First published by The BFD 16th June 2020
The BFD is serialising National MP Chris Penk’s book Flattening the Country by publishing an extract every day.
I am a National Party MP. As such, I’m a member of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, at least for a few more months.
Some have been saying that now is not the right time for politics but what they really mean is that it’s not the right time for democracy.
If now is not the time for politics then there never will be a time for politics. Or indeed democracy.
I pay no heed to cries that we should not discuss decisions that affect all but are made by only a select few.
And I do mean a “select” few, as there was little “elect” about many of those decision makers.
Prior to my relatively recent entry to political life, I did a couple of things in the outside world that have provided me with perspective when it’s come to thinking about the lockdown.
First, I served as a naval officer in a couple of different fleets. I have seen strong and decisive leaders exercising command in settings as diverse as an Australian submarine (in which I was the navigating officer) and an Iraqi oil terminal (on which I was a “battle watch captain”).
Second, I worked as a lawyer for roughly the same number of years as I’d spent in the navy, starting my own firm prior to entering Parliament. I know poorly drafted, loose and uncertain laws when I see them.
Most important and relevant, however, is that I am a local Member of Parliament who fielded hundreds of messages from the good people of the Helensville electorate about the ways in which they were affected – sometimes positively but often negatively – by official orders during the coronavirus crisis.
These are my perspectives. This book is not just my story, though. It’s all of our story, my fellow New Zealanders, whether we like it or not.
Thank you for joining me on this journey.
Where in the world are we?
Despite all the hype and hyperbole, the truth is that New Zealand’s performance in relation to the coronavirus has only been average in international terms. In case you’re wondering, I use that word “average” in the statistical sense, not to imply anything substandard (which would of course be “below average”).
Don’t get me wrong, our performance could have been worse. But then again it could also have been better. That’s the nature of an average performance.
I know that some of the government’s cheerleaders would like to see me hung, drawn and quartered for having the temerity to discuss wealth and health in the same breath, as they’re probably assuming that I’ve just done.
But actually the assessment of our performance as “average” is not based on some kind of crude scorecard in which more points were awarded for economic outcomes and fewer for health ones, with the overall result merely at the median.
It is our coronavirus health outcomes that are average on relevant international indices such as the number of deaths per capita, not the number of international news mentions per Prime Minister.
Incidentally it was deliberate that I used the phrase “coronavirus health outcomes”, as it’s important to distinguish from non-coronavirus health outcomes. The cost to life and limb of postponed surgeries and so forth has been considerable and there is much more water to flow under that bridge. More on that later, however.
As New Zealand transitioned from Alert Level 4 to Level 3 (on 30 April 2020), we ranked number 68 out of 139 countries for which data was held, measured by the number of coronavirus deaths per capita. We were almost exactly mid-table.
A week later (on 6 May 2020), we sat at number 71 of 140 countries on the same measure. Again, almost exactly mid-table.
For those who noticed that the number of countries changed in the intervening week from 139 to 140, I’m sorry to say that
I don’t know why a new country’s worth of data was added in the intervening week, nor why it did not hold data for the remainder of the world’s roughly 200 countries.
The key point is clearly that, as far as we can tell, we’ve been almost exactly mid-table. Like I said, average.
In many ways it’s foolish for us to judge our own nation’s performance by comparing ourselves. Most of us are not so insecure that we need to rely on international comparison for a sense of patriotic self-worth, major sporting fixtures aside.
But to hear the sermons of self-congratulation that have dominated public life in recent times – almost invariably with the implicit or explicit endorsement of our government’s actions – you’d think we’d won a Rugby World Cup.
I count myself as being at least as patriotic as the average Kiwi and feel strongly that we live in the best little country on earth. I have no patience for those within our borders (and even less for those at the United Nations) who like to see us in our worst possible light and not our best.
But those who parrot the propaganda of unearned exceptionalism are doing other nations’ citizens a disservice and no favours to ours either.
How then should we view the performance of New Zealand’s government, for those who do insist on international comparisons?
For better or worse
One approach would be to compare ourselves with those who have fared worse. Almost invariably, that is what the commentariat have chosen to do. The entrails of the United States have been picked over mercilessly, perhaps because of the love-hate relationship (but without the love) that our media enjoys with her President.
It’s certainly the case that America has had a tougher time of it than New Zealand but you hear rather less about most of the nations that have had it tougher still. One evening, after hearing tut-tuts of disapproval louder than a Fourth of July flyover, I checked whether there might be any nations with worse per capita death tolls than the home of the brave and land of the free. Sure enough, there were Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Belgium. These are countries with people who Look Like Us, so are not so easily discounted as some of those others that rarely make Radio New Zealand’s news.
Another approach would be to compare ourselves with those who have fared better, either on coronavirus health terms or otherwise. A writer at Stuff.co.nz compiled an interesting item entitled, “Coronavirus: Five other places winning the battle against Covid-19”.
This analysis included a close look at Taiwan, noting that “[d]espite their proximity to the source”, its 24 million residents “have managed to avoid the kind of lockdowns New Zealanders have faced”.
The article’s author, Farrah Tomazin, credited Taiwan’s low number of coronavirus deaths (just six of those 24 million souls, as at 26 April 2020) to “the culmination of swift decision-making, centralised planning, and good technology”.
Its national government “swiftly took over the production and distribution of medical-grade masks after monitoring commodity spikes to avoid panic buying”.
Even more astonishing is the case of Vietnam, which Newshub reported on 5 May 2020 had experienced exactly zero coronavirus deaths, despite sharing a border with China.
To avoid invidious comparisons, however, the best approach is surely to consider the situation of nations that are most closely similar to our own.
And in order to do that meaningfully we’ll need to think about the relevant factors to the introduction and spread of an infectious disease.
New Zealand is blessed with a number of “natural advantages”, to borrow the phrase of my colleague Simon O’Connor MP, in his much-viewed Facebook post on the subject.
First, we are an island nation with a good thousand nautical miles between us and the next island. That’s New Caledonia, if my high school geography serves me well (and it may not), itself a remote island nation. And of course the only relatively similar (not-so-) near neighbour is Australia, another island nation.
I’ve traversed the Tasman a number of times by sea and I can assure you that it’s pretty large. If New Zealand were a castle, that’d be one impressive moat.
Second, we have very, very, very low population density. I’d say that’s not to the particular credit or blame of any government, although I suppose we can be thankful that our density hasn’t increased to the tune of Labour’s promised (but undelivered) 100,000 Kiwibuild homes.
Third, at the time that other nations were grappling hard with the disease – and our government was slowly starting to recognise that unseen combatant – New Zealand was experiencing dry, warm weather. While our long-suffering farmers and rural folk were gripped by drought, the inhabitants of a certain building in Wellington didn’t know how lucky they were, mate. Conditions completely unconducive to the spread of an airborne communicable disease spared the blushes of the Beehive for many a week.
If our shaky isles were situated at the same latitude in the northern hemisphere as we are to the south, the New Zealand story would have been very different indeed. We got lucky in a metaphorical coin toss on the equator, as it could just as easily have gone the other way.
As University of Otago epidemiologist Nick Wilson put it:
We know with other coronaviruses that they’re highly seasonal, so I’m expecting that summer transmission is low, winter is high. That’s lucky for Australia and New Zealand and other Southern Hemisphere countries. But no politician ever talks about luck. It’s all to their good credit, isn’t it?
Without an actual parallel universe with which to compare notes, we must look to the next best thing to New Zealand to see how we’ve fared.
Australia may be the self-styled “lucky country” but there’s plenty of good management about it too.