Liam Dann: We are a polarised country – the qualities we’ll need to get through


We need to collectively take a deep breath.

The next few months are going to be very tough. The bit where we opened up and learned to live with Covid-19 was always going to be.

I think we’re a tough nation and we can get through it.

In fact, I think we’re a tough and compassionate nation.

These are the qualities that will see us through.

When I look at our history and think about what it means to be a New Zealander, these two stand out.

But we have to get the balance right.

I don’t envy Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern or Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson right now.

There is an extent to which the science can no longer help them.

We’ve all seen the models.

The choices they are now making are political and moral.

Making them on all our behalf is hard.

Here, for example, are two contrasting facts that highlight their dilemma.

Fact one: New Zealand is taking one of the most (if not the most) cautious approaches in the world to reopening.

Our peers – Australia, Canada, the United States and Britain – have opted for harder deadlines and reopened at much lower rates of vaccination.

This caution infuriates some who see businesses failing, lives disrupted and freedoms eroded.

Fact two: We are opening up before a large chunk of the population is ready. The path we’re taking will cost lives and, to be brutally blunt, those lives will be disproportionately Māori.

The inequities of our health system and of society in general are about to be painted in large brush strokes for all to see.

The decision to use district health board vaccination rates as a guide for reopening, rather than waiting specifically for Māori rates to catch up,was probably one of the toughest this Government has ever made.

It is effectively conceding that we cannot solve decades of structural inequality in a realistic time frame for reopening the country.

This injustice infuriates those who work face to face with these communities and those who have an acute understanding of the forces that underpin the rejection of mainstream science and medicine.

To complicate matters, this is highly emotive stuff. It’s internally conflicting.

Many of us feel infuriated by both of these facts.

Or we find ourselves shifting back and forth -feeling one more acutely, then the other.

One day I’ll read something I see as hopelessly idealist and find myself fuming about the importance of individual responsibility and self-interest as a motivator of human behaviour.

The next day I’ll read something dismissing the idea of structural inequality and institutional racism and find myself fuming about social injustice.

Meanwhile, the correspondence I get suggests a great deal of polarisation.

Many people are completely unable to see the alternative perspective.

Some aren’t even able to see that significantly large numbers of people have different views, on both sides of the divide.

There’s a spectrum to all this. All over the world countries have landed in different places in terms of their pandemic response.

To some extent, it splits down the traditional left/right divide with differences around the importance of individual versus collective responsibility.

But governments are, by definition, moderate and centrist – especially in New Zealand.

Democracy requires amainstream approach.

Mainstream views are not always kind.

They are usually a pragmatic, and sometimes contradictory, mix of ideology.

Those contradictions are what make it difficult for modern leaders to speak plainly (unless, like Donald Trump, they just embrace hypocrisy).

A mainstream view in this country is that we can’t really afford to fix the housing crisis if it means destroying wealth for middle-class homeowners.

We’re prepared to step over homeless people in the street before we’re prepared to do that.

This Government was prepared to rule out a capital gains tax.

Those angered by the Government’s cautious approach and ambiguous messaging need to trust that pragmatism means New Zealand will eventually land roughly where the rest of the world is in this pandemic.

Those angered by the seemingly “unkind” realities of reopening need to recognise that this is a Government doing all it can to push back against the weight of mainstream expectations.

Those angered by the various balls-ups, missteps and bureaucratic bunglings, well, stay angry.

That’s holding government to account and that still matters.

Here’s one more brutal thought that I think the Government has considered but can’t say out loud.

At this point the only thing that can really accelerate vaccination rates may be the spread of the virus itself – fear.

This was the case in the laggard states of the US and is likely to be the case in some of the more isolated parts of this country.

The Delta wave that ran through the US in August and September sorted the vaccine hesitant from those who are really ideologically unmovable.

The good news is that New Zealand’s population is small and we have proved we have resources to vaccinate more than 100,000 in just one day.

As Covid spreads, we can still beat it.

We just need to be ready with resources to meet the rising demand for vaccination on the upswing.

There is still hope.

We can still hit the highest vaccination rates in the world and come through this pandemic with the lowest death rates and the economy intact.

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