Well thought out summary from Steven Joyce analysis the govt choices from a politicians view and questioning a covid report led by someone focused on health:
It’s amazing how quickly the collective consciousness can move on.
This time last year Auckland had just come out of a Covid lockdown lasting several months. We had tentatively brought down the border between Auckland and the rest of the country, and Northland iwi were requiring border checkpoints to head up north.
At the end of 2021 each death of someone who tested positive for Covid was rare enough that its reporting warranted major breaking news status. There was a death in North Shore hospital on Christmas Eve and three more across the country in the whole of January. Our first community case of Omicron was on December 29, fittingly enough a British DJ. We were measuring total cases in the tens.
This all came flooding back to me this week when I heard the radio news report of the latest weekly Covid statistics. They came part-way down the bulletin in what seemed like a desperate attempt to find news that wasn’t about the ridiculously appalling weather the North Island has been experiencing.
Nearly 22,000 cases were reported in the first full week of January this year, and 53 people died. Yet despite the much higher toll. there were no sermons from the pulpit of truth, no handwringing from leading politicians, no Covid restriction changes, just a thirty-second summary and on to the latest from the storm front.
It’s striking, to say the least.
This is not to make a judgement on the merits of the two approaches. It is as possible to say that last year’s approach was ridiculously panicked as it is to say this year’s approach is too blasé. And all deaths are sad. It’s just hard to reconcile two diametrically opposed attitudes to risk in the same country just twelve months apart.
China’s abrupt turnaround in its policy for managing the virus is a more extreme example of the same phenomenon. Just weeks ago we were all judging the futility of the middle kingdom doggedly pursuing zero-Covid long after the rest of the world had given it up (in our case surely a convenient amnesia as twelve months ago we had been doing the same thing).
Then, suddenly, a few ragged student protests later, and voila, China has pulled a 180-degree handbrake turn and is describing Omicron as not much worse than a cold, despite mounting hospitalisations and deaths.
There are limits to the China comparison. There is no doubt they dallied in their rollout of vaccines while indulging in a superiority complex when comparing their approach with that of the rest of the world. They also forcefully broke up families and placed people in quarantine against their will, while we….never mind. Suffice it to say they were even tougher than us, and their scepticism of western vaccines will cause greater hardship.
It must be discombobulating for those, here and in China, or even say Victoria or Western Australia, who fully accepted their government’s then-line that there was no cost too high in the pursuit of zero Covid, to experiencing the current position of those same governments. I know the likes of Michael Baker finds it very confusing.
To the rest of us, it proves one thing. The management of Covid-19, particularly once vaccines were available, was as much a political decision as anything else. Politicians were fond of declaring they were just following the science, but they weren’t especially.
The science didn’t change that much. What changed was the political calculus. Once it was clear that scaring the bejesus out of people and locking them down was no longer politically profitable, politicians quickly moved on to playing down the virus and normalising it.
All this underlines that there wasn’t only one way of doing things. We had choices, particularly once vaccines became available in early 2021. And particularly in this country the second half of 2021 could have been very different if alternative but equally valid political choices had been made to those that were.
All this is relevant now because our Royal Commission into the Covid response starts work at the end of this month. Our Government deserves credit for, however belatedly, setting it up. It deserves less credit for placing the Reserve Bank’s actions off limits (how does the Governor live such a charmed life?) or for placing an epidemiologist in charge.
In my view there should definitely be one on the panel, and Tony Blakely seems to fit the bill well given his lack of direct involvement in the New Zealand response. However a more neutral arbiter between the health decisions and the other costs should have been chosen to lead it. The careful and thoughtful commissioner (and former Treasury Secretary) John Whitehead could have been ideal.
This Commission has a very important job to do. It needs to look at the costs and benefits of all the decisions made from a neutral perspective, and determine where better trade-offs could be made. It will be harder for an epidemiologist, however even-handed they try to be, to do that.
There are those of course who think we should forget about going over the entrails of the Covid response. They think it is pointless to look in the rearview mirror. Except that it isn’t the rearview mirror.
We are still living with the impact of the decisions made during the pandemic and the huge financial cost of those will be with us for years to come. The billions lost through quantitative easing could have bought a bunch of new hospitals or paid for a fair few water pipes.
The decision, unique to New Zealand, to shut down massive transport projects during lockdowns has now likely cost billions of dollars and years in delays, as reported just prior to Christmas. The massive fiscal burden has only been reduced by an inflation-driven rise in the tax take, which adds to the cost of living squeeze on kiwi families.
And then there is the human toll. There seems little doubt that some of the anti-social behaviour we are seeing and our falling education performance are a result of people being told that what society previously signalled was important didn’t turn out to be so important during that long 2021 lockdown – like going to school.
In bestowing a knighthood on the Director-General of Health so quickly, the government appears to have already passed judgement on its own performance. The rest of us should be more thoughtful. As our changing attitude to Covid risk in the last year shows, it is possible to make different choices with fewer long-term costs in calmer, more rational times.
This, surely, is a lesson we should take from the last two years.
We are still living with the impact of the decisions made during the pandemic.