Managing Expectations: Community transmission of coronavirus in NZ was inevitable

Written By: - Date published: 6:05 am, October 10th, 2023 - 5 comments
Categories: election 2023, elections, labour, national, political parties, uk politics - Tags: , , , ,

Originally posted on Nick Kelly’s blog

Living in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic was a troubling and sad time. As I wrote at the time, the Government’s response in the UK was entirely inadequate and needlessly cost thousands of lives.

By contrast, the response from the New Zealand government was decisive and saved thousands of lives. In my blog post written after Jacinda Ardern resigned as Prime Minister, I wrote the following:

The New Zealand Government’s initial response to the pandemic in 2020 was another example of strong leadership. In crisis management, it is crucial that you quickly assess the relevant information and then act decisively. The decision to close the border and put in tough restrictions was not an easy thing to do, but it undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. Not least as the health system Labour inherited when they came to power in 2017 had been badly underfunded and under-resourced for a decade. After only 30 months in power, there had not been enough time to turn this around. The restrictions were tough both for people in NZ and for people like me living overseas and unable to return. Much as people may now blame Jacinda and the Labour Government for the tough restrictions, they might also want to consider the impact of National’s mismanagement of the health system for nearly a decade. This mismanagement of the health system left it vulnerable to collapse during the pandemic.

http://nickkelly.blog/2023/01/23/jacinda-adern-how-will-her-five-years-in-power-be-remembered/

There is little doubt that had The NZ National Party been in power during this crisis, many lives would have been lost. Their underfunding of the health system when in office both from 2008 to 2017 and earlier from 1990 to 1999 demonstrates they are not to be trusted with the public health system. Ever!

Further, the National Party’s inconsistent and often incoherent position during 2020 regarding the pandemic response suggests that had they been in power, things would have been similar to Britain.

Labour under Jacinda Ardern had a clear policy, which at the time was understood and supported by most people in New Zealand. Close the borders. Strict lockdowns until there was no community transmission. And doing this would protect a public health system which was still in a parlous after a decade of Tory mismanagement and underfunding.

Given this, and the fact that Labour’s victory in 2020 was largely due to the Government’s pandemic response, it is strange that this is also one of the main reasons why support for the Government has declined.

As I pointed out in my previous post on Housing, Labour’s challenge is that they set an expectation that they have not and could not live up to.

It has been argued that the population now want to move on from the collective trauma of coronavirus and is now rejecting Labour as it is so associated with that time. This may be part of it, but there is much more to it.

Zero COVID was never possible. Whilst it was correct to stop the spread of the virus it was inevitable that once a vaccine was available there would be community transmission. This was not clearly explained or understood in New Zealand. This was made worse by the fact that New Zealand’s response to the pandemic was being held up as the model of how to respond. Pre-vaccine it was. Post-vaccine, not so much.

While the rest of the world could open up, Auckland faced a 107-day lockdown at the end of 2021, after only a handful of cases. Again, at the time most people accepted and supported this response, but opposition to it also grew during this time. Weeks later, the government was forced to start lifting restrictions and people were told community transmission was a fact of life. It is hardly surprising that the Government started seriously losing support.

There is historical context for why New Zealand as a South Pacific Nation, wanted to be cautious during the pandemic. In 1918 during the influenza pandemic, Samoa which was administered by New Zealand at the time, was devastated by this virus. On 7 November 1918, the New Zealand passenger and cargo ship Talune arrived at Apia from Auckland. People on board this ship had influenza and passengers were allowed to disembark without quarantining. The result was an estimated influenza death rate in Samoa of 8500 or 22% of the population. According to a 1947 United Nations report, it was ‘one of the most disastrous epidemics recorded anywhere in the world during the present century, so far as the proportion of deaths to the population is concerned’. Given this, New Zealand’s cautious approach was both understandable and justified.

Jacinda and Labour needed to be clearer about restrictions at the border. Specifically when and how they would eventually be lifted. Back in July 2020, former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark warned that extended delays in opening New Zealand’s border would cause huge damage to the country’s economy and social well-being. NZ citizens living overseas and returning to the country were required to do 14 days of managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) until early 2022, at the visitor’s expense if they were not returning permanently. For non-NZ passport holders, restrictions were not lifted until July 2022.

When headlines hit of DJs and entertainers being given exemptions to enter the country, while thousands struggled to get places in MIQ facilities, including in cases where people were trying to visit dying relatives, the public mood started to shift. After long lockdowns and being unable to visit family and friends living overseas, seeing headlines about DJs getting preferential treatment at the border turned the public mood sour.

The ‘Team of Five Million’ rhetoric used by Jacinda Ardern and others in Government was a powerful tool. It connected with Kiwi nationalism and motivated people to stop the spread of the virus. There were two very negative downsides to it though:

The coronavirus was not a New Zealand phenomenon, it was global. It needed ‘The Team of Five billion’ (the world’s current population) to defeat the virus, not just five million people in a South Pacific nation. And a great many around the world did sacrifice a great deal. For example, in the UK while the government response was inadequate, many local communities really stepped up to support people isolating and later to promote vaccinations. The Team of Five Million narrative that Kiwis made huge sacrifices, without acknowledging the efforts of many others throughout the world paints an inaccurate and distorted picture.

Whilst the NZ coronavirus response at the start was great, it also had the advantage that the population was five million, not 67 million like the UK. Or Germany where the population is 83 million and they share land borders with nine other countries. It is simply wrong to say that if other countries had the same restrictions of lockdown they too could have ended community transmission. The UK could have certainly reduced the spread and saved lives. But with greater population density there would have always been some community transmission.

The other not-so-great by-product of closing the borders and using nationalism as a tool to defeat the pandemic was that it pandered to anti-immigration sentiment. There was a small but significant group who frankly would have been happy to keep the borders shut permanently to stop immigration. This also saw some unpleasant comments towards Kiwis living overseas who were struggling with MIQ. Online comments on the media website Stuff often saw Kiwis living overseas being told “You made a choice to leave” or worse that they were traitors or unpatriotic for choosing to live overseas. Given that, in March 2020 Kiwis living overseas were told to shelter in place rather than try to return home, this attitude was particularly galling.

While the government is not responsible for the attitudes of small-minded individuals, when you start using the forces of nationalism to promote your cause then expect the negative by-products.

The four-week-long occupation of Parliament in Wellington in February 2022 was a turning point in both NZ’s response to the pandemic and the popularity of the Government. The occupation and protest opposed the vaccine mandates and coronavirus restrictions. Most people in NZ supported both measures and opposed the protest, who were motivated by Trumpian alt-right movements such as the 6th of January protests in Washington.

The Wellington protests were remarkable in that they were allowed to last as long as they did. Central Wellington was severely disrupted, and attempts to move protesters on were met with threats of violence. After nearly two years of intense government COVID restrictions, it frustrated people to see the state not act to remove these protesters. Certainly were similar events to happen outside Westminster, protesters would be moved on in hours, not days or weeks later. People have a right to protest, and we should always be wary of the state using heavy-handed tactics against people exercising these rights. But where there is a threat to public health and wellbeing, action needs to be taken.

Eventually, the protesters were moved on. However, the delay resulted in the Government’s authority being undermined. This coupled with Kiwi’s facing up to the reality that there would be community transmission of coronavirus made 2022 a difficult year for Labour. Undoubtedly this contributed to the fall in support for the Government and in early 2023 Jacinda Ardern’s decision to resign as Prime Minister.

The response to COVID-19 by the NZ Government, and Jacinda Ardern’s clear and decisive leadership and communication style was positive. In the short term, it saved lives. Had the government been clearer from the outset that post-vaccine community transmission of coronavirus was inevitable, the backlash may not have been so harsh. Had they managed expectations better prior to the 2020 election, they may not have won 50% of the vote in that year’s election, but they might still be polling consistently about 35% in 2023.

Hope is indeed a powerful and dangerous tool in politics. In a parliamentary democracy, it motivates people to vote and support your cause. But if you cannot deliver, the backlash is brutal. The sad thing about the NZ COVID response is that overall it did deliver in that it protected the public health system and saved lives. But expectations about stopping all community transmission were set too high, and walking back from that politically has been challenging for Labour.

5 comments on “Managing Expectations: Community transmission of coronavirus in NZ was inevitable ”

  1. Tricledrown 1

    Brian Tamaki and Winston Peter's used the protest for their Narcissistic jollies. Jacinda Adern was burnt out and not sharp enough to bat away all the mysoginist lead vitriol.Had she had the energy Labour would still be well up in the polls.

  2. Adrian 2

    I’m pretty sure I can remember Jacinda saying that as soon as a vaccine was available and as many people as possible were treated then normality would resume and then we would then need to learn to live with the virus. There was never an expectation that we would be able to keep it out after that time.

    Even today over 1000 deaths a year have Covid as a contributing factor, I would like to know, because I’m nosy bugger, how many deaths currently have Covid as the only factor without co-morbidities.

  3. SPC 3

    If they had to do it over …

    they would not have opened the border with Oz … and instead waited for the vaccination to complete first (and avoided the Auckland lock down).

    … and if not, allowed people back into Auckland homes during the lock down (using the hotels to reduce the queue for those coming back into the rest of the country).

    PS No one knew omicron variant would emerge before it did (the vaccine was somewhat effective – vaccinated nations up north were able to open in 2021 and cope).

  4. Mike the Lefty 4

    Hindsight is a wonderful gift, is it not?

    Jacinda had to make a lot of decisions that could potentially cost either billions of dollars or hundreds ot thousands of lives with little actual facts, mostly just theory.

    She chose the former.

    We know which way the NACTS would have gone.

    Money is more important than life to these people, as long as it is someone else's life.

    There are a lot people here who wouldn't still be here now if the rabid right had been in power. And now they think that National actually cares about them??

    Yeah right.

  5. Lanthanide 5

    Hindsight is 20/20.

    It needed ‘The Team of Five billion’ (the world’s current population)

    The world's population reached 5 billion on 11 July 1987. It reached 8 billion on November 15, 2022.

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