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OPINIONPoliticsOctober 13, 2021

Some big, clear calls are urgently needed on the path out of elimination

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Elimination is over, at least for our biggest city, and that will bring an abrupt end to the broad consensus it gave us. There is significant potential for us to fray as a result, writes Duncan Greive.

Amid the communications chaos of last week, we never really got to pour a little liquor out for the end of something that had become so central to our lives it became a form of national identity. Elimination was not only a successful health and economic strategy, it was something we all did together and mostly agreed upon. Though John Key’s derisive “smug hermit kingdom” jibe wasn’t entirely without truth, more than smugness it was pride and relief we felt as we lived normal lives while the rest of the world struggled. The policy was overwhelmingly popular across the political spectrum.

That was tremendously helpful for the government: they got that one huge thing right, and reaped the polling dividend. Yet the policy’s broad brush of success helped mask a number of important but relatively smaller-scale projects that stalled. As Toby Manhire pointed out on Monday, the problem is that when you no longer have that one big thing, suddenly all those smaller things are under a heightened level of scrutiny. It has become clear that there was no real plan for post-pandemic life, with a slow initial vaccine rollout, constrained MIQ capacity and lack of finished policy on vaccine mandates or passports particularly confounding.

Beyond that, the end of nationwide elimination also exposes a large number of potential faultlines that its unifying halo concealed, each of which contains potential for division and tension, the likes of which have been common overseas and absent here. The most obvious is the difference between life in Tāmaki Makaurau and the rest of the country. Aucklanders will resent those outside the boundary for their freedoms and the social, educational and business advantages they hold at the big city’s expense. Some outside our biggest city may resent its inability to get the outbreak under control. 

That divide might be the starkest, but it’s far from the only one. We’re also realising the extent to which other pre-existing conditions – a stretched health system that serves some communities far better than others, the rise of social media-fuelled vaccine hesitancy, government distrust earned over decades – will make the final stages of the vaccine rollout harder than we thought during the heady days of the early September surge. 

Without clearer direction on mandates, businesses – many already sustaining huge losses or even failing – cannot play a role in pushing their people and customers toward vaccination, nor to fulfilling their duty of care to their employees. The vaccinated will, understandably but not always fairly, blame the unvaccinated for the inhibitions on their freedoms. Those trapped overseas and unable to win the MIQ lottery will continue to feel hostage to a system preventing them from exercising one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship.

Returning our politics to its natural state, of disagreement on some of the goals and most of the means, is part of reopening. We can hope that this is done in good faith and good humour, but history tells us this is unlikely. Even so, in a multi-party democracy that just this week celebrates 25 years of MMP, a larger sphere of debate cannot be solely viewed negatively, even by the most ardent Labour partisan.

The potential for those divisions to turn septic really does exist, though. The best weapon we have against that is also in the government’s best interest. Much of what has the potential to divide us comes from a continuing and somewhat mystifying lack of clarity on what shape the next months will take. 

Yesterday morning the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, confidently opined that businesses could require their employees to be vaccinated based on their health and safety obligations. If they were unsure, he said they should consult a lawyer. This appears to be bad advice – no lawyer will give a definitive answer on this, because they’re waiting for definitive guidance from the government. In any case, asking hundreds of thousands of businesses to seek costly advice as individuals rather than providing definitive legal cover as the state seems a colossal waste of precious time and money.

It’s but one element in a murky pool, seemingly stemming from a desire to use persuasion rather than compulsion to overcome vaccine hesitancy. But when every week we wait sees businesses fold and students forgo learning, the time for clear lines seems very much upon us.

To be clear: the government is in a deeply unenviable bind. To exclude based on vaccination status naturally means excluding those who are disproportionately young and Māori, some of whom are hours from their nearest medical centre, or have other compelling factors holding them up. Excluding the unvaccinated from education potentially means harming children based on the decisions of their parents. It’s right that schools and businesses be given time to prepare for mandates – but that same time that will have harsh impacts on some students and ensure some other businesses fold.

Still, the current paralysis of decision-making serves no one. Millions of us are subject to blanket exclusions, when a gradual reopening to double-vaccinated staff and customers could be signalled, allowing businesses to make plans. Those struggling with decisions around vaccination are doing so without knowing the real stakes to jobs and their whānau. All kinds of institutions are spinning their wheels awaiting some kind of a signal, a way out, and with it – hope.

In the void, enmity and blame builds, for the government, but also for each other. And while some degree of disagreement is normal and even healthy, what’s building has the potential to be much more than that. As Samson Samasoni wrote on The Spinoff yesterday, if this moment isn’t handled with due care, it risks becoming as divisive as the Springbok tour. 

It doesn’t need to go down that path. In this case, what’s best for everyone involved seems to neatly coincide with what’s best for the government, which still retains significant wells of goodwill from the big win that was elimination. Its success was built on hard decisions made with good intentions and without equivocation. It’s time to recover the spirit of March 2020 and make some big, clear calls – to provide a map out of elimination as brilliantly plotted as the one that drew us in.

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