as soon as possible.  I certainly lean towards sooner rather than later and that any move needs to be both well-signalled with clarity given as to what can and cannot be done.  Business needs certainty.

The solution is not more government.  There is certainly a role for bailout packages, welfare support, wage subsidies, and so on.  These, however, should not be understood as replacements for fully functioning businesses or a proxy for the market.  Such supports are temporary and partial at best and rely on businesses actually getting back on their feet … quickly!  The risk of continuing a lock down for too long, or even a move to level three with far too many conditions and caveats, is that there will be no businesses to get back on their feet.  Similarly, the wage subsidy, while a good and necessary step, will not be that helpful if there are no jobs to go back to.

Other things we must consider:

  • We need to follow Australia’s lead and have all foreign investment vetted.  Now is not the time to have our assets bought out by overseas interests at artificially low cost.
     
  • We need to work closely with Australia, particularly (but not exclusively) around tourism.  This can apply similarly to our Pacific neighbours, however, we must approach this with greater caution and responsibility as any outbreak in those islands would be both devastating and hard to manage.
     
  • We need more testing.  We test around twelve people in every 1,000.  Granted, Australia is testing around fourteen in every 1,000 while Iceland is doing 105 tests per 1,000.  We need to do more and not continue to ration.  If someone gets sick in a retirement village, we need to be able to test everyone.
     
  • We need better surveillance and increase our capacity to contact trace, and to do so fast.
     
  • We need to consider the domestic production of some goods and not be completely reliant on one country.  Free trade is good, but we also need to ensure we both remain free to trade and that such trade benefits both sides.  Ultimately, this is a sovereignty issue and New Zealand must ensure it can continue to operate freely and as it wishes.  For example, if we remain dependent on the likes of China for key products, and in the current context the likes of PPE or pharmaceuticals, then we are not as free or sovereign to act as we wish.
     
  • In my role as the Chair of Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade select committee, I have seen clearly that we also must be very cognisant of the wider political dynamics in play including, but not limited to, China and the United States.  There a tussle going on for dominance as well as a desire to position well out of the crisis.  We need to ask many questions and not be afraid to do so.  China’s handling of the situation is rightly questionable as too the supposed current reporting which, as far as I will comment here, is highly suspect.  The behaviour of the World Health Organisation (WHO) must be questioned too, including its overtly political approach to Taiwan and the information it sought to provide.  The key here is not to involve ourselves in a blame game but rather to ensure we engage with eyes and ears wide open and make our foreign policy decisions accordingly.  I am already concerned by those saying we should simply believe what we are told or that to question a government’s decision is xenophobic; no country, including our own, should be afraid of transparency.  I also think we need to be aware of rather obvious attempts to play health diplomacy as we have seen with the likes of Russia sending supplies to various countries.  Fundamentally, we need to be engaging with our allies more at this time not less.  There are those who will use this crisis to create division and I can say with confidence that any such division will not serve the sovereign interests of this country.
     
  • Closer to home, we need to get back to a fully operating parliamentary democracy.  It is not good for the health of a democratic society to have, effectively, one person making all the decisions, no matter what respect that person has.  That media have indulged in attacks on the Leader of the Opposition doing his job should be a particular point of concern – there is a desire, implied or otherwise, to have little accountability or oversight.  Similarly, when parliament resumes it should focus near exclusively on everything Covid-19 related.  That to date we have seen the government pushing through prisoner voting, residential tenancy changes, abortion, and vaping while the rest of the country focused on Covid-19 is disturbing.
     
  • We need to think of how we stimulate and grow the economy. We need to understand that all this money – billions of dollars – currently being spent by the government must be paid back by you and me and, importantly, future generations. Ideas that we should contract parts of the economy or tax more are absurd.  As Churchill noted on both, respectively: “For a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle” and “the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries”.

My last thoughts are around terminology and the words we use, notably ‘kindness’.  Being kind is the consequence of recognising a problem and acting to address it.  As you will expect, different people have different views on what these problems are and how they should be addressed.  As Jordan Peterson well articulates, “Kindness is the excuse that social justice warriors use when they want to exercise control over what other people think and say.”  It is one thing to say getting someone their groceries is kind, but quite another to say we should freeze all rents for 12 months.   There is also the already evident hypocrisy in some who talk of kindness yet demonstrate none when it comes to anyone who opposes them.  One need only go online to see the many profiles garlanded with ‘be kind’ images but who go about abusing anyone they disagree with.  They are both the biggest talkers of ‘kindness’, yet the least in practice.  Kindness is not a foundation for action, it is instead the result of good actions taken for the right reasons.  We will be a kind society not because the Prime Minister makes soundbites of the word but because we, as a society, choose to debate what is good and act accordingly.

We also have calls for people to not be political.  This is just an excuse to silence people.  In these times where the government has enormous power, people should absolutely be political.  People should question and challenge every decision made.  We must remember the enormity of decisions that are literally being made by just a few people.  Parliament is suspended; people are locked in their homes; police are stopping people doing what used to be the simplest of activities; businesses are by in large closed; travel is restricted; certain media have been banned; press conferences are highly choreographed with journalists already protesting their inability to ask questions … the list goes on.  If there was a time for people to be political, it is now.  So beware anyone saying ‘don’t be political’.  What they are saying is that they do not want any critique of their actions.

So much for us all to consider as we move forward.  We need to look carefully and as objectively as possible at past decisions, not so much to criticise but to learn from.  In the present, we need to understand the dynamics in play that shape the way we think and then choose to act.  And, finally, we must anticipate the future and what is in the best interest of all New Zealanders.  I am under no illusion that the latter is immensely difficult, but I am also a believer that if we seek what is right – using reason, science, and honesty – we will achieve our goal.

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