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Dunne Speaks: Lockdowns, Here We Go Again

The return to lockdowns is devastating news, on a variety of fronts.

From the health perspective there must now be the deep worry that despite all the steps taken during the earlier lockdowns and the border restrictions and quarantines, there is community transmission of the Covid19 virus in New Zealand after all. Just a few days ago we were celebrating the achievement of 100 days without any community transmission here and basking a little in the envy of the world for our achievements. How quickly our national mood has shifted from that to anxiety about how widespread and established the virus may have become here, and whether it can be effectively contained. The strategy which has served us so well to date of suppressing the virus until such time as a vaccine becomes readily available now faces fresh challenges and questions.

Yet our resilience remains such that we know we are up to whatever lies ahead, and that we will face up to it, with determination and commitment, albeit with perhaps not the same naïve enthusiasm we saw at the start of the earlier lockdowns. The hardest thing to take may be that, despite the steady, but soft, warnings from the government and the health authorities that a fresh outbreak in the community at some stage could not be ruled out and was indeed inevitable, we had succumbed to a level of community complacency that Covid19 was a problem for other countries but no longer New Zealand. Now, after 64 days of comparative normality and no real restrictions, other than at the border, we face the brutal shock of maybe having to start all over again.

Families, having just seen things return to a familiar model, now face the prospect of having to keep children home from school or pre-school once more. Students anticipating either senior school or university exams later in the year face new uncertainty about their course prospects for the balance of the year. Businesses that just hung on through the earlier lockdowns now contemplate losing customers and clients and working out how to make do all over again. There will be a number for whom the struggle will too great this time, especially if the new lockdowns are prolonged, meaning the numbers of closed shops and offices already looking obvious on the high streets of towns and cities up and down the country will continue to grow.

Complicating matters is that the wage subsidy scheme which has helped many businesses to survive so far expires at the start of September. The recovery funding announced in the Budget is already mostly committed, with only some of the special Covid19 contingency fund still available for allocation. While the state of the balance sheet allows the government some scope for further borrowing to fund the recovery, that capacity is not unlimited, and the government may find it a little more difficult to respond as generously as it has previously.

The final quarter of 2020 was already shaping up as a challenge for the economy as the full impact of the slowdown brought on by the earlier lockdowns hit home, and businesses find they can no longer afford to keep staff once the wage subsidies end. A return of Covid19 in the community just makes that future picture all that much bleaker.

Our present predicament is perhaps best summed up by words uttered by President Kennedy around the time of the Cuban missile crisis: “We sometimes chafe at the burden of our obligations, the complexity of our decisions, the agony of our choices. But there is no comfort or security for us in evasion, no solution in abdication, no relief in irresponsibility … for it is the fate of this generation to live with the struggle we did not start, in a world we did not make. But the pressures of life are not always distributed by choice.”

Frustrated or angry as we might feel that we have not yet tamed Covid19 after all, we have no credible option but to continue the struggle. That is the burden of our current obligation which we cannot ignore.

But it is no excuse for unquestioning compliance. While we should have the confidence to assume our leaders know what they are doing, and are acting in our best interests, we should not flinch from asking questions to which we should expect proper answers. Of course, we should be seeking reassurance while holding those responsible to proper account for their commitments and actions. That, after all, is the essence of the implicit compact between leaders in a democratic society and the general populace.

Above all this looms the scheduled 2020 election. The political parties will, on an equal footing, need to determine collectively whether that should proceed as scheduled, or be deferred for a few months. Postponing elections in a free society is a massive step that should only be contemplated in the most extreme of cases, and only then with political support across the spectrum, not just the whim of the government of the day. Such a momentous decision should be founded on what is best for the country, not what suits any particular party’s political convenience. In the meantime, it behoves all political parties not to seek to make any form of political capital out of the country’s new plight, but to work together fully and constructively to address the challenge.

2020 has so far been a year of shattered dreams and previously unimagined harsh new realities for many New Zealanders. We do not yet know whether the current outbreak of Covid19 is but an inconvenient short-term blip, that will soon pass, or something far more serious and substantial. All we know is we must address it – thoroughly, calmly and rationally, without letting either petty points-scoring or excessive emotionalism get in the way.

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