Whatever happens now with Covid-19, it is going to be blamed for all manner of ills. There is no doubting whatsoever that it is producing, and will continue to produce, levels of unemployment and poverty that we thought we had seen the last of in the Great Depression, and there is no light yet at the end of the economic tunnel that suggests we might emerge from the disaster that is unfolding any time soon.
The signs weren't flash even before we had ever heard of Covid, however. There were less than subtle hints that things weren't going quite as swimmingly as we were being told they were, such as rapidly increasing demand for food parcels and welfare assistance for families who were struggling to survive.
We knew that few if any of the current government's promises in health, housing and transport were being delivered, despite 2019 being the Year of Delivery, yet the Prime Minister continues to be internationally lauded, for her empathy, her urging of her people to be kind. Fact is, kindness isn't cutting it.
Jacinda Ardern, hailed last week by readers of a British magazine as the world's second-best thinker (behind India's Minister of Health, who apparently saw Covid-19 coming before anyone else did), has had two opportunities to display her undoubted ability to empathise that she, and we, would never have wished for, in the Christchurch mosque massacres and the virus that is wreaking havoc around the globe. For many, those events have obscured her inability to make life better in this country by attending to the less spectacular issues that affect us all, like poverty, a lack of housing, a health system that was audibly creaking even before the tsunami of Covid-19 cases that has, so far, yet to arrive.
Now we are supposedly focusing on how we are going to get out of the once unimaginable debt that coming generations are going to have to cover. That needs serious consideration. A poll last week asked who we trusted to lead us out of Covid-19, Ardern beating National leader Judith Collins by more than three to one, but next month we will have the chance to decide who can lead us out of the economic calamity that is about to swamp us. Whoever we choose, it will be an important decision.
But we should not be totally consumed by Covid-19. While we hang out for the Prime Minister's 1pm 'briefings,' life goes on in all sorts of other areas, and last week's news on that front wasn't good.
A country that once believed, with good reason, that it was the best place on the planet to raise children, is now almost at the bottom of the OECD heap. We now rank 35th of the 41 OECD and European Union countries surveyed in terms of child wellbeing, and just to be sure we understood what that meant, UNICEF told us we are failing our children.
We should not have been surprised. Our only hope really was that other societies had deteriorated faster than us. Obviously they haven't. According to the UN Children's Fund, our youth suicide rates are the second-highest in the developed world, and only 64 per cent of 15-year-olds have basic reading and maths skills. The term 'basic' ' isn't defined, but it's unlikely to be far above what could otherwise be termed illiterate.
Too many children and young people, we were told, are overweight or obese, while in terms of mental wellbeing our children now rank 38th out of 41, and in terms of physical health they're 33rd.
There were some more positive results. In terms of social, education and health policies that support child wellbeing we are 20th, thanks to things like parental leave, the percentage of households living in poverty, immunisation rates and the number of young people not in education, employment or training. We are 5th in the 'society measure,' which takes into account the percentage of people who have someone they can count on in times of trouble and the homicide rate.
And when it comes to the environment, and things like air pollution and water quality, we are #1. Yay. One suspects that we have our small population and climate to thank for that, although pastoral farming is coming under massive pressure to make it even better.
UNICEF NZ executive director Vivien Maidaborn said our social rankings were driven by inequality, which she thinks has become normalised. "Somehow it's alright that some families can't afford homes and are living in motels and emergency housing. Somehow its alright that many of our lower socio-economic families can't access high-quality early childhood education. And then we wonder why we finish up with a statistic like only 64.5 per cent of 15 year olds have got proficiency in reading and maths," she said.
There are some things, of course, that governments cannot cure by legislation. No government can force parents to ensure that their children benefit from what might no longer be one of the best education systems in the world, but is still OK for those who wish to avail themselves of it, or to ensure that their children receive free medical attention and free medicines in a timely fashion.
No government can force parents to put their children's needs ahead of their own, or force them to engage with their children's education sufficiently to ensure that any learning difficulties are remedied quickly and effectively.
The Prime Minister dismissed this awful report, saying it used data from 2013. Believe that if you will. Certainly her government didn't start the rot but it's done bugger all to slow, let along stop it. Maidaborn said successive governments had taken "each issue" separately, when inequality was founded on household incomes. Fair enough. But to address that we need to abandon the theory that the solution to lifting household incomes, although what they have to do with children being denied their free education and health care defies explanation, lies in ever more welfare.
Household incomes really do need to be addressed, but they will only be lifted when we increase productivity. Raising a well-educated, healthy generation of children will go a long way towards achieving that. If there is another way, it would be nice to hear what it is.
For the moment, of course, Covid-19 trumps everything else. But we must look past the immediate crisis, and prepare to deal with a raft of fundamental social issues that have been bubbling away for years.
It isn't entirely clear how the Prime Minister expects us to be kind, or what outcome mass displays of kindness are expected to have, but clearly we need to do a great deal more than we are doing, with kindness or without it.
We need to grow up in this country. We need to accept that the world doesn't owe us anything, and that if we want the good things in life we are going to have to work for them. If we want First World health and education systems, we need to find a way to pay for them. And we need to take advantage of them.
Talk about a 'lack of access' being an insurmountable barrier for some has to stop. Fact is, there are people all over this world who would die, literally, for the opportunities we have, and which so many of us spurn. We have it within each and every one of us to restore this country's long gone reputation as a fantastic place in which to raise children. All we need is the desire to do that.