Of New Zealand and Lockdowns: A Reply to Madeline Grant
One of the stranger – and more uncomfortable – aspects of the international Coronavirus response is how insanely politicised the whole thing has become. One would have thought that, you know, saving lives would take priority over political squabbling, regardless of which part of the spectrum you are on. But clearly not – it has simply become another theatre for posturing ideologues. New Zealand may be justifiably proud of our handling of the virus, but this hasn’t stopped us getting singled out by Donald Trump as having a particularly bad time. But one expects such things from Donald Trump – it’s what he does. More curious is the case of British Telegraph columnist, Madeline Grant. The Telegraph is not a newspaper I often agree with, but at least I recognise its ‘respectable’ status within the British newspaper system. Grant’s overt stupidity is doubly disturbing, in that this is clearly what many (right-wing) educated foreigners think about New Zealand and the Coronavirus:
Oh dear. If ever there was a case of lacking self-awareness, or even a basic grasp of what you are writing about, this is it. When someone places ideology above the necessity of fighting the Coronavirus, which is what Grant does, one can only accuse Grant of… virtue signalling. Worse, actually, since virtue signalling to my mind evokes pointless gestures. Grant isn’t advocating a pointless gesture, she’s actually criticising the New Zealand Government for saving lives.
If I were being generous, I would suggest that this is just the British right-wing media chatting with the New Zealand right-wing media, and getting the wrong end of the stick. After all, the New Zealand media seems much more enthusiastic about Relaxing Controls than the New Zealand public at large. Ideological bubbles are funny like that. But Grant simply gets so much wrong that even that generous interpretation does not seem to fit. To someone like myself, who, you know, actually lives in New Zealand, it reads like self-parody.
(I get it. New Zealand is remote, isolated, and small. I don’t expect everyone overseas to be experts about us. But if you are writing an article in a major British newspaper that prides itself on respectability, at least do your research).
Anyway, ignoring the pre-emptive ideological pissing, let’s get to the meat of Grant’s article:
We should be under no illusion – this is no model for New Zealand to follow, let alone a sophisticated global economy like ours. NZ may have contained the virus, for now at least, registering the lowest mortality rates in the OECD, but it has taken genuinely draconian policies and great economic pain to get there. The Ardern administration is eliminating rights on a scale more reminiscent of authoritarian China than a Western liberal democracy.
New Zealand’s estimated GDP decline since the epidemic started: 6%-7%
Britain’s GDP decline from April to June: 20.4%
Goodness. New Zealand has suffered less economic pain than the United Kingdom – lockdowns notwithstanding. In fact, New Zealand’s GDP drop is also below the OECD average (9.8%).
As for the supposed elimination of rights… well, seeing as New Zealand has a functioning political Opposition, an independent media, and a non-partisan police and judiciary, I’d say the Beijing comparison is a bit off. No-one gets locked up for writing hateful screeds about Jacinda Ardern. No-one gets locked up for advocating Relaxation of Controls (after all, that’d be most of the New Zealand media). You do get punished for endangering public health.
(New Zealand’s response is Paternalistic, but not Authoritarian).
Last week, the whole of Auckland was sent into lockdown after the government announced a grand total of four new cases in the capital.
I swear, I nearly choked on my drink. Grant – a columnist writing for a respectable British newspaper – thinks Auckland is New Zealand’s capital? Did no-one proofread her column first?
But while confusing Auckland and Wellington destroys any credibility Grant might have had in talking about New Zealand, it is also low-hanging fruit. What of Grant’s more general point, that putting our largest city in lockdown was an over-reaction?
Answer: Grant is being as misleading as hell.
If one has gone a hundred and two days without community transmission, because the nationwide lockdown of March to May turned out to be more successful than anyone dared hope, only for cases to reappear in the largest city… putting the aforementioned city in (level 3, not level 4) lockdown seems extremely appropriate. You don’t want the disease spreading out of Auckland, because otherwise the Government would be forced to apply lockdown to everyone else too. You also don’t want the disease spreading through poorer areas in South Auckland, because such people are more vulnerable (New Zealand’s earlier cases tended to be associated with wealthier areas).
It also turned out that there were substantially more than four cases in Auckland (current numbers are 133). Yet, thanks to the swiftly-acting authorities, there have still been no community cases outside Auckland (apart from a traceable couple in Tokoroa). Both Wellington and the South Island remain disease-free, a fact for which I am extremely grateful.
In short, this self-evident absurdity so derided by Madeline Grant is the reason my home town does not have the Coronavirus rampaging through it.
GDP has taken its biggest slide in three decades.
Yes, but that is comparing New Zealand to New Zealand, not New Zealand to the OECD. And, to be honest, if New Zealand’s situation is comparable to the early 1990s recession, then that beats the hell out of the United States, where the comparison is to the Great Depression, or the United Kingdom, where the collapse is unprecedented since records began.
A total ban on foreign arrivals has endured for months, with catastrophic results for tourism, directly employing 8.4 per cent of the workforce.
One would suggest that international tourism is not exactly a boom industry at the moment, regardless of Government policy. I would note, however, that tourism providers are currently appealing to domestic tourists – which they can do, because (outside Auckland), they know those tourists are disease-free.
New Zealanders returning from abroad must pay for the privilege of isolating in military-guarded facilities, to the tune of more than £1,500 per head.
Those facilities? Hotels. Grant makes it sound like being confined to barracks, but it really isn’t.
The charge? Only for those people who left after the legislation was passed, and for people coming back temporarily. People who were stranded, but who are coming back to stay, don’t have to pay.
(Amusingly, the charge policy was also the idea of the (Conservative) Opposition, which was picked up by the Labour Government).
One man recently received a six-week jail sentence for hugging a friend quarantining in a detention centre.
Grant conveniently forgets to note that the fellow broke into the Quarantine Hotel. As a clear endangering of public health, he got the book thrown at him:
The NZ experience should serve as a cautionary tale about the normalisation of overreach. Though the country has not recorded a single covid death since May, the government decided to postpone the Autumn elections following the small-scale outbreak this month. Progressives, so alert to the subversion of democracy in the USA, had little to say about this extraordinary over-reaction.
New Zealand’s election dates are set by the incumbent Prime Minister (basically, what Britain used to do prior to the Fixed Term Parliament Act, only it’s a three year term, not five). And, had the August Auckland outbreak not happened, the election would have gone ahead as planned, and the Ardern Government would have been easily re-elected. The delay in the election was actually being urged by the (Conservative) Opposition – who wanted an emergency delay to 2021. As it is, Ardern delaying the election from September to October was still easily within the three year term. Hell, the Government could have delayed until November if they wanted, and there would have been no constitutional issues.
An elimination strategy has made them hostages to fortune; with precedence established, it will be politically toxic to change course. Ardern has ridden high in the polls so far, but if such disruption continues, public appetite for keeping the country virus-free at any cost will surely wane, and the recent outbreak, despite NZ’s geographic isolation and its draconian policy response, suggests no country can postpone the inevitable.
Let me assure Madeline Grant that the New Zealand public – unlike the New Zealand media – is very happy with the current elimination strategy. As of this month, 75% of the country is happy with the Government’s response, with a mere 15% unhappy:
This is what I mean when I say that the New Zealand media is actually rather out of touch with the public mood. The 15% of the population gets heard rather more than the 75%. Madeline Grant, of course, might as well be on Mars.
The implications of New Zealand’s autarchy go beyond its shores as well. Tourism accounts for a third of jobs in Fiji, Palau and Vanuatu; and two thirds of their visitors come from Australia and New Zealand. Yet amid mounting poverty and unemployment, island leaders’ pleadings for air bridges seem barely to have registered with an administration myopically focused on elimination. In seeking to be kind, the Ardern administration has ended up being very cruel indeed.
Let’s just say that the Pacific Islands – who have some rather terrifying folk memories of the Spanish Flu – would not be keen on air bridges with any country where the disease is running rampant. Note also that the Australian Federal Government is not permitting connection with ‘clean states’ only… and we all know that no-one wants to touch Victoria. So Australia’s out.
(Seriously, if Grant wants to blame anyone, she should be going after Canberra, not Wellington. Though knowing her, she probably thinks the Australian capital is Sydney).
Enthusiasts for this model imply that elimination, like the happiness budget, and like Ardern herself, puts people above the callous vicissitudes of the balance sheet. As we are increasingly finding, the two cannot be so easily disentangled. Excessively harsh lockdowns have become a form of international virtue-signalling; something only wealthy nations can afford, but which promises catastrophe for the world’s poorest.
Yes, Madeline, lives and economics cannot easily be disentangled. All the evidence suggests that New Zealand’s determination to save its population has left its economy looking a fair bit better than Britain’s.
(As for lockdowns being for the wealthy… I thought Grant was comparing us to Beijing and other Authoritarian hellholes?).
Before the recent spike, commentators lauded Ardern as being “on course to eradicate the virus completely.” The ambition was childish and hubristic in the extreme. Until the planet reaches a state of elimination, New Zealand will have to stay in indefinite isolation, with domestic lock-downs a likely fixture of life, perhaps for years to come. The economy cannot bear this for long. Nor can the people.
Um, Madeline, the whole point of domestic lockdowns is that we can actually go back to a semblance of normality when they are over. New Zealand went through an incredibly strict March to May, but after that? A hundred and two days without community transmission left us in a (unique) plague-free bubble, and outside Auckland, we are still in such a bubble. Yes, eventually we are going to have to reconnect with the outside world – I wrote a previous post on that very subject – but, honestly, waiting for a decent vaccine/treatment is a path New Zealand is happy with. Frankly, it beats the hell out of North America and Europe, both economically and morally.