Friday, April 3, 2020

Karl du Fresne: A bit more clarity and consistency would be helpful

So David Clark put his mountain bike in his van, drove a couple of kilometres to an MTB track and went for a ride. Where’s the problem, exactly?

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.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at


Tinman said...

I’m sure Jacinda Ardern understands that,

A great column making sense, an unusual concept in modern times.

Unfortunately though, I disgree with the above sentence.

I doubt Ardern understands very much at all and therein lies much, if not most, of New Zealand's problem.

Until NZ gains leadership, particularly leadership strong enough to control the authorities charged with NZ's wellbeing, the country will continue to spiral down the road to a police state and long term dictatorship.

Rex said...

Once again you have hit the mark, this time with your remarks about clarity & consistency. I gather you won't be sorry to see our outgoing Police Commissioner stepping down, along with many of us. His bullying tactics & arrogance displayed at press conferences are abhorrent. Must also agree with your opinion of officialdom's desire to control coming to the fore in a crisis. That was very predictable!

Bill Wright said...

Clearly, you miss the point. Not only did Clark go for a mountain bike ride through an area of Bush which is inherently hazardous, but he also drove his family 20 km for a walk on the beach. The issue is firstly, as a Minister of the Crown responsible for the lockdown orders, one would expect him to set an example.

Secondly, had he taken a tumble and broken a leg then several bubbles would have been burst, police, ambulance officers, and possibly Fire Brigade. Had just one of this group been infected with the virus then several dozen, even scores of others would have become liable to infection.

I would suggest that a 70 year old, swimming in the sea, falls into the same category. She may be experienced, a capable swimmer, but the risk of bursting several bubbles remains.

That is the purpose of the lockdown and isolation, to prevent the spread of infection. Your laissez-faire logic is both selfless and dangerous.

Dave said...

Quite agree, The Government has been making policy on the run and sometimes it fails to make sense. I own a small business that is worth over $200,000 to my wife and I, we are near to retirement. The business is in an isolated spot and would be an ideal target to break into, so I drive the 2ks everyday to check on security and that all the freezers are running etc. Some busy body must have reported that I entered my business (not going near anyone else) and the next thing the police arrive and ask why am I breaking the lockdown ? I explained that I need to check on security etc, I was told not to do it again because I would be breaking the level 4 restrictions. I tried to explain that a big part of our future was tied up in the business and I was not operating it , just checking my asset. But I was still told I was breaking the rules. Where is the common sense. Ps I still check on my business daily.

Hiko said...

@Bill Wright
Totally agree with your comments

Don said...

People have no idea of the nature of a virus. It is incredibly small and virulent and grows exponentially. One person can infect dozens in a few hours even thought that person may not know they are infected. No measures can be too strict to try to contain it.Once it begins to take effect you cannot believe how sick you become . Believe me, I know. The authorities are doing absolutely the right thing to protect us, .

Bill Wright said...

Occasionally, Dragon Naturally Speaking mishears and produces an embarrassing error which is missed. In my comment above, "selfless" should of course read "selfish".

Anonymous said...

The most concerning aspect of all this is the encouragement to 'dobb in a neighbour'. So Stalinesque. If we were all encouraged to use our commonsense and take responsibility for ourselves & face the consequences, there wouldn't be a problem. But of course, we can't have people encouraged to think. The water has been beautiful, by the way.

Unknown said...

People should read what Sweden is going on as normal .No lockdowns schools open as normal gatherings allowed even of 50 people. All their goverment does is to advise elderly to stay home and generally use commensense. Their economy will be thriving whereas ours will bedown the drain BROKE,