It’s true, then. Every cloud really does have a silver lining.
The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the world into economic and social turmoil on a scale not seen before in most people’s lifetimes. We have no idea how long this will last or what the long-term repercussions might be.
But look on the bright side. For several weeks we have enjoyed a respite from the shrill scaremongering and moralising of the neo-Marxist Left.
Moral panics over hate speech, gender identity, climate change, white supremacy, Islamophobia and the consumption of meat and dairy products have been displaced from the headlines. The world’s news media have found more pressing issues to concern themselves with. It’s amazing what an urgent existential crisis can do.
This is not intended to sound flippant, or to diminish the heartbreak experienced by families unable to provide comfort to the dying in their last hours due to Covid-19 rules. But it does underscore the vast difference between the ideological fixations of a noisy minority of self-absorbed activists and the genuine life-and-death situation society as a whole is now grappling with.
Another blessing is that the leftist doctrine of identity politics, which sees society as irrevocably divided between oppressors and oppressed, has suffered a sharp setback.
Identity politics seeks to focus on and magnify our differences, especially those relating to race, gender, class, sexual identity and religion (and increasingly, age too). The aim is to divide and destabilise society. But in the face of the common challenge posed by Covid-19, New Zealanders have tapped into a deep reserve of solidarity and shared purpose.
Beyond those consequences, no one knows quite how the crisis will play out. But a wide range of possibilities present themselves.
One likelihood is that the wave of economic liberalisation and deregulation which swept the Western world under the banners of Thatcherism and Reaganomics in the 1980s will be at least partially rolled back.
Just as the Great Depression led to the election of big-spending, interventionist governments under Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the United States and Michael Joseph Savage here, so the coronavirus scare has legitimised state involvement in the New Zealand economy on a scale not seen since Robert Muldoon.
How far this will extend remains to be seen, but it’s already clear that a fundamental reset is under way. Expect higher taxes, greater state control and more power in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats.
Globalisation, a defining trend of the past few decades, has taken a massive hit too. Not surprisingly, countries have lowered the shutters.
The strains are nowhere more apparent in the European Union, which is showing signs of fracturing as bickering member states focus on protecting their own national interests. Founded in idealism in the aftermath of the 1939-45 war, the EU is discovering that noble intentions go only so far.
Domestically, the crisis will go a long way toward restoring public respect and even affection for farmers, who have often been unfairly disparaged in recent years for their supposed contribution to global warming and environmental degradation. Expect the rural sector to regain its former status as the engine-room of the economy – a role usurped in recent years by international tourism, which has somehow largely escaped censure for the harm it has done in environmentally sensitive places.
Politically, the crisis has been good for Labour. Confronted with an unforeseen challenge far greater than any New Zealand government has faced since World War Two, Ardern and her team have generally responded calmly and decisively.
But they must still be subjected to rigorous scrutiny, contrary to a letter in my local paper which seemed to suggest that it’s unpatriotic to question, still less criticise, government decisions. There’s nothing like a national emergency to bring out the authoritarian streak in some citizens.
Considering the hazards strewn in its path, the government has done well to make only two serious misjudgements. The first was the omission of magazines and community newspapers from its list of essential industries, which gave German publisher Bauer Media the excuse it needed to abandon the New Zealand market, leaving subscribers to its magazines literally grieving.
The other was the shameful connivance of the police, presumably with government approval, in condoning unlawful highway checkpoints manned by iwi activists in the Far North and on the East Cape.
So much for the rule of law. Hone Harawira, no doubt delighted at being allowed to get away with it, will treat it as a precedent – another step on the path toward the Indigenous People’s Republic of Te Tai Tokerau.
The crisis has been good for Winston Peters too, allowing him to masquerade as statesmanlike in his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Will this be enough to save his disreputable party after a run of damning disclosures? The voters will decide.
But the hardest part is still to come as the government attempts the extraordinarily difficult balancing act of rekindling the economy without risking a resurgence of the virus. The possibility remains that the cure could be even more damaging than the disease.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz.