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The Coronavirus State: New Zealand and Authoritarian Rumblings

It’s all about the lever of balance. Laws made for public protection, within which public health features prominently, provide grounds for derogation authorities can exploit. Like plasticine, the scope of power during times of an emergency extends. But at what point does a state of public health become a police state? In time, we may find these to be not only indistinguishable but synonymous; the body will be the site where liberties are subordinate to regulation, movement, medical testing, and directives made in the name of health.

Across countries, the “lockdown” as a term has come to keep company with “social distancing”, now retouched as “physical distancing”; “self-isolation” along with a host of numbing words such as “unprecedented” and “rapidly evolving”. Such lockdowns naturally vary in terms of how the coronavirus will be dealt with.

In New Zealand, the focus of the lockdown has been on suppression and elimination. Thoughts of mitigating COVID-19 have been cast aside. On March 23, the country was openly committed to the elimination strategy. A piece in the New Zealand Medical Journal authored by the country’s notable epidemiologists in justifying the approach, insisted on a departure from the management strategies of old. Mitigation had been used in Europe, North America and Australia. Suppression, resulting in flattening the curve of infection, had also been adopted. But these did not adequately appreciate the nature of COVID-19, which was “not pandemic influenza.” It had a longer incubation period (5-6 days) relative to influenza (1-3 days).

Rather than increasing the measures in progressive response to the spread of the virus, the focus would be on imposing firm measures from the start, including border controls, case isolation and quarantine. Mass community measures might be needed to stop community transmission: physical distancing, internal travel restrictions, mass quarantining. While intrusive, the authors extol the virtues of a hard approach from the outset: “if started early it will result in fewer cases of illness and death. If successful it also offers a clear exit path with a careful return to regular activities with resulting social and economic benefits for New Zealand.”

On March 23, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered a statement warning New Zealanders that they had 48 hours to get their affairs in order. “Right now we have a window of opportunity to break the chain of community transmission – to contain the virus – to stop it multiplying and to protect New Zealanders from the worst.” By March 25, a state of emergency had been declared, with “level 4” lockdown measures closing schools, non-essential workplaces, banning social gatherings and imposing travel restrictions. Two 14-day incubation cycles have been factored into it.

Tributes from the public health sector followed. Professor Michael Baker of the University of Otago, a co-author on the NZMJ piece justifying the elimination method, gave his assessment of the slowdown of cases: “a triumph of science and leadership”. The prime minister “approached this decisively and unequivocally and faced the threat.”

A slew of items are now in circulation glowing for the approach taken by the Ardern government. New Zealand, goes the line, is on to something, though care should be taken from which source they come. The Guardian, for instance, ran an article of congratulation for the elimination formula, but you only had to realise the authors: Baker and his colleague Nick Wilson. Unsurprisingly, it is effusive: “New Zealand now appears to be the only ‘western’ nation following an articulated elimination strategy with the goal of completely ending transmission of COVID-19 within its borders. The strategy appears to be working, with new case numbers falling.”

The Washington Post was similarly brimming with admiration. “New Zealand isn’t just flattening the curve. It’s quashing it.” Qualifications are, however, forthcoming. “In New Zealand’s case, being a small island nation makes it easy to shut borders. It also helps that the country often feels like a village where everyone knows everyone else, so messages can travel quickly.”

Shifting away from the pure health dimensions of the response, and a less praiseworthy image emerges. The legal cognoscenti have been lukewarm, albeit admitting that emergency measures are necessary. The police, for instance, have discretionary powers unseen since the 1951 waterfront strike. The Health Act 1956 has been used to deem COVID-19 a “quarantinable disease”, thereby giving “medical officers of health” vast powers, backed by the police use of reasonable measures, to impose conditions of isolation, quarantine or disinfection.

Barrister and journalist Catriona MacLennan, in an irate open letter to the New Zealand Police, wrote of how it was “hard to get our heads around the extent of these [emergency] powers. They are not something most New Zealanders have ever imagined.” There was, for instance, no legal obligation for any New Zealand citizen to have letters from their employers or work identity cards. The regulations on when people could or could not leave their homes needed to be standardised. “Contradictory messages and over-the top enforcement will rapidly erode public goodwill and result in increasing failure to comply.”

This has seen various altercations. One featured police berating former broadcaster Damian Christie for delivering video equipment to a client’s food producing business as a needless act and in breach of the lockdown. Armed with a letter showing otherwise, and outlining that the video gear would be used to share information to employees on COVID-19, the response to Christie was absolute: He could only leave the house for medical necessaries.

This distant island has become a fledged police state, perhaps not quite fully but well on the way. Some of this has to with confusion between the State of National Emergency as distinct from the lockdown itself. These have been blended into an authoritarian mix. Police may, without warrant, enter premises and rummage through possessions. Indefinite detention may be imposed on those who have no good reason to leave their home, though this is very much down to a loose reading of power.

Another by-product of these measures is a willingness to turn citizens into accessories of the state, small time agents and spy enthusiasts. They are the tittle-tattles, or, to use the vernacular, dobbers, the do-good brigade enlisted in public health’s calling. It first came in the form of an online email address run by the Ministry of Health regarding breaches of self-isolation and mass gathering directions. The emergency police line was then choked by hundreds of the dedicated.

This saw the establishment of an online site which was swamped with reports within an hour of its activation, crashing it. (Some 4,200 reports are said to have been lodged, many snarling about joggers and walkers.) The continued level of interest shown by the users in reporting on their fellow citizens has seen police calls for patience. “If you are having difficulty, please try again later.” Something to be truly proud of.

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11 comments

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  1. Phil Pryor

    In highly regarded “democracies”, (Ho Ho) like USA and UK, during world wars, great and small pettiness, wrongfulness, error, imperious bastardry and officious publicservantism, persecution, etc, existed, flourished, became sport and work…If only Hitler had this virus…

  2. guest

    The main complaint here is that the NZ Ministry of Health turned citizens into “accessories of the state” – and I agree that asking for people to dob in neighbours and citizens generally is rather miserable as a policy. But then there might be some people who might be really transgressing by disturbing the peace or threatening life, etc.

    So we have various commenters claiming that rules such as we see now across the world to various degrees is creating “police states”, as if no rules are necessary – we can just rely on common sense, or at the least the social and legal rules we already have – or a phasing down of special rules as circumstances change.

    The Murdoch media have been both praising and criticising Morrison and his National COVID-19 Coordination Committee. The criticism is about the big spending and the establishment of of “police state” rules – and more ecently is the demand for knowing what happens next. We see it in Janet Albrechtsen’s “Coronavirus: Charting a way out of this crippling Pollyanna world”, WE Australian, 11/4/2020.

    Albrechtsen asks about information released this week:

    "We were told there is 'no magic' to the hypothetical modelling released this week. It is guesswork then? If it is not guesswork, please entrust us with meaningful information that we can use to judge whether the cure is worse than the disease.

    … it is time for the federal government, using real metrics rather than hypothetic modelling, to start planning to reopen the country.”

    Who is the “we’ she writes about? The Murdoch media? The IPA? Citizens of Oz? It is interesting that she uses some Trump-speak about cures and disease. She seems rather beholden to what Trump says, despite the fact his leadership on coronavirus is being questioned in the US.
    As well, this questioning of modelling compared to “real metrics” is very much the kind of language used in climate change denial. Ian Plimer, for example, tells us that the IPCC uses only computer modelling instead of the “real” scientific date used by deniers. We can see this kind of claim made in the IPA publication “Climat Change: The Facts 2017”.

    Albrechtsen goes on:

    "To be sure, listen to the medical experts. Then add, weigh up and parse other information too...

    And she goes on to add and extensive list of matters to be considered – by her? the IPA? Murdoch media? ordinary citizens? other experts? It is the kind of task given to Bill Shorten before the last election: “What will be the cost of zero carbon emissions by 2050? Come on, answer precisely, immediately!”
    Even here Albrechtsen is putting pressure on Morrison because he has dared to take the big-spending approach to the virus – and the IPA is dead against big government.

    So, more questions:

    "Have you worked out what might be the tipping points for when we disobey and hop over fences?"

    And of course she is referring to the kind of disobedience of the kind referred to in this article. Breaking point comes. Human nature rebelling against restrictions to freedom from the police state. Looking after number one, neglecting care for others!

    “Tipping points”! You know, the kinds of things that never happened, such as Perth running out of water. The kinds of things climate alarmists used to try to scare us all about a climate catastrophe. And more of that from Janet.

    "There are powerful forces working against a meaningful exit strategy. The first one is human nature, always planning for the worst, avoiding risk, instead of managing it sensibly. That is killing our economy right now."

    Alarmism? There it is, right there! And what is “managing it sensibly”? Albrechtsen does not – cannot tell us. She demands it of others, but she cannot tell us herself.

    And she goes on to quote from Steve Waterson, who last week said: “Life is precious, but not priceless.”

    Albrechtsen has elaborated:

    “…in today’s society, Pollyanna will claim that all lives are of equal value, and that everyone has an equal claim to our limited resources. It is heartwarming. It is also wrong.”

    So nice to tell us, Janet. Some people are more equal than others. So says the Murdoch-IPA prophet.

    “There are powerful forces working against

  3. wam

    nz 1000 and 4 deaths sicilly 2000 and 150 deaths?
    After a holiday in SA and Vic, we spent 14 days self quarantine in darwin where the police caught 25% breaking their word?

    Ignoring two examples of police states, argentina and russia, conservatives still prefer a police state because they think it wont affect them but it will affect the lefties.
    I fear a police state because the instruments of policing are hard core right wing conservatives little restraint on the zeal with which they carry out their duties. Men and women who have a majority pf officers with racist, sexist and xenophobic issues and act according to those character flaws.

    Yes, binoy regardless of the politics of the beginning , there will always be politicians to take the next step.

  4. guest

    Sorry. Made a mess of the quotations. Too quick with the editing.

    Quotations:

    We were told there is “no magic” to the hypothetical modelling released this week. It is guesswork then? If it is not guesswork, please entrust us with meaningful information that we can use to judge whether the cure is worse than the disease.

    …it is time for the federal government, using real metrics rather than hypothetic modelling, to start planning to reopen the country.

    To be sure, listen to the medical experts. And then add, weigh up and parse other information too…costs – economic, mental

    Have they worked out what might be the tipping points for when we disobey and hop over fences?

    There are powerful forces working against a meaningful exit strategy. The first one is human nature, always planning for the worst, avoiding risk, instead of managing it sensibly. That is killing our economy.

    (remove last line beginning of the original text)

  5. Henry Johnston

    Let’s hope once the worst of the virus passes, New Zealand via its innate humanity, aids and assists the island nations of the South Pacific. Ditto Australia which might consider seizing a couple of cruise ships as recompense, and fit-out one or two as floating fever clinics-cum-aid vessels. Yes. I know. I’m dreaming.

  6. Clare De Mayo

    I feel much more confident in NZ’s approach and ability to dismantle the special powers than I do in Australia’s approach. NZ has a progressive government and is much more open and transparent with its citizens re policy and governance. We can hardly say that for ScottyfM and his cohorts. NZ have not botched up the process by making crazy exemptions in the beginning (‘we won’t start the lockdown until Hillsong has its conference, and we’ll let in the cruise ship passengers from this boat, but not the next one’…), so the horse hadn’t already bolted there. NZ have set a clear timetable, so people know where they stand. NZ allowed people to establish their ‘bubble’ of connections, which allowed people outside families to establish a contact with whom to go through the isolation. Australia has not set any timetable for lifting restrictions, everything is ‘indefinite’ (ask refugees how long ‘indefinite’ is). Australia has more or less ignored those who don’t fit into the ‘nuclear family’ model. Australia has suspended parliament until August, NZ has suspended it for 5 weeks. I would be much happier to undergo the lockdown in NZ than here in Australia. I could trust Jacinda Ardern, I do not trust Scott Morrison.

  7. Carl Marks

    EnZed is nothing to what has been going down in England and the USA,

  8. New England Cocky

    The enthusiasm for dobbing in transgressors reminds me of the people’s rallies of the late 1930s Germany; everybody wanted to be part of the action.

    Have no doubt that populations of Australian voters are equally capable of similar reactions to stress. Remember the vilification of German colonists in South Australia during WWI, and similar acts during WWII.

    The hard facts are that Australia has been placed in a police state by the least competent Prim Monster since Federation, without Parliamentary oversight and likely with little appetite for loosening his tenuous grip on political power and the accompanying pecuniary financial benefits.

    @Clare de Mayo: NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Adern is yet another example of how proper leadership is practiced by a competent politician. Even my mate Blind Freddie can see this stark difference and cries into his beer every night in the hope that the unelected political hacks who control pre-selection in the COALition will roll-over another Prim Monster.

  9. leefe

    Apart from the issues of civil liberties and authoritarianism, there is one major problem with the UnZud approach – you cannot permanently eliminate the virus from the country unless you permanently shut the borders. As soon as the next batch of tourists rack up, it will start all over again.

  10. paul walter

    Iron fist in velvet glove?

    I don’t know if she has been any worse in her panicked responses than any other politician.

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