Monday, August 30, 2021

Testing the limits of spin

We crossed a significant threshold in the Covid-19 crisis yesterday, and I’m not talking about the number of new cases.

Commenting on the potentially problematical disjunction between current high inoculation rates and dwindling supplies of the Pfizer vaccine, Jacinda Ardern had this to say: “It’s not a matter of running out [of the vaccine], it’s a matter of whether or not we are in a position of where we need to have a little less demand.”

Er, pardon me? I've read this sentence several times and I’m still not sure what it’s supposed to mean, or indeed whether it means anything at all. Communication is normally one of Ardern’s great political strengths, but this statement was, at best, cryptic. At worst it was nonsensical, and I’m wondering whether it’s a sign that the government is almost past pretending it’s in control of the pandemic.

It certainly stood in striking contrast to the optimistic pep talk last week in which she said tracing the origin of the current outbreak would help the government “circle the virus, lock it down and stamp it out” – a phrase that gave the impression of a resolute government in command of the situation, while also conveying the patently false impression that Covid-19 could be extinguished as easily as a candle.

Similar punchy phrases – “the team of five million”, “go hard and go early”, “be strong and be kind” – have been an essential part of the government’s tool kit in managing the pandemic. If PR spin was all we needed to defeat a virus, Covid-19 might have been vanquished by now. But there comes a point when the Beehive communications wizards run out of snappy lines and the government’s vulnerability is exposed for all to see. Perhaps we’ve reached that point.

Spin gets you only so far, and I suspect Ardern’s daily press conferences no longer work the same magic that won the loyalty and support of New Zealanders last year. Covid-19 was new to us then and we were prepared to put our faith in her. We were all in uncharted territory.

This time is different. We’ve had months in which to observe the effects of the Delta variant overseas knowing it must eventually arrive here, yet the government appears to have been caught napping. Even the media, which with a few honourable exceptions (Newshub’s Michael Morrah, for one) was previously happy to go along with the government’s spin, finds itself unable to ignore the daily catalogue of flaws and failings in its management of the pandemic.

We have learned, for example, that the government passed up the opportunity to buy other vaccines besides Pfizer’s, even though going with one supplier meant waiting months for stocks  – and this on top of delays that had already made a black joke of Chris Hipkins’ boast that we would be at the front of the queue.

Similarly, we now know that the government could have ordered reputable saliva-testing technology that would have permitted people to test themselves, thereby avoiding the frustration of long queues at testing stations and delays in getting results.

On three key metrics – testing, vaccinations and contract tracing – the government’s performance has been, to put it politely, tardy and sub-optimal. Protection at the border has been slack and the MIQ system appears to be a shambles. Meanwhile vulnerable essential workers, from police to port employees, have inexplicably been left unvaccinated.  

Puzzling anomalies have reinforced the impression that the Covid-19 response is being decided on the hoof, despite the government having months to prepare. Pharmacies weren’t able to offer vaccinations, and then suddenly they were. Ditto general practitioners. Why barriers were placed in their way, when they were eager and impatient to help, remains a mystery. Control freaks in the Beehive and the bureaucracy seem the most likely explanation.  

New Zealanders know all this and have become justifiably sceptical about the government’s propaganda offensive. As a result, Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield may have burned off much of the goodwill they accumulated in 2020. The next political opinion poll is awaited with more than usual interest.

Myself, I’m conflicted on Covid-19 and the lockdown. I instinctively bridle against the government’s gloss and spin. I’m over Ardern’s patronising entreaties from the Beehive Theatrette and I know lots of people – apolitical people, in many cases – who feel the same.

I also take the cynical view that the Covid-19 outbreak gifted a floundering government with a priceless publicity opportunity and a rare chance to give the appearance of being in control of something. But while the crisis initially looked good for Labour, it turned out not to be, because it served to cast light on the multiple glaring deficiencies in its preparedness.

Having said that, it’s hard to argue that the government hasn’t done the right thing (albeit in an inept fashion) by taking the lockdown option. Most New Zealanders probably consider that a temporary curtailment of their liberty is a reasonable price to pay for avoiding large-scale mortality.

Management of the pandemic comes down to a difficult trade-off between the need to keep people safe and the imperatives of maintaining economic activity and respecting individual freedom. My guess is that most New Zealanders, being essentially pragmatic people, would probably argue that the government has got the balance about right – for now, at least. Ultimately, it may be futile to pursue the objective of keeping Covid-19 out; but in the meantime, while everyone’s getting their jabs, it’s in our collective interest to keep the virus confined as far as that’s possible.

Ironically, the most effective PR line Ardern could run in validation of the government’s approach is one she’s unable to use. She could point to the striking difference in Covid-19 mortality statistics between New Zealand (26 deaths) and Australia (999) or Britain (132,000).

That’s a compelling vindication of New Zealand’s approach and a perfect answer to all the snide, condescending overseas commentaries about New Zealand being a “Covid prison” and an “isolated dystopia”. But of course it would never do to highlight those figures, because it would look like gloating at other countries’ misfortunes.


CXH said...

Never having watched the dog and pony show on TV, I missed that pearler. Orwell would have been proud to include it in his book. I did notice that we suddenly seemed to have lept ahead in the vaccination numbers. Then it became apparent that those with a booking, no matter how far in the future are now included.

It is almost as if there is a competition between Jacinda's spin artists as to how extremely idiotic the releases need to be before the media realise the Emperess has no clothes. Or do they really believe their own spin?

Ricardo said...

Two recent articles give me cause for optimism that clear heads still abound across the political spectrum.

First Tim Hazeldine, an economist of the clear left, savaged Rod Carr's nonsensical refusal to accept "least cost" solutions for NZ's carbon emissions reduction strategies. In this, he mirrored and supported a similar piece written by Oliver Hartwich, an economist of the clear right. Hurrah! Hope for clear thinking still.

Then to my immense joy, I read Arthur Grime's evisceration of the current government's housing policies et al and how this Labour government has done more to increase poverty and enhance inequality than any other. Grimes a former RNBZ Chair works at the awesome MOTU is no political gadfly.

There are still powerful intellects prepared to speak truth to political spin in this country and refreshingly they are not single striped.

Andy Espersen said...

Karl, I do not believe that New Zealand’s striking difference in Covid’s mortality rate statistics from the rest of the world in any way proves that our lockdown policy was correct. The only reason why we had so many fewer deaths last year was that we were lucky (and because of our geographic isolation) : Sure, we did stamp out the illness then because of our vicious lockdown regime – but only because the illness wasn’t yet endemic here, like it already then was in the rest of the world. It is a physical impossibility to eradicate an endemic corona virus – except by vaccination. This was a known fact in early 2020 – and remains a known fact.

Our government took a gamble – and the gamble paid off. But at what cost? Did the end justify the means? We must bear in mind that the only risk we were facing (and are facing) was that more people would (will) die from a natural, flu-like illness – like humankind has accepted it for thousands of years

At this moment, the gamble may yet pay off – though it now appears that the virus (the Delta variant) is endemic in the Auckland area at least. This will depend on the vaccination rate – as well as on the fact that we now know more about how to treat the illness successfully. And how can we decide whether the gamble has indeed paid off – except by scrutinising the hidden costs of our terribly strict lockdown policy? These are many, varied - and largely yet to be realised and understood.

Unknown said...

Thank heavens for some thinking, articulate commentary. There are still too many "smiling zombies" in these fair Isles!

M&D said...

When I saw the 4pm show today, the phrase 'Polishing a turd' came to mind.

Odysseus said...

If it's true as Newstalk ZB indicated yesterday that the government asked Pfizer to delay further vaccine shipments until October, then surely the scales will begin to fall from people's eyes. Now it is reported we are begging other countries for a share of their supplies. The myth of competence in managing COVID, Labour's one claim to fame, has been blown out of the water.

Eamon Sloan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy Espersen said...

Eamon Sloan – I went to your blog to read your piece on Covid – and have again read Karl’s article. As I see it, you and Karl are both committing the same mistake, namely assessing our government’s performance way too early. We are only 18 months into a new pandemic. But pandemics usually take up to 3 or 4 years before they slowly fizzle out – and by then we have learnt to live with them. You both purport to write in hindsight – but valid hindsight time isn’t yet here!

But what I have now noted in recent articles in independent, on-line news media is the overriding question whether enforced lockdowns are actually worth the terribly crippling economic and psychological side-effects, very especially on our small businesses, our children and our mentally vulnerable fellow citizens. And I hear from people who listen regularly to radio talk-back programmes that also here many comments are reflecting this attitude.

I think we should drop our point-scoring, nit-picking, fault-finding approach to all this. We simply do not yet know enough about the illness to speak with any certainty – new variants may yet appear, differing in all sort of unexpected ways. I have just heard that right now there is suspicion that some vaccines will cause an adverse reaction in people who come down with the Delta variety. We are very likely to encounter further surprises over the next couple of years.

But we can observe with our own eyes right now the terribly destructive economic and psychological side effects from enforced lockdowns. Let us therefore concentrate our discussion, our debates, on that. Lockdowns vary greatly in strictness from country to country. Countries vary greatly demographically, democratically, geographically and economically – and consequently these differences will impact greatly on the effect of the lockdowns, and on the final mortality rate.

It all really comes back to the age-old ethical question : “Does the end justify the means?”. Machiavelli and Nietzsche thought so. So did Stalin and Hitler.

Unknown said...

It all about the captain of the ship
Or in a normal business, the CEO runs the orgaisation
The board of directors may set the overall rules and directions but the CEO is totaly responsible [ not the receptionst or the factory floor worker ]
JA is totaly responsible for the mess that we are in now
She has not moved on from the time when she was the leader of a socialist Marxist party group alongside Grant Thomas and has no concept of reality other than following Gobells propaganda spin
Quiet frightning

Eamon Sloan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy Espersen said...

But Eamon - we have experienced Covid-like epidemics many times in the past. Don't you remember? Don't you read history?

We humbly accepted the natural deaths caused by such an epidemic; we fearlessly and unselfishly helped its victims; we bravely attempted to keep things going in spite of the ravages caused in our society by the illness - by all keeping working as best we could.

And, of course, we did not instill fear and panic in our children about natural deaths from flu-like illnesses.

CXH said...

Sorry Andy, but fear and victimhood is the modern way. Best instil it into our children as early as possible.

Strength and dealing with the troubles life sends you is now frowned upon. It is all about trying to show how you are much worse of than others, how sad your life is. I think I would prefer it was all over than live like this.

Eamon Sloan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karl du Fresne said...

This correspondence is now closed.