Postcard from New Zealand

14 August 2020. Updated 15 August 2020.
Saint Jacinda, the toothy tyrant

Once SARS-CoV-2 was no longer contained within China and was spreading throughout the world, it was clear to me that eliminating the virus would be impossible and that it would be here to stay. Most readers will be well-aware of the apparent ‘success’ that New Zealand had in ‘eliminating’ the virus from our country, with profuse amounts of praise being heaped on to the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.

I never supported the NZ Government’s initial lockdown in order to ‘eliminate’ the virus because I saw it as an unsustainable policy. In order for the virus to be kept out of the country, it is necessary to have strict border controls where everyone entering the country is held in quarantine facilities for at least 14 days (until they test negative). These controls would be necessary until some magic bullet, such as a highly effective vaccine, emerged to allow everyone to be completely protected from the virus. I continued to think the elimination policy was misguided, agreeing with the Covid Plan B group, even when NZ was purported to have successfully eliminated the virus, as I didn’t think that closing our borders indefinitely was a sustainable plan.

I did not, however, feel that I could complain too much about our own situation in NZ back then. Despite disagreeing with the policy, life was mostly back to normal, and other countries had far greater restrictions and problems. In the long term, my hope was that people in NZ would learn from other places in the world that the virus was manageable (even without a vaccine), and have the guts to let it in again and deal with the consequences. I was outraged by the developments elsewhere in the world, including the over-the-top restrictions in Melbourne.

The latest developments, whereby we have re-implemented a harsh ‘Level 3’ lockdown in our biggest city, have completely changed things. (‘Level 3’ effectively shuts down many workplaces and prevents normal life.) My initial thoughts that the elimination policy was misguided have been proven correct. The response to the latest outbreak shows just how unsustainable this policy is. The change in the rules in Auckland happened with virtually no notice – there was a night-time announcement coming into effect at midday the next day. The official announcement was for a three-day lockdown, but few people think it will last only three days. It’s unlikely that the Government will tolerate any spread of the virus and will continue to impose harsh restrictions to once again ‘eliminate’ the virus.

The worst part of this is the uncertainty. Even if the outbreak is contained and restrictions are eased, the uncertainty will remain indefinitely – all it will take is another outbreak to throw a spanner in the works. Businesses and workplaces cannot operate under such uncertainty. And it’s impossible to have a normal life under such uncertainty. We could be happily doing our jobs and living our lives, and with only a few hours’ notice, the Prime Minister suddenly tells everyone they must stay at home. Our economy will be in tatters because of this policy, and the harm to people’s lives, including loss of life, will be far greater than any effects of the virus itself.

Legally, there is little we can do to challenge this. New Zealand does not have a constitution. Our rights as citizens are described in our Bill of Rights Act, but this is not supreme law and does not override other laws. There is nothing preventing a law that breaches the Bill of Rights Act being passed, even by a simple majority in parliament. The courts are no help, as they usually choose to interpret breaches of the Bill of Rights in other laws according to their perception of Parliament’s intention. That is, an unintentional breach of the Bill of Rights Act may be successfully challenged in the courts, but an intentional one, as shown by the proceedings of parliament, cannot be successfully challenged because Parliament is sovereign and has the power to enact almost any law. In addition, there is only a single chamber of Parliament, so new laws have a relatively low hurdle to get over.

An example of government overreach can be seen in the recently passed COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020. This law provides a ridiculous amount of power to the Government. Under this Act, the Government can order any group of people to do almost anything including compelling people to stay at any location (apart from an actual prison) and undergo “medical testing” of “any kind”. (Isn’t that a breach of medical ethics?) The police have far-reaching powers of enforcement, including the power to enter people’s homes without warrants if they suspect an illegal gathering is taking place.

Overall, there is little we can do to challenge the Government’s policies. Civil disobedience is an option, but I fear that our population is too submissive to do anything, at least in the numbers that would be needed to have an impact.

One of the latest developments is that the Government is forcing everyone who tests positive, and their close contacts, into managed quarantine. This is a chilling development because it is effectively imprisoning people who test positive through no fault of their own. They likely caught the virus simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now must leave their homes to be placed into forced isolation. In my view, this is unquestionably wrong. There is no circumstance where this is justified in a free country. At the very least, people must be shown to be breaching self-isolation before they can be forced into quarantine.

We do have an election coming up, and this cannot be postponed indefinitely without a change in law. Unfortunately, I see little chance that the election will change anything. Indeed, it will probably make the situation worse. Jacinda Ardern has a cult-like following. She’s in the media continuously making announcements related to the ‘outbreak’, with the opposition largely side-lined. The media is largely unwilling to criticise her, and continues to fear-monger about the dangers of the virus, effectively making her seem like a hero that should not be challenged. 

Despite the positive reports of Ardern in the global media, she herself is using fear of the virus as a political tool. She recently said: “Act as if you have Covid, and as though people around you have Covid.” While the first part of that statement can be (charitably) interpreted as encouraging people to act responsibly, the second part is despicable since it is suggesting that everyone should be afraid of their family and friends, who may be vectors of this virus.

Given the level of support she has, Jacinda Ardern is likely to win the election in a landslide. My fear is that when that does happen, she will be even more empowered to enact any policy or law to ‘eliminate’ the virus. In my view, while she may not have originally had bad intentions, she has grown so used to popularity as the “world’s best Prime Minister” who “eliminated the virus”, that her response to the virus is not based on what is the best for the country, but what is best for her popularity, both locally and in the eyes of the worldwide media. And this, in my opinion, is a characteristic of a poor leader, not a good one.

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