Opinion: 'Controlling the narrative' on Covid-19


In her pre-budget speech, the Prime Minister said: “There is no playbook for the recovery we are about to embark on. But nor do we need one.  When it has come to COVID 19 we have carved a path based on our people, our health system, and our economy. And now that is exactly what we will do again, as we recover and rebuild. The team and I will bring the same determination and focus to the economic rebuild as we brought to our health response.”

So let’s review the impact of the Government’s ‘health response’.

According to the American journalist H.L. Mencken: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safety - by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

Using fear to control the public is a tactic commonly employed by politicians and activists.

While fear helps to protect us from harm, it also makes us vulnerable to manipulation during an emergency, especially if the information flow is regulated.

Throughout the entire Covid-19 crisis, controlling the narrative has been a primary objective of the Prime Minister.

This became clear on March 19 - just four days before she announced the nation-wide lockdown: “Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has quashed rumours that the Government is set to announce a total lockdown across the country to combat coronavirus. She stressed for people to only trust official Government sources as misinformation only fuelled public panic. ‘I cannot go round and dismiss every rumour I see on social media, as much as I’d like to. When you see those messages, remember that unless you hear it from us, it is not the truth’.”

That’s an astounding statement. The sheer arrogance of anyone who believes they have a monopoly on the truth is disturbing. When that person is a country’s leader, it is dangerous.

The Prime Minister’s agenda to control the narrative was exposed last Friday when a ‘gagging order’, issued to all Government ministers ahead of the release of thousands of pages of official advice on Covid-19, was leaked.

The memo directed press secretaries to prevent their Ministers from talking to journalists about the documents – instead “brief written statements” were to be issued, but only after a “sign off” from the Prime Minister’s office: “Do not put Minister up for any interviews on this. Because the public have confidence in what has been achieved and what the Govt is doing… there’s no real need to defend. Tough calls had to be made… the results speak for themselves. Evidence shows our decisions were the right ones… we can dismiss.”

As the Herald explained, “It’s not just the cynical timing. The ‘no real need to defend’ … ‘we can dismiss’ reeks of arrogance – the subtext is ‘we are above scrutiny’ – and blatantly flouts Ardern’s cultivated reputation for openness and transparency. It may have been intended as a guide to dealing with journalists, but in a crisis the role of the media as a proxy for the public is amplified and this is a slap in the face for both – a disregard for the fourth estate as well as the public interest.”

The Sunday Star Times editorial claims the government’s arrogance reeks of a premature ‘third-termitis’: “It’s the assumption behind that advice that is so alarming; it speaks of supreme confidence that this government can do no wrong in the eyes of the public.”

It certainly appears those calling the shots have become so comfortable in their dictatorial bubble that they no longer believe it’s necessary to worry about openness, transparency, and accountability – the fundamentals of a well-functioning democracy.

The antidote to fear is knowledge. With so many New Zealanders still under the spell of the Government’s dreadful fearmongering over the virus, it’s extremely important that we all continue to shine a light on what is really going on.

When light is cast onto our knowledge of Covid-19, we see that the virus is not as dangerous as the Government’s Armageddon models made it out to be.

Many medical experts say it’s not much worse than a virulent strain of influenza.

Professor Johan Giesecke, a chief scientist at the European Center for Disease Control, explains: “What we’re seeing is a tsunami of a usually quite mild disease. Most people who get it will never even notice they were infected… 98-99 per cent of these people are probably unaware or uncertain of having had the infection; they either had symptoms that were severe, but not severe enough for them to go to a hospital and get tested, or no symptoms at all.”

He believes the overall fatality rate will be similar to influenza, “which would be an order of 0.1 percent”. The ones who really need protecting are those who are elderly or have underlying heath conditions: “the old and the frail – try to minimize their risk of becoming infected”.

Sadly in New Zealand, 70 per cent of our 21 fatalities were residents of rest homes - the very group that should have been afforded the highest level of protection.

Progress is also being made on treatments.

At the start of the epidemic, most people hospitalised with severe symptoms were given ‘supportive care’ – medicine to bring down the fever and fluids to keep them hydrated, with those who had difficulty breathing given oxygen and in more serious cases, connected to a ventilator.

Unlike bacteria, which have specific cell functions that can be targeted by drugs to disrupt their spread, viruses use human cells to reproduce. That what makes finding treatments that kill or control the virus – without harming our own cells – so difficult.

There are literally thousands of studies and clinical trials underway around the world. Governments too are investigating better ways of dealing with the virus. The US Senate is hearing testimonies including, last week, from a group of critical care specialists whose treatment protocol is being used internationally to save the lives of seriously ill patients – especially those who are frail and elderly.

When it comes to a vaccine, while over a hundred studies have been registered, only those in the UK, China and the US have reached the clinical trial phase. Optimists are hoping a vaccine could be available within eighteen months, while pessimists admit that one may never be found.

When it comes to strategies for dealing with the epidemic, most governments adopted a mitigation approach. This involved introducing social distancing and good hygiene measures, as well as isolating those who are the most vulnerable. If the disease began to spread too rapidly and threatened to overwhelm the hospitals, restrictions were progressively introduced, such as limiting gatherings, businesses, and events, closing schools, and in extreme cases, introducing lockdowns.

Dr Wilfred Reilly, an assistant professor of political science at Kentucky State University, has analysed the effectiveness of government strategies by comparing the outcomes in states that imposed strict lockdowns with those that didn’t. He found, there is “little empirical evidence that lockdowns prevent the spread of Covid-19 better than well done social distancing measures”.

Essentially while Dr Reilly discovered that both temperature and population density had a meaningful impact on the incidence of the virus, with warmer states with lower populations having significantly fewer cases and deaths (something that could explain why New Zealand and Australia have fared so well), he found government strategy had little impact:  “While social-distancing measures – like wearing a light medical mask or washing hands – might be annoying, the practical impact of country-wide lockdowns has been utterly devastating,”

It was mid-March when Prime Minister Ardern made her captain’s call to change New Zealand’s strategy from mitigation to elimination: a “go hard, go early” world-beating plan to “eliminate” the virus. When she realised that it’s not possible to ‘eliminate’ influenza viruses her narrative changed: “elimination doesn’t mean zero cases, it means zero tolerance for cases”.

The elimination approach required a lockdown that was far more restrictive than in other countries, creating devastation that’s deeper and far more widespread.

In comparison, Australia’s mitigation approach has produced better outcomes than New Zealand, not only in terms of lower case numbers and deaths per head of population, but also in terms of less social and economic disruption.

Parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee has heard some of the heartbreak.

The anguish and grief of dealing with the suicide of family members crushed by the lockdown.

The overwhelming distress and anxiety faced by those with life-threatening illnesses who were unable to get the medical help they needed.

The distraught husband whose wife was forced to deal with her miscarriage alone, while he waited - also alone - in the hospital car park.

The distress of a new mother when her partner, who had supported her during the birth of their child, had been forced to leave as soon as the baby was born. 

The abject despair of families unable to comfort loved ones during their final days – or even farewell them, after they had died.

This was epitomised in the disgraceful case of Oliver Christiansen, a son who had travelled from London on April 23 after his father’s cancer started deteriorating. He arrived in New Zealand with no symptoms of Covid-19 and went into quarantine, believing there was time to sit out the two-weeks, before spending his father’s last days with him.

But with his father’s condition suddenly worsening, he applied to the Ministry of Health to be able to see his dying father on compassionate grounds. While he fit the criteria for an exemption under the law - especially as his father was receiving palliative care at home, not in hospital where a bedside visit might have risked others - the Ministry of Health turned him down. Three times. They even refused his repeated requests for a Covid-19 test.

In desperation, he applied to the High Court to challenge the ministry’s decision. The judge found in his favour and he was able to spend 36 hours with his father before he died.

In commenting on this awful case, that exposed the heartlessness of the PM’s ‘elimination’ strategy, she claimed ministry officials had granted 18 requests for compassionate exemptions to visit dying relatives. But it turned out they had granted none. While the PM later blamed the Ministry of Health for the confusion, the reality is that she’s the one who’s not only confused about the devastating consequences of her strategy – but is also out of touch with the human cost.

The Prime Minister’s boastful claim of leading the world in her ‘health response’ to Covid-19, may yet turn out to be the most disastrous political decision in this country’s history, especially if a vaccine is never found. 

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator former Labour Finance Minister and ACT New Zealand founder, Sir Roger Douglas has been assessing New Zealand’s policy framework and fears that without major reform, the impact of the lockdown will create lasting social and economic hardship:

“In the aftermath of the economic fall-out caused by the Covid-19 outbreak, the Labour Government must not only seek to help those who have been most affected by the recent lockdown, but also introduce the framework for radical new policies; policies which address the systemic weaknesses that have undermined our economy and society for so long, and which threaten our very future.”

The Prime Minister is using the Budget to change the narrative: “The global Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a global economic shock not of our making, but like every country in the world, we are also not immune to its fallout. Around the world, unemployment will rise significantly, businesses will close and Government revenue will decline. And we will feel the pain here too. New Zealand is about to enter a very tough winter.”

The PM’s new strategy is to blame New Zealand’s ‘pain’ on a global economic shock caused by the pandemic – instead of being created by her extreme lockdown. Whether New Zealanders believe her, remains to be seen.







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