Auckland, April 1, 2020
We are in extraordinary times, calling rightly for extraordinary measures.
Although our vision of the future is obscured by the “bubbles” we are confined in, we need to continually look beyond the pandemic, beyond self-isolation, and consider what the political and cultural changes we make now will mean on the other side of this thing.
There will be some things to hold on to, and some to let go.
We must hold onto our renewed sense of solidarity, re-grasp our freedoms, and take up an expanded vision of the “essentials” of life.
Our solidarity is precious. The Government has called on us to “Unite Against Covid-19,” and on the whole, we have. Denied the usual community coming-together that binds us in times of crisis, there is still a strong sense that “we’re in this together.”
We have sacrificed much of the social interaction with others that makes life worth living, staying home for the sake of the vulnerable, one another, and the common good.
This is worth holding on to.
But as time goes on, we must regain our grasp on our freedoms and way of life taken away over this period. Our political response has been in the spirit of political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who argued centuries ago that while freedom is good, security is better, and we need a strong state to ensure the latter.
I think that the Government made the right call to go big on this, but they must resist the temptation hold onto all that power.
Risk of getting accustomed
And we, the people, need to keep them to account.
There is a risk we could become accustomed to, and even embrace the restrictions to our freedom that we couldn’t have imagined before to ensure our safety. Swiftly-enacted legislative changes made in times of crisis can be difficult to pare back under “normal” conditions.
I am not suggesting that lockdown will become business-as-usual, but more subtle challenges will arise. Take our tightened borders, for example.
To stop the spread, it makes sense to maintain these for now; the process of opening them again will be fraught but very important to our ongoing place in the world.
Or public spending. With at least $16 billion being spent on keeping us and our jobs safe, fiscally, spending will need to be reined in. There may be another rainy day soon.
Culturally, we also need to let go of the short-sighted distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” work.
Hospitality, the arts, sports, and charities, for example, are all essential to the growth and character of a flourishing nation but have been deemed non-essential during a lockdown. It will be all too easy to allow this shock to shape our attitude towards different types of work after this.
This may seem indirect, but the language we use is important.
Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield shifted the language from “social distancing” to “physical distancing,” acknowledging how the initial term undermined how critical social connection would be for our wellbeing, for example.
Likewise, let us inspect our use of “essential” for certain roles at this time to make sure these situational categories don’t shift our appreciation for people’s talents and contribution to society in the long term.
It is hard to see beyond our present crisis, but we must look to the horizon.
The real “new normal” is up to us all.
Let us ensure it includes a stronger community spirit, a limited government, and a renewed value of the richness of life that goes beyond mere survival.
Kieran Madden is Research Manager at the Auckland based Maxim Institute.