In many ways, our battle with Covid mirrors the situation after the conclusion of World War II. The nature of the devastation is different, but the profound impact on our thinking and outlook is similar. A period of conflict and privation – which a pandemic is, a global war of another kind – prompts us to revisit and question all our pre-conceived ideas about how we live, what we want, and how we are governed.
At the end of World War II, people everywhere began to reject the status quo and usher in new orthodoxies and priorities. This led to the rise of anti-colonial movements; 1947 saw the Partition and independence of India and Pakistan. Politically, erstwhile allies became enemies, and vice versa. European monarchies fell and wartime leaders were ousted; Churchill departed in favour of a Labour administration focusing on universal healthcare and education. After the broken promises of creating a "land fit for heroes" following World War I, this time the returning soldiers took it upon themselves to "finish the job".
We are in a similar consequential period of change and self-reflection now. Covid has devastated many countries, with The Economist estimating the true death toll to be between 9.9 million and 18.5 million; economies have been disrupted or even destroyed, and vaccine distribution hampered by misinformation and fear-mongering campaigns waged on Big Tech platforms. As in wartime, we have seen hard-fought-for liberties sacrificed, freedom of movement lost, police powers increased, and home imprisonment justified – all in the cause of keeping everyone 'safe'.
My concern is not that such drastic measures had to be taken. Often sacrifices of this ilk are necessary in wartime, and governments make trade-offs constantly – but usually, after conflict, the natural reaction is to declaim that no death or sacrifice is too high a cost for freedom (hence the concept of "peace at any price" after WWI or better "Red than Dead" after WWII).
What is worrying is that the argument for the continuance of these measures – the likes of which we had never before seen in New Zealand – is now sketchy at best, yet many people appear to believe that loss of freedom is a price worth paying for safety. The question is, Do we really mean any price? Is one death too many? Ten? One thousand? We know the exact numbers of people lost at Gallipoli or on the Somme who were prepared, however misguidedly, to pay a high price for freedom. What is our agreed price in the 2020s?
Moreover, while we remain compliant with the Covid status quo and the absolute avoidance of risk in the name of safety, we are apparently prepared to tolerate things which do not pass the same safety test and relentless focus on the preservation of life. For example, there were 320 road deaths in 2020, many of them linked to speeding, driver impairment and not wearing seatbelts.
Cancer kills 9,000 New Zealanders annually – but lockdowns to save lives from Covid have simultaneously denied thousands of Kiwis cancer screenings, surgeries and other life-saving treatment. Why do we mandate Covid vaccinations but not measles inoculation, when the latter has the capacity to be just as great a killer in an unvaccinated population, is arguably more infectious, and outbreaks have persisted in recent years?
Then there is the climate. We have entered a new world where the only thing that is relevant is keeping people safe from Covid – but it is the climate emergency that poses the greatest threat to humanity. Why are we not holding ourselves and our governments to the same standard on climate? We've willingly spent billions fighting Covid but remain stingy in our effort against global temperature rise.
"You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone" is a truism, but we have to face the fact that, thanks to Covid, governments all over the world, including our own, have got a taste for the power to dictate for the "greater good". The problem is that having made it this far through the crisis, with developed populations now as vaccinated as they are going to get, many leaders are retaining these powers in the name of unspecified future contingencies.
We have to take a long hard look at ourselves and decide what is important. Yes, there is always risk, there has to be; but if we don't hold ourselves, each other and our leaders to account, we will end up living in a world that is a broken place. After World War II, we saw the choices citizens made to rebuild a broken world. We saw people exercising personal responsibility and demanding the future they wanted, and rejecting propaganda and misinformation.
In the wake of this global crisis, we cannot tolerate governments telling us things that are blatantly untrue, or pandering to tech companies which help them do that. We must start critically evaluating what we see, what we are told and what we do – or we will end up with the politicians, and the world, we deserve.
• Andrew Barnes is a businessman and philanthropist. He is the founder of Perpetual Guardian.