Covid has shown the limits of big government – Stuff.co.nz

Posted: October 13, 2021 at 7:39 pm

OPINION: Social media accounts of wildlife returning to cities went viral on social media a full week before New Zealand went into lockdown for the first time on March 23, 2020.

The most famous image purportedly showed swans and dolphins in the canals of eerily deserted Venice. The posts were a tonic for those looking for a bright side of the unprecedented shuttering of commercial and public life, of renewal out of despair.

Like a blooming wildflower, the next year also saw a reappraisal of the importance of government and institutions. The political nihilism of the 21st century, essentially the hackneyed line that it doesnt matter who you vote for, the government always gets in repackaged in meme form, started to fall away.

The difference between leaders, governments and national institutions became very clear in their respective responses to the pandemic. No-one could seriously maintain that Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jacinda Ardern were interchangeable in 2020.

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With that came a renewed optimism about the ability of the state to do good. Only the state could call a lockdown; only the state could beat Covid. Only the state could keep business afloat with billions of dollars by turning on the money printers. Big government was back.

Before any of this had happened, though, the Venetian swans and dolphins had been debunked. The frolicking creatures were photographs from different Italian towns, and predated the pandemic.

WPA Pool/Getty Images

No-one could seriously maintain that Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jacinda Ardern were interchangeable in 2020, writes Ben Thomas.

It took slightly longer for big government to be brought back to earth. But if the first year of the pandemic demonstrated the importance and the power of the state to do good, then the second year has certainly delineated its limits.

First, the swift transmission of the Delta variant presented a physical and biological problem that perhaps no amount of political will could solve, particularly as it passed on in communities now grouped together as hard to reach and outside the influence of mainstream political persuasion.

Then, as the slow vaccine rollout accelerated to a frenzy, numbers began to hit the wall of a much wider group of hard to reach populations, particularly Mori.

Chris McKeen/Stuff

Ben Thomas: The Government is woefully ill-equipped for the task of persuading vaccine-hesitant or disengaged people, for whom relationships are crucial.

This was in part due to poor decisions and lack of preparation, more akin to the continued and mystifying operational and policy failures to introduce saliva testing than an ineffable truth about the nature of government. But it also speaks to the latter.

Authorities described last years August outbreak, centred on the suburbs of Mt Albert and Mt Roskill, as a cluster in West Auckland. Its a minor detail that nonetheless amply illustrates the disparity of knowledge between planners in the capital and those on the ground.

If Wellington-based policy analysts struggle to find two prominent Auckland neighbourhoods on a map, is it any wonder that a strategy to reach remote small towns on the East Coast has to be made up on the hoof?

Even if the Government had adopted a census-style model earlier, to map vaccination or lack thereof, it is still by nature woefully ill-equipped for the task of persuading vaccine-hesitant or disengaged people, for whom relationships are crucial. The government can storm the gates of a city, but it cannot fight house to house.

Mori healthcare providers and iwi/hap, on whose shoulders the last mile to a large extent falls, have complained of the exhausting compliance and reporting required to, for instance, access government funds to fit out a mobile vaccination clinic.

There are clearly good reasons for meticulous accountability in spending public money, but making primary healthcare organisations spend valuable weeks in an outbreak filling out paperwork for relative peanuts, when the first wage subsidy handed out $13 billion in a few weeks on trust, seems bizarre.

The truth is that, in a game where you only win by getting every person vaccinated, we are much more a team of five million than in 2020, essentially a team of 20 and a country full of cheerleaders.

STUFF

It is necessary to grit teeth and deal with gang leaders in order to ensure their members keep themselves, their families and their communities safe.

It is necessary to grit teeth and deal with gang leaders in order to ensure their members keep themselves, their families and their communities safe. It is necessary to provide whatever resources trusted providers say they need.

Its also necessary for other sectors to stand up and play their part many farm workers living far from towns are just as hard to reach as the gang members and rough sleepers who occupy the public imagination, and yet the farming lobbies have been allowed to absent themselves from the conversation in a way local hap and iwi could never dream of.

Its good news, then, for the big-government fans and their sceptics. Only communities can achieve what we want, but they need the governments help. Its eerily similar to the vision of the third way promised at the end of the 20th century. Nature is healing.

Ben Thomas is an Auckland-based public relations consultant and political commentator. He was previously a National government press secretary.

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Covid has shown the limits of big government - Stuff.co.nz

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