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 karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.