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"Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold" (Yeats).
So many of yesterday’s certainties are gone, melting away like the glaciers. Oceans acidify, forests go up in flames. Vast populations are on the move. Unstoppable. Yet it seems that all we can think of, all we are prepared to give our minds to is Covid.
Traditional lines of supply and communication are breaking down across the globe. Incredibly the US Post has suspended deliveries of mail to New Zealand and to 28 other destinations. The United Kingdom is running out of petrol and pharmaceuticals. People in Europe are facing heating poverty this coming winter. China is bending the backs of its coal-miners to produce more and more of the black stuff.
Then there’s the crumbling financial world.
Wall St is a-quiver as the woefully ill-named Evergrande complex totters, staggering under untold mountains of debt. Democracy itself seems on the back foot just about everywhere. Poland throttling its judges is just one example. So where is any firm footing to be found in these pandemic times? Closer to home, our historic University of Otago calls on staff to fall on their swords, and dumps the ExPinkt gym, a brilliant outreach to cancer patients.
As per usual it is the weak and the marginalised who are the first to be sacrificed.
But despite the mounting evidence of cosmic crumbling we seem, from the Prime Minister down, utterly fixated on one thing only, on Covid.
Daily bulletins are devoted to it. The feeding frenzy of the media is more frantic than usual. Statistics rain down on us about vaccinations, tests, community case numbers. Iwi set up barriers in Northland. Act New Zealand and David Seymour sound sillier by the moment. Judith Collins can’t decide if she wants to hear more or less from Jacinda.
Covid rules OK.
All in a way understandable. It’s no wonder we’re obsessed, fixated on Covid. This is our very own Black Death. We’re living it. And hell, haven’t we done well here under the Great White Cloud? Look at Melbourne, 260 days of lockdown and untold personal disasters.
But must Covid crowd out everything else? Who cares any more about the housing debacle, or child poverty, or Glasgow COP 26? Who cares about global warming, about Pacific neighbours drowning. Allegedly the ecological crisis is this generation’s nuclear priority. Not a bit of it, though. Youth suicide, forget it. Our obsession with Covid appears total. Get back to normal, That’s all we want .
A normal that’s never going to happen. As a friend recently said to us at a dinner party: “Covid may darken our lives for a year or so. Global warming will snag us for ever.” Verily, we are reaping the whirlwind.
Who is listening to our young people, who increasingly see no future for themselves? Try to take that in. And what about young parents looking at their toddler and wondering what awaits her or him in a collapsing world order? There are grim intergenerational breakdowns here. We are not listening across the generations. Look at Xi Jinping upping the ante against Taiwan, pouring limitless resource into the machinery of death. Bathing in the adulation of his sycophantic followers. The crazed priorities of those with the levers of power and wealth. Totally out of touch.
What are we to make of Covid, then? Of course vaccination is important, absolutely vital. Face masks. Testing. Vigilance. True, true, true. It’s actually quite brilliant what we have achieved, despite rising Delta figures. Fantastic that here in New Zealand we actually listen to science, not only the Government but much of the famous team of five million, too. Grandiose what our nurses and doctors, epidemiologists and laboratory technicians have done. Superb the follow-up of contacts, the attention to detail.
But, but, but ... there are other crucial issues. Huge, looming long-term challenges. And we seem to have osmosis about, say, the sickening gap between rich and poor, and the still more sickening fatalism about it. About the calamitous emotional poverty especially in our Pakeha population around the elemental biomedical realities of sickness and depression and death.
And above all, the averting of eyes from the ecological catastrophe all around us, the minimal attention being paid to Glasgow COP26. As a nation we seem to have lost the road map, and we are better than this. We need more than “kindness” . A lot more.
- Peter Matheson is a Dunedin historian.