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Covid from a Kiwi Perspective

Published
May 2, 2020
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WELL I’ve just got off the phone to my dad in the old folks’ home. Gosh, are they glad they’re in New Zealand, and so are the rest of us Kiwis.

It looks like the Covid-19 will soon be squeezed out entirely from New Zealand, and then we just have to make sure it doesn’t get back in.

People say that New Zealand is a special case because it’s an isolated island nation in the middle of the Earth’s ‘Water Hemisphere’.

The Water Hemisphere. By ‘Citynoise’, CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Or that it’s not very densely populated, with five million people in a land that’s larger than the United Kingdom.

But these are really just excuses.

For one thing, most of New Zealand is covered in mountains: the mountains that help to make New Zealand so scenic.

Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, a major scenic attraction in south-west New Zealand. The tall peak in the middle, Mitre Peak, is more than a mile high.

But hardly anyone lives in the mountains. The bits where the people live are just as densely populated as anywhere else. They include Auckland, a city of 1.6 million.

New Zealand Topographical Map. Source: Gingko Maps, with four historic main port cities superimposed.

The idea that New Zealanders are all country-dwellers who live a long way apart isn’t true at all!

As to the island bit, did you know that individual American states are allowed to close their borders to other states in a public health emergency? They can make themselves into islands too, if they want.

The same’s true of individual countries in places like Europe. And several densely-populated Asian countries have pretty much crushed the virus too.

So, there are basically no excuses for not stamping out the coronavirus. It’s just a question of being organised, in ways that a lot of other countries aren’t.

Worldwide Recorded Coronavirus Cases. Source: Worldometer.info, 1 May 2020

People are saying that the countries most organised to defeat Covid-19 often seem to have female leaders: “few with female leaders have done badly,” says a columnist in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Current female leaders whose countries have done reasonably well at containing Covid-19: clockwise from top left, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Sint Maarten’s Silveria Jacobs, Iceland’s Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Finland’s Sanna Marin, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Norway’s Erna Solberg, and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen. Sources of images hyperlinked.

No-one really knows why this is so, as yet. But it’s clear that the countries that got on top of the virus also acted fast. Perhaps female leaders are more focused on everyday domestic realities that include getting sick. Men may be more interested in other issues and thus behind the 8-ball in a crisis that demanded a country “go hard and go early.” That’s how Jacinda Ardern put it when she announced New Zealand’s lockdown, at a time when there were still only a few cases here in NZ.

People like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump were still hoping against all the evidence that it would go away by itself or be no worse than the regular winter flu when their countries were at the same stage. Not to mention the likes of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

From left: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Sources of images hyperlinked.

All the same, nearly every country was caught napping at first. And that’s even though the scientists knew a pandemic was coming and had constantly been urging the politicians to prepare, by increasing intensive care capacity, stockpiling protective masks and gowns so they wouldn’t run out (how hard is that?), and so on.

When coronavirus hit, it turned out that in most countries, preparations for a pandemic were practically non-existent. The cupboards that were supposed to contain the extra masks and gowns were bare and the politicians’ response was ‘What, what?’.

There’s a thriller just published, called End of October, that describes something like the current pandemic in detail. including the fact that most governments were taken completely by surprise even though they shouldn’t have been. As one reviewer says, if a “f**** airport thriller” could predict what was going to happen with a fair degree of accuracy, why were all the politicians AWOL until just about now?

The only real exception was the group of Asian countries hit by the related disease, SARS, back in 2003: they had been prepping seriously ever since.

Anyhow, here in NZ we’ve just eased the strict lockdown, and a lot people are acting like the crisis is over. Hardly anyone seems to be wearing a mask. This is something the government is worried about. For obvious reasons, it wants to steer a middle of the road path until we manage to get a vaccine or a cure.

The author and her bike

Meanwhile I’m enjoying myself roaming farther afield on my old bike than I could before. And discovering some drawbacks to riding greater distances on a cheap bike with a wobbly seat.

Talkin’ bout a Revolution?

The big test will be the economic fallout. The lockdown is causing a slump, and it looks like there won’t be many tourists visiting New Zealand for some time to come. The skifields around Queenstown, where I’m normally based, won’t be opening this winter either, though they will probably re-open in 2021.

More alarmingly, the iconic Shotover Jets jetboating operation, which features in just about every NZ tourism advertisement, has actually gone out of business. Collapsed. Gone bust. So too have several the country’s most iconic magazines including the New Zealand Listener, published since 1939, RIP 2020.

As the Kiwi political commentator Bryce Edwards also points out, Jacinda Ardern might be the hero of the moment at home and abroad for “blitzing” the actual disease. But come the general elections scheduled for later this year, if by that stage a-post-lockdown slump means that too many are on the bones of their arses (as we say), it might be a different story.

So far, the New Zealand Government has been quite generous in doling out short-term relief. So have the governments of some other countries such as Denmark. But what’s going to happen in the long run?

In America, where the social safety net is a lot more threadbare — so much so that tens of thousands of medical staff are being laid off to save the hospitals money! — but where the government has all the same just voted $2 trillion to prop up the banks and big business just like the time before and the time before that, we’ve just seen an armed militia group occupy the Michigan state capitol, egged on by President Trump. It’s an “only in America” moment. The militia are demanding an end to lockdown conditions because the people at the bottom are hardly getting any relief at all.

America is also heading for a huge confrontation between the federal government and the states, as the Federal Government is refusing to completely bail out state and local governments hit hard by the slump, with Senate leader Mitch McConnell proposing that the states be allowed to go bankrupt. Meanwhile, a number of the states are forming alliances with each other such as the Western States Pact.

A lot of people think that there are a great many instabilities in society and the Covid-19 pandemic has just exposed the faultlines, in much the same way that a series of failed harvests contributed to the French Revolution of 1789. And that there are, indeed, parallels to the time of the coronavirus.

For instance, the introduction of automation is going to be sped up so that meat processing plants (collapsing in the USA) and other essential industries can be kept going more easily in future without sickness-prone workforces crowded together. Years of automation are happening in months.

Many economists think that there’s going to be Depression-era unemployment for years to come, perhaps forever now.

In the years to come, just as there seems to be a divide between countries that have acted fast to deal with Coronavirus and those that have dithered, so a divide’s likely to open up between countries that can “reset” themselves to cope with current issues like poverty, inequality and technological unemployment in a visionary way, and those that will just dither until they are hit by some kind of revolution.

Note: The title for the last section is, of course, borrowed from a well known Tracy Chapman song.

Check out the front page of this website for a free epub / PDF copy of my first book, A Maverick Traveller, under Giveaways at the top.

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