Wellington, June 4, 2020
Universal public compliance has been one of the major reasons why New Zealand has apparently been so successful in curbing the spread of the Covid-19.
Fundamentally, people complied with the restrictions imposed during Alert Levels 4 and 3 because of an overwhelming fear of the risk they could catch the virus.
The clear and decisive rules of engagement from the government backed up that fear. With only a few exceptions, everyone knew where they stood, what they could and could not do, and knew the risks of non-compliance.
Team Five Million
The invocation of the idea of “team of five million” built up a culture of our all being in this together, and the individual privations we were all enduring being an individually small but overall important part of a wider national picture.
In an almost wartime atmosphere, we were encouraged to believe that we were all playing our part towards the achievement of a greater national goal, and we all apparently believed it. Consequently, we accepted a level of intrusion upon our personal freedoms that most of us would never ever have imagined occurring in our lifetimes.
Somewhat more darkly, some even embraced the notion of snitching on others whom they felt were not playing the game. But, in the interests of the greater good, such concerns were quickly pushed aside because it was comparatively easy to go along with what was happening.
However, those days now seem past us. That initial spirit has dissipated and will be difficult to recapture as we start to think about life beyond Alert Level 2.
In no small part, that is due to the unexpectedly rapid success in virtually stamping out Covid-19 in New Zealand, at least for the time being.
After all, if there are no new cases being reported, now day after day, how can there possibly be a crisis to be concerned about anymore? Or, so the argument goes.
But a bigger factor is that the urgency around Covid19 has waned. The absolute imperative of uniform national compliance has all but evaporated.
When the Prime Minister and the Director-General of Health – the two faces of compassionate reassurance but unflinching authority during Levels 4 and 3 – are photographed conversing with groups of people, the way we used to, it is difficult to maintain the line that for everyone else strict social distancing rules must continue to apply.
Likewise, when a demonstration of several thousand people takes place and the Director-General says it poses no threat to public health, because we have no cases occurring, it becomes very hard to tell business premises that they still need to regulate the numbers of people on their sites in the interests of preventing Covid-19 possible spread.
The issue here is not whether these things should be occurring – the government, after all, seems to be giving clear hints that a move to the far more relaxed Alert Level 1, when virtually the only restriction still in place will be a closed national border, is maybe barely a week away – but rather the mixed messages currently being sent, and the difficulties they are causing for compliance. Where we once were united in the pursuit of a common goal, we now seem to believe we have achieved that, and are increasingly frustrated that we cannot get back to life as we knew it more quickly.
Covid-19 on the exit
It is probably also a clear indication that as the numbers of Covid-19 cases have virtually disappeared the public interest has started to move on too.
It is now becoming much more focused on the impact on individual circumstances – jobs that have disappeared, the struggle to pay the rent and the mortgage, the long winter ahead, and what happens when the wage subsidies run out. Worrying about catching Covid19 is increasingly taking second place to these more immediate domestic concerns, especially when it appears that, even at an official level, things are not being treated as seriously as they were just a few weeks ago.
While none of this should come as any great surprise it also shows that the government’s authority on this issue has now peaked.
As things start to become more relaxed, the unique authority the government possessed and demonstrated so effectively during the lockdowns will ebb away and New Zealanders’ natural instinct to be less automatically obedient to every government call will return.
So too, one hopes, will the genuine contest of ideas so necessary to a functioning democracy, especially in the lead-up to an election.
The mixed messages of recent days notwithstanding, most New Zealanders will welcome and take in their stride the pending return to something approaching the normality they knew, albeit with a typically quiet sense of pride at what they have been able to achieve.
They will be hoping Covid19 shows no sign of a significant return during the coming winter months, as we begin to reopen our border. So too will the government and the public health authorities.
For they know only too well that the level of sudden public compliance and acquiescence achieved during the lockdowns was but a moment in time – a shocked reaction to what was happening overseas and the abrupt arrival of circumstances that no-one had properly anticipated.
It is unlikely to be achievable to the same extent even if future circumstances warrant it.
Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under Labour and National-led governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington.