OROne of the many quotes attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that he probably never said was that he preferred his generals to be lucky rather than capable. When it comes to a matter of life and death, “give me lucky generals,” he supposedly begged.
It’s a view echoed by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this week when she announced that Auckland, home to roughly a third of all New Zealanders, was emerging from the strict level 4 lockdown to Level 3. Replaces ” general “for” politics “. And you’ll get a pretty good idea of the big cabinet decision this week. In a country that has basically tattooed “do it hard, go early” on one collective arm and “stay home, stay safe” on the other, the decision to allow some 300,000 people to return to their workplaces when Auckland is still is recovering. 15-30 cases a day in the community is a turning point in the government’s approach to this pandemic. Both in terms of public health and politics. A year ago, public opinion would not have had so much faith in the “lucky generals.” But that was a year ago.
Some have declared the cabinet decision. the end of New Zealand’s elimination strategy. Some, ignoring the evidence of just 27 deaths and our hospital wards clearly not overwhelmed, claim that the removal of evidence and the closures have not worked.
Others, including Ardern and his cabinet colleagues, insist that level 3 is still about elimination. But the language has undoubtedly changed. The strictly evidence-based approach of the past 18 months has been muted and this week the language of luck has been featured as one of Napoleon’s bicorne hats.
The truth is that New Zealand has been very lucky with this pandemic. The lack of adequate testing of border personnel, people who escape MIQ but never spread the disease, the slow initial launch of the vaccine that left GPs bypassed, the hesitation in salvia testing and health centers. Specially designed quarantine … yes, luck has always been a part of history, as well as making big calls right. But this is different.
This week, almost all epidemiologists have used the words “calculated risk” and epidemiologist Michael Baker said flatly, “It’s a bet”. Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins merely insisted that “we still have a very good chance of getting to zero [community cases]”.
Betting on our biggest city for “a good shot” is quite a change. Despite everything the government says that elimination is still the goal, basic math suggests that this week’s decision has increased the odds of achieving it.
Political leaders are always making deals between today and tomorrow. Protect retirement now, risk less for our children. Lower taxes in the hope of fiscal stimulus now, but reduce the nation’s savings. And so it goes. For 18 months, Labor has deposited public health, saving lives like taxes. Now, however, the government is playing for the first time with the public health equivalent of loosening the threads of the pocket. Choose now over what is to come. Risking their legacy as “Covid scouts” for the sake of Auckland’s short-term mental and economic health. Supporting the lucky generals over the capable ones.
It’s a great move for Ardern. Especially since amid the polarizing adoration and fury she inspires, the prime minister is instinctively and training a conservative. Stubbornly cautious. So why this “calculated risk”? Why bet on luck?
In part, you have to trust your data that the number of community cases will not skyrocket. An increase in the next two weeks and talk of a return to level 4 would be devastating for everyone. And, in a sense, you may feel that the risk is not increased as much as replacing blockages with vaccines as your key tool in ending Covid; moving their public health tabs from black to red.
However, even if the government’s data is better than what the public knows, it is a greater political risk than it previously took in this pandemic. Then why?
To begin with, there was a growing political cost to staying at level 4. Having initially spoken of a “short and sharp” lockdown and building expectations in the last fortnight of a downward move, he had painted himself into something of a corner. And as much of the rest of the world leaves lockdowns behind, our continued reliance on them could undermine our reputation as global winners in Covid bets. And of her.
What’s more, you don’t need a focus group or even a pub visit to know that the mood in this country is changing. Delta has questioned all kinds of doubts about the government’s short-lived plan to open after Christmas. People cling to what follows in the dark.
Frustration in Auckland has been mounting and the cabinet would have known it was risking losing the crowd; There is no point in imposing level 4 when you know that people are going to change their behavior regardless. Part of good public health management is knowing how much people can take, and Auckland was falling apart.
Don’t forget, elections are still won and lost in Auckland. The workforce recovered in the provinces in the last elections and outperformed in rural areas. But Ardern knows he can’t keep up with those numbers and Auckland will be key for another term.
Labor will be wary of the fact that voters do not always reward heroic leaders in wartime, once the crisis has subsided. They look for new skills for new times. Ask Winston Churchill. And while Ardern may be lucky enough to face the worst opposition since, well, the regrettable efforts of his own party for most of the 2010s, he knows that luck, and opposition leader Judith Collins, does not. it will last forever.
So while New Zealanders won’t really know if we’ve abandoned our elimination strategy for a week or two and a lot will depend on the choices of Aucklandites during that time (not to mention the weather this weekend), there’s no question that that the public mood is changing.
So Ardern seems to have decided that if he is going to bet, it may be as much on the behavior of the New Zealanders as it is on the behavior of the Delta variant.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism