Are We Responding Reasonably to the Crisis?

Proportionalism.  Not an overly inspiring word, but one that is more relevant than ever and something desperately needed as New Zealand continues to respond to Covid-19.  

Proportionalism is a balancing exercise as compared to the promotion of one value alone and the opposite of fundamentalism where only a single consideration drives behaviour.  As we think about Covid-19, proportionalism is about looking at the big picture such as public health, the economy, family relationships, civic engagement, and democratic principles.

In recent days, a court case ruled that the Ministry of Health was out of line by stopping a son from visiting his dying father.  The court rightly ruled that it was disproportionate to prevent such a visit.  While public safety is important, as too the rules around movement, to not consider any other factors would be wrong as this case clearly showed.  We are all called to weigh up the many factors involved and not simply one. In this case, looking at the family’s situation solely from a public health lens and yet ignoring the many other factors, including health mitigations, lacks proportionality.

This leads to the wider question – has New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 been proportionate?  I would suggest that it was at the start but is no longer.  In fact, things are getting completely out of balance as each day goes by.

As I write, many businesses are still not open.  Claims by the government that 75% of the economy is up and running are patently false.  The question being asked, and rightly so, is if it is proportionate to stall the entire economy due to Covid-19? At the start of the lockdown, I think many of us would have said ‘yes’.  In the absence of information and experience from overseas, asking everyone to stay at home seemed reasonable.  Preparing the hospitals for an outbreak, asking students to stop attending school or university, suspending sport practises and so on, were all prudent responses.

However, as the weeks have dragged on and the numbers of cases and deaths have dropped, it is hard to justify continuing to lock so much of the country down.  At the very beginning, it was proportionate to close everything down due to the fear of what could be.  Now that the ‘could be’ has been replaced with the ‘actual’ or ‘known,’ we should respond accordingly – that includes allowing businesses to reopen.

When we consider the health of the economy, we can understand that there are many costs to keeping our businesses closed.  As I write, there are more than one thousand people a day being made unemployed; businesses are failing; mental health issues rising; stress increasing.  Furthermore, for every business that fails, the mum and dad who own the company, their family, and their workers lose their livelihoods and become dependent on the state.  This not only lacks proportion but is also very bad for our democracy.  Every person should be given the tools to look after themselves and their families without government support.  The more people dependent on the state for day-to-day living, the less independent they become and unwilling to ‘bite the hand that feeds them’.

There are very real health costs as a consequence of managing the now relatively low numbers of Covid-19 cases.  As the country prepared our health system to manage an outbreak, all other health services were put on hold to free up capacity.  All surgeries, cancer treatments, dental services, GP or nurse visits, to name just a few, came to a halt 

All surgeries, cancer treatments, dental services, GP or nurse visits to name just a few came to a halt (except when an emergency).  At the start of the lockdown, this was prudent considering what we had observed overseas; our hospitals and health teams needed to be prepared. However, as the weeks have gone on, our health system has not been stretched.  Instead, hospital beds and surgical suites are empty and tens of thousands of New Zealanders are being told to wait for often life-saving treatment.  As the size of the outbreak became evidently small, the health system should have been – and needs to be and needs to be – largely restored. 

The lockdown has also had familial and relational costs.  We know of the rise in stress, worry, and domestic violence in families.  Relationships are being tested with loved ones not fully able to visit one another, including fathers missing the birth of their children.  Family members have also not been able to visit dying or sick loved ones nor attend funerals.  We should not underestimate the very real harm that these bans cause and the depth of grief experienced.

The counter-argument, of course, is that we need to remain vigilant.  I would say, however, that we can remain vigilant and still allow the economy and relationships to function.  Unlike other countries, our health system has not been overwhelmed, and while more should have been done in recent weeks, our contact tracing and testing systems are adequate.  Proportionality suggests that we can be cautious as well as economic and relational; to focus on only one aspect is unreasonable.  Why New Zealand’s recent actions lack proportion is because the government appears focused on only one aspect – that of public health – to the exclusion of all others. 

It must also be said that we have a Prime Minister and others saying we must do everything to save a life.  If this rhetorical flourish of the Prime Minister were true, then we would have reduced speed limits to 5km on all roads to stop deaths.  With around 500 deaths a year linked specifically to influenza, we would have to ask why the government does not close down the economy every winter.  They have not done either because of a lack of proportionality.

Currently around Covid-19, there is no balancing of the multiple factors, and we often have advocates for the government’s current approach suggesting it is right to destroy an entire economy to save one person.  Yes, all lives do and should matter – but at what costs?  Just as the government focuses on Covid-19, it must also focus on business, employment, and ensuring that normal relational dynamics, including respect around the rituals of birth and death, are supported.  To date, these have been excluded, as too the very real costs to those lives.

Proportionality also relies on realism.  Those who are suggesting we can eradicate the virus are practising utopianism.  Realistically, this is not a once-only event and we have to weigh up destroying an economy until there are no cases left at all, yet knowing full well we will have more in the future – particularly when we reopen our borders to visitors, which is how the virus got here in the first place.  This is a time for us to be vigilant and not fundamentalists.

A final reflection, as I am sure some readers will be worried about what might happen in the future. Good proportionalism suggests that we act with what we have and know in the now while planning for the future.  As things stand today with Covid-19 and the numbers we have, New Zealanders can and should be returning to normal life and business while also being ready for any future developments; that is the proportionate response to this crisis.