Photo: Claire Eastham-Farrelly/RNZ
Photo: Claire Eastham-Farrelly/RNZ

The BulletinMarch 26, 2020

The Bulletin: A question of fairness

Photo: Claire Eastham-Farrelly/RNZ
Photo: Claire Eastham-Farrelly/RNZ

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Pulling the threads of fairness in a crisis, state of national emergency declared, and case numbers top 200.

New Zealand is now officially in a state of lockdown, with level four restrictions coming into place at midnight last night. There are plenty of pieces of news to catch you up on related to that, but in the meantime, I just want to share a couple of stories that are bound together by a common thread. One of the biggest tests of the next four weeks is going to be the stress put on our concept of fairness, and whether we are all in this together.

The jumping off point for this comes from a piece on The Conversation, about how the outbreak is being handled in South Africa. It notes that pandemics reveal, rather than cause, conditions of inequality, giving examples of their unique situation. There are many examples from New Zealand to draw on too. The idea of sharing these isn’t to spark outrage or try and pit people against each other. Rather, it’s about looking at what the pandemic is revealing about our own society.

The first story is about workers in the food export industry, who say they are being told that they have to put their health concerns aside and keep coming into work. Newshub spoke to several people, one of whom for example said their company had given an ultimatum of no work, no pay. Export-driven food manufacturers are considered essential services to maintain, even though the food isn’t going to be eaten here, in part because it will keep food suppliers going, and in part because it gives the country something to offer in trade.

The next story is about fairness for consumers. Radio NZ’s Anusha Bradley has reported on accusations that the big supermarket chains are price gouging at the moment, with sharp increases in prices for products like soap and fresh vegetables. Both Foodstuffs and Countdown denied raising prices outside of normal fluctuations that happen regularly, and said they’re doing all they can to keep essentials on shelves. Incidentally, supermarket spokespeople say that their front line staff have had to put up with a sharp increase of abuse from customers, which itself seems distinctly unfair given they’re having to work through this period.

Then there are questions about fairness between homeowners and tenants. Stuff reports that there will be a three-month freeze on almost all evictions, and a six-month freeze on rent rises. Fixed term tenancies that end in the period will be automatically transferred to periodic tenancies, meaning in theory nobody should be pushed out of a rental through no fault of their own, even if they can’t pay rent for a while. Some property owners will also be able to claim a mortgage holiday over this period, though as Massey University banking expert Claire Matthews told Newstalk ZB, the balance will still need to be paid off at the end of the holiday, so it’ll be risky. Many tenants might wonder why it took a pandemic to put these sort of protective rules in place, while many landlords might wonder why they’ll have some of their property rights chipped away.

There are endless questions that could be asked in endless areas. Many medical staff will have to face risking their lives, while others in more white-collar jobs (like those who write a newsletter for a living, for example) get to spend a month working from the couch. Kids in schools with high levels of digital literacy will keep learning, while others may not. Asian New Zealanders may face the unfairness of racial abuse and misplaced blame. Many businesses are reporting that the wage subsidy process has been incredibly smooth and easy, while beneficiaries say they’re still jumping through hoops. Some businesses will be able to operate basically normally over the next four weeks, while others will be shattered, and quite possibly forever. Tourist hubs will be hit much harder than farming towns. As finance minister Grant Robertson has repeatedly said, even with government intervention, not every job or business will be saved. For those that aren’t, this will probably feel abominably unfair.

There isn’t necessarily an answer to any of this, and I’m certainly not about to suggest some grand, sweeping solution. But many of us are going to have a lot of time on our hands over the next month to think. And taking a cue from this piece in the Guardian by Max Rashbrooke, we should be thinking about what a recovery looks like, even though we’re at a point right now in which nobody really knows when it will be, or how much needs to be recovered. And equally, we should be thinking about how society at large thanks those who will bear the worst brunt of what happens over the next month.

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A state of national emergency was declared yesterday in parliament. Radio NZ has an explainer on what this term means, and the rarity by which it is deployed – the only other time it happened was after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. It gives Civil Defence access to powers that wouldn’t normally be available, but in this sort of situation may be necessary. The police are still the agency responsible for maintaining law and order, and Andrew Geddis has given a thorough legal outline of how authority is derived and wielded in times like these. Sam Sachdeva from Newsroom was in parliament for the final sitting in a while, and wrote a reflective report about the mood of the chamber.

Some important news updates to quickly wrap contained in our live blog yesterday. The number of cases has risen to 205, with the vast majority of those still connected to international travel, rather than community transmission. Under new rules all returnees will be screened, anyone showing symptoms will be tested, and anyone either testing positive or without suitable self-isolation plans will be quarantined. Over the coming week, around 10,000 NZers are expected to try and return from overseas, though because of cancelled schedules many won’t be able to.

A new poll shows broad support for shutdown measures now in place. Stuff reports more than 90% of respondents said they supported it, and just under 90% of respondents said they supported travel being banned from countries that had experienced deaths from Covid-19. However, the support dropped to 58% on the question of shutting schools, and 60% of respondents believe the economy will be hit “very badly” by measures aimed at stopping outbreaks. A note – the poll was conducted on Sunday, so given the rapidly moving situation some measurements may now be different.

It’s too late to do anything about this now, but some beach towns could be under serious strain in the coming weeks. That comes out of this report from Susan Strongman at Radio NZ about Pauanui, normally known primarily as an enclave for the wealthy and their baches. But it’s also a place with only one doctor, the median age is very old, and with a lot of bach owners choosing to spend their shutdown out there, the town’s systems could struggle to cope. There’s also a concern for the permanent residents of the town that one of the recent arrivals might have brought Covid-19 with them.

The country’s trade stats have been shifted to a large degree by Covid-19, as this wrap of provisional stats by Interest shows. They reported on Stats NZ figures that compared the week ending March 18 with the equivalent last year, and export values to all countries were up by a healthy 3.7%. But total imports were down by a much more significant 11%, and total trade to China was massively down.

A couple more pieces of brilliance from Dr Siouxsie Wiles to share: She and Toby Morris have continued their dream partnership to explain how household bubbles work – these should be the only people you have contact with over the shutdown period. And Dr Wiles has also recorded a video message for anyone who isn’t taking this whole thing seriously, or thinks that they’re somehow exempt from having to follow the rules – please share this one with any friends and family who don’t yet get it.

And a shoutout here for Jihee Junn too – she’s taken a whole lot of specific questions people are asking about the rules for the next month, and answered them in a very simple and clear way. If in doubt, don’t go out!

A bit of media news: StopPress reports that the National Business Review will now be an online-only publication. The move has been on the way for a while, and comes alongside several years worth of investment in digital multimedia capabilities. Those plans also appear to have accelerated because of the pressure being put on by the pandemic.

Keep up with all the developments today with our Covid-19 live updates page.

Got some feedback about The Bulletin, or anything in the news? Drop us a line at

Right now on The Spinoff: Alex Casey gives us an update to the Bachelorette power rankings, from an episode filmed before this whole thing started. Vaughan Fergusson explains a new skill sharing app designed to enable volunteers to help those in need. Julie Spray writes about how the pandemic is being experienced by children. Nadine Anne Hura has given us a poem for these times, called Rest now, e Papatūānuku.

And Catherine Woulfe has written about her father, who she won’t see for a long time because he is in a secure dementia ward. It’s a piece that resonates with love and heartache.

For a feature today, a discussion of how our actions can help shape the actions of others. Stuff journalist Kelly Dennett has put together a thoughtful piece about the concept of kindness, that idea which will probably do more than anything else to get us through the coming weeks and months. It’s a contagious thing, being kind to each other, but as this excerpt suggests, the opposite is also true.

Crises response psychologist, Dr Maureen Mooney, says public gestures of kindness have a cascade effect, and they have to come from the top down. “So having a leader, for example in the Christchurch shootings, saying ‘they are us’, just brought a community together.”

Unkindness, like looting during disasters, or stockpiling food or products, forcing others to go without, is rooted in psyche, Mooney says.

“The reason I think that some people are being individualistic and fighting over the toilet paper situation is perhaps, when people first feel a threat, they protect the people closest to them. Getting toilet paper or tinned tomatos may be an initial reaction, because when we are faced with a threat we are not too rational at first.”

No sport news today, there’s little to talk about. Periodically, this section might come back over the next four weeks (and beyond) but in the meantime it’s more likely that it won’t be here. My best wishes to all of the sports journos out there who do such magnificent work in normal times – I hope they can one day get back to it.

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