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SocietySeptember 16, 2022

New Zealand is now as it was – but nothing is the same


We’ve just experienced the most extraordinary period of the century so far, during which unprecedented restrictions were put on our lives. These largely ended this week – but, Duncan Greive writes, rather than returning to things as they were, New Zealanders are coming to terms with a country transformed.

The pandemic truly began with a televised address on a Saturday afternoon, one which had the air of a wartime address – the flags, the wood panelling, the black and white portraits of former prime ministers. And Jacinda Ardern down the barrel of the camera, telling us that from next week, our whole lives would change.

It set the stage for two months many of us spent inside, watching the world in horror and Aotearoa in the hope that we might avoid the same fate. That gave way to two and a half years in which we ran on a separate track to the rest of the planet. For much of it we had no known cases in our community, and even when delta did escape, never to be contained, the caseload didn’t run rampant the way it did elsewhere. It was only with the arrival of omicron, an irresistible variant, that the country succumbed to the roaring intensity of the pandemic.

By then, the vast majority of us who wanted to be vaccinated had taken our two shots. And while the last six months have seen Covid-19 finally breach our lattice of national defences, they also saw us, at a population level, lose something of our fear of the virus. Some of this was the vaccination campaign, some of it was the milder strain, some of it was the experience of contracting the virus and the vast majority of us surviving (though an unfortunate minority live with long Covid, about which too little is known).

That change in our attitude toward the virus, from fear to something more resigned, manifested in multiple ways. Most prominently, it showed in our adherence to the restrictions of the orange setting, under which we were nominally still operating until days ago. These mandated a number of things, the most visible being mask usage in many indoor settings. Yet anyone who went into a supermarket or caught the bus knows that compliance with those laws became increasingly scattered over the past few months. While there was a second peak in July, numbers have since declined steadily, a kind of natural endorsement of this new behaviour.

And while experts like Siouxsie Wiles and advocates for the immunocompromised were right to say that this represented a dangerous new frontier, and that the government should not blithely abandon a course of action which had served us so well, Labour ultimately had little choice. In a democracy, we are largely governed by consent. With what appeared a majority of the population deciding to cease complying with these laws, to carry on would have meant millions of us were on some level engaged in daily criminal activity. For the sake of defending our more persistent laws, they had to go, if only to defend the behavioural matrix which helps us operate as a society.

So here we are again – days shy of two and a half years on, back with normal service resumed. Yet so much has changed as to make that a laughable suggestion. It seems like the right time to reflect on the different aspects of our lives which remain profoundly impacted by the pandemic, for better and worse, and show that even with 2020’s Public Health Response Act off the books, some things remain quite radically different.

The border is now open, but mostly goes one way

Aside from the lockdowns, the most defining feature of the pandemic was our changed relationship with the border. Previously porous, it became subject to incredibly tight control. For many of the million of us who were away from their whenua, it also became the subject of deep anguish, as the hard-capped supply of places in managed isolation meant the opportunity to return home became an unnecessarily cruel lottery.

While some of those here on temporary visas when the pandemic struck elected to stay, sometimes with harsh consequences, many left, meaning New Zealanders were largely stuck with each other for a couple of years. This created a giant experiment which saw unemployment, expected to rise as our economy fell, plumb record lows. Our tourism infrastructure pivoted to trying to attract and service a domestic market, with mixed results.

This ultimately had the effect of forcing the test of a longstanding thesis of the left – that some inward migration contributed to negative pressure on salaries, particularly among lower-paid workers. It turned out to have some truth to it, with average hourly earnings up 6.4% in the year ended June 2022.

A Queenstown vigil in support of migrants and the families they were separated from, May 2021. (Photo: Sher Singh Manakdheri via Migrant Workers Association of Aotearoa/Facebook)

Our border is now theoretically operating much as before. Only, it seems to be working more one way than the other, as the persistent downward trend in migration data shows, resulting in a net loss of 11,500 people in the year ended July.

Broadly it feels like our young people are off on long-delayed OEs, but aren’t being replaced by the bold and curious of other countries (Come! It’s… probably better than where you are, see below). Which is slightly unnerving, for both tourism operators and employers who require particular kinds of workers to achieve their goals. It seems clear that even with a border changed and migration settings freer than before, things are just not quite what they were.

Still, housing might finally be getting under control…

When Covid arrived there were predictions that housing would crash, but the money bomb unleashed by the government and Reserve Bank ended up having the opposite effect, seeing already OECD-leading prices rocket up 30% or more. This was very good news for those who were heavily invested in property, and made homeowners feel more wealthy, but unavoidably made those locked out of the market feel even more alienated.

The odd thing is that the rise in house prices was largely on the demand side. Most people were staying put to see what the pandemic would bring, which meant that the number of houses for sale plummeted. Many were working from home, which made some keen to upgrade – meaning the cost of building rose, which (along with low interest rates) justified paying more for existing homes. At the same time, New Zealanders coming home were desperate to buy, creating a temporary demand shock, with returning migrants movements strongly correlated with house price increases.

The paradox of it all is that while it felt like our housing market was exploding in 2021, the seeds of a form of rebalancing were in place. The closed border meant that net migration plummeted, meaning fewer people are chasing our existing homes. The building consent boom of the past few years saw record numbers of homes planned, increasing future supply. And interest rates are spiking, meaning banks won’t loan as much, reducing how much wage earners can pay for a home.

It all adds up to a situation in which rents and prices are starting to meaningfully sag for the first time in some years, helped by the expectation that new planning rules might bring far more intensification to our biggest cities in the coming years. To be clear, prices are still absolutely rooted, so let’s not get too excited, and we still have a heartbreaking situation unfolding in emergency housing. But there are more reasons than there have been in years to express cautious optimism that our housing crisis might one day merit a downgrade to a mere disaster.

…but inflation is very much not

We lived through a decade in which inflation felt a quaint thing your grandpa used to fret about. Then came a pandemic-induced supply chain disruption, huge government stimulus, and central banks loaning any bank any money for any reason if they promised to keep our economies in motion. This made prices go way, way up – though we were told it was a blip. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, and China continued its ultra-doomed zero Covid policy, and the blip suddenly looked a lot less blippish.

Inflation is back, baby. It’s currently running at 7.3% in Aotearoa, a level not seen since Act founder Richard Prebble was a staunch Labour man, and there is no good reason to think it won’t stay this way for a while. Unlike the border, or even housing to some extent, the government has a somewhat limited ability to impact the price of things. We exist in a globalised trading environment, with many important prices set at markets a long way from here.

Inflation is currently running at 7.3%. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Some elevated inflation is not entirely bad – parts of government privately applaud it. If wages go up while house prices and rents stagnate, for example, that represents progress on the goal of making housing more affordable. But it’s well above that level now, and is such a chaotic beast that even those who are enjoying it are rightly wary of where it might lead. There are some reasons for cautious optimism, such as a decline in shipping costs (which impact almost all goods we buy) – but elevated inflation seems a freaky post-pandemic reality which could easily hang around.

Health is rightly centre of our minds…

At the start of 2020, health did not feel like a major consuming interest. It’s something which everyone alive needs to think about yet many of us actively avoid contemplating. Our health system has long been oddly structured and underfunded, and served many of our most vulnerable particularly poorly (Emma Espiner’s ‘Getting Better’ podcast remains mandatory listening to understand this at a micro level).

But while it’s a major area of spending, it was not a major area of news coverage – more one to be visited for investigations than under persistent scrutiny. There were only a handful of specialist health reporters outside of the noble likes of NZ Doctor. At a societal level, we were just not paying much attention.

Then the pandemic arrived and killed millions of people, and eventually thousands of us. It made us pay very close attention to our health system, and stories of it buckling and failing in some places felt real – because any of us might imminently need it. Every reporter became a health reporter, many of them brilliant.

The pandemic also viscerally demonstrated that health was indeed a system. Not just hospitals and GPs, but pharmacies and researchers and public health experts and vaccine supply chains. Some of these worked really well for some of us, but after the Pfizer vaccine arrived en masse the weekly statistics told a damning story about how well our system reached different communities.

A Whānau O Waipareira team help with a Whānau Ora vaccination campaign in Papakura, Auckland, in November 2021 (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

This was not just a medical issue – Māori confidence in the system is intimately connected to centuries of hard-earned distrust in the state – but you saw it very acutely in health. This was never OK, but the health system’s racial inequities were even more inescapable in the post-George Floyd era. Reporting on healthcare now pays attention to how different communities experience it, and this seems only right.

Health was also ground zero for a major change in government policy, with the government replacing the patchwork of DHBs with a new centralised provider, and Te Aka Whai Ora, the Māori Health Authority. Only time will reveal whether this, the largest of the government’s centralisation projects, will lead to a meaningful change in access and outcomes for communities the system currently fails. But the pandemic has made us appreciate our reliance on the totality of the health system, and how fragile elements of it were going in.

…but education has been an afterthought

Education has experienced a near perfect inversion of what health went through in the past couple of years. It was necessarily sacrificed to preserve health initially, with school abandoned for months while we pursued elimination. While there was a huge effort to move to online learning, access to those tools were unequally divided, leading to a major and partially successful push to get devices into the hands of those who lacked them.

Unfortunately MIQ sites were concentrated in Tāmaki-Makaurau, and the riskiest of all – the once-notorious Jet Park, where positive cases were transferred – was located in South Auckland. This is also the site of New Zealand’s largest Pacific community, its most overcrowded housing, and a population with major healthcare challenges. This combination lead inevitably to major outbreaks and lockdowns with correspondingly lengthy absences from school, totalling around six months of a two year span.

During this period many older students were faced with a bleak choice: continue attending school online, often in conditions which made learning very difficult, or enlist as essential workers and bring a wage home. Others became disenfranchised, and some data suggests that there is a kind of educational long Covid – kids missing school, unexplained, who had previously attended regularly. They now have a correspondingly higher risk of missing out on much more as they go through life.

Deeper into the education system, we have lost, in part intentionally, many of the international students who used to populate parts of our tertiary system. But with immigration still well down on 2019 levels, it means an increased pressure on our system to create the kinds of workers our society used to be able to import (see: nurses and teachers). So far the reform of our polytech sector is over budget and has already seen off one highly experienced CEO. Any long-term recovery from the pandemic requires education to get enough attention to start to repair the individual and collective sacrifices students made during the pandemic, and meet the needs of our future economy.

Two years of being extremely online has not been great for us…

When we locked down, we got more internet than ever before. You saw this in surging, likely unrepeatably large audiences for online news, and temporary resurgences for linear TV. Yet there was also a small but not insubstantial minority of us for whom the pandemic galvanised a real distrust of the media, and particularly its relationship with the government.

This rumbled along, propelled by hyper-use of social media – publicly on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, privately on platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram. Initially a vague discontentment, leaders like Billy Te Kahika, Kelvyn Alp, Sue Grey and Voices for Freedom gave this tendency shape, creating a kind of constellation of brands under which anyone so inclined could find a home.

A rioter throws a desk on to a fire by the parliamentary playground at the end of the parliament occupation, March 2, 2022. (Photo: Marty Melville / AFP via Getty Images)

Over time it fused with various conspiracies about the origin of the virus and the vaccines into a full-blown movement, one which swelled around the time the mandates were announced, peaking with the occupation of parliament. The 23 day siege attracted thousands of people, transfixing the nation. It culminated in flames and hurled cobblestones and a sense that our country had a new, highly disenfranchised population that had started to live in a different reality to many of the rest of us.

Their fury felt equally directed at politicians, whom they blamed for job losses, and the media for enabling them. The government’s Public Interest Journalism Fund became an obsession for many in this group, and while there are legitimate criticisms to be levelled at it, the extent to which a piece of relatively routine procurement has become a sinister conspiracy is a wound that will take some time to heal.

It’s also worth acknowledging that the past couple of years have been a collective trauma, and that it’s entirely natural that people respond to it in different ways. It still feels like we give too much attention to those who have been radicalised online, and too little to platforms that enable and profit from the heavy engagement that radicalisation engenders. On some level, Monday’s Covid announcement could be read as a call to lay down our online arms – to welcome those who felt alienated by mandates back into our collective whānau. It’s impossible to yet know whether these divisions are permanent or simply a product of extraordinary times and measures.

…but on balance, where else emerges in a better situation?

I know this piece so far reads like a catalogue of bad vibes. No one wants to come here anymore, everything is more expensive, our health and education systems are kinda wrecked and we basically hate each other. Yet pick almost any other country and the same things are in worse shape. Inflation runs hotter in many other rich countries. The health and education systems crumbled in far more catastrophic ways, and much larger proportions of their populations died during the peak of the pandemic.

Most of all, the divisions which flamed during the pandemic feel uglier and more entrenched in many of the other countries to which we often compare ourselves. To address all that broke and was revealed by the pandemic will require enormous effort, but will also be made far easier by the ability to agree on desired goals (if not the path there) as much as possible. A political and media system that accepts the legitimacy of elections and believes in the good intentions of its main participants is perhaps the most precious thing we still hold.

I wrote about how I was feeling a couple of months ago under the only somewhat facetious headline ‘Everything feels bad all the time’. Based on the feedback I got, I was not alone. Yet to be here, in spring, with case numbers falling and the repeal of the restrictions which we’ve sat with since March of 2020 – even if that is itself not uncomplicated – feels like a moment we shouldn’t just let pass by with a shrug.

It got a little lost in the passing of the Queen, and the fact that many of us had abandoned those restrictions already. But the pandemic was something we all did together, under very extreme circumstances. As much as some key parts of our society are under strain, and face years of hard work just to get back to baseline, almost everything really is so much worse nearly everywhere else.

It’s not much maybe, especially to those whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the pandemic. But it’s more than most of the rest of the world can say – an outcome any of us would have taken on that fateful day when the prime minister stared down the camera and told us this ride was about to begin. As we commence the long and arduous work of building the post-pandemic era, that should not be taken lightly.

Keep going!