The Queen’s Gambit

According to epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker, the decision to end the second Auckland lockdown after just three days was a ‘calculated risk’. The possibility of undetected community transmission cannot be ruled out. In the United States, modelling by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the virus is mostly spread by asymptomatic people. This means that the real infection rate could be much higher than the official count. For example, a study by researchers at the Australian National University estimated that up to 70,000 Australians were unknowingly infected.

While these findings are contested, the reality of hidden transmission is inescapable. But the Ardern Government is reluctant to acknowledge its existence. In January, the Ministry of Health finally admitted that there ‘probably’ had been undetected cases in the community last year. With the most recent Auckland outbreak, a relatively small number of tests has given public health officials confidence that the virus is once again under control. This must surely allow for the chance that some of the tests have returned false-negatives. However, according to Worldometer, the current rate of testing in New Zealand lags well behind Australia.

As the Prime Minister explained on Wednesday: ‘Just remember, of course, Level 2 is designed to have situations where we are contact tracing individuals who are casual or close contacts in the community’. It would appear that Jacinda Ardern is comfortable with the likelihood that the number of cases will increase under Level 2. This is at odds with her stance in 2020. Back then, the Prime Minister declared there would be ‘zero tolerance for [community] cases’. Lockdown measures were to be in place for at least a full infection cycle. The hardline response to the August outbreak reinforced her government’s precautionary approach. 

While the situation in August was more urgent, it is clear that Ardern sees the world differently now. What explains this change in outlook?

At the height of the epidemic, Ardern revealed herself to be a conviction politician. She made elimination into a moral crusade and inspired the ‘Team of Five Million’ to rally behind her. New Zealanders were willing to sacrifice their freedom to protect the old and immunocompromised. Her edict to ‘be kind’ became our national motto. The country united to defeat Covid-19, and won. Twice. It was a source of pride for Ardern. ‘Your efforts continue to set us apart,’ she told us in September. ‘You’re being adaptable, patient and determined – this has all been critical to our stamp-it-out approach.’

But that ‘stamp-it-out’ approach was not on display this past week. If it had been, the Ardern Government would have listened to the advice of experts like Professor Baker, who recommended mandatory mask use indoors and new rules for social distancing. Instead, the Cabinet preferred to work on the assumption that there is nothing more to stamp out. Behind this decision is a tacit understanding that the adaptability, patience and determination of New Zealanders may be wearing thin. 

If the virus does reappear in the community, public health officials will recommend a further lockdown. By then it could be too late to prevent a major outbreak. This must have been weighing on Ardern when she spoke of her ‘indescribable anxiety’ following Cabinet’s decision to end the second Auckland lockdown. Anxiety is a normal reaction to uncertainty and the fear of losing control. We have all experienced it. In psychology, most experts would agree that anxiety can be a good thing. The nationwide lockdown in March saved many lives but it would not have happened without collective fear. 

That fear has now subsided. It is only Ardern, her officials, and a few scientists, who lie awake at night. The rest of New Zealand very much sees the virus as someone else’s problem. Of course, everyone wants to keep it out. But the notion of another major outbreak is generally dismissed as fear-mongering. There is a restlessness to move on. Given so few cases, and the apparent success of containment, it makes sense that New Zealanders are prepared to accept greater risk. They have been encouraged by an illusion of control. Until now, the occasional border ‘leakage’ has been managed. 

Ardern’s personal anxiety has given way to this illusory sense of control. Her government is now more influenced by optimism than precaution. Ministers have a high degree of confidence in the future. Any community cases will be identified and isolated before there is a ‘superspreading’ event. The vaccination of border and quarantine staff will be effective. If, despite these successful measures, there is a new outbreak, it will be contained without the need for another nationwide lockdown. There must also be confidence that no New Zealanders will die of Covid-19 in the community this year.

There is good cause for optimism. New Zealand has led the Anglo-American world in its pandemic response. But we cannot know the future. Covid-19 is likely to be with us for many years. Thus far, New Zealand has relied on geography to protect itself. With the arrival of a vaccine it is hoped that we may soon reopen the border. Even then, it is plausible that the virus will continue to spread and new variants may grow resistant to the vaccine. In pursuing the elimination strategy last year, Ardern believed that life would soon return to normal. She did not anticipate a future of recurring lockdowns and no travel.

‘I will never be comfortable with Covid-19,’ Ardern reiterated on Wednesday. ‘But you do learn things’. It is the closest the Prime Minister has come to admitting that events may not be in her control after all. And yet, she has gambled on the best possible outcome. There can be no going back.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.

The Year of Reckoning

For most New Zealanders, the Covid-19 pandemic ended on 8 June 2020. That was the day Jacinda Ardern declared New Zealand had ‘eliminated’ the virus.Tragically, 22 people were dead but 1,482 others had recovered to full health. For the first time since February there were no more active cases in the community or at the border. The announcement was met with surprise and jubilation. The Prime Minister herself confessed to marking the occasion with a ‘little dance’ at home. While most other countries struggled to contain the virus, New Zealand would return to a state of normality.

Having done its part, the ‘Team of Five Million’ was encouraged to get out and see the country. Parties and concerts were back on. Strangers were allowed to mingle again. Social distancing became a nicety rather than a matter of life and death. Although public health experts continued to warn about the ever-present risk of another outbreak, the government assured us that strict border measures, and a state of the art contact tracing system would keep New Zealand safe. The belief that New Zealand was ‘Covid-free’ persisted for more than 100 days before a mysterious outbreak in Auckland led to a second lockdown and another death. 

Even then, an illusion of control reassured New Zealanders that normality would soon return – and it did. But wilful ignorance may also have played a role. Last month, the Ministry of Health admitted that undetected community transmission likely did occur back in June. According to one study, the false-negative rate for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is 20% when performed five-days after infection. The rate can be much higher when the test is performed earlier in an infection. Perhaps this is why the so-called ‘burning ember’ hypothesis to explain the August outbreak was never entirely ruled out. Rather, we forgot about it.

Six months later Auckland is once again in a Level 3 lockdown while health officials investigate the source of new community cases. It was always a fantastical notion that the problems of 2020 would disappear at midnight on 31 December. The reality of life in 2021 is that New Zealanders must accept further disruption and uncertainty. Travel restrictions will remain. Entire industries have been decimated, and thousands put out of work. It is true that government intervention has staved off the worst. However, it would not take much to upset this equilibrium. If new cases emerge outside of Auckland then a second nationwide lockdown is possible.

Until now, public health officials have worked on the assumption that multiple lines of defence at the border are sufficient to prevent a major community outbreak. Past experience appears to support this. But regardless of whether the latest index case was infected at the border, we should not be surprised if there is now a chain of transmission in the community. Even if we stamp it out again, the border is not impenetrable. There will be a next time. The vaccine may significantly reduce the public health risk but we do not yet know how effective it will be in the long-run. After all, the vaccine has not been evaluated on its ability to prevent transmission. 

So long as Covid-19 remains endemic in the world, New Zealand has no choice but to live with it. If the objective is to prevent loss of life, then the Ardern Government’s elimination strategy is proven to work. But it has come at the expense of livelihoods, not to mention psychological and emotional harm. Yet most agree the short-term cost was worth it. As the great philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote of politics, ‘We are doomed to choose and every choice may entail irreparable loss’. For elimination to work long-term, New Zealanders must accept a permanent change in their way of life. Social distancing and mask use would need to become culturally ingrained, international travel a relic of the past. We might also need to give up some of our privacy for contact tracing.

It is unclear if New Zealanders are willing to live in such a regimented society. While many have felt pride in the country’s ‘Covid-free’ status, few have considered the long-term implications of elimination. There has always been a sense that, sooner or later, life will return to ‘normal’. The promise of international travel again has felt tantalisingly closer with each vaccine trial. This delusion is encouraged by politicians and the media alike. When a community case was reported in Northland, two weeks before Waitangi Day, the government urged people not to change their holiday plans. It was business as usual. For their part, journalists have presented the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as if it were a panacea. 

But there are no panaceas and life can never be the same. The last 12 months should have been a lesson in humility for our species. Despite technological wonders and immense knowledge, there is much about the natural world that eludes human control. It is not within the power of any government, or science, to make the virus go away. When it comes to dealing with this existential threat, the Prime Minister must give up on the illusion of control and persuade New Zealanders to live differently. It would be her greatest accomplishment. If she fails, this will be a year of reckoning.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.

The Psychology of Ardernism

Simon Bridges could have been the Prime Minister. Opinion polls in February suggested a close election, with Colmar Brunton giving the centre-right National/ACT bloc a marginal lead over Labour and the Greens. The Coalition Government looked weak and ineffectual.

There was a strong possibility that Jacinda Ardern would be out of office by Christmas.

For the million or so who voted National in 2017, there was no reason to change parties. But the appeal was nostalgic. National had become a symbol of prosperity and strength in the 2010s. It was Sir John Key’s legacy. Bridges, like Bill English, became a custodian of that inheritance.

However, no political party can rest on its laurels forever. When Bridges admonished the government for a litany of failures during the nationwide lockdown, he was basking in Sir John’s afterglow. But the halo of Jacinda Ardern shone brighter. Having defeated Covid-19, the Prime Minister could do no wrong.

The moment of truth came when Bridges went on Facebook to vent his frustration at the Level 3 extension in April. The post received thousands of negative comments. Bridges was unapologetic. But polling soon revealed a collapse in National support and a few weeks later the man who might have been Prime Minister was sacked by his caucus.

As it turned out, the problem wasn’t just Bridges. Two other leaders have failed to restore National’s status with the public. Commentators attribute it to bad PR. If so and so had been less abrasive, if they were more positive, if this announcement or that had been framed in a different way, then National would be polling higher.

These considerations may explain a percentage point or two difference but they don’t give us much insight beyond that. An obscure 1985 book by the late Australian political scientist Graham Little offers a different explanation.

In “Political Ensembles”, Little described a psychosocial approach to understanding leadership and politics. The hypothesis was that we follow leaders who help us resolve an eternal human dilemma: the inner-conflict between our psychological need for others and a yearning to be independent.

Little called this the “self/other dilemma”. There are three basic solutions. One may elevate the self above others, or they may see others as an extension of the self. Alternatively, one might attempt to have it both ways and find a compromise. The politics that one gravitates to will depend on how this problem is resolved. These solutions engender different leaders.

The individualist, who sees life as a contest, will look to a “strong leader” who can provide structure and meaning in an otherwise chaotic world. But others find comfort in belonging to a group. Thus, a collectivist solution presents itself to those willing to surrender their freedom and independence in return for emotional security from a “group leader”.

Others may look to an “inspirational leader” for a more elegant, if less attainable solution. But life is never that simple. Eventually, the flaws of one solution become apparent and we look to another. This is also true for society as a whole. Little believed that political events reflect the changing psychosocial dynamics of the electorate.

Hence, the same country that elected Barack Obama could also elect Donald Trump. And so it is in New Zealand. Covid-19 laid bare the eternal dilemma at the heart of our politics. After slumbering for a decade in Sir John’s paradise, the contented middle-class woke up to a nightmare. Ardern was there to comfort them.

Her leadership exemplifies the type of politics that Little identified with a collectivist approach to the self/other dilemma. The underlying assumption is that we are dependent on others for protection. Thus, the relationship is based on a desire to be cared for and a fear of responsibility. An individual leader comes to symbolise this dependency.

In 2020, we became dependent on Ardern to make us feel safe. For a large number of New Zealanders, this was stultifying and even childlike. They have a voice in Judith Collins who, like Margaret Thatcher, fits the archetype of what Little called a strong leader. But it is clear that most have put “other” before “self” in this election.

Ardern must now go on making us feel safe. If there comes a time when she can no longer do so, New Zealanders may start to think for themselves again.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.

Survey results: partisanship online

I recently conducted a brief survey of politically-minded Facebook and Twitter users to gauge partisanship online. There were 239 respondents in total. I must stress that the poll is unscientific. The sample is too small to be statistically significant and, as with any opt-in survey, there is a self-selection bias. So it is not representative of the voting public. But it does give some insight into the leanings of those who engage in political discussions online.

The two main questions I asked were, “Which party do you feel closest to?” and “If a general election were held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?”. Both of these questions were answered by all 239 respondents. Here are the final results:

Which party do you feel closest to?

NZ First3.77%
I don’t feel close to any party18.41%

If a general election were held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?

NZ First2.14%
Advance NZ/Public Party20.09%
I don’t know4.27%

Yes, you read that right – 20% said they would vote for the new Jami-Lee Ross/Billy Te Kahika-led Advance NZ. That was slightly higher than the number who intend to vote Labour and more than twice the number voting ACT.

Interestingly, 30% answered ‘Other’ to the question about which party they felt closest to. This is also reflected in the level of support for the NewConservatives. Again, I must emphasise that it is not a scientific poll. But it does suggest to me that support for minor parties is remarkably strong online. This appears to come disproportionately from the right.

In my view, that isn’t something to be dismissed out of hand.