Wannabe Prime Minister Christopher Luxon called us “wet and whiny”. Amid not-infrequent school closures and “precautionary” states of emergency, are we also a bunch of wusses afraid to take risks since Covid-19? Cherie Howie investigates.
It was rather graceful, until it wasn’t.
The young skier flew high into the air before curling his body back over itself like an acrobat under the Big Top.
Except this guy had to plant his feet back on the ground, and he overcooked it. His back subbed in.
“Ugh”, he groaned, as a fellow traveller in the amateur aerial arts reassured onlookers (one about to post footage of the failed flip to social media) that the man was okay, he’d just had the wind knocked out of him.
There’s a trendy catchphrase that, unlike the hapless skier, lands quite nicely here.
“F*** around and find out.”
But there’s another, too, and it goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, who had a few thoughts on human frailty.
“Once bitten, twice shy”, warns the proverb dating to Aesop’s Fables.
Thirty lifetimes on and 18,000 kilometres across the globe, we’ve all spent the last few years like a bunch of bare-skinned tourists by a West Coast waterway at sundown.
Pandemic, floods, terror, earthquakes, cyclones, volcanic eruptions, more floods.
They’ve taken lives and jobs, wrecked homes and infrastructure, beat up businesses and made school closures mundane.
The granddaddy of them all, Covid-19, kept us home for months and forced offshore Kiwis to quarantine in oversubscribed managed facilities if they wanted back in.
In May, however, the light cracked through.
The virus, which has killed seven million, was, World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “no longer a public health emergency”.
A sad history of preventable loss of life
But how much can we really celebrate when the disruption shadowing our century’s third decade is as enduring as a Briscoes sale?
This year, climate-change-charged disasters have smashed northern and eastern North Islanders, following similar devastation in Nelson, Tasman, Buller and Canterbury the previous two years.
In Auckland, where six people have died in weather events this year, the latest emergency was declared pre-emptively, when Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown announced a “precautionary state of local emergency” on May 9, after he asked Civil Defence for a briefing.
“The decision is based on the lessons we learned from the [January 27] Auckland floods,” Brown said, referring to his and others’ failures during an emergency that put vast swathes of the city underwater and took four lives, as officials dithered for hours on declaring a state of emergency and making vital information public.
Emergency services were coping and didn’t require emergency powers, Brown said, but “I consider it is necessary to communicate to the public that this is something to take seriously”.
Waterways burst banks, homes flooded, schools and daycares were evacuated, the wastewater network was overwhelmed and those living near existing landslides were warned of the risk of further slips.
The flooding closed multiple roads, mostly in the north and west, spooked commuters and gridlocked the downtown network amid fears of a January 27 repeat, when thousands were stranded by record downpours.
But was a pre-emptive emergency declaration really necessary? Or was it the right call in a country with a sad history of preventable mass loss of life?
Erebus. Cave Creek. Mangatepopo. Pike River. Carterton. White Island.
And almost - hours before Brown announced the precautionary state of local emergency - Abbey Caves.
Fourteen Whāngārei Boys’ High School students and two teachers narrowly escaped with their lives when water levels rose suddenly in the flash-flood-prone caves.
Northland was under MetService’s orange-level heavy rain warning at the time.
“He felt his strength going and the teacher gave him a push [out]”, a survivor’s mother told Stuff.
Swept from the grasp of others, 15-year-old Karnin Petera wasn’t so fortunate.
His body was found that night.
The group, or the self?
“I prefer to be alive”, said famed director Werner Herzog.
“So I’m cautious about taking risks”.
But life, said deaf-blind author and activist Helen Keller, is “either a daring adventure or nothing”.
“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land.”
Keller, who communicated by finger-spelling into the hand, entered a world of silent darkness in 1882 - aged 19 months - after a fever, from a disease modern medicine has since likely triumphed over.
But even when safety’s within our reach, we’re not always guided by its light.
Our survival instinct is “absolutely human”, but not as objective as we think, says psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald.
We’re not more risk-averse since Covid-19, but we are being challenged by having to continually reassess risk as threats evolve, MacDonald says.
We can slide too far both ways.
“Anxiety can make us more risk-averse than the situation demands, but equally a desire to feel in control, and to deny risk, can make us take more risks,” MacDonald says.
It might be happening in water and on our roads.
There were 94 preventable drownings last year, the highest in a decade, according to Water Safety New Zealand.
And deaths involving drunk drivers reached a 10-year high last year, with 111 killed.
Another example: the deaths of Titan’s five occupants when the submersible’s carbon fibre and titanium hull imploded during the 3800-metre descent to the Titanic shipwreck.
Owner Stockton Rush, killed in the implosion, ignored peers’ repeated warnings about Titan’s construction.
“Unwise,” says MacDonald.
“That’s why it’s really important we act and respond to risk as a community, because on average we’re wiser as a group than on our own.”
Which side are you on?
What, though, if we think the collective’s just plain wrong?
When MetService issued red-level wind and rain warnings in Auckland for Cyclone Gabrielle on February 12, and Auckland Transport told residents to avoid all non-urgent travel, Secretary of Education Iona Holsted advised schools to close for on-site lessons.
Some schoolbags had already been unpacked.
“[My daughter’s] not going to school ... I’m not waiting for authorities to make that call for my child,” one parent told the Herald.
But Auckland Grammar stayed open, its headmaster Tim O’Connor having already bristled at Holsted’s earlier, post-January 27 floods message - at the request of the National Emergency Management Agency - that Super City early learning, schools and tertiary providers close until after Waitangi Day.
The directive, to reduce traffic while vital infrastructure was repaired, was later eased, allowing schools to open if repairs were completed earlier than expected.
O’Connor didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story, but told Newstalk ZB in February classes went ahead until 2pm on February 13 because the weather wasn’t expected to worsen until an hour later.
Since the pandemic, it’d become acceptable to “close schools unilaterally”, he said.
“We’re sending subconscious messages to kids that their education isn’t actually that important anymore.”
Meanwhile, former Auckland mayoral candidate Leo Molloy was rage-tweeting from his Viaduct restaurant in a city emptied after companies encouraged staff to work from home.
“No doubt it’s coming but it sure as hell ain’t here yet and the city should NOT be emasculated/evacuated by false alarms,” Molloy wrote.
“If you’re from the CBD, best you get to work people.”
Worry more, learn less
The pushback’s no surprise to former police negotiator Lance Burdett.
He’s seeing it in work with councils.
“Whenever they introduce new policy, people are saying, ‘No’, because we’re over people telling us what we should and shouldn’t do. Lockdown [made] us feel like we have no control - as humans we fear that,” Burdett said.
“Rather than work our way through events like we used to, now the default is stay home. But we don’t learn that way.”
Modern society’s more brittle, the 65-year-old told Newstalk ZB, after police shut an Ōpōtiki state highway for two hours and schools closed during the tangi of a gang leader killed in a suspected homicide.
It was happening before Covid, especially with increasing anxiety in young people and our interconnected lifestyles, Burdett says.
“Because we have greater access to information, we’re worrying more.”
Facing adversity safely lets us learn.
“We do risk assessments every day. You’re crossing the road, you do a risk assessment. The Discovery host [Josh Gates] who wouldn’t go in the submersible, because it didn’t look right - he’s done his risk assessment.”
Gates, who’s criss-crossed the globe for a decade hosting adventure series Expedition Unknown, might have enough excitement in life.
But while governments increasingly lean into regulation to keep citizens safe, those with cash to spare for adventure have never been more active.
Mountaineer Guy Cotter doesn’t have a submersible, or a spaceship, but he’s summited Everest five times and is a professional guide for his company, Adventure Consultants.
The chance to test ourselves in potentially dangerous situations allows those living in otherwise highly-regulated environments to dream of extraordinary feats, like conquering the world’s tallest peak.
“That’s part of the allure of adventure tourism. There’s something within us that needs to be fulfilled, seeing how we operate in situations that might be deemed hazardous,” Cotter says.
Kiwis have become more risk-averse, and it began long before an infectious disease rampaged across the world, he says.
Cotter says regulations introduced in 2011 requiring commercial adventure tourism operators to be safety-audited and certified, introduced after several tourism industry deaths in the two years prior, have dumbed down our ability to deal with risk.
Employers also face increased obligations under 2015′s Health and Safety at Work Act, after investigations exposed safety failings and inadequate regulation before 29 miners died at Pike River in 2010.
Governments think “everything should be 100 per cent safe”, Cotter says.
“They want to regulate everything. [But] it’s managing risk that’s important, not moving away from risk.”
He fears a society where kids aren’t allowed to bike to school, or play outside.
“A kid needs to be able to fall out of a tree. You don’t want to be catastrophic, but if you wrap everybody up in cotton wool ... it’s just a slippery slope towards uselessness.”
So how to find the equilibrium between safety and a life full of adventure, innovation and promise?
It’s a balancing act women know well, Women in Urbanism chairwoman Emma McInnes says.
Some are more risk-averse than others in a society that can be unsafe, whether on an unlit path or an empty bus.
But most push through in spite of the risk.
“We have to think about a lot of things that maybe men don’t have to think about. But mostly we’ll take the risk. Even if we mightn’t feel 100 per cent safe, we’ll do the thing we were setting out to do,” McInnes says.
Attitudes to risk can be generational, something she noticed when daughter Luna arrived 18 months ago.
Unwell visitors aged under 50 stayed away. Over-50s showed up.
“It’s not them being disrespectful ... that’s how they show their love, by turning up when they feel awful.”
It pre-dates Covid-19, but the generation gap’s also emerged around the word “safe”, says University of Otago professor of psychology Jamin Halberstadt.
More people spoke about “feeling safe” or “safe spaces” in the workplace, with potential implications for employers, Halberstadt says.
“It’s called concept creep ... they talk about a safe workspace. Now it includes whether people are nice to you or not.
“In some ways it’s a progressive step, that we acknowledge people can be psychologically impacted by other people’s words. The trouble is, if it comes under the domain of safety then it becomes a health and safety matter - so now employers are legally obligated to address it.”
However, he’s not convinced of the authenticity behind some recent instances of risk aversion, such as Brown’s May 9 precautionary state of local emergency, or Prime Minister Chris Hipkins holding a 2am press conference on January’s flood.
“Most of that is posturing.”
For his part, Brown thinks Act’s proposed “Minister to Remove Red Tape” [Ministry of Regulation] would help leaders balance expectations authorities do everything to protect people, while also keeping out of the way of their lives.
“We have become risk averse”, Brown texted in response to Weekend Herald questions, although he exempts “rural people”.
“And [we] seem to need to rely on others to tell us what to do, like needing a text to tell you it is raining rather than just looking out the window.”
Who’ll bottle hope?
That’s not how the man who led our health response to the pandemic sees Kiwis’ ability to meet ongoing challenges.
“I think people are more aware,” says Sir Ashley Bloomfield of the risks in 2023.
But the former director general of health also understands the challenges of leadership.
A public health order shutting Albany Senior High School for two days after a student was diagnosed with measles in April was straightforward - closure is standard practice pre-dating Covid-19 for such an infectious disease, Bloomfield says.
Tougher were “line calls” on advice to the Government later in the Covid-19 response, weighing lockdown benefits against known negative impacts on mental health, financial hardship and education.
“It’s never a simple judgment.”
An early precautionary call is easier to defend than one made too late, and was partly behind early action on Covid-19 in 2020.
“Very vivid in our minds was that the previous year, we’d had a measles outbreak in Auckland ... between [the Ministry of Health and Auckland’s district health boards] we’d been too slow to turn it into a national response,” Bloomfield says.
The problem is, says former media trainer Janet Wilson, that we’ve lost trust in our leaders.
In the void, we’ve become “a frightened little nation” in dire need of hope.
Any politician who can bottle hope has the best chance on October 14, Wilson says.
“What you need is one good, simple idea that will grab people’s imaginations and just make them think: ‘That’s a great idea, we all stand to benefit from that’.”
The Parliament protests symbolised the “shattering of who we are as a country”, Wilson says, and people wanted authentic leaders - but authenticity was different for everyone.
“Trust in our politicians is probably at the lowest it’s ever been.”
It’s hard enough to trust in ourselves. But if you can, it’s worth the effort, says Sophia Malthus.
Malthus, a law student living with a spinal cord injury after being thrown from a horse in 2016, knows it isn’t easy.
Risks can have big consequences.
“If I want to go somewhere that isn’t intentionally made accessible, I generally have to undertake quite a lot of risk. I’m often trusting strangers with my life by asking random men to carry me upstairs.”
Home, too, isn’t without risk.
Cooking dinner means independence, but - having lost most sensation below her collarbone, and with minimal arm movement - she can’t shield or move her hands, the 26-year-old says.
“Chopping through a carrot is the same as chopping through your finger, and I can’t feel my finger. So every few cuts that I do into the carrot, I look at my finger just to make sure it’s still attached,” Malthus says.
She’s making choices that feel right for her, even if they’re sometimes risky, and so can you - if you want to.
“There’s no right or wrong answer, just as long as you ask yourself what you want out of life.
“But if you are happy to take a risk - I think you should do it.”