Friday, April 3, 2020

Random musings on Covid-19

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, April 2.)

The man who edits this page sensibly suggested in an email to columnists last week that readers might appreciate a break from the constant bombardment with comment about Covid-19. But really, what can you do? To use an old expression, it’s the only game in town.

Here, then, are a few random musings to add to the hubbub.

■ The Covid-19 crisis truly merits the adjective “epochal”. Like the two world wars, the 1918 influenza epidemic and the Great Depression, it has the potential to define an era and leave a mark that will endure for decades. The world will look and feel quite different when we eventually come out the other side. We don’t yet know how it will be different; we just know that it will be. Already things feel very different from how they were only two weeks ago, and we have no idea where we will end up. In fact not knowing is the hardest part. It may be a cliché to say we’re in uncharted territory, but there’s a reason why clichés become clichés. It’s because they usually express a truth.

■ On a cosmic level, Covid-19 is a humbling slap-down. It reminds us that we’re not masters of the universe, as we liked to think. For all its immense sophistication and achievement, medical science suddenly looks almost puny against a malignant force of nature. For its part, the global economy has been exposed as being far more fragile than anyone imagined. And note how quickly some countries have rediscovered their nationalistic impulses, retreating into their shells and closing borders. We can only hope this doesn’t translate into the revival of historic rivalries, suspicions and enmities.

■ New Zealand is better placed than most countries to deal with this crisis. We’re an intimate, cohesive society with a strong sense of communal solidarity. We haven’t become so cynical that we can’t still harness the we’re-all-in-this-together spirit that used to keep the populace energised during telethons (remember them?). That’s one reason people were so unhappy about the forced closure of free community papers. These hyper-local papers are the only ones many people see. They are important not only as a means of keeping people informed about local affairs but also for making them feel connected to the wider community, which is never more valuable than at a time when many are feeling anxious and isolated. It was one of the government’s few missteps and the partial backdown announced on Tuesday doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.  

■ Even within my own social sphere, I’m aware of people having to cope with painful personal consequences arising from Covid-19. In one instance, a family lost a husband and father when he died during what was expected to be routine surgery. Hospital visits had been banned, so they never saw him in his final days, and to compound their grief there was no funeral. In another case, a friend who was in the habit of visiting his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife every day can no longer do so because the rest home where she’s a resident had no option but to go into lockdown. Husband and wife are thus prevented from spending precious daily time together, and no one can say when – or even if – things will return to normal. Sad circumstances such as these will be causing anguish throughout the country.

■ Everyone’s trying hard not to politicise Covid-19, but it needs to be said that so far, Jacinda Ardern and her top-tier team have handled the crisis commendably enough to almost guarantee a second term, should this year’s election go ahead. That “so far” is an important qualifier, though. There’s still a long way to go, and a difficult balance to be struck between decisive government and heavy-handed interference in personal freedoms. Watch this space.

■ What an ironic paradox that at a time when people might feel the need to turn to religion for hope, comfort and reassurance, church doors are closed. A golden marketing opportunity missed, a cynic might say.

■ Hardship can take multiple forms. Many New Zealanders would never dream of patronising McDonald’s or KFC, but for a significant demographic group, fast food is a staple. They’ll be suffering now that it’s denied them. Good, you might say; perhaps the lockdown will break bad eating habits – but that doesn’t necessarily follow. I feel sorry for them.

■ All news media should make a point of regularly highlighting the number of people who have been treated for Covid-19 and recovered. It’s a small thing, but an important reminder that it’s not a death sentence. Many victims experience only mild symptoms and are over it within a few days.

■ We have a large, cheerful-looking teddy bear in our lounge window. Regular readers will know I’m not usually a teddy-bear type of guy, but children passing with their parents on the footpath point and smile when they see him. That can only be a good thing.


Andy Espersen said...

May I add to your musings a fact which actually may in the end badly damage Labour's chances for return to power (which you suggest is secure). Our Government's "Lock-down" is significantly harsher and unnecessarily more oppressive than most other democratic nations. Denmark, for example do not make travel or visiting illegal - they only advise against it; in effect, it is left to each free citizen to decide for him/herself what is essential and what is not. And all small shops and small businesses are continuing to work as usual - though with many getting few customers because people all stay at home.They all get handsomely compensated by the state for their losses. It works splendidly because by far the majority of Danes follow the advice. Trains and domestic planes are still working - but they are few and far between and half empty. Sweden so far has not gone into any official lock-down - but may yet do so. New Zealand is so aggressive in its policy because Government here is aiming for complete eradication of the virus - whereas all other nations only hope to slow down the virus so that health services don't get overwhelmed.

When this dawns on people, I think we will see a significant back-lash against the coalition government.

Brendan McNeill said...


I suspect your small town, largely homogenious, semi-rual, geograpic location allows you to say "We’re an intimate, cohesive society with a strong sense of communal solidarity." This may well be true locally in many parts of New Zealand, but has not been a reality in our nation for decades.

Too many of our political and educational elites have embraced the tribalism of identity politics, and unashamedly seek to devide us on the basis of our differences into the 'just' and the 'unjust'. You know this of course.

For now, most of us are prepared to give the lockdown a chance, despite the economic impacts that will be with us for decades. I suspect however the mood will change if, after four weeks, the PM and her advisors impose an extension.

Living in a bubble can be dangerous at the best of times. Let's hope the PM has developed the ability to hear contrary voices, and make good decissions when only 'least worse options' exist.

Karl du Fresne said...

Fortunately the political and educational elites (you forgot to mention the media) don't represent the New Zealand mainstream.

Scott said...

Well we would open the churches but we are forced to close them by law. Here at Masterton Baptist Church we have gone online, services are on our church Facebook page.
But if by chance we did open our doors I'm fairly sure the police would close us down 🙄

Andy Espersen said...

Yes,"Scott". Government has passed legislation closing church gatherings. This, of course, goes against what has hitherto been regarded as accepted human right. As a regular church goer myself, I am very sad that our churches meekly accept such dictate from authorities. All our churches, Christian, Muslim, etc, alike, should reject such command. We should simply continue having our usual services - and, yes. welcome arrests by tyrannical authority. In all previous pandemics (and humankind have suffered from such since time immemorial), churches were where people gained strength and hope to cope with a pandemic. I actually wonder whether our democratic government has the legal right to pass legislation that transgresses people's personal liberty in such disgusting manner. Someone should take this government to court, I think. I would gladly pay towards his/her legal expenses.

Brendan McNeill said...


I understand your personal frustration at not being able to freely attend the church of your choice this Sunday. However, as a fellow Christian I would suggest there is a world of difference between a totalitarian government, like China, that closes Christian churches, and persecutes Muslims for ideological reasons, and a democratically elected government that closes down all public gatherings, including churches to prevent the spread of a viral pandemic.

It would be less than a faithful expression of Christian love or compassion to facilitate a community based infection of COVID-19 because of a stubborn refusal to obey what on the surface at least, appears like a reasonable government response to a potential health crisis.

Christians continue to meet in China, often at considerable personal risk, as they did in Communist Russia, and as they do today in fundamentalist Islamic countries. Thankfully, we are not in that situation. This too shall pass, and in good time our freedoms will be restored.

Dan said...

I don't think a shuttered building is an accurate reflection of the church in these times.
I know many of churches are taking their services and regular meetings online, and are finding that they're getting record attendance, reaching a number of people who might otherwise not attend.
I've found that people are engaging with each other like never before (WhatsApp groups, more TXT messages, Zoom meetings, etc.), which is all the more necessary in these times, but hopefully forms a habit that will continue once the lockdown is lifted.

Andy Espersen said...

Brendan McNeill – I did not question the value or otherwise of closing large gatherings - I questioned the legal right of Government to close religious services. This is all quite similar to what happened last week when Kris Faafoi’s ill-considered action in declaring half our news media non-essential resulted in us losing all our beloved weekly and monthly news publications. I’m sure he got Brownie-points from Jacinda for being such a good boy at doing proper, thorough lock-downs. However, when, on sound legal grounds, she was faced with legal action from The Free Speech Coalition, she caved in and reneged - but, alas, too late to save the publications.

Government has no right to assume the responsibility of deciding what is essential and what is not. All they can and must do is to advise what they think is right. Just today I hear our Maori population tearfully protesting about restrictions to their funerals. It is unconscionable that a democratic government wants to decide how free people conduct their funerals - and their religion. Churches should remain open – that is their inalienable human right. Each free person should decide whether it is essential to join their services or not. I may think it is essential to go visiting a dying parent - whereas you perhaps don’t really care. You may think it is far more important that you don’t catch the virus!

Does the end justify the means?

Brendan McNeill said...


Along with being people of faith, we are also citizens of this nation of New Zealand. We have obligations and responsibilities both to our democratically elected government, and also to our neighbour. Jesus never insisted upon his ‘rights’ be they ‘human rights’ or otherwise; neither should we, particularly if in their exercise we risk endangering the lives of others.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 13:1-5 he reminds us that God has appointed those in authority for our good, and that we should submit to them as a matter of conscience. I also lament some of the decisions that have been made by the Government, and agree that preventing loved ones from attending funerals is a draconian over-reach.

There is a time and place for civil disobedience, but not when we as a nation are attempting to deal with what may be the worst pandemic we have faced in a generation. Of all people, we should be acting responsibly, and encouraging others to do the same.

Doug Longmire said...

Hi Karl,
Thank you for a well balanced and positive comment on the current situation, and the way it has been managed by the Govt.
I am not at all a fan of Ardern in general (ex leader of the world junior communist party). But - the statistics to date indicate that the NZ situation is very much better handled than in most other countries. I also think there has been just a bit too much OTT criticism of the P.M.

Max said...


In my view there can be no such thing as OTT criticism of the PM, or those ruling us.
That sort of scrutiny is now more important than ever.

Andy Espersen said...

Agree fully with you, Max, re Doug Longmire's comment. Karl did not actually write a "well-balanced and positive comment" (whatever that means) on the situation - he wrote a string of musings, not amounting to much more than a string of honest questions.

And yes - more than ever, free citizens need to scrutinise and question what our government is doing. But we do not see any free debate here about the value or otherwise of total lock-downs. One would think that is particularly relevant as the strictness, inclusiveness and ethics of these vary enormously among nations.

I wish Karl would facilitate a platform just for free thoughts and opinions about this absolutely unprecedented situation we suddenly find ourselves in. We need that very badly - particularly as the Ardern government's lock-down is (I postulate) the strictest and harshest in the world.