OPINION: And so lockdown drags on.
Empty streets, shuttered businesses, and people physically avoiding each other are bleak reminders that our ‘normal’ way of living is now fragile.
That, and the ‘us vs them’ group think mentality.
Us being the ‘team of five million’ and ‘them’ anyone who dares criticise the Government’s approach.
On the advice of experts, most of us accept that the policing of the population is the only way to stop the deadly Covid-19 virus spreading further, or to a level that our hospitals can handle.
We are complying with restrictions on movement, gatherings, and even trading.
But that does not mean we gave up on freedom of expression.
Government supporters aggressively insist critics should shut up and trust the experts. That anyone questioning the prevailing approach is recklessly anti-science, undermining the response or indifferent to a higher death toll.
This is too crude. It is perfectly logical to accept the need for current restrictions, while criticising the Government for how we got here and the failings that led to it, not least in the vaccination roll-out.
Delta got in – there should be hard questions about why so that the gaps are plugged. People are being denied the right to come home – it’s only fair they get to question the managed isolation procedures keeping them out.
It is right that the decisions coming from the Beehive are informed by complex scientific evidence.
But that does not mean that only those with expertise have the right to an opinion.
No political decisions are based solely on pure science. If that were true, we’d have solved the climate crisis 20 years ago, our fresh waterways would run clear, and homes would be affordable.
Political decisions always involve trade-offs, moral values and priorities.
Why shouldn’t we hear from Scott Morrison? He’s dealing with the same pandemic, his experiences, and more importantly his mistakes, make him more than qualified to comment. Likewise, public policy experts in other countries add value – we’re in uncharted waters, there’s nothing to lose from hearing their views.
It’s not defeatism, just debate. We can reject that which does not work or apply.
It’s fantastic that the tight circle of academic experts advising the Government make themselves readily available to explain the modelling and the science.
In the pandemic, medical experts (the virologists, epidemiologists, statisticians and modellers) have become our modern-day talisman. It’s a refreshing change from the tendency to devalue expertise seen in recent years.
But it would be unhealthy to hear from just them.
Expert knowledge reflects the assumptions and blind spots of the giver. Scientists disagree, evidence shifts (last year masks were ineffective, this year they are essential. Mandatory scanning couldn’t be implemented at a meaningful level, now it can. All advice is, and should be, challengeable).
Obviously, there are caveats. Misinformation, especially when it is harmful, should be vigorously challenged.
The need for debate is vital.The normal checks and balances of our democracy are suspended at a time when they are most needed.
The 1pm briefings skew the discourse in favour of the Government, at the expense of Opposition voices, which are already weakened.
Parliament is not sitting and the Government has refused to reconvene the Epidemic Response Committee. Regular select committees are controlled by Labour MPs and thus are not as robust as they should be.
Sweeping decisions on fundamental rights are being made on a daily basis without any kind of scrutiny. They might be right and justified, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be examined and debated.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has given a spirited defence of her Government’s decisions. She’s more than up to handling the criticism.
Of course, she must exude confidence in the strategy and maintain consistent and clear messaging. But it’s troubling when she says she doesn’t want a debate.
And that makes it even more crucial to have robust scrutiny from outside her inner circle.
Because if they are the right decisions, then they remain the right decisions. Questions and alternative viewpoints won’t change that, and we can be more confident we’re on the right course.
We shouldn’t run from transparent and open debate – scrutiny can only improve the decision-making.