Wellington, August 17, 2023
The Prime Minister was right when he said lifting the remaining Covid-19 restrictions earlier this was week was an anticlimax.
Most New Zealanders had, like the rest of the world, been treating Covid-19 as “just another illness” for a long time. They had largely been ignoring the self-isolation requirements that had remained in place here for ten months longer than in Australia.
So, the removal of the last restrictions, and the accompanying predictable chorus of woe from the band of zealots that had so enjoyed ruling the media roost during the pandemic, was more a reminder of the worst of national times than a cause for celebration.
What was particularly galling though was the way the Prime Minister tried to brush off the tough times so many New Zealanders had endured over the last three and a half years.
As Covid-19 Minister, he was the one who presided over the concentration camp system that MIQ became. He was the one that kept families divided, unable to be with dying loved ones or attend family funerals. He was the Minister who suggested that Aucklanders might require permits and have designated times to leave town for their summer holidays at the end of the long 2021 Auckland lockdown. And who will ever forget his shameful treatment of mothers-to-be like journalist Charlotte Bellis, to whom he was obliged to subsequently publicly apologise when she wanted to return home to have her baby?
The high cost of lockdown
It was therefore little wonder that in the lead-up to the election, he was keen to banish any lasting memories of Covid-19 and his role in managing it. Whereas Dame Jacinda Ardern rode a wave of public support for her handling of the early stages of the Covid-19 response to a landslide election victory in 2020, Chris Hipkins knew full well there be no such wave for him. The last thing he wants is to be reminded of his Covid-19 actions during what is already shaping up to be Labour’s most difficult election since 2008.
A recent report from the international media and software giant Bloomberg on international lessons to be learned from the pandemic rated New Zealand’s response the best because the number of deaths recorded here was marginally lower than what might have been normally expected during a similar period. It attributes this performance to a combination of our geographic isolation, border closures, and lockdowns, alongside clear, consistent leadership, at least in the early stages of the response.
However, it also points out that the “severe lockdown” came at a cost.
It noted that the high cost of border closures on the tourism sector which accounts for “about 19% of the country’s export revenues, far higher than the 7.9% or so in France and Italy and 9.5% in the US.” Keeping the economy afloat in such circumstances “meant that government debt increased faster than in almost any other developed economy, rising 43% in local-currency terms compared to a 15% jump in the UK and 5.4% in Japan.”
According to Bloomberg, the pandemic has “left harmful after-effects.”
Between March 2021 and October 2022, it reported that there was a sharp rise in emigration with emigrants outnumbering immigrants by 215,571, equivalent to about 7.5% of the country’s labour force. That has contributed to rising inflation and the cost-of-living crisis New Zealand households are now experiencing.
Bloomberg’s overall conclusion about New Zealand goes to the heart of Hipkins’ current dilemma about how to deal with the ongoing consequences of the pandemic.
It says, “New Zealand made its isolation from the world the cornerstone of its success against Covid. It may end up its Achilles’ heel as well.”
However, there are signs New Zealanders are embracing a more normal way of life again and quickly re-engaging with the rest of the world once more.
Travel companies report significant increases in the number of people travelling abroad over the last year. On the domestic front, the success of the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup shows that New Zealand is once more open to the world, and ready to welcome tourists.
These indications confirm that most people have moved on from the pandemic and are now far more preoccupied with current circumstances and how they cope with those, than recalling the dark days that caused them.
But this feeling may not last. It was the same at the end of World War II, the last great international disruption before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Initial public euphoria gave way over the following few years to public impatience at the slow rate of progress toward economic and social recovery. By 1950, incumbent governments in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand had been voted out as a result.
Hipkins knows that the pandemic and Labour’s handling of it is no longer the election winner it was in 2020. Rather than invoking it at every opportunity as was the case then, Labour today barely mentions it. Getting rid of the last Covid-19 restrictions this week was therefore about consigning the pandemic to the past, so Labour can focus unencumbered on the future as the election nears, without the reminders of the dark years.
But whether all those whose lives and businesses were disrupted or ruined by MIQ, the lockdowns, and border closures regard this week’s decision as just an anticlimax as the Prime Minister does, remains to be seen.
Their answer may come on election day.
Peter Dunne is a former Minister of the Crown. He lives in Wellington and writes a weekly column.