recent auckland lockdown yet another example of government incompetence

If there was any doubt that the government does not have much of a clue when it comes to Covid-19, the latest Auckland lockdown should settle that debate. It has been pointed out that the so-called “elimination” strategy followed by the government was misguided and will, by necessity, required an extended series of such lockdowns. We were told that as the government got better at contact tracing and isolation, lockdowns will be few and far between. Then, of course, a vaccine will arrive. And now the vaccines have arrived, yet we have two lockdowns in Auckland in three weeks.

Not that the opposition party is brimming with alternatives. Their big idea? A prison-like MIQ facility in the outskirts of Auckland. In that case, pray, why not use that money to build a new hospital or new ICU units or expand public health services?

At this point it may be worth reiterating that there are significant economic, social and psychological costs of lockdowns and much emerging evidence suggests that these costs outweigh potential benefits. Lockdowns also cost lives, except we remain oblivious to this since those lives are lost in the background, away from the media spotlight.

The Prime Minister is apparently frustrated that people are not following the rules. This is only because the government and their stable of experts seem to have little understanding of how human beings work. Their mathematical models are based on treating humans as automatons and when people do not behave like this in real life, they are surprised and frustrated.

Policies designed to deal with a pandemic must take into account elements of human psyche. Furthermore, when we design machines or policy, we do not assume that everything will go right. The key part of good design is to anticipate what could go wrong and then design fail-safes around that. This way when unexpected things happen, the machine or the policy does not come apart at the seams.

The primary problem with the government’s Covid-19 app? It does not work! No wonder people stop trying. Instead of incurring the cost of repeated lockdowns we could have spent the money providing people with the blue chip enabled covid card that Sam Morgan had advocated. When Morgan finally quit in frustration, the then Digital Services Minister Kris Faafoi said that compulsory covid cards would be “an extreme last resort”. It is hard to understand why the covid card is the last resort but repeated lockdowns are perfectly acceptable.

At the end of the December quarter, much was made of the drop in unemployment rate to 4.9%. One commentator argued that this definitely established that a strong health response was also the best economic response. Yet, it became clear quickly, that the drop in unemployment was not an accurate picture of the economy given a sharp increase in the number of job seeker benefit recipients and the labour underutilization rate. The true amount of unemployment in the economy is potentially much higher.  

In the meantime, the Prime Minister has clearly abandoned her exhortations to “be kind”. If you lived in Papatoetoe or went to its High School, would there be any doubt about the identity of the people involved in the current fracas? How is it okay to engage in this type of public shaming?

But the scary part is that the government’s incompetence is not confined to its Covid-19 response alone.

The government has indicated that it is determined to implement policies recommended by the Climate Change Commission even though no one actually has a clear idea of where these recommendations are coming from since the commission has refused to divulge much information about its assumptions or modelling. Kate MacNamara of NZ Herald wrote that through a range of policy intervention the commission would have the Government regulate minute details of our day-to-day lives. And while the Commission suggests that all of this would cost just under 1 per cent of the GDP we would otherwise reach in 2050, estimates from NZIER suggest that the cost may be as high as 5 to 8 per cent of GDP.

Elsewhere, the Finance Minister recently inserted language into the remit of the Reserve Bank’s monetary policy committee requiring it to take into account government policy relating to more sustainable house prices. This is problematic since it circumscribes the RBNZ’s independence.  Like the judiciary, the RBNZ also needs to be completely independent and such independence is fundamental to the proper functioning of our democracy.  

C.S. Lewis wrote:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. … those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.