In the absence of calm ...

It was shrill and tabloid-type coverage of Covid-19 - not careful reporting - that caused widespread public anxiety. And in the absence of calm is when mistakes are made, writes Jack Vowles.

Apparently being calm in the face of crisis prevents one from doing anything constructive to address it – at least that is the argument made by Liam Hehir. But most people would agree that being calm is exactly what’s needed to focus the mind and take a few minutes to think about the problem. In the absence of calm, there is a danger of over-reacting and making mistakes.

In the face of a crisis like Covid-19, the role of a critical mass media and a political Opposition comes under question. On the one hand, if mistakes and errors are made, there is a responsibility to expose them, and those who are responsible. On the other, in a crisis there is always a danger of making things worse by exaggeration or generating misunderstanding, particularly if this destroys confidence in those who are in charge, making it harder for them to do their jobs. This is a particularly acute dilemma with an election looming in less than three months.

Most people probably understand the distinction between hard news, often based on careful investigative reporting, and so-called tabloid coverage that is shrill, emotional, and unbalanced. It was hard news and excellent investigation that exposed some flaws in the early days of quarantine management under Level 1. But some of the subsequent interpretation of the facts exposed has gone well over the boundaries into tabloid coverage. The result was widespread public anxiety and a loss of confidence: a sense that our local crisis was out of control.

Some important background information was often absent. All new cases originated overseas. More new cases at the border were always expected. The main barrier to reinfection from across the border is 14 days' quarantine. At the border, people with obvious symptoms are also identified. Prior to Level 1, this process was highly effective at preventing further spread of the virus.

Testing is an essential part of the Covid-19 response, but it does not catch all cases: the ‘probable’ cases that used to be reported during Levels 4 to 2. However, the widespread testing we have now should pick up cases to tell us if we have community transmission. So far, there is no evidence of this. Some people, including the Leader of the Opposition, ‘suspect’ there is already community transmission. Epidemiologists agree there is always a chance, but most add that it is very unlikely.

Why does this matter? Time and resources that could have been used to further improve quarantine management have been wasted in trying to find an apparently non-existent homeless person the Opposition still claims occupied a room in a quarantine hotel for two weeks. Despite huge increases in capacity that put New Zealand among the highest testing levels internationally, up to 10,000 a day, the system has become overloaded and authorities have had to narrow the testing criteria. People with a cold or the flu who have been tested have waited longer to get the negative result they may need to go back to work. Because of the pressure, the Ministry has now restricted the need for isolation for those with symptoms only to those likely to have been in contact with the new overseas cases.

Businesses now fearing a second wave may be thinking twice about taking on staff. People thinking of going out to a restaurant, commissioning builders to do home renovations, and otherwise spending to help get the economy back on its tracks may be hesitating because they are anxious: fearing that they will lose their job if we go back to higher levels or even that they may catch the virus if they go out too much in public. The line between responsible and irresponsible criticism of governments in a time of crisis is a fine line indeed.

Meanwhile, the recent government document release is illuminating. We went into Level 1 earlier than expected. We now know that the Ministry of Health recommended a continuation of Level 2. That could have included advice that it might be difficult for comprehensive testing across all quarantine facilities to be implemented for a few more days.

Another possibility is that those in charge of those facilities did not report their lack of capacity to higher levels of management, or found themselves unexpectedly unprepared because of an upsurge in those returning. Those analysing the documents may be able to tell us more.

If we rushed into Level 1 too soon, ultimately that was the responsibility of the Government. But we should also remember the strong pressure on the Government to make that decision: within, from a junior coalition partner, and without, from the Opposition and the business community, and indeed, from the weight of public opinion. Had Winston Peters and Todd Muller been in charge, we could have been at Level 1 several days sooner.

No one is in a strong position to condemn the decision to move to Level 1 without being fully prepared – if condemnation is ever required.

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