This week has been quite a hectic one. After two weeks of softening us all up with talk of “when, not if” and “buy face masks”, the government announced on Tuesday night that there was again community transmission of the Wuflu and that the wider Auckland region would be going into lockdown. The announcement was made about 9.30pm and the lockdown was to start at midday the next day.
Of course, that wasn’t a lot of time to get ready for lockdown and many people had already gone to bed or weren’t listening to the Dear Leader’s briefing. Not to worry, the government sent out Civil Defence texts to every phone in the country that night and then early the next morning. These texts come with a lovely klaxon sound and were so effective that many people woke up thinking that a tsunami was on the way or that Rangitoto Island was erupting and got halfway to the front door before realising that it was only about COVID.
Wednesday morning was thus a mad panic – everyone rushed into work to get their computers, files, potplants and half eaten packets of Tim Tams from their offices. Schools were closed and hordes of children ran free in packs of up to 200. Lines of cars were seen for miles heading north and south of the city as those with alternative accommodation fled before the cordon sanitaire was established. (Apparently the population of the Coromandel Peninsula, a popular holiday destination about two hours to the East, has exploded since Wednesday.)
And here we are. The whole country is at level 2 (social distancing etc) and Auckland is at level 3 (no school, work from home, stay local etc) for at least a fortnight. And all of this because the while country has 50-odd cases of Wuflu and one person with it in hospital. The government has painted itself into a corner: it announced that we were eliminating the disease and not merely containing it. This means that any one case is a failure and that the disease must be kept out always through the most overreaching and heavyhanded means available. At the same time it has married a lofty goal (no COVID cases) with staggering incompetence: the border facility workers were not consistently tested and indeed two-thirds of the thousands of border workers who are the only possible source of COVID coming into the country were never tested!
Furthermore what is never mentioned is the end-game. How long must we be the Hermit Kingdom of the South Pacific with our own Dear Leader which we must all applaud and heaven-help the first one to stop clapping? Until a vaccine is ready? How long will that take? How long until New Zealand can have the vaccine? How many people will actually use it? There may be answers to all of this, but I have not heard the government articulate them.
And in the meantime the country racks up debt – production and supply and tax take is down, the wage subsidy paid by the government is continuing. We will be paying for it through inflation and/or taxes for a long while yet – indeed my two year old sitting across from me now eating her cereal and drinking her liquorice tea will be paying for it when I am long gone. (Luckily, she is oblivious to this and is currently more concerned that the Peter Rabbit on the side of her cup does not look like the one on the TV show: the imposter!)
Additionally, more businesses will go to the wall thanks to the lockdowns. I’m not sure that many in government know or care about this – after all it asked businesses to shut up shop in a morning! Just one aspect of this to consider: the food waste! All the food ordered by restaurants and cafes on the expectation that they would be trading, and then having to be thrown out because of a lockdown.
And to all those saying it’s just money, it’s not just money. Less money and a weaker economy means less to spend on our health system which deals with all health concerns, including, but not limited to, COVID. And then there are the other health implications: the treatment delayed, the elective surgeries not undertaken while the hospitals brace for a tsunami of cases that won’t come, the diagnostic tests not carried out. I can’t imagine the stress that will cause to families who are in the middle of treatment. My five year old son’s last MRI (hopefully ever) was taken the day before the last lockdown. Thank Heaven that it was clear and that he was not required to take further chemotherapy treatment. But for those poor families who are in the middle of treatment, the lockdown must be so stressful and uncertain.
Not to mention the mental health aspects. The stress about livelihoods. The stress about close family living for weeks on end. The stress of trying to work from home while also looking after little children: “Yes, we understand your family situation and the difficulties of working from home and we completely understand but we still need the work done by yesterday.” There were a couple of high profile suicides of business owners here during the last lockdown but I am not sure we will know the true mental health impacts of largescale lockdown for a long time. (For a truly horrifying picture from the USA of youth mental health during a time of pandemic, see Shannon’s piece.)
In short, everything in society seems to have been subsumed by the wave of concern about one disease. Every other consideration has been ignored. Now, I am not suggesting that we ignore COVID, but the purpose of good government is to try and balance incommensurate public goods. This is of course a difficult job. But at the moment our government seems to be cutting the Gordian knot by ignoring everything other than COVID. (I always thought that Alexander was such a cheat…)
Oh well, at least spring is upon us, the weather is cold and beautiful and the tuis are playing in the cherry blossom trees.