THE LONGER this government lasts, the more its supporters ask: “Why haven’t they … ?” On just about every front, Labour and Green voters, see solutions just begging to be adopted by their government of “kindness”. In matters relating to child poverty, homelessness, mental health, climate change and, of course, Covid-19, the answers are right in front of their noses. Why can’t Jacinda and her ministers see them? How are we to explain this government’s baffling refusal to solve New Zealand’s problems?
For example: Why haven’t they used the twelve months since the outbreak of the global pandemic to …
Recruit a nationwide “Covid Army”?
It was obvious very soon after the Pandemic was declared that the country was going to need a massive and highly co-ordinated response to keep Covid-19 at bay, and that the Ministry of Health (which was never intended to take on an operational role of this size and complexity) was probably not the best institution to provide it.
From the very start, the whole effort should have been presented as the moral equivalent of war. Calling for volunteers to serve on the “front lines” of the “fight against Covid-19” would have attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of New Zealanders. Just as happened in the days of Compulsory Military Training, the jobs of all those who stepped forward to serve “for the duration” of the crisis could have been preserved by law. Just as happened in World War II, volunteers would be feted as heroes.
The whole quasi-military organisation could have gradually taken over the handling of the pandemic response from the Ministry of Health. Its leadership co-opted from DHBs, Medical Schools, the Armed Forces, the Business Community, Universities and Trade Unions, the “Covid Army” would have featured an “MIQ Division”, a “Track-n-Trace Division”, a “Testing Division”, a “Communications Division” and, ultimately, a “Vaccination Division”. It would have operated as a single, national, publicly-owned and operated entity, with a unified chain-of-command answering directly to the responsible minister.
Had such an entity been created, it is most unlikely that the second and third lockdowns would have been necessary. More importantly, were such a Covid Army in existence right now we would be in the midst of one of the biggest public education campaigns ever mounted in New Zealand.
With the largest vaccination exercise ever attempted in this country looming, radio and television, the newspapers and social media should be driving home the need for all citizens to be inoculated. Co-opting the most creative “creatives” our advertising industry has to offer, this public education exercise should be as relentless as it is imaginative; as hard-hitting as it is surgically targeted. That no such campaign is yet in evidence, with the major roll-out of the vaccine just over three months away, speaks volumes.
Why is it proving so difficult to get any of these things done? Why are private security guards not being tested every fortnight as required? Why has MBIE failed to get the state-owned security firm, promised months ago, up and running? Everywhere we look we find potentially disastrous failures. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, New Zealand has benefited hugely from a large measure of plain, old-fashioned good luck. It would, however, be the height of folly to base our continuing Covid response on the assumption that our luck will hold.
A politically paranoid person would long ago have concluded that the failure of the government to establish an altogether more coherent and streamlined approach to fighting the Coronavirus is deliberate. Such a person would point to the deeply ingrained resistance throughout both the public and private sectors towards anything smacking of “heavy-handed regulation” – let alone “compulsion”. They would argue that the advice so far tended to the government has almost certainly eschewed anything remotely resembling establishing publicly owned and managed organisations fully equipped with the legal and moral authority to get things done. After three decades of neoliberal indoctrination, most of the government’s advisers would likely consider such a Covid “cure” considerably worse than the complaint.
Perhaps the best piece of luck we have had in the whole Covid crisis, is the speed with which Jacinda, her Cabinet, and the legally designated bureaucrat responsible for combatting epidemics, the Director General of Health, were forced to act. There simply wasn’t time for ideologues to throw their spanners in the government’s works. Almost instinctively, New Zealanders like Siouxsie Wiles and Michael Baker grabbed whatever weapons were at hand and began returning fire against the virus. Jacinda Ardern, in particular, proved to have superb instincts. Her communication skills, combined with those of her accidental hero, Ashley Bloomfield, somehow tricked a bureaucracy framed to resist collectivism into acting decisively in defence of “the team of five million”.
Looking back at our extraordinary delivery from the horrors that still plague Italy, the USA, England, Brazil and India, it is easy to adopt a smug and self-congratulatory attitude towards the stunning success of New Zealand’s elimination strategy. But, it could all have ended so differently – and it still could.
Because people aren’t dying, it is tempting to confer retrospective competence upon a bureaucracy which, in the months since the decisive battle against Covid in March and April of 2020, has demonstrated almost unbelievable ineptitude. The government’s response to these repeated failures has been insufficiently forceful to prevent their recurrence. What’s more, in the absence of bold measures to reconfigure and reinvigorate them, our public institutions’ disturbing propensity to fuck things up may finally overwhelm Godzone’s good luck.
Why haven’t they solved this (and so many other) problems? Because Jacinda and her colleagues have yet to fully appreciate that they can.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 16 April 2021.