A New World Order and end of Covid with a whimper

Peter Dunne

Peter Dunne

Wellington, March 5, 2022

           

                         Families reunite as New Zealand opens borders, removes MIQ, isolation (RNZ Photo by Katie Doyle)

  

I was reminded recently of T S Eliot’s famous lines at the end of his classic poem, The Waste Land: “This is the way world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”

The occasion was the government’s latest announcements bringing forward the dates for reopening New Zealand to returning New Zealanders and overseas visitors with the removal of most border controls. These new dates speed up considerably the timetable that the Prime Minister had earlier announced just four weeks ago, telling Newshub then that “these are very firm dates that we have set” and she would not be backing down from them.

The government realised in October 2021 that despite the Auckland lockdown, it was not going to be able to stamp out the Delta variant. Since then, it has been on an inevitable but still reluctant pathway of reducing the restrictions it has imposed on New Zealanders, at home and abroad, since the arrival of Covid-19, just over two years ago.

Trust in Self-Management

The arrival of the far more contagious Omicron variant in late December 2021 and its rapid spread since then, finally forced the government’s hand. Maintaining a complex system of restrictions and mandatory isolation requirements was just not going to work in an Omicron environment, and it finally dawned on Ministers that it was time to trust people to self-manage their own situations.

But this was no bolt from the blue. Opposition parties had been warning since late last year that the arrival of Omicron on the same scale as in other countries would overwhelm our rules, not to mention our health system potentially and that the government needed to move to relax restrictions. Revelations this week about the unacceptable delays in getting PCR testing results to people in a timely manner confirm that view, but at the time last year, the government’s response was that the Opposition parties’ plans would “give New Zealanders Covid for Christmas.”

The calls were therefore ignored then, only to be picked up and announced as her own in the Prime Minister’s “Reconnecting New Zealand to the world” speech on 3 February.

 

Britain was among the first countries to remove all Covid restrictions (Screen Grab)

 Scoring points

When Opposition parties criticised those announcements as too little, too late, they were again excoriated by the government as irresponsible and wrong. But, as before, this week’s announcements of an accelerated timetable – again presented as all the government’s own idea – substantially addressed the fresh points made by the Opposition. Now it seems only a matter of time before the current early October date for the complete reopening of the border, something else Opposition parties have been calling for, is also brought forward.

All this means that rather than ending with a bang, New Zealand’s pandemic restrictions now seem more likely to peter out in a quiet whimper over the next couple of months or so.

In part, this is because the measures taken to control the spread of the virus have been effective, particularly the National Vaccination Programme, which after an incredibly low and fitful start has seen New Zealand end up as one of the world’s most highly vaccinated nations – and in part, it is because the government, like just about everyone else, is suffering from Covid-19 fatigue. This is because despite all its ravages, the massive economic and social disruptions it has caused, here and elsewhere, and because of the public response, the impact of the pandemic has not been nearly as severe as first feared.

Good public health response

In 2020, for example, Professors Michael Baker and Nick Wilson were predicting up to 33,600 New Zealanders could die from Covid-19, if the government took no action. In a report released this week, they said that 2750 New Zealanders lives have been saved since 2020 because of health measures taken to suppress all respiratory viruses, not just Covid-19.

In the event, the total number to date of Covid-19 deaths has been just 56, just under a tenth of the number of people that die annually from influenza, a remarkable tribute to the efficacy of the public health response.

At the same time, however, this success has contributed to the public complacency about Covid-19, because things have not been that bad after all. Many New Zealanders now feel simply “over it.” That pervasive feeling, which even the Prime Minister admits to having, was always going to make it difficult for the government to sustain the previous high level of restriction into a third year, even before the arrival of Omicron made it impossible.

What reminded me of Eliot’s lines was that according to at one least interpretation, they relate to the end of one world – in his instance the world of pre-World War One Europe – and the birth of a new world, consistent with the whimper of a new-born child.

The “Waste Land” of the past lies buried with that old world, and the focus moves to the new world ahead.

Emerging challenges

So it is with Covid-19. While its spectre will remain for some time, and with that, the prospect of new and yet more virulent strains emerging, the increasing reality for New Zealand, like every other country, is of having to live with the virus and return to as normal a way of life as possible. That will impose a fresh set of challenges to which the governments must turn their attention. Reopening borders goes far beyond just welcoming family and friends back from overseas or seeing the return of international tourism.

Future challenges include the restoration of social cohesion and the reconstruction of the decimated small to medium-sized business sector, mainly but not exclusively in hospitality and tourism. And rebuilding capability in the health, health services, and infrastructure sectors to ensure we can cope with any future pandemic that comes our way. This includes restoring the whole of government approach to pandemic planning and response that was allowed to lapse after 2017.

As the period of prescriptive national measures to fight the pandemic wanes and is replaced by a greater reliance on self-preparedness, the focus will shift to governments needing to work alongside people to help them look after themselves, rather than just tell them what to do.

In New Zealand, as elsewhere, it has been so far relatively easy for Opposition parties to criticise governments for the rules they have imposed on their peoples to fight the pandemic.

Field day for the Opposition

As we have seen here, to gain uniform compliance government-imposed rules have invariably been complex, often appearing inconsistent, unfair to some, and difficult to administer efficiently. MIQ would be the obvious example, but the procurement problems the Ministry of Health has faced throughout the pandemic – from PPR equipment to vaccines, and RAT tests, cannot be ignored. These have all proved fertile ground for Opposition parties to till.

By always initially denying the worth of any criticisms, and then acknowledging their validity only in its subsequent actions, the government has to some extent been playing into the Opposition’s hands.

However, the new focus on self-management and personal responsibility changes all that. While calling for the government to get out of people’s lives and let them take personal responsibility for their own wellbeing is an easy rhetorical call to make, it becomes harder to be critical when people do just that.

Governments cannot easily be blamed for people’s individual decisions, especially by those saying they should have been trusted all along to make them.

Therefore, while Opposition parties may feel they have won a battle with the ending of managed isolation and border restrictions, the move to personal responsibility means they are now facing a completely new political challenge.

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He lives in New Zealand.

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