If New Zealand were Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Professor Des Gorman would have had the Alexei Navalny treatment by now. Government agents would have broken into his house and spread Novichok on every surface.
Like the Russian dissident whom Putin’s goons tried to eliminate, the distinguished University of Auckland medical professor insists on presenting a narrative that’s jarringly at odds with the one pushed by the people in power.
Fortunately New Zealand hasn’t got to the point of liquidating dissenters, though you couldn’t blame Gorman if he made a habit of checking under his car bonnet before turning on the ignition.
In a recent Leighton Smith podcast, the eminent medical academic was witheringly disparaging about New Zealand’s response to Covid-19, saying the government was caught with its pants down when the pandemic struck and hasn’t got any better since. “The only thing we had going for us is our geography.”
He described the public health system as being in a parlous state, citing its failure to deal with measles and ’flu epidemics, and said the response to the coronavirus pandemic had been “driven by political optics”.
He highlighted the government’s initial reluctance to close the border and the Health Minister’s resistance to the compulsory wearing of masks – as urged by experts such as epidemiologist Michael Baker, and eventually adopted – as examples of dangerous complacency.
Gorman accused the government of cultivating a culture of fear while simultaneously spinning the message that New Zealand was “best in show – the envy of the world” when in fact, countries such as Taiwan had “left us for dead”.
Most damningly, he reeled off a series of government claims that were contradicted by the facts. “‘All Russian crewmen have been tested’; no, they hadn’t. ‘They’ve all been in quarantine’; no, they hadn’t. ‘All the border workers have been tested’; no, they hadn’t. ‘No people are leaving quarantine early’; yes, they are. ‘There’s no mixing and mingling’ [in quarantine]; yes, there is. ‘There’s plenty of ’flu vaccine; no, there isn’t. ‘Nurses have plenty of PPE’ [personal protective equipment]’; no, they haven’t.
“I don’t know how many times we’ve been misled,” Gorman said. Yet he acknowledged that most people think the government has done a wonderful job. People who are frightened are more likely to accept authoritarianism, he suggested.
Gorman didn’t let the media off the hook, either. He said that with a few exceptions such as Newshub’s Michael Morrah, NewstalkZB’s Mike Hosking and Smith himself, journalists were saying what they thought people wanted to hear. “When you have the media and the government navigating [by] a populist star, you get a low level of critical thinking.”
Gorman’s critique comes as the government’s credibility is looking increasingly thin. Morrah continues to do sterling work in highlighting discrepancies between what politicians and officials are saying about the management of the pandemic and what’s actually happening “on the ground”. The latest inconsistencies arose over assurances that GPs were primed and ready for action on the delivery of vaccines – a statement that obviously came as news to doctors on the front line, who had heard nothing.
The sainted Ashley Bloomfield, in particular, keeps getting caught out telling fibs, though most New Zealanders don’t want to consider the possibility that he might be just another public sector careerist who can’t be counted on to tell the full, unvarnished truth, especially if it reflects unfavourably on his ministry’s handling of the pandemic.
Peter Williams is the latest to cast doubt on Bloomfield’s reassurances about how well everything’s going. In a recent commentary, the Magic Talk host quoted Bloomfield as saying serious adverse reactions to the Covid-19 vaccine were being managed appropriately and none required hospitalisation. Williams continued: “Now I know, and you know, that is not true. Because we had a woman on this show the week before last who was admitted to hospital after getting the vaccine and she was off work for at least two weeks and when I spoke to her on March 24th she was only then getting back to normal after three weeks.
“I know who she is, and who she works for. So I’m very concerned that we are not being given the full truth here about the adverse reactions, and when these vaccine numbers are rolled out every week, I think we should keep a very, very close eye on those numbers from the CARM [Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring] in Dunedin.”
Meanwhile, Jacinda Ardern’s practised earnestness (you know that pained, imploring expression she wears when she’s explaining to reporters why the government has to do things it really rather wouldn’t do?) is looking increasingly forced too, especially when she tries to wriggle out of an awkward corner by dumping on a security guard who supposedly lied to his employer about getting tested (neatly side-stepping the point that if half-decent systems were in place, the lie would have been picked up months earlier).
So much for Ardern’s entreaties to “Be Kind”. That one’s coming back to bite her.
Gorman, of course, is right. When the history of New Zealand’s management of Covid-19 comes to be written, it will record that almost every government action to protect the country happened too late, and then only after politicians and officials were forced into action because a sceptical journalist (there are still a handful, thank God) or alert opposition MP (not a lot of them either) exposed glaring deficiencies in their performance or flagrant porkies in what the country was being told.
It makes you wonder whether Hosking might be right when he says, as he did in this commentary on Thursday, that it’s only sheer dumb luck that’s getting us through.