Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Guest post: Alwyn Poole

Alwyn Poole has kindly allowed me to post the following commentary. An innovative thinker on education issues, Alwyn was the founder of two successful partnership or “charter” schools (officially known as designated special character schools) in Auckland and co-founded Innovation Education Consultants.
The Value of a Life
It is astonishing how quickly key foundations of education and society can become twisted or subverted. A genuine proponent of education advocates important foundations: question everything, critique everything, suggest and evaluate counter scenarios (and other “experts”), ask who gains and who loses from a particular action, attack the argument and not the person. Children, youth and indeed all citizens need to apply these principles to current events and what appears to be deep moral confusion.
Everyone dies. It is maybe the least digestible fact of life, but the rate of death in every generation is 100 percent. I complained about this to my mother once and she placated me by saying that it wouldn’t happen to me. I was eight years old and at that stage accepted my immortality. In New Zealand in 2018, 33,225 human beings died. That is a little over 91 people per day. Apart from media coverage of road deaths and murders these deaths, by and large, pass unnoticed except for those close enough to attend the funerals.
In 2020 we have suddenly decided, as a society caught up in a global emergency, that these lives are more important than ever before. We have decided this to the extent that we have severely damaged significant sections of the economy, drastically restricted human rights, and allowed a very small sector of government to create edicts without due process or challenge.
New Zealand is a tiny country. If we were an American state we would rank approximately 24th by population, making all comparisons of Jacinda Ardern’s job to that of Donald Trump fatuous at best. Her role is closer to that of governor of a small state. We are highly disconnected geographically and uniquely placed to make our own decisions. We are resource-rich and relatively well educated. We should be looking at the big health picture and not being dragged into an international bunfight to prove that we can deprive citizens of their rights better than any other for very little relative gain.
As of yesterday, 19 New Zealanders had died from Covid-19. It could be argued that without state intervention it could have been more. You could argue the same if you chose not to have speed limit enforcement or mental health services. If 2020 is reasonably typical we will see around 670 people die from suicide (2.5 men for each woman, and disproportionately Maori). We will see approximately 70 homicide deaths. If this year is typical around 200,000 of us will get influenza (even with the ’flu vaccine being widely available) and between 400 and 500 will die either “with” or “because of” this virus.
Around 30 percent of our premature deaths will involve cancer and many of those will be associated with lack of early detection, alcohol and an unwillingness to seek help. At the other end of life we have thousands of babies born each year with foetal alcohol syndrome; suffering that we could surely ameliorate with the right spending and education for pregnant women.
The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, to which New Zealand is a signatory, says “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth”.  In New Zealand, we have suddenly decided that every life is of incredible value and yet we ignore this declaration. Justice Minister  Andrew Little looked uncommonly gleeful when changing the abortion law and telling Kiwis that they did not deserve a say through a referendum. There were 13,282 unborn children who lost their lives in 2018 in our life-valuing nation. It is also more than ironic that in this year’s elections, when we are desperate to save every life, we will be voting on euthanasia.
Turning to suicide, a very credible US study has concluded that the correlation between unemployment and suicide is that for every 1 percent increase in unemployment there is a 21 per 100,000 increase in suicides. In New Zealand, brilliant mental well-being campaigners like Mike King and Paul Whatuira have struggled to get even a sideways (excuse the pun) glance from government to support their wonderful work. If we truly value life as we now seem to have chosen to do, these two men and others like them should never have to ask again. We are all touched by suicide (my birth dad’s choice of exit was a shotgun to the head); it is time to do ALL that we can.
John Donne was brilliantly right: “Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
I miss my parents and many others. We are right to take a strong stand to value life and be against premature death. What we should now ask of our leaders is that they be consistent and place equal value on the risks, both physical and mental, for all people. One of the important roles of teachers in a crisis situation is to hear students’ questions and concerns with an open mind and allow them to work their way through things. Suppressing this process can only lead to conformity for the sake of it and a deep sense of helplessness.


Desperado said...

Totally agree with the comments and the hypocrisy of not only Labour but National also (based on their majority votes for the abortion bill). Finally, Alwyn, tragic way for your Dad to go, my heart goes out to you.

Alwyn Poole said...

Thank you. Each life really does matter but the manner of passing can get inside your head. I had not met my father, came close but it didn't work. He must have had some real pain to do what he did.

Hilary Taylor said...

Thank you for this reflective piece, which is the sort of nugget that keeps many of us going. Wading through the often shallow verbiage trucked in the dailies can be dispiriting...the personality cult of the PM, the mindless mantras generated by the covid PR machine, the lack of balance & depth to much print material, not to mention TV. None of those sad human ironies wrought in the political process are lost all...Keep it up.

Andy Espersen said...

It is a relief to read Alwyn Poole’s intelligent, perceptive essay. And how right he is. Questioning, critiquing everything is precisely what we, as a society, never do these days. Once upon a time we had a 4th Estate, proud of their free, independent journalists who without fear or favour did just that : questioned and criticised. That is no more.

The pathetic remnants of our monopolised news media are now far too busy breathlessly indoctrinating us all to their particular understanding of things. And they have no space to publish articles like Alwyn Poole’s - which is why Karl du Fresne’s blog now comes in more important than ever.

Brendan McNeill said...

This government of "kindess", along with their allies in the National party has delivered some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world. All lives matter, except for those in the womb.

What is it about the human condition that places personal convenience above the life of an unborn child? Yes, there are some exceptions of course, some justifications, but we are not talking exceptions here. At what point do we forefit the claim to be 'civilised' in any meaningful sense of the word?

The notion of human dignaity, that all human life has intrinsic value, is based upon the Judeo Christian understanding of what it means to be human; that we bear the image of our creator, made in His likeness, sharing an eternal destiny.

Absent that understanding, we are no more than animals, the products of evolutionary Darwinian natural selection. What we believe matters and is evidenced daily in our social and political outcomes.

Ruaridh said...

Your commentator, Mr Poole, says

:”In 2020 we have suddenly decided, as a society caught up in a global emergency, that these lives are more important than ever before. We have decided this to the extent that we have severely damaged significant sections of the economy, drastically restricted human rights, and allowed a very small sector of government to create edicts without due process or challenge.”

As I read what precedes and follows that assertion, his thesis is that we have gone to unauthorised, economy damaging and unwarranted extremes, compared with the effort applied to saving lives jeopardised for other reasons, to minimise the mortal impacts of CoronaVirus.

Having read the piece several times (and in prior occupations having been required to analyse and attempt to construe the true meaning of written materials) I am left a little confused as to the overall intent of the author and would sincerely welcome clarification/ education.

I would have no quarrel with the proposition that, particularly in the field of mental health, our history of due attention to the problem areas he identifies is woeful.

Where I confess to getting lost lies with what I see as the near to unspoken premise that much less drastic attention to CoronaVirus would likely not have resulted in very significant compared with other causes numbers of deaths.

Rightly or wrongly, figures from other countries that have taken a less hands on approach suggest to me that the likelihood of our having suffered a national tragedy of loss of life far exceeding other causes would have been extremely high.

I freely admit the possibility of misconstruction on my part and would thus appreciate further comment from Mr Poole.

[Might I add this general (unconnected to the commentary), observation: I find it a great pity that some, but by no means all, of us seem unable to resist politicising a problem that which is surely beyond politics.]

Alwyn Poole said...

To Ruaidh: I hold strongly to the Judeo/Christian ethic that every life is worth valuing. The book "Whatever Happened to the Human Race" co-authored by the then U.S. Surgeon General described that path we are heading down when one life is valued more than another. There was an easy way to prevent the virus entering NZ at all through earlier stopping of foreigners in and putting an returning NZers in 2 weeks quarantine. I see Mr Peters today trying to justify why that wasn't done. It is flimsy. My key point is that if we truly value a human life we should be protecting the elderly and infirm and have superb palliative care. We should have world leading mental health care and genuinely empower the private sector in that area (and look at the cost of $180 - $300 per hour for a psychologist appt). We should be doing everything in our power to protect the unborn. Everything is political when you live in a democracy and there are choices - even within a crisis. A useful statistic to have alongside the number of deaths in NZ from Covid-19 would be the number of deaths caused by the nature of the lock-down. I know of two suicides in our small sphere.

Ruaridh said...

I am grateful to Mr Poole for taking the time to respond to my post.

While he does not appear to address my point about where we might be in terms of loss of life on account Covid 19 had we done less to seek to stifle its spread, his originally expressed principle that “what we should now ask of our leaders is that they be consistent and place equal value on the risks, both physical and mental, for all people“ is surely unimpeachable: at least if qualified by the recognition that interventions must unfortunately be proportionate to the risks, given that we as a nation do not have bottomless pockets.

His concern for the elderly I applaud- not so much because I am 78 as because my wife has dementia and is in care on that account. I was her carer for 10 years or so at which point I had to recognise that the level of care she by then required was beyond my skill set.

That care is extremely costly to all but the very wealthy or those who have very limited assets.

I would prefer (selfishly some might say) that it were otherwise - but then that state of affairs can be ascribed to the absence of bottomless state pockets as mentioned above.

In the current pandemic environment my concern for her is of course much accentuated. I believe that the home where she lives is doing all it can to prevent the entry of Covid 19, but nothing is perfect and a level of risk inevitably remains.

As to the economic consequences for us all of the Covid 19 minimising efforts, only time will tell and I accept that the tale told will be a far from happy one. Already (just in the close to home category) a member of my family has been made redundant after nearly 20 years of unstinting service to his employer..

Andy Espersen said...

You are right, Ruaidh. Not only is it an unspoken premise in Alwyn Poole’s essay “that much less drastic action to Corona Virus would likely not have resulted in very significant, compared with other causes, numbers of deaths”. As I understand this article, Poole is actually not concerned about, not at all discussing, the numbers of deaths consequent to the lock-down. He just points out that death comes to us all from accidents, illness or old age - and yes, of course we must try to help our fellow human beings to postpone their deaths for as long as possible. And that all lives are of equal value.

Then he asks the highly perceptive question why we suddenly decide that the very natural deaths from Corona 19 must suddenly be elevated to such degree of importance that we enact draconian, unethical laws, trampling on people’s freedom and destroying many thousands fellow New Zealanders' jobs, livelihoods, homes and mental well-being - this on top of the sudden, near-complete destruction of our tourist/aviation/hospitality industries that occurred from the impact of the virus on its own.

I certainly would also like to get an in-depth, serious explanation from our political masters to that question - or from you, Ruaidh.

Ruaridh said...

In response to Mr Espersen: My best guess is that those whom we elected had, or at least their advisers did, some appreciation of the history of pandemics. For a partial (in the sense of limited) account of that there is this from the generally astute American commentator, John Katz:

“The history of Pandemics argues against being smug.

The global outbreaks are called Pandemics:

A pandemic is a worldwide outbreak of disease.

Pandemics happen when a new virus emerges to infect people and can spread between people sustainably. Because there is little to no pre-existing immunity against the latest virus, it spreads worldwide.

The Antonine Plague (165-180 A.D.) was brought back to Rome by soldiers carrying smallpox; it is believed to have killed more than 5 million people in the Roman Empire alone.

The Byzantine Empire (Plague of Justinian, A.D., 541-542) was ravaged by the bubonic plague, which began its rapid decline. The Black Death, also known as The Plague, traveled from Asia to Europe and killed almost half of Europe’s population from 1346-1353.

Towards its end, the Plague killed 100,000 people in London alone, 15 percent of the population. The mayor of London urged his people to conduct their business, as usual. He blamed Jews (they were accused of poisoning the wells of Christians, many were slaughtered), rats, poisonous air, and the Devil,”

Of course, for those who are convinced (and I have no idea where Mr Espersen stands on this point) that Covid 19 is merely a nastier than usual ‘flu virus, the just recited history will be of no moment.

Brendan McNeill said...


I suspect the answer to your question regarding the reasons behind the actions of the PM, and presumably the few functioning members of her cabinet can be described in one word; Fear.

I'm no fan of this government, however the PM has has been forced to take advice from the 'professionals' and has acted accordingly. When you outsource decision making to public servants you can be confident of the most risk averse advice available. That's what she received, that's what we are living under.

Is it the best advice? Politically yes, from an economic and overall health perspective? Who can tell.

Low numbers of Corvid-19 deaths demonstrates how well her "strong and decisive action" paid off. A high price has been paid of course, but what choice did we have? etc. I'm sure you could write the press release.

This is the least competent government in my living memory, but I suspect if we had the most competent, there would be marginal differences in the way their response to Corvid-19 would be managed. They would have been equally out of their depth, equally dependent upon 'experts' equally governed by fear.

This too shall pass.

Ruaridh said...

I am very much with Mr McNeill in his comments. Fear is indeed surely at the heart of the New Zealand reaction to Covid 19. That fear has proved to be not an empty one. It is sufficient to look at Italy and New York to see that. I am also with him when he suggests that had we had a different government the approach taken would only have varied at the margins.
For an objective and in depth examination of the pandemic phenomenon, I suggest reading what Vaclav Smil has written on the subject. If his name is not familiar to the reader then MIT gives an excellent introduction to him here:

Andy Espersen said...

You are so right, Ruaridh. It is indeed sobering to contemplate the list of causes for us little creatures dying premature deaths - and yes, we must not be smug about it. In your list you mention only pandemics (both virus and bacterium driven). Such occasional epidemics really only cause small numbers of human fatalities when compared with so many other illnesses, wars, accidents, murders, etc.. Why did you not add those to your list?

Your comment here does not at all address Alwyn Poole’s sober, dry question (and mine), namely why, for what basic justification, does this omnipotent government single out this particular, quite ordinary epidemic illness as so overwhelmingly important that it initiates invasive, uncharitable and horrendously destructive regulations, in effect, with one stroke, instituting a state-controlled economy? These days we are in fact living in a police state : Government decides whether or not it is essential for you to leave your house. Government bans you from visiting fellow human beings. Government bans you from going to the beach or go tramping. The list goes on. Government tells you that it is only temporary - but blithely informs you that they may decide to lengthen the emergency measures for any number of weeks.

I would really like a serious, comprehensive, reasoned reply to my question, “Does the end justify the means?” Your comment did not even attempt to do that - I suspect because, generally speaking, people these days do not fully comprehend the enormous, ethical significance of that question. We are no longer “enlightened” - we no longer follow or adhere to trusted, Christian principles in our political decisions.

Unknown said...

Mr Espersen describes Covid 19 as a “quite ordinary epidemic illness”. That makes clear to me that he and I have entirely different perspectives. Accepting that to be so, and that we travel quite different paths, I wish him well on his journey on his and turn my attention elsewhere.

Karl du Fresne said...

For the record, the post immediately above was from Ruaridh but due to a quirk in the system, showed up as "Unknown".

Andy Espersen said...

Ruaridh - we are "parting ways", you inform us. But you did not inform us whether or not that then is your admission that you are unable (or unwilling) to answer my question.

My question was very simple, "Does the end justify the means?". To me (correct me if I am wrong) it seems that also was the implied question behind Alwyn Poole's perceptive article.