The following op-ed was published on Stuff.co.nz on 17 February, 2022.
The anti-social and sometimes odious actions of the protest outside Parliament are easy to condemn. Much harder is finding a way forward to heal the divisions it symbolises.
The Government, and in particular the Speaker, Trevor Mallard, have fallen for a trap. They appear to believe that if they can shoot the messengers then the message will disappear, but it won’t.
The illusion was easier to sustain when the protest contained truly odious elements. Nobody can support death threats, intimidation of law-abiding business owners and their customers, or crazed individuals promising to storm Parliament or “arrest” politicians.
As time goes on, though, the illusion fades. The protest is becoming surprisingly organised with supply lines, emergent leaders, and even makeshift security guards in hi-vis who discourage anti-social behaviour. Now, a stalemate has been reached where the Government is clearly out of options. Police can’t even find tow trucks to make good their threats.
The protest is a symbol of frustration that is felt more widely than by a few hundred or even a few thousand people camping on Parliament’s lawn. It goes beyond vaccines and even vaccine mandates. It symbolises frustration with a response that started so well but has become increasingly forlorn, costly, and out of step with the world.
In the distant days of March 2020, we used our strategic advantage of isolation well. Anyone can quarantine an island though. The hard part was always going to be safely reconnecting with the world and balancing the fight against Covid with other human needs.
As the Government has struggled to do that, the team of 5 million has splintered. There’s no place for those stuck outside our borders in what is really a team of 6 million, or those who depend on people visiting New Zealand for a living. There’s barely space for the small business owners who can operate, but not break even, under various restrictions.
Then there are others. Non-Covid healthcare patients, children’s learning, and isolation. All these costs have been overlooked at the altar of Covid.
There’s also the social cohesion lost when people feel marginalised. The Government seems to have almost gleefully excluded the unvaccinated. You don’t have to agree with their views on vaccination, I don’t, to be compassionate towards fellow humans.
Why couldn’t a recent negative test substitute for being vaccinated? It’s good enough for Air New Zealand and their passengers, so why not other workplaces? As a policy gesture, it would have gone a long way towards lancing tension that has now boiled over in Wellington.
The cumulative effect of these events is enormous fatigue. People at breaking point act irrationally. The protest is just the concentrated form of these wider frustrations, that can’t be allayed with sprinklers, bad music, or name calling by senior politicians.
What is needed is a mature de-escalation of the situation outside Parliament. That requires concessions on both sides. The protesters need to recognise that you can’t really talk about civil liberties when you’re threatening violence yourself. You can’t talk about restrictions on activity when you’re making it impossible for businesses in the area to operate.
Clearing the streets, letting businesses function, and ending the more objectionable elements of the protest must be pre-conditions for dialogue.
Then it turns to politicians, especially the Government ones. They need to answer the questions that the protestors are asking more pointedly than others who nonetheless share their concerns. When will Government policy balance fighting Covid with the many other needs people have?
When will we move from a no-cost-is-too-great mania about Covid to a “wellbeing” approach that was this Government’s boilerplate (and the title of ACT’s August 2020 paper on the subject)?
A good start would be applying cost-benefit analysis to Covid restrictions. Will people isolating for 10 days slow the spread of Omicron? Will slowing the spread change the outcome or just the timing of it, and will either benefit be worth the cost of all that isolating? Does vaccination affect the spread of Omicron, and is that benefit worth the cost of segregating society?
If isolating and mandating make no difference to the outcome, but have costs that outweigh their benefits, why do we keep doing them?
What people outside Parliament and beyond want more than anything is to have such questions asked and answered in an open and honest way. They don’t feel they’ve had that from the Government. Many feel the media have let them down along the way.
All this matters for the long-term health of our country. The Prime Minister promised a kinder world based on more than just GDP, but she’s delivered a divided country focused on just one measure. We need hope and healing to glue our little country back together, and it starts with more candid dialogue than the Government has offered to date.
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