Economically, socially, politically and most importantly in terms of public health, the stakes now couldn't be higher.
The Prime Minister was wrong two weeks ago when she said New Zealand was moving harder and earlier than any other country against Covid-19. But she was certainly right to move in line with public opinion. Whatever epidemiologists have to say, Jacinda Ardern understands that a national leader can act only within the bounds of public tolerance if she wants to maintain compliance with whatever draconian measures may be needed over the longer term.
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The good news is signs the lockdown is working. New cases are growing arithmetically not exponentially. Most continue to be related to people arriving from overseas travel or traceable back to someone else who has. By and large, the virus has not spread to more vulnerable populations, such as the old, sick and poor. In New Zealand, Covid-19 remains more a disease of the younger middle class. Consequently, New Zealand's hospitalisation, intensive care and death rates remain remarkably low.
While nothing will ever be the same again and border restrictions will remain for at least a year, the chances are increasing of the idyllic scenario. That is, the virus will be largely stamped out in New Zealand in two more weeks, people will progressively return to work and school, and we'll all live safely behind our 1000-mile moat until fast universal testing, a vaccine or a reliable treatment becomes available. Our tourism and export-education industries will still be devastated with compulsory quarantine for arrivals, but most of the rest of the economy will start to revive. We'll be urged to take holidays at New Zealand's most famous tourist sites, with the promise they'll be as uncrowded as before mass commercial aviation.
It is uncouth to mention politics right now, but Labour strategists also know that the September 19 election could then go ahead, which Ardern would win in a landslide; a Fraseresque figure who saved New Zealand from its greatest peril since World War II. She may even find herself free of NZ First and, with a bit of luck, also the Greens.
But all this depends on what happens over the next two weeks, or even the next few days.
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The last two weeks have been relatively easy for the authorities in securing public compliance. Despite the estimated 40 per cent drop in output, for most people the lockdown has been something of a novelty. Many ended the first fortnight relieved they don't seem to have caught Covid-19 during those last panicky days before March 18.
What worries both earnest public health officials and cynical political strategists is that the temptation is growing for everyone to relax. If I'm not sick, and you're not sick, why shouldn't I come round for a beer?
Thus, the Prime Minister's tone is changing. New Zealanders have been thanked for preventing perhaps 3000 more people from becoming sick and greater empathy is being expressed for those losing or worried about losing their businesses or jobs.
But we are also hearing a bit less from the Prime Minister about being kind and a bit more about arrests. Ardern publicly slammed supermarket sneezer Raymond Coombs as an idiot. Unofficially, given the independence of the constabulary, Ardern's expectation is that police now show less of the friendly face promised at the outset and more of the powers officers have to maintain social control. Similarly, the Christchurch District Court's decision to deny Coombs bail and lock him up on remand was not unwelcome to those leading the anti-Covid-19 campaign.
The motivation for the crackdown is two-fold. First, for those likely to break lockdown rules, Ardern and the authorities know everything depends on them being deterred or stopped. But, secondly, Ardern wants to send a message to those who are following orders that their sacrifices are appreciated and defectors are not.
Ardern is not unaware of the economic damage her lockdown has caused, however necessarily. She knows that any material extension will be economically catastrophic and, in turn, threaten her own re-election. She is now making clear she wants it to end as soon as possible. While she will extend it if the number of daily new cases does not quickly tend towards zero, her objective is that it not last beyond the four weeks originally signalled, and certainly not a minute longer than necessary. We should know more by the end of the week.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland based public relations consultant and lobbyist.