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A solitary pedestrian on locked down Lambton Quay in Wellington (Getty Images)
A solitary pedestrian on locked down Lambton Quay in Wellington (Getty Images)

The BulletinApril 6, 2020

The Bulletin: Debate on when to leave the lockdown

A solitary pedestrian on locked down Lambton Quay in Wellington (Getty Images)
A solitary pedestrian on locked down Lambton Quay in Wellington (Getty Images)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Debate over leaving lockdown fires up, how the tax system could change after Covid-19, and concerns as cyclone bears down on Vanuatu.

Over the last few days, a debate has started to fire up about leaving level four restrictions, and restarting some of the economic activity that has been shut down. As you might expect, it’s a much more complicated debate than the simplistic framing of ‘saving lives or saving the economy’, as it has been characterised in some places. Only someone very venal or very stupid would choose to save the economy if that was the choice, after all. But there are issues worth canvassing.

It’s a debate that is currently taking place at the highest levels of government. There is reportedly some concern among ministers that the Ministry of Health has been given too much power over the response, according to Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan. NZ First MP Shane Jones has set himself up as an outlier to the wider consensus that lockdown measures are essential, both to avoid human and economic pain. “Medical triumphalism is great but not at the cost of an economic carcass,” Jones said. Green co-leader James Shaw, by contrast, argued that with the coronavirus out there, “it’s not like the economy was going to keep running as if nothing happened.” It’s a fairly ludicrous sentence to have to write out, but mass death would take a big bite out of economic productivity.

The PM addressed this question at yesterday’s press conference, arguing that a “strategy that sacrifices people in favour of a supposedly better economic outcome… has been shown to produce the worst of both worlds: loss of life and prolonged economic pain”. She stood by the government’s approach of a harder lockdown up front, in the hope that it could prevent much longer restrictions being in place in the future. National have started calls for phased reopenings, telling Q+A that would basically be confined to contactless businesses. To be clear, Bridges is not advocating for an early end to the lockdown. Incidentally, there is actually a growing list of businesses still open for sales – Michael Andrew has done a rundown of them.

With still only one confirmed Covid-19 death, so far the lockdown has been highly successful on that measure. Would mass death be taking place without it? Probably, yes. We can go back in time and quibble over whether border measures were taken early enough to keep it out, but looking ahead, the human consequences of not locking down – or leaving the lockdown too early – could be catastrophic. On Friday, Newsroom’s Marc Daalder put out an excellent analysis of current death rates around the world, and the “bad-faith backlash” against lockdown measures.

The key piece of evidence could end up being the diverging death rates between Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Sweden initially put in place much lighter rules compared to the other two, and has now seen more than a hundred more deaths than the other two put together, with a roughly comparable population to Denmark and Norway combined. As this Bloomberg article reports, there’s now growing consternation that the Swedish approach was not the right one – and they may still have to change course from here and lock down further. The US and UK, who also initially went for fairly relaxed measures, have also seen swift escalations in the death rate over the last week especially.

This sort of data matters a lot, because it is an immediately measurable signal of success or otherwise. But there are other, less immediately measurable signals as well, a point made by Matthew Hooton in the (paywalled) NZ Herald. His analysis rests on the idea that economic damage also costs lives – it just takes place over a much longer timeframe, and is accompanied by a lot of corresponding societal misery. Luke Malpass at Stuff has also looked at the issue from a similar lens, making an explicit call that “the overriding priority of the Government must be to get New Zealand out of lockdown as soon as possible.”

There have also been rumblings around questions of generational fairness. One argument that has been made is that the young are sacrificing so that the old can stay healthy, particularly because of the debt being taken on to fund stimulus spending. As one of that younger generation, it’s not one I agree with, partly because this virus can be very harmful to people who are immuno-compromised at any age, and partly because civilisation is hardly worth the name if we willingly cast the vulnerable aside in a time of crisis. But I accept that – given I’ve still got a job – there could be others in my cohort who think differently.

Finally, there’s another important consideration about the lockdown, in the context of a focus on health. As Josie Adams reports, the response to Covid-19 and lockdown provisions are putting huge pressure on the health system, particularly with resources having to be diverted. But things weren’t exactly great in the sector before all of this – there were acute workforce shortages, capacity constraints, run-down infrastructure issues and so on. If there was a widespread outbreak of Covid-19 in New Zealand without a lockdown in place, we’d run a very real risk of a totally overwhelmed system, and mass death from all sorts of other causes as well – not to mention the likelihood of a disproportionate number of deaths among health workers and other essential personnel. It’s one of many examples of why the debate over the next steps is so fraught.

We should get more information this week about how these arguments are being weighed. Politik’s Richard Harman is of the view that “barring an explosion of locally transmitted cases,” the signs are that we’ll leave lockdown at the end of the scheduled four-week period – April 22 for those ticking days off the calendar. Even if that does happen on time (which still seems in some ways like a big if) some restrictions are certain to stay in place for many weeks afterwards.

Just quickly, a message from our editor Toby Manhire:

“Here at The Spinoff, members’ support is more important than ever as the Covid-19 crisis lays waste to large chunks of our commercial work. It’s a tight time for everyone, of course, but if you’re able to, please consider joining Spinoff Members to help us stay afloat and keep producing work by the likes of Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, whose collaborations have had a real impact in New Zealand and around the world.”

Sticking with the theme of what comes after the lockdown, the tax system is likely to need to change. Interest’s tax expert Terry Baucher has looked over the area in depth, particularly around the competing needs of increasing government revenue to fund expansionary spending, while also not putting on burdens that slow down a recovery. In Baucher’s view, some of the Tax Working Group’s proposals that seemed sound at the time but never really went anywhere could be due for a revival – particularly around environmental taxes, and adjustments to income tax thresholds.

There are serious concerns about Vanuatu being hit by two disasters at once, with the archipelago in the path of an intensifying cyclone. RNZ Pacific’s Jamie Tahana reported yesterday afternoon that the storm could pass over the central islands as a category five cyclone later on today – if that happens, the damage will likely be immense. Some reports have already been coming in of flooding and damage to other islands. Covid-19 restrictions have been relaxed somewhat so that people are better able to deal with the immediate threat of the storm – though they were more about extremely cautious preparation, as Vanuatu is yet to record a confirmed case.

A new legal order under the Health Act was issued on Friday night, which has beefed up the legal basis for the lockdown. Law professor Andrew Geddis has interpreted what it means, and brought some brilliant clarity to how this will affect policing. The police have issued their own set of guidelines, which set out how officers should be dealing with the public based on a range of scenarios – if you’re curious, you can read them all here. Incidentally, Radio NZ reported yesterday that more than 700 police staff (including about 400 frontline officers) are currently in self-isolation.

In a story also related to policing, The Hui has reported on a survey of Māori and Pasifika attitudes to the trial of armed response teams. It found those groups had an overwhelmingly negative perception of armed police patrolling their communities, and the statistics show firearms are far more likely to be used against those groups compared to other ethnicities. The trial will finish at the end of April, and outgoing police commissioner Mike Bush confirmed the programme will be suspended at least until a review has taken place.

Small businesses are locked in a standoff with Afterpay over payments not being released, reports Stuff’s Susan Edmunds. Afterpay is refusing to release any of the money coming in to them without confirmation that the orders have been filled – but with postal restrictions in place, that means retailers are seeing nothing for pre-order sales that could help them get through. For an explanation of who Afterpay are, Richard Meadows wrote about the laybuy platform in 2018.

To close out this section, an explanation from a scientist as to why some of the advice has changed over the last two months. Dr Siouxsie Wiles – in my view an outstanding science communicator who has made a real difference to public health – has also faced accusations from members of the public of being “grossly irresponsible, negligent and deserving of formal censure by the University”. In the spirit of being open to criticism, she has written about trying to get the right information out to the public, at a time when so much about the coronavirus is still unknown. I’ll just quote this key passage:

“We are having to build the plane at the same time as flying it. We are all making judgements and decisions based on the evidence at hand and on our values. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t prepared to change our minds as new evidence comes in.”

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Right now on The Spinoff: In Covid-19 news: Mirjam Guesgen explains how scientists could use wastewater to detect whether the virus is out in the population. Michael Andrew reports on the heartbreaking situation people who cannot travel for family funerals are in. Duncan Greive reports on Google mobility data and what it shows about compliance with the lockdown. David Hargreaves writes about the nightmare position debt-laden first home buyers are now in. Tania Sawicki Mead writes about the need to ensure prisoners stay healthy and protected from Covid-19. Alex Casey writes about why so many people are suddenly remembering their vivid and often horrible dreams – a phenomenon we’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence around recently.

And on other topics: Mike Chunn muses on how there may never be a better time for people to get into some songwriting. Emily Writes reviews the uplifting escapism of new Netflix show Unorthodox. And Sam Brooks has a guide for introducing your kids to the magic of Studio Ghibli films.

For a feature today, a look at a beloved website that couldn’t pull off a relentlessly modern approach to media. Long-time readers will have seen me link to The Outline a few times –unfortunately, they’ve just laid off all of their staff, and will exist for the foreseeable future as an archive only. Media commentators Nieman Lab have charted the rise and fall of The Outline, in particular about how the business model was based on a bold but flawed understanding of digital media. Here’s an excerpt:

Chasing scale — the sort of enormous, social-fueled audience numbers many digital sites were building press releases around — was a bad strategy, [founder Josh Topolsky] argued, mostly correctly.

“I really want to move away from the impressions-based way of judging success,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “We want to focus on the best way to tell a story. Digital media has millions of colors to paint with, and most of the time we only use like four.” Other companies “get trapped into chasing just a little more audience, and you never change your product. You get locked in. We are not interested in a horserace.”

In sport, here’s two pieces about how cricket is managing with having no games. In the NZ Herald (paywalled) Dylan Cleaver explains how NZ Cricket has dodged a series of bullets with the timing of the lockdown, in particular because the India tour had been completed before it all started. NZC also took a gamble on switching a big chunk of TV rights to Spark Sport – a broadcaster with deep pockets and time on its side – that gamble looks a lot better now. And on King Cricket, the English writer discusses how this isn’t actually all that unusual a situation, because cricket not being played is an integral part of the rhythm of the sport.

That’s it for The Bulletin. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme.

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