Sunday 19 April 2020

"PANDEMIC - The Movie" Has Only Just Begun.

Big Screen Excitement: If New Zealand’s experience of Covid-19 was a movie we’d only have been watching for about 20 minutes. The main characters of “Pandemic – The Movie” have been introduced and have risen splendidly to meet the script’s first big challenges. We’re all rooting for Jacinda and Ashley – willing them to succeed. But, even as our identification with the heroes grows stronger, a little voice is reminding us that “Pandemic” still has 100 minutes left to run.

SO FAR, SO BLOODY FANTASTIC! All around the world people are watching the press conferences of New Zealand’s prime minister and comparing them to whatever you call those performances featuring the President of the United States. Imagine how decent, intelligent Americans must feel as they compare and contrast the style and the substance of these two very different political leaders. The experience must surely be as harrowing for them as it is affirming for us.

The cynics will object, of course, that it’s easy to be “nice” when everything is going well. Which is true. But, here’s the thing: New Zealanders’ experience of the Covid-19 Pandemic has been so much less fraught than the Americans’ because our system and our leadership rose to meet this extraordinary challenge and theirs did not. Our politicians and civil servants, acting together, and supported by the overwhelming majority of the people, made the right choices at the right time and for the right reasons – which is why everything is going so well. Better than many of us dared to hope.

If this was a movie, however, we’d only have been watching for about 20 minutes. The main characters of “Pandemic – The Movie” have been introduced and the best of them have risen splendidly to meet the script’s first big challenges. We’re all rooting for them – willing them to succeed. But, even as our identification with the heroes grows stronger, a little voice is reminding us that “Pandemic” still has 100 minutes left to run.

Because even if New Zealand succeeds in eliminating the Covid-19 virus – and that is still a long way off – our Prime Minister and her colleagues must meet the much larger and more daunting challenge of the virus’s economic consequences. The Treasury’s most optimistic scenario predicts an unemployment rate of around 10 percent as the New Zealand economy struggles to lift itself off its knees. Some economists are expecting as many as a third of this country’s business enterprises to fail. It is difficult to fully appreciate what this means in simple human terms: the collapse of so many hopes and dreams; the rising level of anxiety and despair; the dangerous casting about for someone or something to blame.

If the first 20 minutes of “Pandemic” have been inspiring, the next 60 are likely to be bloody terrifying.

How so? Because wrestling with an economic crisis is a very different proposition from managing a public health crisis. When it comes to the economy there is (as yet) no equivalent character to the steadfast and reassuring Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Economists like to think of their profession as a science, but it isn’t. “Political-Economy”, as people used to call economics, is a much more honest descriptor. It captures the central role which politics plays in how a society organises the means of production, distribution and exchange.

As Lenin rightly recognised, the whole complex business of how any particular society functions is reducible to just two one-word questions: Who? Whom? Or, as Leonard Cohen, rather less tersely, puts it in his song “Democracy”, economics is all about “the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.”

People may be willing to let the scientific experts like Ashley Bloomfield, Michael Baker, Siouxsie Wiles, and Shaun Hendy guide them through a medical emergency, but a willingness to be guided by the often conflicting advice of bankers, industrialists, trade unionists and academics, is much less likely. Convincing New Zealanders to “unite against the economic depression” will be several orders of magnitude more difficult that convincing them to unite against Covid-19. Unity against a potentially deadly coronavirus is much more easily achieved than uniting the rich and the poor in a common struggle to rebuild a collapsing economy. That will be a much more daunting task.

Daunting – but not impossible. Already emerging from the present crisis is a broad intellectual consensus that the answers to the questions Who? Whom? which the Powers-That-Be have for the past 35 years deemed acceptable will no longer suffice. The Covid-19 Pandemic has brought home to all people of good will the indispensable nature of the state. Not even the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 was sufficient to topple the ideological hegemony of neoliberal economics, but this latest global catastrophe has brought it crashing down.

And this time, the neoliberal economists and financiers know it. Their efforts at self-defence have, however, been spectacularly self-defeating. The reason for this lack of success is simple. At its core, neoliberalism is a sociopathic ideology, and sociopathology is, by definition, incapable of recognising its own core deficiencies: grandiosity, narcissism, amorality and a complete lack of empathy.

The neoliberal “solutions” to the present crisis reflect these deficiencies. Their protagonists simply cannot comprehend why ordinary decent people recoil in horror from their campaign to “save the economy” by allowing the old, the sick and the weak to die in their tens-of-thousands. People may not know much about economics, but they are still perfectly capable of distinguishing right from wrong. The howling moral vacuum at the heart of Neoliberalism has finally been exposed by – of all people – the neoliberals themselves.

Though finished strategically, the tactical response of Neoliberalism in extremis is certain to enliven the middle section of “Pandemic”. But, if Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson, and whoever emerges as the humane economist equivalent of Dr Ashely Bloomfield, can maintain the tone and poise displayed in the battle against the virus, then the battle against the economic crisis may unfold in an equally satisfactory fashion.

Then again, the Government may not need an economic expert character. In his address to business leaders of 15 April, the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, may have taken the burden of leading and explaining New Zealand’s economic recovery on to his own shoulders. These words in particular suggest that, in Robertson, the hour has met the man:

“The importance of the role of the state has been underlined by this crisis. I hold a strong personal belief in the power of the state to do good. It is through a well-funded, highly functional public service, that we have had the ability to coordinate and provide leadership for New Zealanders, guiding both the public health response and the economic response to this crisis.

“I believe it is of the utmost importance that the state continues to play an active part in the economic recovery, providing leadership and direction as we move forward through the challenging times ahead.

“Finally, I know that what we have asked New Zealanders to do in this crisis is huge. As we have all had to make sacrifices in doing our bit to stop the spread of the virus, so too will we all have a part to play in our economic recovery.”

It’s hard to imagine a better answer to the questions: Who? Whom? Especially since Robertson’s answer to both questions is the same:


It would certainly guarantee “Pandemic” a happy ending.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 17 April 2020.


David George said...

There will be, and are, plenty of our people heavily exposed; those in tourism and in our smaller businesses in particular. Job prospects minimal and life savings destroyed post lockdown.

For others no threat to livelihoods, no real change, couldn't care less and it's all about me. Nothing typifies this sort of selfishness than the teacher's "we're not babysitters" outburst on being asked to open some classes so parents can get to work.

What will it take to get some sort of unity to our common cause?

Nick J said...

At the heart of neoliberalism is the belief that every person is an island, responsible for their own welfare, but to be taxed and exploited. This has permeated our public service, the people we pay to look after us when we need it.

I'm in UK, family reasons. My return flight cancelled, nobody flying I enquired of MFAT whether they might do as the Germans did and fly nationals home. Long shot but who knows, they did it for NZers stranded in India.

I'm OK to stay but I suspect many trapped here are in dire straights, no income, tickets gone, new ones too expensive, insurance invalidated by corona clauses.

So imagine you have paid your taxes, never quibble about welfare for others, nor the huge public sector salaries and you get this.

New Zealanders facing financial hardship overseas should seek assistance from family or friends or contact their bank in the first instance. You could also check with your insurance provider to see if they can help.

I read it as fekk you Jack. That is our neoliberal state saying to us you don't matter, in fact we don't care. Jacinda economic challenge will be to get the peoples confidence that the state does care. The current ethos and mechanisms are so tainted by neoliberalism that the best thing she can do is repeal Douglas's State Sector Act and start again.

JanM said...

Excellent post Chris

Kat said...

Debate is essential and I am sure we will have a lot of it in the coming months but in the end it must come down to trust. That is why this election is as much a tipping point for the future of New Zealand as the pandemic itself. Do we trust Jacinda Ardern and a Labour led govt to carry on and succeed in "uniting the rich and the poor in a common struggle to rebuild a collapsing economy" or do we ditch her for Simon Bridges lot.

Something to think about during Level 3, but ten seconds should be enough.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Call me cynical – and you probably will – but I think that after this crisis is over we will go back to the same old same old. Partly because human beings aren't particularly good at thinking long-term, and partly because the neoliberal pill has been well and truly swallowed by just about every politician in the land. I would however really, really like to be wrong. I live in hope, and hopefully a little bit longer than some millennials would seem to like.

Anonymous said...

isn't one outcome of this film plot that Jacinda and Grant will be martyred?

Brewerstroupe said...

A study out of Stanford University tested California residents and found that the Covid-19 infection rate is likely far higher than has been reported, but the virus could also be less deadly than commonly believed.

World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has previously mentioned 3.4 percent. This would translate into over 300 deaths per every 10,000 infected persons. Stanford’s study would lower the mortality rate to .14 percent or less, meaning 14 deaths or less per 10,000 people infected.

The study concludes that Covid-19’s mortality rate among infected people would be on par with, or even less, than the seasonal flu.

John Hurley said...

"The boys" will be wanting to kick start immigration

John Hurley said...

Labour and National (and Green and Dunne and Rubber Winston) got us into this mess. Migrants work in tourism (buses everywhere - up your leg, in your ear, up your nose) and now plugged in and with a claim to our country and it's welfare system. Residency for Chinese tour guides is rubber stamped. NZr's who worked in Japan were given work visas but on the understanding that they would leave when they weren't needed. The Japan government looks after Japanese, New Zealand PM's are missionary nationalists, seeking fame on the world stage.

greywarbler said...

Guerilla Surgeon
Cut your way through all those zombie millenials - fight on and live! We need your type of intelligent pragmatism with a topping of idealism.

greywarbler said...

Nick J at 8.29
Exactly - the barest minimum is being offered. 'Ware - quote from bible coming up - the good part!

Luke 11:11
“If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent?”

(Include daughters and mothers here - that was then, this is now, when women are expected to be as responsible as men.)

Guerilla Surgeon said...

New York State 933 deaths per million population
UK 237 deaths per million population
Sweden 152 deaths per million population
USA 122 deaths per million population
Canada 42 deaths per million population
NZ 2 deaths per million population

Hopefully this means were on the right track.

Patricia said...

The greatest economic anxiety for people will be how will they pay their rent or their mortgages. I understand that during the Great Depression 2nd mortgages were wiped. Now is the time for a debt jubilee when all debt is wiped by say 50% and all interest payments wiped for say three years. A sovereign country,which is what New Zealand is, issues it own currency. The Government could issue a UBI to everybody of working age so that their reduced rent could be paid. Remember the landlords mortgage debt is halved. There will be a lot of job losses but there is such a lot that could be done to alleviate the hardship of all people.

Trev1 said...

You cannot compare the situation of New Zealand, population 5 million, with the United States, population 330 million. We have an essentially unitary state (not counting Hone's militia in the North), they have a federal system. Trump actually moved quicker than our government by shutting down travel from China and Europe, to howls of "racism". We failed to move in a timely manner to properly control our borders with medical testing and quarantine. That delay has cost us dearly requiring the draconian imposition of a state of emergency and a total lockdown. If we had been smart we could have followed Taiwan's successful strategy or even Australia's. The crisis has also exposed the degraded state of the public service. Yes, Ashley has done a good job against the odds. But the Ministry of Health has no idea where PPE stocks are and the DHBs have been a tower of Babel. MBIE issues absurd and contradictory edicts to businesses. The Reserve Bank is seriously out to lunch maintaining the OCR. So I don't share your confidence. We are facing a catastrophe that could have been largely avoided.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Greywarbler (responding to Guerilla Surgeon)


Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Trump actually moved quicker than our government by shutting down travel from China and Europe, to howls of "racism""

Actually, if you compare the timelines of government reactions in New Zealand and the US we don't come out of it too badly.

Korea's response was not so much isolation as testing and tracing – they have a public service which hasn't been gutted by successive neoliberal governments, so they could do this instantly. Didn't hurt that they'd had the SARS epidemic to practice on.
Most other countries didn't have a show of doing this to the extent that Korea could. Including us – well probably especially us given our underfunded health service.
They also brought in mass surveillance. I can just imagine the howls from the opposition parties we had done this.

The public in Korea trust the government to help a lot more than many Western democracies. But they also hold them responsible. So you don't get people insisting on going to church services, congregating on beaches, or generally disobeying the rules imposed in the emergency. Because even if Trump did react swiftly, which is debatable, he is now encouraging people to get out in protest at the rules. Meet and mingle, shake hands, hug each other, (don't let your AR 15 get in the way) and go to huge churches and forget about social distancing there.

It's too early to see if Australia's strategy is better than ours. Certainly if you look at Sweden – they had a similar strategy to Norway at the beginning, but as soon as they diverged with Sweden avoiding a lockdown, their cases of coronavirus shot up and Norway's didn't.
Flattening the curve essentially means meddling with the timing of when people die. Hopefully to gain time for a vaccine, but also to avoid hospitals being overwhelmed, so that they not only can't treat coronavirus victims, but also the day-to-day illnesses that they would be treating without it.
Finally, even if we do get our economy back together, we still have to wait until our major trading partners come online and start buying stuff. We have no control over that.

John Hurley said...

So Greg Clydesdale was right?


Geoff Fischer said...

Politics as Hollywood is all very well. It may be nail biting entertainment. But it won't easily cope with real world problems and it may be nothing more than escapism. Jacinda may be able to eliminate the virus and save New Zealand capitalism but she may also fail in one object or the other - possibly in both.
She has made some good decisions, some bad ones, and some that seem to walk on the knife edge that separate the prudent from the reckless. As you say, so far so good.
The problem with Hollywood politics (which over the past fifty years has become the standard for modern western liberal democracy) is that it reduces the people to the role of a passive audience - notwithstanding that they get some very limited choice in the matter of who stars in the next blockbuster.
This is unreal politics, with inherent weaknesses on both sides of the silver screen.
I wish Jacinda well because no matter how well positioned we may be we have absolutely no interest in seeing the rest of the country collapse around us.
Still my advice is "Do not sit at home as a passive observer. Join in community and act in the real world. Your future does not depend on what happens in the bunker of the Beehive. It will come out of your own choices and actions"

Nick J said...

Exactly Grey, nice Biblical quote. Now that's the virus recedes I suspect that their will be great need. Mass unemployment and the Biblical quotes will come from Calvanistic types, the parable of the slothful servant, "to those that have will be given, to those that have not even that they do not have will be taken". United to fight the virus we may be, now watch us fracture over who gets to bite on the cake.

Geoff Fischer said...

In reply to Guerilla Surgeon:
Many states are reporting less than 2 deaths per million of population. For example Singapore, Japan and Korea while many others whose statistics may be less reliable report death rates of less than 1 per million of population.
You prove nothing by selecting a set of six nations which are reporting higher death rates than New Zealand and then showing New Zealand at the bottom of a table of seven.
New Zealand turned the corner when Jacinda stopped following Boris and started listening to New Zealand's epidemiologists. That is the reality. Faked or contrived statistics are no help to those of us who want to deal in objective facts.

Anonymous said...

Why no stat for Australia? Same happens to Noz stats in Oz.

Anonymous said...

It is curious (and disappointing) that there is no inclusion of Australian stats. The same lack of courtesy happens when NZ stats are excluded from Oz comparative lists...

Unknown said... is also curious (and disappointing) to see the omission of Australia from the list. The same happens in The Australian in comparative lists...NZ is excluded.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Geoff, there is a perfectly acceptable graph from which I took the figures, which you can add in any country you wish. You may well have seen it.
I wasn't making any particular point except that we seem to be doing better than the USA where the whole thing is chaotic, and Sweden and the UK who have chosen a different tack to us.
I wasn't actually out to prove anything, just to suggest. All the countries I compared are developed Western ones. And therefore roughly equivalent to us. There's no point in me including countries from South America or Africa or much of Asia, because they don't seem to produce statistics. At least not accurate ones.

sumsuch said...

How can we go on with this appropriate govt intervention for climate change? The Clarkites are about the limits of the possible and now it's clear open. We rested to our cost in the early 2000s. Backward steps now will kill our children and grandchildren. Jacinda has been brilliant but what can we do? Or does Jacinda now know? Course?

Well, I think m'self, this is our last chance. This shit is just shots over our head for our benefit.

No other species has had to fight about going over their final cliff, so we're buggered.

Anonymous said...

But will Jacinda and Grant have ministerial colleagues of adequate competence to deliver on the economic vision Grant appears to be supporting? Given the record to date, that is not a given.

Guerilla Surgeon said...
An interesting take on post the Covid world – although they seem a trifle over certain for my taste. But some very interesting points about manufacturing for a start. And more about shifting power blocs. I'm not necessarily convinced but still interesting.