A lack of leadership

By August 17, 2020Australian Politics

New Zealand had its first confirmed Covid-19 case on February 26th, 2020. This case was a person who had arrived from Iran, and their diagnosis was announced publicly on February 28th. By that time the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had already announced (February 2) a ban on travellers from mainland China. By March 5th, the first case of community transmission was demonstrated from the person who had returned from Iran. The government was told by its experts that containment was not a realistic option as the country did not have sufficient testing and contact tracing to contain the virus. So, the government switched from a mitigation strategy to elimination1,2.

On March 19th all borders were closed to all, except for New Zealand residents who upon arrival had to self-isolate for 14 days. Two days later, a four-tiered alert level system was introduced and the country started at Alert Level 2, wherein unnecessary travel was curtailed. As cases climbed, the country entered Alert Level 3, where all public venues and non-essential businesses were closed, on March 23rd, and Alert Level 4, where contact between people was eliminated altogether and people were urged to stay at home, on March 25th3,4. On March 29th, the first death from Covid-19 was recorded, and by April 5 the country had reached over 1000 confirmed cases. On April 10, all people arriving in New Zealand had to undergo 14 days of supervised quarantine. These measures were so successful, that by April 27, the country went from Alert Level 4 down to Level 3. The rate of infection continued to slow such that on May 13 the country went to Alert Level 2. By June 5th, no new cases had been recorded in New Zealand for 14 days, and by June 8, there were no active cases in the country, 103 days after the first diagnosed case, so Ardern announced the relaxing of restrictions to Alert Level 1 would begin the next day, June 9th.2

While there are active cases in New Zealand now, they are international travellers who are placed in government-managed quarantine for 14 days after arrival. New Zealand’s total number of cases stands at 1569, with deaths at 22, both relatively low, and its Covid-19 mortality rate of 4 deaths per million population is the lowest among the 37 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. Public life has now returned to near normal, and many parts of the domestic economy are now operating at pre-pandemic levels, and have been for a couple of months1  (excluding the tourism industry, of course). While this was being written, New Zealand has experienced an outbreak in Auckland, which according to Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters may be due to a breach of quarantine5. However, New Zealand’s Director General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield has stated that environmental testing is under way at an Americold cold food storage facility in Auckland which is suspected to have been a source of the outbreak6.

During this crisis, Ardern provided empathic leadership and effectively communicated key messages to the public and framed combating the pandemic as the work of a unified “team of 5 million”. This resulted in high public confidence and high public adherence to the very inconvenient and economically costly transmission-control measures.1

Australia had its first four cases of Covid-19 on January 25th, a month before New Zealand’s first, and on February 5th, announced a ban on non-citizens arriving from China, three days after New Zealand did the same. Australia’s first death from Covid-19 occurred on March 1st; he was from Perth and had been a passenger on the Diamond Princess (berthed in Yokohama). On March 15th, the federal government banned gatherings of more than 500 people7, the day before such a measure was instituted by the New Zealand government at Alert Level 18. At the same time (March 16), people arriving in Australia from overseas were told to self-isolate for 14 days, and the following day (March 17) the government banned all international travel. The day after that, all indoor gatherings of more than 100 people were banned. On March 21, Australia banned non-citizens and non-residents from entering Australia, and all who did come, had to self-isolate for 14 days. The 23rd of March was when the lockdown started in earnest, with bars, clubs, cinemas, places of worship, casinos and gyms closing; and the beginnings of school closures. On March 26th, restaurants, cafes, food courts, auction houses are closed; open house inspections banned; weddings restricted to 5 people in total; funerals to 10 people7. This was the day after New Zealand moved to its Alert Level 4.

New Zealand remained locked down until there had been 14 days with no new cases, and no active cases remaining. That never occurred in Australia, with the lowest daily tally of new cases (2) occurring on June 6th and June 9th9. These small numbers gave rise to complacency, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling on June 10th, for an easing of restrictions, especially border closures, as being crucial to saving aviation jobs10. Speaking after a National Cabinet meeting on June 12, Morrison said the states were working toward relaxing some of the Covid-19 rules so that limits on the number of people in indoor venues would be scrapped. The changes would apply to events like sporting matches, concerts and festivals, though venues would only be able to seat 25% of their capacity11.

As part of his ‘plan’ to open up the economy, Scott Morrison stated, on April 15th: “I want teachers to know both as a parent and a Prime Minister just how appreciated you are and how important the job is you are doing and how much you are needed,” then sickeningly followed this up with, “We cannot allow a situation where parents are forced to choose between putting food on the table through their employment, [or] to support their kids and their kids’ education”. This is simply a way of attempting to blackmail teachers and parents into keeping schools open and this was despite state governments telling parents to keep their children home where possible while rushing to introduce remote learning12. A month earlier, Morrison had threatened to withdraw independent and Catholic schools’ recurrent government funding to enlist their support in keeping non-government schools open during the Covid-19 crisis13. Despite this threat, numerous independent schools around Australia shut down anyway, as the teachers’ union warned, sensibly, that it is impossible to practise ‘social distancing’ measures as advocated by the government14. Opening schools is a way of making it possible for the parents to continue to work. Getting people back to work is what Morrison was most concerned about.

There was considerable tension between the federal government and the state governments who had instituted hard-line border closures. Morrison urged premiers to nominate a July date for restarting interstate travel. Of course, Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has copped the brunt of Morrison’s and others’ criticism for her hard-line approach that, at the time, may not have seen borders open until as late as September. Liberal governments in South Australia and Tasmania were also keeping borders shut, along with the Western Australian Labor government10. The Treasurer, the ever limited Josh Frydenberg pleaded with the states to open their borders in saying: “Closed borders cost jobs. There is no clear medical reason as to why those domestic borders should be closed”15. However, it was these border closures which, as Peter Van Onselen said, “may have saved parts of the country from enduring what Victorians are now going through, because of state governments defying what in hindsight were foolhardy demands by the Commonwealth [that] they lift border restrictions”16. Again, this is Morrison and Frydenberg, attempting to protect the economy at the inevitable cost of Australian lives.

The irony is that in attempting to save the economy by opposing lockdowns, school closures, and border restrictions, Morrison may have done more damage to the economy than was necessary. This attitude of his comes from a distinct lack of imagination, insofar as he was unable to grasp the concept of a pandemic with a significant death rate and what that could mean for Australians. Even worse was Morrison’s lack of understanding of what exponential growth means and what that could mean for the rapidity of the virus’ spread, and the concomitant increase in the number of deaths.

Morrison’s apparent concern for the economy over the lives of Australians is shown to be a lie by how well the New Zealand economy has fared despite (or because of?) the rapidity with which they locked the country down and the effectiveness of that response. I would suggest that another factor was at play too, and that is that there are no significant Murdoch media interests in New Zealand. As a consequence of that absence, they do not have to suffer as much of the criminal behaviour of those who called the coronavirus a hoax, just a type of flu, or just a leftist panic, causing a significant number of their conspiracy theorist readers not taking the pandemic seriously, nor the measures to prevent its spread. When this is all over, there will be a significant cost to the New Zealand economy, especially if the recent Auckland outbreak cannot easily be contained, but so far it has not been as significant as could have been expected. This was in part because the lockdown was intense and effective, such that the economy has been largely back to normal for over two months. Despite this, and the apparent unemployment rate being only 4%, the underutilisation rate (a better indicator of the unemployment and underemployment rate) has risen to 12%, while the total number of hours worked fell 10%, the most since records began 30 years ago17.

Sweden allowed the virus to run more or less rampant by only implementing physical distancing, tracking and random testing18. While all the right wing nut jobs working for Murdoch would have you believe that Sweden’s economy has not suffered to anywhere near the extent that other European nations have, that is only partly true. The Spanish economy has shrunk by 18.5%, the French economy by 13.8% and the Italian economy by 12.4%. Although the Swedish economy has not suffered as badly as those, it has still shrunk by 8.6%19. That few percent less decline than the other European countries has been bought at the cost of 5,783 deaths, which runs out at 572 deaths per million population. New Zealand has had 22 deaths, which is about 4 deaths per million. Currently, Australia has had 16 deaths per million20, and this is likely to increase as the outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales continue. The thing that these right wing nut jobs do not understand, or do not want to admit, is that we are all in this together. This is because as other economies suffer, all do, as the world is very much a globalised economic entity. So, Morrison wanting to protect the economy is simply another failure of his imagination, while his willingness to sacrifice Australian lives to do so, is a failure of leadership.

In the absence of an effective vaccine, there are only two ways to deal with the coronavirus. They are by eradication or by herd immunity. In the middle of July, Morrison said that suppression was the only realistic solution, because elimination was “risky and illusory”21. However, only about a week later, he was confirming the country should aim for “no community transmission”22. Having no community transmission is the same as elimination. Similarly, suppression is the same as going for herd immunity. Herd immunity is allowing the virus to rampage through the population such that a large proportion of that population (60%+) becomes infected and develops an immunity which prevents the virus spreading easily through the remainder. All suppression does is drag out the time taken to arrive at the inevitable herd immunity. The difference between elimination and suppression is measured in lives, many lives. If Australia wanted to get to herd immunity, with 60% of the population having been infected (i.e. 15 million people), and with the current death rate in Australia of about 1%, that would be 150,000 dead. That would be Morrison’s legacy. As Peter Van Onselen said: “Australians also need to accept that our leaders haven’t managed the crisis as well as, for example, somewhere like New Zealand has. Jacinda Ardern’s approach aimed for elimination, and it worked. Scott Morrison’s suppression strategy had a different goal. Claims the NZ economy was dealt an unnecessary body blow to achieve such a feat now seem silly. Trying to repair an economy constantly gyrating between lockdowns and lifting restrictions is proving even more damaging”16.

If Morrison had been up to the task and less concerned with business and football, and more concerned with people’s lives, we may have been in the position of New Zealand which, apart from the recent small outbreak, has no community transmission and whose economy has been open for two months while Australia fannies around dealing with more outbreaks, border closures, lockdowns etc.. Unless we do eradicate it, these intermittent outbreaks could last well beyond the end of the 2020. However, one has to look on the bright side. Imagine if Australia’s political system was like that of New Zealand’s single government, and we had only Morrison and no state premiers; where would we be? As Peter Van Onselen suggested: “most likely the second wave currently contained to Victoria would be a national disaster. … This would have stretched resources in a way that would have increased death rates and reduced the capacity of contact tracing, just for starters. Then we have to consider how much worse the economic fallout would be”16. That would be the worst of nightmares.


  1. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2025203?query=featured_home
  2. https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/covid-19-timeline-look-back-nz-responded-crisis-eliminating-all-active-cases
  3. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12318673
  4. https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/coronavirus-alert-system-introduced-new-zealand-jacinda-ardern-announces
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/13/auckland-new-zealand-covid-cluster-caused-by-quarantine-breach-says-deputy-pm
  6. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-16/new-zealand-coronavirus-13-new-cases/12563404
  7. https://www.mondaq.com/australia/operational-impacts-and-strategy/929622/timeline-of-key-social-economic-covid-19-events-affecting-australian-business
  8. https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/411868/coronavirus-gatherings-of-500-or-more-people-will-not-go-ahead-prime-minister
  9. https://infogram.com/1p7ve7kjeld1pebz2nm0vpqv7nsnp92jn2x?live
  10. https://www.perthnow.com.au/politics/federal-politics/prime-minister-scott-morrison-calls-for-reopening-of-borders-to-save-airlines-including-qantas-and-virgin-ng-b881574309z
  11. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-12/national-cabinet-coronavirus-restrictions-prime-minister-protes/12348718
  12. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-15/coronavirus-covid19-education-schools-scott-morrison-response/12149984
  13. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/australian-government-must-help-health-workers-if-coronavirus-shuts-schools-labor-says
  14. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/mar/17/coronavirus-school-closures-dozens-of-australian-private-schools-move-to-online-learning
  15. https://www.perthnow.com.au/news/coronavirus/prime-minister-scott-morrison-to-address-state-border-closures-and-economic-recovery-at-national-cabinet-ng-b881575743z
  16. Van Onselen, P., 2020. Coronavirus: We’ve made mistakes, but it might have been worse. The Australian, August 8.
  17. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/06/new-zealands-4-unemployment-rate-masks-a-deeper-covid-hit-to-the-labour-market#:~:text=New%20Zealand’s%20unemployment%20rate,axe%20to%20the%20global%20economy.&text=Instead%2C%20the%20release%20of%20June’s,view%20of%20the%20country’s%20economy.
  18. https://www.healtheuropa.eu/swedens-response-to-covid-19-life-is-not-carrying-on-as-normal/101515/
  19. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-53664354
  20. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
  21. https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6836358/elimination-risky-and-illusory-scott-morrison/
  22. https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/leaders/pm-says-australia-aiming-for-no-community-transmission-of-coronavirus/news-story/d13c6f33c38099f4d5bd42574771cec7

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