The seemingly inevitable arrival of the Delta variant joins the catalogue of issues the Government is struggling with. By Jane Clifton.
As The Hobbit author JRR Tolkien observed, it does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations if you live near one.
New Zealand, with the extremely live Delta variant of the Covid dragon rampaging next door, is now finding out whether its calculations have been adequate – not least its political reckoning.
It'll be a while before it's known how far Delta has spread from the first case discovered at large in Auckland, but already it has caused a salutary outbreak of hindsight. It always seemed inevitable Delta would get loose, but something changes in the human psyche when near-misses keep happening. There have been several skirmishes with potential Delta sources here, not least the infected crew of a ship that docked at Tauranga, but we appeared to dodge the bullet each time. Academics who study how people respond to mistakes say the more times someone gets away with doing something wrong, the safer they think it is. It isn't any safer, but progressively less care is applied, with predictable and unhappy results.
When even an experienced national and local politician such as Sandra Goudie, Mayor of Thames-Coromandel, where Delta has definitely paid a call, says on day one of the new lockdown that she rarely bothers to scan her Covid phone app, it's clear this sort of magical thinking about the pandemic is common.
So far, voters are likely again to be tolerant of the Government's precautionary stance. That the virus transferred in a quarantine facility just because two people opened neighbouring room doors at the same time has nailed home how virulent this little dragon is.
What's less clear is how long people can stand playing "What's the time, Mr Wolf?" if rolling stop-start lockdowns become necessary. Recriminations over the slowness of the vaccine programme could become acrimonious, and Opposition leader Judith Collins is shrewdly fanning the flames with her call for an urgent mass-vax as soon as possible, and to hang with the Government's staged months of timetabling.
The nagging background hum of "we can't stay locked up forever" could swell, too.
The retort is easy: Australia. New South Wales in particular dithered over containment and considerable inconvenience, not to mention deaths, resulted. Millions of Australians have been sent to their rooms for indefinite time out, and some are responding with massed tantrums. Australia, if rather backhandedly, is our Government's best ally in the political difficulties of getting through Covid. The slogan writes itself: "Let's not do this."
Pile of problems
This Government's wider problem is that Delta's tour of New Zealand is only one of a series of anxiety-provoking potboilers on the go. As of the other week, there's also: will the lights go on tonight? Faith in the reliability of the electricity sector took an almighty biff from the recent power cuts, with – you just couldn't make this up – a further outage warning made on the day of lockdown. Everyone go home – oh, and by the way, don't count on watching telly or going online.
There's also inflation – will it also morph into a dragon, and cause mayhem? This is strangely scary, as this country hasn't had much inflation in recent years, save for in housing, and we're out of practice in dealing with it.
As for economic growth, it's chugging along nicely, but in ways that might not be entirely beneficial, according to some economists – although some economists also predicted a recession, so recourse to the TAB's odds on this might be as informative as anything.
New housing construction is finally building up a head of steam, but so have the scarcity and cost of materials, and the already undersized construction labour force is seeing better pay and cost-of-living opportunities overseas – as are other skilled workers. All this adds fuel to the house-price-inflation wildfire. Speaking of which, there's another thing not to look forward to. Raging climate-change-wrought fires have terrorised the Greeks, Turks and Americans, and now that it's nearly spring here, we know the Antipodes' turn is next.
Add the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest warnings, and the cruel, medieval captivity now being imposed on women and girls in Afghanistan because other countries didn't think their welfare important enough to keep protecting them, and, actually, lockdown rather sells itself. Why would anyone want to leave home ever again, let alone be allowed to see the world?
Of course, none of this applies to a doughty minority of New Zealanders who have succumbed to what British journalist Deborah Ross has characterised as SV-20, aka the Stupidity Virus. As she says, it's virulent and it's definitely destructive, as few people are born that stupid. For these sufferers, Covid vaccination is a no-no because it makes you magnetic and also enables Bill Gates to watch you go to the dunny. Those who have Long Stupid will of course refuse to lock down, because Covid is just a flu and/or doesn't exist, but is being used to control us. And anyway, only the feeble-minded would get it, if it existed, which it doesn't.
SV-20 sufferers won't be thrilled that the Government is, belatedly, extending and even actually enforcing the requirement to scan before entering some premises, and extending mandatory masking.
Although we are among the most compliant populations when it comes to Covid restrictions, New Zealanders have maintained a yeah-nah attitude to contact tracing, and mask refuseniks are depressingly common. The Government may yet rue not being stricter earlier about such things, but officials warned, as they always do, that enforcement would be too difficult and expensive.
For the Government only now to be getting heavy about such things is not ideal public policy, but better late than never. People using public transport have had only their mask-impeded glares to use against fellow travellers who refuse to mask up. It's not the New Zealand way to upbraid strangers, especially when there's a risk of exchanging droplets with someone who has SV-20.
It's a few seconds out of one's day to scan, and masks may be a pain but they make rather better leisurewear than ventilators. All up, this is one of the few times in politics when we will all be thrilled to bits to find that our leaders have grossly overreacted.