Gordon Campbell on fostering the culture of Covid complaint

909090Success can be its own worst enemy. If the plane doesn’t crash or the ship doesn’t sink, that doesn’t prove the safety measures were unnecessary, or that anyone can fly a plane. It can also be taken as an indication that the safety measures are working. Ditto during a pandemic. Arguably New Zealand has managed the best response to Covid in the entire world. This didn‘t happen by accident. It reflects the skill and dedication of tens of thousands of people working at the borders, in MIQ facilities and in the public health system. Hundreds are alive and well today who would have not have been if the government had bowed to pressure from the business sector and its friends in the media, and thrown the borders open prematurely.

Little of this reality has been reflected in a media narrative that has been skewed towards allegations of confusion, mis-management, shambolic disarray and the hardship resulting from the government’s treatment of public health as its major priority. Yes, this can be hard financially (and stressful) on people whose business model was built on a pre-Covid reality where foreign tourists and locals could mix and mingle freely. We now have vaccines, but they do not render even the double vaccinated entirely bullet proof.

Therefore, the need for caution in removing restrictions and safeguards remains, especially given what we know about how readily Delta and Omicron spread Covid-19. Moreover, and throughout the pandemic, compassionate taxpayers have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the hospitality and tourism sectors. They did so (a) to keep firms afloat and workers in jobs, while (b) those firms adapted to the new reality.

Some firms in hospo and tourism have made that adjustment. However, many others have been given a media platform to repeatedly complain about their plight, as if the government (and taxpayers) have a duty to sustain their old business model for them, forever. Instead of providing a megaphone for grievance, shouldn’t the media be more willing to challenge those employers to explain how they’ve dynamically changed their business practices, and what their transition plans look like?

The last time I wrote about this, this was mis-construed by some as an argument for turning the media into government apologists or publicists, and preventing journalists from heroically doing their job. To be clear on this point: there’s not much that’s heroic about amplifying complaints without context or pushback. Also IMO, it isn’t particularly heroic to be wilfully naïve about the political dimensions of your work. Meaning: the risks of being an apologist and virtual publicist apply not only to government policies and actions. Especially in the aftermath of the Delta outbreak mid-year, much of the media has been a virtual echo chamber for the attack lines originated by the Opposition.

The wilful lack of context has, at times, been breath-taking. Outside the business pages, the recognition of the relative success of this country’s economic management during the pandemic has been almost non-existent. Last year, New Zealand – and the rest of the world – were expecting the worst recession since the 1930s. In some countries, the Covid recession has been deep and lasting. Here, not so much. In fact, our Reserve Bank has recently been forced to intervene to dampen down the inflationary fires within a growing economy. Much as this may hurt the feelings of the centre-right, the results have vindicated the borrow and spend approach taken by the government in unison with the Reserve Bank.

Yesterday, the government books were opened. People are in jobs. Unemployment fell to 3.4 % in the quarter to September, and is headed further downwards. Yes, prices are rising faster than wages, but this is largely due to supply chain bottlenecks and oil price rises beyond our control. It is also because of record global demand for our farm exports that – despite what the Groundswell protesters claim – has left farmers extremely well placed to meet the costs of meeting their climate change and water quality obligations.

As this column has consistently argued, the inflationary surge in prices is forecast to peak early in 2022, and to recede sharply thereafter. Despite the Covid effect, the Operating Balance evidence is that deficits will revert to surplus in 2023/24, three years ahead of schedule. Similarly, there will be a spectacular decline in net debt, which will peak at 40.1% of GDP next year, before steeply declining to only 30.2% within five years, a full 18 percentage points below the gloomy forecasts on debt that were made at the outset of the pandemic. So much for fears that Covid-related spending would impose an intolerable debt burden on future generations. Instead, the borrowing sustained (and generated) levels of economic activity that will largely take care of the debt incurred in obtaining the subsequent social benefits. Another triumph of neo-Keynesianism over the policies of austerity.

Finally on this point, the Treasury is predicting government debt will fall from 35.3% of GDP to only 30.5% next year and head further downwards over the forecast period. This means that New Zealand is blessed with one of the lowest Crown debts to GDP ratios in the developed world. Among other things, it leaves acres of room for the government to borrow more to invest in infrastructure and social needs. There is also plenty of headroom in the economy for a further active response to Covid-induced needs. More to the point, these figures render the centre-right criticisms of government economic policy almost entirely irrelevant.

This is what I mean about a skewed media narrative. In its horse race journalism fixations on the new leader of the National Party – did he or didn’t he best PM Jacinda Ardern in the House etc etc- there has been almost zero attention paid to what Luxon is advocating as an alternative to the current economic settings. For all his vaunted experience as a CEO, Christopher Luxon has so far brought nothing whatsoever to the table by way of an alternative economic strategy. All that Luxon has offered (so far) are 40 year old Thatcherite ideas about reducing debt, balancing the budget and tinkering away at the fringes with wasteful government spending. These policies are antiquated relics of a bygone era.

There is a fixation on style – is he John Key Redux?– as though querying Luxon closely about his lack of content would be bad form, and rather mean to such a political novice.

In reality, it seems as if the centre right has slept through the Global Financial Crisis, let alone the Covid recession. In both these crises, the countries that did best – including the US – borrowed and spent their way out of trouble. The countries (mainly in Europe) that did worse during the GFC in particular, had actively embraced the policies of austerity, the ideology of small government and the service cutbacks that the current leadership of the National Party is being allowed to peddle by a compliant media. There’s so much more media interest (and clicks) in the Luxon vs Ardern popularity contest.

Getting on with it

The claim is pretty widespread that there is little – or no – risk presented by double vaccinated people who have pre-tested within 72 hours of travelling and so… Therefore there is no need to maintain MIQ. These assumptions have become a constant drum beat within the coverage of when (faster! sooner!) the cautionary safeguards to protect public health should be lifted.

This view is prevalent despite (a) the known incidence of “ breakthrough” infections among the fully vaccinated, (b) the potential for fraudulent claims of vaccination status and (c) the significantly reduced immunity that two shots of the Pfizer vaccine offer against the Omicron variant. All of which are arguments in favour of a cautious, gradual approach by the government when it comes to lifting restrictions and opening up the borders. Instead, this restraint has been widely depicted as raining on the business parade.

Complacency has bred impatience. Reportedly, we should be like other countries that are opening up and getting on with it. Really? It is worth having a good look at how countries that are “getting on with it/living with Covid” are faring. The UK had 150 Covid deaths and 59,610 new cases on Tuesday, 7,672 people were in hospital from Covid, an increase of 299 on the same day during the previous week. The NHS health system is barely keeping its head above water. The US as of last Monday was averaging 7.052 deaths every day and has had 800,000 deaths from Covid since the pandemic began. Few New Zealanders would accept the UK/US precedents as an acceptable price to pay for having a bit more freedom to shop and mingle.

In Germany over the past month, the Covid situation has steeply deteriorated before recently arriving at a shaky stabilisation. On Monday, Germany reported 21,743 Covid infections and 116 deaths within the previous 24 hours. (However, there was no data submitted for Saxony, an eastern state with the lowest vaccination rate, and the second highest infection rate, in the country.) Across Germany, 4,926 Covid-19 patients are in intensive care and around 56 percent of them are on ventilators.

Norway and Denmark are re-introducing tighter restrictions as case numbers soar. In Australia, NSW recorded 804 new cases on Tuesday, while Victoria recorded a further 1,189. Given the onset of Omicron, some 25,000 cases are being projected across Australia by the end of January. The one positive glimmer among the gloom is that – thanks to the vaccines – deaths are fewer and hospitalisations are shorter in duration. The long-Covid effects however, remain an unknown.

Yes, Australia is removing some of its regulations on mandatory mask wearing in some locations, the size of gatherings etc. It is also welcoming in limited numbers of international students, earlier than New Zealand. But Australia is hardly an example of wholesale opening up, without restrictions. Auckland is now open to inbound and outgoing domestic travel. Western Australia however, will retain a hard border with the rest of Australia until February 5th. A person travelling by train from say, Melbourne to Adelaide will still – by my reading of the South Australian government website – have to meet these conditions :

  • produce a pre-arrival negative test result within 72 hours before arrival
  • take a COVID-19 test on arrival and quarantine until the test result
  • take a COVID-19 test on day 6 after arrival
  • may not enter a High Risk location for 7 days after arrival
  • must check for symptoms once each day for 14 days after arrival.

To me, that sounds considerably more onerous than what Aucklanders have to do before and after flying to Queenstown. As for claims that our government rules on Covid are “confusing” , let the record show that the government of South Australia has changed its requirements on isolation rules three times in the past week. In short, the claim that other countries are getting on with it while we remain a hermit kingdom are (a) fatuous and (b) factually wrong.

To repeat: In asking for a more balanced appreciation of our achievements relative to our failings, I’m not calling for the media to become government apologists or publicists, or to refrain from investigative work that reveals significant failings. My point is that the media narrative on Covid has let itself skew in ways that have unduly amplified the business-driven calls for fewer Covid restrictions. The counter-arguments for caution have been downplayed, or limited to vulnerable Maori and Pasifika communities. There has been an almost total lack of context based on international comparisons.

There has also been precious little evaluation of the alternatives – such as they are – on offer by the government’s critics, both inside and outside Parliament. At some point surely, balanced media criticism needs to evaluate not only what a government is doing, but what outcomes the National Party’s scenario planning would deliver, and how robust its policy simulations are.

This criticism applies to the Opposition’s Covid strategies, but not only to them. Given that the centre-right is proposing a reversion to the small government austerity policies of yesteryear, shouldn’t the wisdom of doing so be being critiqued by the commentariat before it becomes a fait accompli? What would life under Luxon actually look like? If sufficiently alerted, most of the public would probably not welcome fresh cutbacks to public services, so that the top tier of earners can be furnished with another round of tax cuts.

Beyond that… Since its inception, MIQ has been a punching bag for the media and Opposition alike. Yet for all its faults large and trivial, the MIQ system has also enabled the safe and efficient re-integration of huge numbers of Kiwi returnees. Like its counterpart system in Australia it has failed to cope with the extent of the demand from citizens located offshore. On both sides of the Tasman, there have been calls for the magicking into existence overnight of purpose built MIQ facilities. Do such shortcomings mean that MIQ should be scrapped entirely – and at what likely cost in health, wellbeing and infection outcomes? The MIQ system, although being gradually truncated in both countries, persists here and in Australia for a reason.

In sum, the media has to do more to keep its distance and direct its healthy scepticism fairly and equally. Not only at the government – but also at the business lobbyists, and populist politicians who are being allowed, virtually unchallenged, to harvest the public’s feelings of anxiety and discontent.

Footnote: In the US over the past few weeks, the same debate has arisen over the prevailing media narrative on the Biden presidency. Again, the lack of context (e.g. in the coverage of the US exit from Afghanistan) , the relentlessly negative focus on trivialities (e.g. Biden’s cough) and the resort to horse race journalism (e.g. the Biden approval ratings) all have their counterparts here. Here’s a Columbia Journalism Review article on the media’s skewed stances towards Biden.

Much of the recent debate has been kicked off by a (paywalled) column written by the Washington Post’s Dana Millbank, who has argued that the US media’s amplification of what are relatively insignificant government failings is serving to advance the country’s drift to the extreme right. As Millbank says in this MSNBC interview:

“Compare the last four months to the last four months of 2020, when Donald Trump was threatening to not honour the result of a free and fair election..He was embracing the Proud Boys white supremacists, and embracing QAnon. He was sabotaging the Post Office.[Yet] in that period of time he got similar to, and even more favourable, coverage than what Biden is getting today.”

In this situation, the media’s ordinary combative instincts – they originate in the admirable journalistic urge to hold power to account – can be ill-suited to recognising, let alone dealing with, the bigger picture. Because, Millbank argues, the stakes involved in the US are more than the usual party political jockeying between Democrats and Republicans. In his view, the struggle is between small “d” democrats, and authoritarians. As Milbank said in his Post column, “Biden is attempting to re-establish democratic norms. The people opposing him are using fascist tools of deception and voter disenfranchisement. Neutrality in this struggle is not a virtue.”

Footnote Two: Luxon’s CEO experience might be the worst possible preparation and qualification for heading a government. After all, CEOs are answerable only to the shareholders, and their main fidelity is to the bottom line. Yet governments – if they’re competent – need to be willing and able to juggle competing interests, to acknowledge the minority view, and to minimize the risks to the vulnerable, even if this involves sometimes abandoning the quest for optimal economic efficiency.

By and large, the current government has managed that balancing act pretty well. Arguably, by focusing so much coverage on the angrily disgruntled, the media has taken an easy clickable route that downplays – or negates – the fact that such people are actually outliers within what has been so far, a successful response to the pandemic.