I grasped the magnitude of this pandemic a few weeks before everybody else. I didn’t foresee the great toilet paper panic, but I did stockpile pasta and canned food. My wife and colleagues rolled eyes at me and said I was paranoid, but I only had to wait a couple of weeks to enjoy my “I told you so” privileges. What can I say? I’m a news junkie and I have a bit of a science background: I was ahead of the curve on this one.
Being ahead of the curve on the danger of covid meant that I spent most of February being terrified. Remember the debate about whether a travel ban against China would or would not be racist? I already saw the necessity of a total quarantine. It amazed and frightened me that nobody could draw the obvious conclusion from obvious facts. There’s a deadly disease spreading uncontrollably, there’s no cure! We need a travel ban or we’re all going to get the virus! Why can’t anybody see?!?
Shortly afterwards, of course, the Ardern government saw and acted. Indeed, the Ardern government has overall handled the pandemic very effectively. The real danger now is complacency. We need a strict quarantine, and we need to vigorously prosecute anybody who does a runner. Pleas for “compassionate leave” deserve no sympathy; the desire to attend a funeral does not grant the right to gamble with the lives of others. My wife is immunocompromised. Quarantine breakers display willful indifference to her life, and to the lives of hundreds of thousands of others. I suppose quarantine breakers are not consciously trying to infect others, so perhaps “attempted murder” wouldn’t be an appropriate charge. But if quarantine breaking lead to an outbreak, and the outbreak led to death, it would seem to satisfy the definition of culpable homicide. The failure to observe quarantine would be the failure to “observe any legal duty,” at least if I as a non-lawyer read section 160, paragraph 2(b) the Crimes Act correctly.
The need to avoid complacency, in my view, should have consequences for the election. The pandemic is key issue of our time. We must maintain the quarantine! If the government makes a mistake, lots of people can die. Others will suffer: even people who survive a “moderate” case make it sound very unpleasant. I don’t want to spend two weeks with a breathing tube stuffed down my throat, and then have to count myself lucky for not dying. I also don’t want to go back into lockdown, I found the lockdown hard. Yet it seems that hardly any politicians have drawn the obvious conclusion from obvious facts.
It’s important to remember just how few governments have risen to the challenge of this pandemic. The contrast between New Zealand and the United States is so dramatic that any New Zealander may be tempted to dismiss American folly as a mark of American dysfunction. But New Zealand hasn’t just done better than Trump’s America, New Zealand has beaten other well-governed countries. Denmark usually ties with New Zealand on global rankings for good government, and Denmark has had over 600 deaths. Denmark, perhaps, shares a land border with Germany and is harder to isolate, but Ireland is also an island, and has a population similar to New Zealand. Ireland has had over 1,700 deaths. New Zealand, by contrast, has had 22 deaths. Anybody who examines the global infection statistics can see that New Zealand has done extraordinarily well. Perhaps not well as Taiwan – it seems that Taiwan is world champion – but the New Zealand government has strong case for the silver medal. We don’t measure covid deaths in the tens of thousands, or thousands, or even hundreds. We only have 22. Our success is wonderful, yes, but it is also very, very unusual.
The Ardern government, and specifically the Labour party, deserves most of the credit for this extraordinarily unusual success. It’s a mistake to get smug about our “national character”: New Zealanders collectively are no wiser than politicians in other countries. Winston Peters, after all, said he wanted to open the border with Australia. The National Party has not been quite so reckless with New Zealand lives, and they say they want to maintain the quarantine. In June, though, the National Party pushed for the travel bubble. Had they been in power, they might have introduced one.
Thousands of New Zealanders are alive because the Ardern government acted quickly and effectively. Our continued safety relies on continued effective quarantine management. With so much at stake, it’s time to be a one-issue voter. If thousands of New Zealanders had died from government mismanagement, would not that government be punished at the ballot box? The Arden government must be rewarded.
Alexander Maxwell teaches history at Victoria University