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Covid-19: The Great Interregnum

As New Zealand faces a double-headed crisis in a time of unparalleled uncertainty, we must take heart in each other.

Whether we are alone or with others, New Zealanders are now making sacrifices and living in conditions that would have been unimaginable even a month ago. It is a sign of strength and good leadership by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Government that the public accepted these extraordinary new arrangements and the imposition of something akin to a planned economy with scarcely a demurral. New Zealanders are putting their faith in the Government not only because we have no choice but also because, for now, we are persuaded that its approach is the right one and that our welfare is the Government’s primary concern. By daily making himself available to the media, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield is providing a vital sense of assurance that information is not being hidden from the public.

Much has to be taken on faith because even before the country moved to this unprecedented situation, this Great Interregnum, no one from the most learned virologist to the most opportunistic politician or pessimistic economist had all the information they would like. The closure of schools and the shuttering of businesses pose a fresh set of unanswered – and possibly unanswerable – economic questions on top of those about the Covid-19 virus itself. Crucially, no one knows how many New Zealanders will contract the virus or what percentage will die. Fatality rates around the world vary from country to country, possibly reflecting the management of the virus in each nation. Ardern talked of drastic action being required to save “tens of thousands” of lives, implying a bleak scenario for New Zealand.

This is a double-headed crisis. Alongside the health projections, the public would like to know whether the Government has an equally grim range of economic scenarios. With such rapid and devastating hits on private businesses, government debt levels and hundreds of thousands of jobs, recovery will take many years. Even though our understanding of economics is more sophisticated than during the Great Depression, it is not inconceivable that the 2020s will become as synonymous with joblessness and despair in the 21st century as the 1930s were in the 20th century.

The Government is pouring money into the economy to preserve jobs so that wholesale layoffs are avoided. Finance Minister Grant Robertson has made plain his intention to write cheques until his hand aches, aiming to maintain confidence as well as provide practical support. It is the right approach. Yet it cannot continue indefinitely. It can merely soften the impact of the crash.

New Zealanders are grateful to all who are working in essential services, from those stacking shelves in supermarkets to those saving lives in intensive-care wards. We thank them. Ardern and Robertson have their focus where it should be, but as civil rights are being curbed in a way never before seen in peacetime, perhaps all the political leaders could be seen together, even if by video conference. That would illustrate Parliamentary unity – if only for the duration of the emergency measures – and demonstrate that Labour is not maximising the publicity value of the crisis in an election year.

It makes intuitive sense that isolation will prevent the spread of the virus and it behoves everyone to limit their contact with other people. And, importantly, to shop as though other people’s families matter, too. So long as the Government protects supply chains – allowing the production and transport of food and essentials – then hoarders can expect community opprobrium.

Even if New Zealand contains Covid-19, allowing us to relax our defences only to be hit with a second wave of infections, or even a third, a committed community response is required. Whether a vaccine is found or whether the disease finds a natural peak then wanes, four weeks of isolation is the short-term focus. The longer-term timeframe is unknown. We must take this one step at a time. It will take as long as it takes.

It is a human trait, as old as mankind, to blame someone or something in a crisis and to look for scapegoats. Neither path is necessary or useful. For now, all New Zealanders should put their energy and patience into being part of the solution by looking after themselves and looking out for their neighbours. We must distinguish between isolation and loneliness. The first might save lives; the second take them. Our society has not been tested like this since World War II. Together, we prevailed then and together, we will prevail again. Take heart in each other.

This editorial was first published in the April 4, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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