A VIEW FROM BELOW BY DAVE ARMSTRONG
The pandemic has brought out the best and the worst of New Zealand. Dave Armstrong takes a direct look at the extreme reactions he’s seen to the public sector response to COVID-19.
As I write this, the number of COVID-19 cases in the country is increasing to record levels. Thousands are breaking rules and marching against vaccination mandates during Auckland’s seemingly endless lockdown. Apparently, we are living in a North Korea-style dictatorship. References to Nazi Germany, with the unvaccinated as the innocent victims, are common. In Auckland, a vaccination clinic was vandalised, and a pro-vaccination city councillor needed security protection after threats from anti-vaxxers.
Meanwhile, some business leaders and politicians talk of a “woeful” government response to the vaccine roll-out, or “stroll-out” as some have called it. Some prominent leaders think we should never have been in lockdown in the first place. Commentators talk of our “botched” COVID-19 response and look admiringly at other countries that seem to have done things so much better – and are now enjoying the sorts of freedoms that we enjoyed before the current delta outbreak.
Public servants or government stooges?
And it’s not just our government politicians who are coming in for a drubbing. Those public servants administering the vaccine roll-out, organising MIQ, modelling the numbers, and explaining the science are being widely criticised. Try to explain the government’s strategy in scientific terms and you could be accused of being a political stooge.
Scientists with years of experience in their field tell of being shouted down at meetings, of receiving online abuse and, in some cases, even death threats for daring to explain scientific information simply and clearly. How on earth can a country that was internationally lauded for its 2020 COVID-19 response attract so much flak? Have the wheels truly fallen off the bus, or are we a nation of moaners and complainers?
Learning to fly while flying
In the very early days of the 2017 government, I talked to a public servant working in a minister’s office. How were things going? “Good,” he explained, “though we are learning to fly the plane while we’re flying it.” The speed bumps in those days were caused by a new, inexperienced administration, surprised to be in power.
In comparison, dealing with the new delta strain of COVID-19 is like learning to fly a different plane each day and fly it at a great speed. The science and technology changes daily, so it can be difficult to keep up. A new product becomes available, and suddenly politicians and the media want to know why it isn’t being used immediately.
“Are we there yet?”
Stuff journalist Jehan Casinder believes those leading the COVID-19 response deserve scrutiny, but not endless criticism. “We’re like 5 million children squeezed into the backseat of a station wagon, chanting: ‘Are we there yet?’”
As Casinder points out, during the delta outbreak, the narrative has shifted. Some who lauded the government during the first outbreak have become critics, and it’s not just the government they are blaming but the public service in general.
So, what went wrong? Or did anything go wrong? Yes, there have been mistakes, something likely to happen when you’re driving a new plane every day, but are things really all bad?
Kim Jacinda Un?
Are we now a North-Korea-style dictatorship, as former Prime Minister John Key recently commented, or a Nazi-style regime, as many others have claimed? Not according to Dominion Post editor Anna Fifield, who visited North Korea 12 times and has written a book about its leader. “Kim Jong Un (recently) had his defence minister killed with an anti-aircraft gun ... in front of a crowd of officials, after the minister fell asleep during a meeting ...,” wrote Fifield.
“People go, ‘It’s like Nazi Germany, these lockdowns,’” said English comedian Bill Bailey. “Yes, that’s what the Nazis are know for, isn’t it? Mild inconvenience.”
Elephant in the room
Yes, the COVID-19 response has not been perfect. Vaccinations began slowly, and Māori commentators have rightly pointed out the slow rate of Māori vaccination, much of it because their population skews much younger than Pākehā, so many Māori have had more obstacles to being vaccinated. Despite this, our vaccination rates are now very close to Australia’s, are only just behind the UK’s, and are ahead of the US’s.
For the critics, the elephant in the room is the New Zealand COVID-19 death rate. It is outstandingly good. At the end of October, New Zealand had only 28 deaths. That compares with nearly 750,000 in the US and over 140,000 in the UK. Even the countries that get mentioned favourably by media here for successfully “living with COVID-19”, such as Denmark (2,713) and Ireland (5,436), have an astronomical number of COVID-19 deaths compared with New Zealand.
Earlier in the year, some local academics lauded the efforts of Sweden and their non-lockdown approach to dealing with COVID-19. Yet this Scandinavian nation, with roughly double our population, had seen over 15,000 deaths by the end of October. The epidemiologist in charge, as well as the country’s prime minister and king, have admitted grave mistakes. Yet those in New Zealand supporting Sweden’s approach haven’t been held to account and have certainly not received the kind of flak that our public servants and experts fronting the COVID-19 response have seen.
This time last year, Ashley Bloomfield was being deified by parts of the media, winning awards and being sent flowers. Bloomfield is a reluctant celebrity and took any adulation good-naturedly, but he has certainly not tried to take advantage of his new-found status.
Yet recently, Newstalk ZB host Kate Hawesby, in a largely fact-free opinion column, described Bloomfield as a “recidivist underperformer”. Hawkesby reckons that “in the private sector, he’d be toast”. This in a country where private companies – Fonterra springs to mind – have often made massive payouts to executives who many believe have underperformed. Hawkesby draws on the old “private good, public bad” credo that dates from before 1984. I suspect it was never true, and today, very few in either sector seem to believe it.
State Service Commissioner Peter Hughes made the rare move of responding to media criticism and stated that Bloomfield is a “dedicated public servant who works hard every day to make a difference for New Zealanders”.
But it has not only been the “Fox News-style” commentator, as one commentator described Hawkesby, criticising public servants. Stuff columnist Ben Thomas believes that public service neutrality has been eroding for many years. He was unimpressed with the way a top-ranking public servant at the Ministry of Health recently praised its new mental health strategy and was similarly, and curiously, unimpressed by the way the prime minister announced that she had “accepted the director-general’s advice” to move Auckland from alert level 4 to 3. I would hardly call that advice political or non-neutral.
Drowning out science
But if high-level health bureaucrats have copped some flak, the scientific experts involved in the COVID-19 response have fared far worse.
Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at Otago University Medical School, has been openly critical of some government COVID-19 strategies, yet at other times supportive. A big supporter of the elimination strategy and of vaccines, he was recently drowned out by a small group of anti-vaxxers when he was speaking about vaccination at a community meeting in Kāpiti.
The work of mathematical modeller Professor Shaun Hendy, of the highly regarded Te Pūnaha Matatini at Auckland University, was crucial to the government’s highly successful March 2020 lockdown. However, he has also disagreed with some government decisions, sometimes calling for stricter controls. Yet even a mathematician can attract flak in today’s polarised environment. In a tweet that was meant to be a private message, senior New Zealand Herald journalist Fran O’Sullivan complained that “the inexplicable refusal [of the government] to apply math to decision-making and rely on bogus modellers like Hendy is extraordinary”.
O’Sullivan later apologised for the tweet, but one wonders how many business journalists and other media commentators think they know more about mathematics than expert modellers and more about epidemics than epidemiologists.
“Lock up the experts!”
Another journalist urged the government to look beyond the “epidemiological echo chamber” while seasoned journalist Bill Ralston suggested it was time to “lock up the epidemiologists, microbiologists, and Covid modellers who continually sound like prophets of doom”.
Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles is a gifted communicator and 2020 New Zealander of the Year who has been crucial in explaining the science of COVID-19 and vaccinations. When she was covertly filmed sitting on a beach when Auckland was in Level 4, opposition leader Judith Collins branded her a “big fat hypocrite”, even though Wiles was not breaking any lockdown rules and had cycled to the beach – entirely allowable under the rules. Wiles is one of many female experts who have been targeted with online abuse, simply for discussing the science of COVID-19.
Moaners and complainers
The politics of COVID-19 can be difficult. As numbers climb, we feel frustrated at the government and furious at rule breakers, especially if we are suffering under lockdown. But if scientists and public servants are simply trying to explain facts in a logical manner, we should pay them the courtesy of listening. To dismiss them as having a secret agenda or a pro-government bias or calling for them to be locked up, even if we are only joking, puts us in the same category as the real “moaners and complainers” – the anti-science anti-vaxxers, the online abusers, and the extreme fringe political groups to which many of them belong.
Published in the Public Sector Journal. Vol 44 December 2021