“YOU NEED TO GIVE PEOPLE what they want. Not what you want to give them. Or they’ll get it from someone else.” The whole trick of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic effectively has been to convince a solid majority of the population that they actually want what the experts reckon they should have.
Jacinda Ardern has done this better than any other leader on earth. Her “Team of Five Million” rhetoric galvanising New Zealanders like no other people on earth. She made us believe we were all in this together, and her Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, reassured us that she – and we – were right. New Zealanders had no need to get what they wanted from someone else – they already had it.
This week, however, the formula fell apart. This week Jacinda Ardern and her Cabinet had to choose between what the experts reckoned New Zealanders should have, and what New Zealanders – or, at least, the third of them living in Auckland – actually wanted. Crucially, they had ceased to be the same.
Most of the epidemiologists and “modellers” upon whom New Zealanders have come to rely for reassurance that Jacinda and her Team of Five Million are doing all the right things, would have preferred Auckland to remain in Level 4 Lockdown for at least another week. Politically, however, that had ceased to be a viable proposition. What Aucklanders had been led to expect, and what they really, really wanted, was a move down to Level 3. So, that is what they got.
The epidemiologists and modellers described the Prime Minister’s decision (politely) as a “calculated risk”. Others, with less civility, called it a “gamble”. These doubters looked around the world and noted how little success anybody has had, anywhere, at “stamping out” the Delta Variant of Covid-19. Their intuition told them that the extraordinary success of this country’s “Elimination Strategy” – which, far from turning New Zealand into a “Hermit Kingdom”, had transformed it into a passable imitation of Shangri La – had finally met its match in Delta. The nature of the game is changing.
The Prime Minister is now being called upon to pivot away from her highly successful Elimination Strategy, and convince New Zealanders that what they want now, more than anything, is for 90 percent-plus of the population over the age of 12 to be fully vaccinated by Christmas. With upwards of 90 percent of teenage and adult New Zealanders “double-jabbed”, say the rules of this new Covid game, New Zealand will be well-positioned to “live with” the Coronavirus. Managed properly, life in a fully-vaccinated New Zealand could return – almost – to normal.
Which would be fine, if every New Zealander could be relied upon to bring a rational and reasonable frame of mind to the idea of near-universal vaccination being the only way to bring their country safely out from under Covid-19. But, that is a very big ask – quite possibly too big. Polling has revealed upwards of a quarter of the population either seriously hesitant about, or downright resistant to, receiving the Pfizer vaccine. In other words, relying upon the good sense of our fellow citizens might not be enough to get us through the Delta challenge.
Okay, that’s disappointing, but nil desperandum! If too many people are either hesitant or resistant, then the next obvious step is to issue Vaccination Passports to all those who have done their civic duty. Flourish one of these and the world will open to you. Fail to present one, and, sorry, but you can’t come in. No Jab, No Job! Or anything else.
No one’s proposing to strap the anti-vaxxers to a table and stick ‘em with a syringe-full of Pfizer. It’s their right to refuse the jab. But, by the same token, its society’s right to exact a price for that refusal.
Except that’s a dreadfully risky course to take. Over the past few days, the centre of Melbourne has witnessed some of the worst political violence in a generation. Police officers have been hospitalised. Rubber bullets have been fired. Hundreds have been arrested. And all because the state government of Victoria is insisting that all construction workers present evidence of vaccination before being allowed onto their building sites.
Stamping out Covid-19 by stomping on the heads of our fellow citizens? Is that really what New Zealand wants?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 September 2021.