Season Three; Covid in the Antipodes.

It’s fascinating watching New Zealand’s Covid journey from New South Wales. There’s the sense of watching a TV series for the second time. Oh, here’s the initial panic episode and the strong and comforting central government. Oh, and the one with the lockdown, I loved that one, people are putting teddies in their windows! 

Then there’s the self-congratulatory faux humbleness, (surely New Zealand’s strongest suit), the confident commitment to technocratic, sensible management of crises, the endless positive affirmations of kindness and community mindedness. And then there’s the subsequent inevitable unraveling of aforementioned narrative, as pre-existing cracks in the technocracy are rendered not only visible but festering. 

New Zealand is up to the part where Covid illuminates every social faultline; The racism, the hungry kids in garages, the self-aggrandising carpet-baggers, the tragic Facebook warriors and through it all, the monolithic government like a doughty, bristle-lipped governess reminding everyone to be kind and ‘do the right thing’ while nimbly avoiding the service class downstairs. 

It turns out the Team of Five Million is actually more of a round-robin arrangement, and no-one’s washing the jerseys. 

And here’s where our Antipodean Covid TV series differs. New Zealand’s government assumes the best in people and governs in line with its expectations. New South Wales, which, you might recall, stuttered into life as a penal colony, expects the very worst of its citizens and plans accordingly.

Covid in New South Wales was a very Sydney affair. It hit the eastern suburbs and gathered pace, all lip-gloss and lattes, a beautiful, slick and sweaty shambles. Eventually, it crossed the Opal Line into the sprawling Western suburbs and got seriously on the razzle. 

There was a lockdown, for sure, but the Berejiklian government, and NSW Health both seemed to understand one thing; tipping points. That is, once a city reaches a certain size, movement around it will reach a critical mass, a tipping point, even under a lockdown.  

And this is where I think the NSW government got serious and decided to try to ‘vaccinate out’ of the outbreak. From the start, even before the rancorous anti-vaxxers really got cracking, NSW made it clear that if you were offered a vaccine you should bloody well take it, and that this was the key to ‘freedom’. 

Berejiklian’s management of the pandemic was widely supported. She was decisive and did something stunningly obvious but remarkably clever; she presented the virus as immutable. It would move from one person to another regardless of their family arrangements or how essential their work was. The virus doesn’t care about us, we are its environment.

It might seem obvious but compare this to alternatives. 

At the beginning of the first long outbreak in Victoria, workers in Melbourne’s boiler-plate suburbs were diagnosed and ordered to stay home, while other household members continued to attend school and work. This was viewed as reasonable, fair and kind. The reasoning was based on the idea that kids shouldn’t miss out on school, or employees on work. The virus, however, does not care for your feelings or ‘rights’. And so, constraining the movement of some but not others had a punitive feel about it, ‘You caught the virus, but your housemates shouldn’t be punished for it [sotto vocce: but you should]’. It served to further personalise the virus.

And the results of this approach were predictable – further spread of the virus, prolonged restrictions. 

Berejiklian knew her people. She knew that most people would get vaccinated, but worried that the final proportion would be too low to ‘end’ the outbreak in NSW. She also knew that the good burghurs (ratbags, all of us) of Sydney would be unmoved by Strawberry Shortcake moralising. And, most importantly, the Berejiklian government wanted to avoid a situation where citizens attempted to pressure one another socially over vaccination. This is an extremely poisonous situation, still evident in many places even now, where people align themselves into pre-existing ‘camps’ and politicise the shit out of vaccination. This is a very, very dangerous game to play.

The NSW government knew perfectly well that most people would get vaccinated with a bit of a push, and that this was preferable to the damage of a prolonged outbreak combined with the social disruption of pitting one ‘group’ against another. 

A consummate politician, I have no doubt that Berejiklian herself was also well aware of the Australian media’s thirst for whipping up polarising and dangerous debates.    

The government assumed, quite rightly, that people would lose interest in the pandemic once life started to resemble something close to normal. A leader who could make that happen had a lot to gain.

New South Wales had the benefit of watching the pandemic churn its way through similar jurisdictions with lower vaccination rates, and the social consequences of its inevitable politicisation. The wittering pomposity of the middle classes set against the white-hot rage of the disenfranchised, refracted through a prism of ethnic sectarianism that would make the Balkans look frankly vanilla is exactly not what a New South Wales Premier would like for Christmas.

Berejiklian knew that faced with similar circumstances to those overseas, the good people of New South Wales would likely dither over vaccination and ongoing restrictions would fan the embers of pre-exisitng discontents into an inferno. By about mid August, New South Wales had the makings of a nuclear shit-show. 

And so the NSW government went hard on its campaign; Get Vaxxed or Get Fucked. 

And it worked. 

The reason it worked is because it removed the immediate problem – Covid overwhelming the hospital system and people dying as a result. It provided ample opportunity for pissing and moaning about the ‘manufacture of consent’ but the threat was defanged. Suddenly, it seemed, most people couldn’t give much of a toss about Covid, or the vaccine. And many of the ‘social dilemmas’ that were acute at 60% vaccination rate are quite benign at 95%. You might balk at inviting the unvaccinated cousin to Christmas dinner, but no-one’s really going to take it outside. It turned a potentially devastating debate about the social contract into a parlour game for the Twitterati.

To be clear, the New South Wales government forced many people into getting vaccinated, on the basis that it was for the greater good, even if it was unlikely to benefit them personally.

Berejiklian’s Get Vaxxed or Get Fucked campaign was precisely to avoid fostering acrimonious debates about whose individual rights should prevail over the collective, a debate that always taps into the deepest, extant notions of just who has been wronged, like a tongue on an open nerve. No government ever wants to provide the conditions for these kinds of excavations. It bears repeating, there is nothing more corrosive than a deep and searching public discussion over whose individual rights should prevail over the collective. It ferments a kind of toxic grievance-based partisanship that can never, ever end well.

Berejiklian knew that the path to social harmony was not paved with goodwill and community spiritedness (are you listening, NZ?). Rather, it is a gravel road, shellacked with a quick and dirty layer of prosperity and self interest.

I can’t wait to see what Season Four, Covid in Aotearoa brings.  

*to be clear, I am not referring to Ms Ardern as a bristle-lipped governess. I use this term to refer to the government of the day, as is clear in the sentence. It infuriates me no end that Ms Ardern has personal attacks made against her, especially given that she is arguably the best Prime Minister New Zealand has had in recent times.

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