Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Karl du Fresne: Testing the limits of spin

We crossed a significant threshold in the Covid-19 crisis yesterday, and I’m not talking about the number of new cases.

Commenting on the potentially problematical disjunction between current high inoculation rates and dwindling supplies of the Pfizer vaccine, Jacinda Ardern had this to say: “It’s not a matter of running out [of the vaccine], it’s a matter of whether or not we are in a position of where we need to have a little less demand.”

Er, pardon me? I've read this sentence several times and I’m still not sure what it’s supposed to mean, or indeed whether it means anything at all. Communication is normally one of Ardern’s great political strengths, but this statement was, at best, cryptic. At worst it was nonsensical, and I’m wondering whether it’s a sign that the government is almost past pretending it’s in control of the pandemic.

It certainly stood in striking contrast to the optimistic pep talk last week in which she said tracing the origin of the current outbreak would help the government “circle the virus, lock it down and stamp it out” – a phrase that gave the impression of a resolute government in command of the situation, while also conveying the patently false impression that Covid-19 could be extinguished as easily as a candle.

Similar punchy phrases – “the team of five million”, “go hard and go early”, “be strong and be kind” – have been an essential part of the government’s tool kit in managing the pandemic. If PR spin was all we needed to defeat a virus, Covid-19 might have been vanquished by now. But there comes a point when the Beehive communications wizards run out of snappy lines and the government’s vulnerability is exposed for all to see. Perhaps we’ve reached that point.

Spin gets you only so far, and I suspect Ardern’s daily press conferences no longer work the same magic that won the loyalty and support of New Zealanders last year. Covid-19 was new to us then and we were prepared to put our faith in her. We were all in uncharted territory.

This time is different. We’ve had months in which to observe the effects of the Delta variant overseas knowing it must eventually arrive here, yet the government appears to have been caught napping. Even the media, which with a few honourable exceptions (Newshub’s Michael Morrah, for one) was previously happy to go along with the government’s spin, finds itself unable to ignore the daily catalogue of flaws and failings in its management of the pandemic.

We have learned, for example, that the government passed up the opportunity to buy other vaccines besides Pfizer’s, even though going with one supplier meant waiting months for stocks – and this on top of delays that had already made a black joke of Chris Hipkins’ boast that we would be at the front of the queue.

Similarly, we now know that the government could have ordered reputable saliva-testing technology that would have permitted people to test themselves, thereby avoiding the frustration of long queues at testing stations and delays in getting results.

On three key metrics – testing, vaccinations and contract tracing – the government’s performance has been, to put it politely, tardy and sub-optimal. Protection at the border has been slack and the MIQ system appears to be a shambles. Meanwhile vulnerable essential workers, from police to port employees, have inexplicably been left unvaccinated.

Puzzling anomalies have reinforced the impression that the Covid-19 response is being decided on the hoof, despite the government having months to prepare. Pharmacies weren’t able to offer vaccinations, and then suddenly they were. Ditto general practitioners. Why barriers were placed in their way, when they were eager and impatient to help, remains a mystery. Control freaks in the Beehive and the bureaucracy seem the most likely explanation.

New Zealanders know all this and have become justifiably sceptical about the government’s propaganda offensive. As a result, Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield may have burned off much of the goodwill they accumulated in 2020. The next political opinion poll is awaited with more than usual interest.

Myself, I’m conflicted on Covid-19 and the lockdown. I instinctively bridle against the government’s gloss and spin. I’m over Ardern’s patronising entreaties from the Beehive Theatrette and I know lots of people – apolitical people, in many cases – who feel the same.

I also take the cynical view that the Covid-19 outbreak gifted a floundering government with a priceless publicity opportunity and a rare chance to give the appearance of being in control of something. But while the crisis initially looked good for Labour, it turned out not to be, because it served to cast light on the multiple glaring deficiencies in its preparedness.

Having said that, it’s hard to argue that the government hasn’t done the right thing (albeit in an inept fashion) by taking the lockdown option. Most New Zealanders probably consider that a temporary curtailment of their liberty is a reasonable price to pay for avoiding large-scale mortality.

Management of the pandemic comes down to a difficult trade-off between the need to keep people safe and the imperatives of maintaining economic activity and respecting individual freedom. My guess is that most New Zealanders, being essentially pragmatic people, would probably argue that the government has got the balance about right – for now, at least. Ultimately, it may be futile to pursue the objective of keeping Covid-19 out; but in the meantime, while everyone’s getting their jabs, it’s in our collective interest to keep the virus confined as far as that’s possible.

Ironically, the most effective PR line Ardern could run in validation of the government’s approach is one she’s unable to use. She could point to the striking difference in Covid-19 mortality statistics between New Zealand (26 deaths) and Australia (999) or Britain (132,000).

That’s a compelling vindication of New Zealand’s approach and a perfect answer to all the snide, condescending overseas commentaries about New Zealand being a “Covid prison” and an “isolated dystopia”. But of course it would never do to highlight those figures, because it would look like gloating at other countries’ misfortunes.

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


Anonymous said...

You had me until the second to last paragraph Karl. Surely the number of fatalities due to covid is related to the population size of each country? Also, how many fatalities are covid related only as opposed to having co- morbities? Unfortunately, because of the governments constant spin most of our heads are spinning also. Not knowing what to believe anymore.

Karl du Fresne said...

You hardly need to be Einstein to work out that the per capita death rates are enormously higher in the UK and Australia than here.

Phil said...

I have read something like 80% of UK deaths were aged over 75. NZ has most likely saved many people from Covid but those people will die of something else in the near future. Covid is clearly an unpleasant illness for many who have had it

Geoff said...

So what are you saying Phil.... I am to give up my older life so that you may breathe.

Dave Witherow said...

No, Geoff. You get vaccinated if you want to. But for the vast majority this bug is not very lethal, and they should be allowed to freely decide for themselves.
And why is it snide to say that we are in "covid prison". It looks very much like that to me.
The virus is bound to keep getting in - so do we do lockdowns forever?

Phil said...


Not at all, I am saying a lot of people in those UK Covid death statistics would have sadly died this year regardless and also a lot of people who died in NZ this year would have died from Covid if they got it. So I am not convinced in the worth of comparing death statistics. That aside Covid is an unpleasant illness so I am not one of those people who think it is fictitious.

DeeM said...

Have a read at John Gibson's recent article. The stats show that although deaths fell during lockdown last year they soon rebounded in the months after and overall there was no net reduction in overall deaths, only a slight postponement.
This backs up Phil's comment.

KP said...

"Most New Zealanders probably consider that a temporary curtailment of their liberty is a reasonable price to pay for avoiding large-scale mortality."

hahaha! What chance is there of the word "temporary" having ANY meaning in that sentence! No Govt is going to give up the tremendous gains in power over their subjects, we will never get back the freedoms we had. There will be lockdowns, restrictions of travel, vax passports, Police right of entry and search, Health Dept restriction orders.. It will never go away!

The large-scale mortality will come no matter what the politicians promise, that's a completely different subject.

Peter van der Stam, Napier said...

Right! I am wondering: are third world countries getting the "JAB" for free?
I don't think so! In other words: for a very long time we have to close borders and kill many businesses AND people through suicide and postponement of elected surgery or other needed treatment.
What is worth more?
Another thing I have been thinking about!
A virus is NOT stoppable. Even bacteria are not stoppable.
Compare: bacteria are visible with a microscope ( measuring size is "micron" the wholes in the facemasks are measured in "microns"
Virus particles are measured in "nanometers" and NOT visible with a microscope, only with a electron microscope.
This tells me, that a virus particle crosses the paper willy nilly at leasure
SO! My conclusion is: mask wearing is even dangerous ( oxygen depravation and re-breathing your exhaled carbon dioxide including all the crap you just exhaled)
Distancing? What a load of????
Vaccination? NO thanks.
Pfiser etc don't trust their product, hence they got a NON LIABILITY close.
Why should I trust the product?
Last but not least:
The PCR test is NOT designed to prove sars-cov-2 at all and surely not the Delta variant. And surely NOT at a multiplication of 40. According world virologists, more than 24 multiplications are giving a 85% false positive.
Ivermectin and India. Look that up in google and you get a real, cheap working product.
But then, the Medical Mafia ( bill Gates and cohort) won't earn much.

Russell said...

This time Peter your making more sense than Karl, shame, I usually agree with him.

Allan said...

Well said, Russell, for endorsing Peters well researched reply.
I have contacts in Kenya, where because of the inability to isolate, it is proven that the 'vaccine?' only gives protection from the worst effects of Covid, for a maximum three months. I have contacts in India, where the results are proving similar, but the probable, 'herd immunity' effect, has seen a rapid decline in cases & consequent mortality rates. I believe Japan is encouraging treatments using products such as Ivermectin. Yet strangely that product, which has been safely used in both livestock & humans for forty years or more, suddenly disappeared from availability when the vaccine arrived.
The Sheeple of New Zealand are blindly following, with far to little resistance, the orders dished out by an evil Marxist regime.

Peter van der Stam, Napier said...

Well, guys. I am not a virologist.
I only used to work in a hospital laboratory as research technician.
I pretend to know a few things, but you are right: I have done a bit of reading and research on this one.
The first article I did read was from Dr Bahkdy ( Germany) who said in a video interview" the jab is dangerous I certainly won't take it"
Oops! that comes from a REAL virologist.
Then later I read Dr Montaignier ( France and Nobel price laureate) the same story.
Read the report of a pathologist in Hamburg ( Germany) early last year:
I have investigated 13 patients on the cause of death.
12 died from underlying problems ( heart failure, diabetis etc) and ONE from Sars-CoV-2. The others got also the flu and died because the ventilator they where put onto.
Those machines seem to be "killer" machines.
An interview with frontline doctors in the states, telling in public that HCQ works fantastic.
Now I read many articles about the Ivermectin again.
If there is smoke, there MUST be a fire.