I’ll tell you what the problem is. It’s that the public is getting so many mixed and contradictory messages that even the Minister of Health doesn’t seem to know what’s allowed and what’s not.
The government has a problem here. It needs public co-operation and goodwill, and most people are happy to oblige. But it helps if they’re given consistent messages, and it also helps if they can see the logic in what they’re being asked to do.
I have yet to see any explanation, still less a convincing one, as to why it’s unsafe to do what Clark did – i.e., drive to a nearby location, then go for a bike ride, walk or run from there. I can’t see how that’s going to expose more people to Covid-19 than walking around the block, which we’re told is permitted and indeed encouraged. He’s not going to infect people driving his van.
Neither have I seen any statement clearly explaining how far we’re supposed to venture, if at all, from our immediate neighbourhood. Pre-lockdown, I was in the habit of riding my bike to the end of a nearby country road. I don’t know how far it is, but there and back takes roughly an hour at a reasonably brisk pace.
The road is quiet even in normal times and positively ghostly right now. I’m almost as likely to see an aardvark as another human being. If I did that ride today, would I risk being pulled over by a cop? And if I was, and I asked him/her to explain what risk I posed, what would he/she say? What’s the difference between riding on that quiet country road and endlessly circling my local suburban block, where I’m far more likely to encounter other people?
That said, I think most of us accept that there are justifiable limitations on what we can do. There’s a lovely bush walk about 30 minutes’ drive from my place, but it’s well out in the countryside and I’d probably be pushing the envelope if I drove there. So how about the network of nice walking trails on the other side of town, just 10 minutes from my place? Some snitch dobbed Clark in for travelling less than that distance for his bike ride (the anonymous media informant claimed to be “horrified”, which tells you something about his or her fragile psychological state), so would I be breaking the rules if I drove there? Is there some sort of invisible, virtual line on the road that marks a boundary that I’m not supposed to cross? If so, how am I supposed to know where it is? I’ve read a lot about the Alert Level 4 regulations, but seen no practical guidance about this.
Now let’s take this a step further. I have a friend in her 70s who, until last week, swam every day in the sea near her place in Auckland. In an email to me yesterday she said she’d love to be able to swim now; the weather’s hot and the tides are ideal. But she’s been told it’s not allowed, and being a conscientious, law-abiding citizen, keen to do the right thing, she’s complying. At the same time, she can’t understand it. The authorities indicate that it’s because they don’t want emergency services having to rescue people, but for heaven’s sake; she’s been swimming without incident at her local beach for years and points out there have never been lifeguards there anyway, presumably because it’s a harbour beach and very safe.
Similarly, a mate of mine in Nelson wanted to go surfing at Rabbit Island, as is his habit. That’s forbidden too, just in case the Coast Guard has to be called out to save someone. Really? How often do you hear of the Coast Guard having to rescue a surfer? And in sheltered Tasman Bay, of all places? It’s absurd.
The problem here is a predictable one. The urge to control human behaviour is ingrained in officialdom, and a health crisis provides a perfect excuse to indulge in a bit of gratuitous control freakery. It doesn’t help that until today, we had a police commissioner who gave the impression of relishing the opportunity to talk tough about the possible consequences for people rash enough to flout the rules. I hope his successor strikes a less bullying tone.
In a situation like the present one, there’s always a danger that governments will err on the side of authoritarianism on the pretext that it’s for the public good. Many New Zealanders are old enough to recall that happening during the 1951 waterfront dispute, when basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of association were suspended under the Public Safety Conservation Act (the name says it all), which a Labour government finally repealed in 1987.
But governments need to carry the public with them, and never more so than in the effort to contain Covid-19. That won’t be achieved by alienating and antagonising people through heavy-handed enforcement of petty rules. I’m sure Jacinda Ardern understands that, but the message appears to have got lost in translation. A bit more clarity and consistency would be helpful.