This week I had reason to use the saying about canaries in coal mines. For those who aren't aware of the saying, or who haven't spent time finding out about the fascinating coal mining industry, here's a teaser. Back in the olden days, before new-fangled electronic devices that can tell miners when the atmosphere around them is becoming dangerous, canaries were a common feature of mines.
The canaries were there to give miners a heads-up that the air was getting dangerous - when the canaries started falling out of their perches, miners knew that they had to skedaddle lest they also succumb to the fumes. While this was unfortunate for the canaries, and something (were canaries still used in this way) that PETA would no doubt be busy chaining themselves to mine entrances about, it was a good way to keep the miners safe.
Independent journalist Bernard Hickey took on the canary role this week. Hickey is an independent journalist with history across many different mastheads. Hickey's current outlet is The Kaka, a one-man attempt to reinvent journalism in an age where the public gets their information in new and sometimes sub-optimal ways.
Anyway, Hickey wrote about the messaging coming from the Beehive around the elimination strategy. Unusually for someone who normally leans on the left side of the political spectrum, and who strikes me as putting people before profits, Hickey likened New Zealand to a cage. His thesis was that, while possibly taken for the right reasons, the current elimination strategy is forcing New Zealand down a path that will see us locked off from the world for years.
His article is a litany of misfortune, bad decisions and poor planning - lowering vaccine effectiveness, a poorly resourced health system, pitiful availability of MIQ spaces, vaccine hesitancy and the like. The final kicker that leads to this cage, as Hickey see it, is that there is broad public support for an elimination strategy and hence a lack of pressure on politicians to force a turnaround.
Hickey goes on to suggest that we (where we = the citizens of Aotearoa) are standing bewildered, peering out the bars of a fortress that was built with our complicity albeit with limited understanding.
And there's the rub. Cast your mind back to March 2020. How many of us watched the pandemic-based movie Contagion and truly thought that we were facing a situation of biblical implications? Who remembers the first days of the level four lockdown when we were all genuinely petrified of going out in public lest we should catch a sickness that no one really knew the end result of? Who remembers watching in horror as Italy suffered under its huge first wave of Covid impacts? And who remembers whispers about the planning that was occurring for disposal of bodies and mass group graves?
The decisions that were made at the time were made for the right reasons. And our geographic isolation, coupled with those decisions, have led us on to further decisions. That is the nature of crisis response - you look at the risks, the current situation, the various parameters and make the best decision for the time.
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And what so many political commentators seem to ignore is that there is no single answer. Those that make decisions are balancing so many factors - human safety, the capacity of our health system to cope, the economic impact of lockdowns and continued isolation, the mental health factors as peoples' nerves become ever more frayed. Given those various factors, no decision is perfect, and there is no one correct path.
Of course, Hickey wasn't just having a moan, and deep in the analysis he wrote was a fairly simple suggestion that the public of New Zealand are owed a bit more openness than they get. His argument, it appears, be that if we're really going to remain isolated for the next two years, that we should know that. But the problem even giving people that much information is that those making the decisions, simply don't know.
Covid is a complex beast, and delta has shown that assumptions from only a few months ago around vaccination and response have now been thrown out of the window. No politician wants to go out on a limb suggesting anything is a given, only to have to reverse course as situations change.
Canaries work really well for static situations that don't flex and change rapidly - things like noxious gasses in coal mines. I fear that in his well-meaning analysis, Hickey's attempt to be a canary was misplaced.
- Ben Kepes is a Christchurch-based entrepreneur and investor.