The public health experts knew it was coming. Senior ministers knew it was coming. Were they as prepared as they might have been? No. But then, who in New Zealand was back at the end of February 2020?
And then it came through. A woman fresh back from Iran. Quite possibly not our first case, but our first confirmed case of Covid-19.
That was a year ago.
In that time, we have objectively enjoyed a much better life than most other people on Earth. Sure, we’ve had lockdowns. We’ve had community outbreaks. We’ve had deaths. People have lost jobs. Businesses have gone under. At an individual level, if you’ve suffered a dramatic change in your life, or lost a loved one to Covid-19, these words won’t be much comfort.
But the can be no disputing the fact... the overall standard of living in New Zealand in the year since our first case, has been so much better than pretty much anywhere else. While Europe and America have been hunkered down in months-long lockdowns, and refrigerated trucks have been turned into overflow morgues, we’ve been at Six60 concerts or out for birthday dinners.
To what and to whom do we owe that year? It’s obvious isn’t it?
We’ve benefited from a few things. Circumstance. Good leadership. Good luck.
We’re an island nation three thousand kilometres from anywhere else. We’re not jammed into cities like sardines. We’re also a nation of generally reasonable and sensible people. We have a few muppets, sure, but most of us are prepared to heed public health warnings and wear a mask if we’re told to.
From the government perspective, they’ve done a few things especially well. Jacinda Ardern’s communication skills are her single-greatest strength and she has used those skills to maximum effect. The Director General of Health is a similarly talented communicator and together they make an incredibly effective tag team. The strategy around the Alert Level system seems so simple... but it’s a work of genius. It gives us all a common language. The viology of Covid-19 is super complex, but kids understand the Alert Level system. And even though the rules have changed and things have moved around... it doesn’t matter. The Alert Level system gives us a story. Together we can see progress.
Grant Robertson was fast to act and our economy today is in a far, far better place than most analysts thought it would be. Unemployment is under 5%. GDP and government revenues are higher than expected. That wage support scheme, which had a very low barrier to entry, has been a godsend. Even TVNZ is in a position to pay $5 million back!
Of course, it hasn’t been a faultless effort. The public health response has had snares and hitches. I still find it inexcusable that for months we didn’t have a better system for ensuring frontline staff were being regularly tested. That we didn’t have a greater outbreaks as a result seems pretty remarkable, given how insidious this virus is. As a result of our economic strategy, the housing market is experiencing wild inflation and we’ll be living with the impact for years to come. The people most likely to lose their jobs were the people who were already at the bottom of the heap.
So. One year. Vaccine distribution has begun. The bubble with Rarotonga is opening. Progress comes slow, but it’s progress nonetheless.
Clearly it’ll take years before we can truly judge the overall Covid-19 response. But you don’t have to look too far to see how bad things could have been. And no matter what happens from now, no matter how long it takes us to reopen borders and get back to life as it once was, no one can take that year away from us.