A fit-for-reality COVID response

By Kieran Madden August 31, 2021

“I want to believe.”

These words adorn the now-iconic poster of a UFO displayed above Agent Mulder’s desk in the nineties sci-fi X-Files. They capture a human yearning, a desire for something to hold on to beyond ourselves; especially in times of uncertainty like in our COVID-stricken world. 

Agent Mulder was sustained by a belief in the supernatural. For his partner, Agent Scully, it was her belief in God. What made the show so compelling was how they worked together and learned from one another, mediating these beliefs in evidence and reason. When there is so much we want to believe, we must do the same. 

We want to believe that New Zealand is exceptional; that we can succeed where everyone else is failing. We want to believe that the Government knows what they are doing; that politicians and public officials can save us. Our leaders clearly want to believe these things too. But too much of this results in hubris, complacency, and ultimately, policy responses that miss the target (or neglect to set one). 

The Government celebrated too early, getting distracted when a doubling-down was required.

In May last year, our Prime Minister announced that “we are confident we have eliminated transmission of the virus in New Zealand for now, but elimination is not a point in time, it is a sustained effort.” This effort was far from sustained, displaced by a hope—a belief—that we could keep COVID out. 

The Government celebrated too early, getting distracted when a doubling-down was required. They spent money tagged for COVID Recovery and Relief Fund on free school lunches and four billion dollars on housing-related infrastructure, despite cautions from Treasury. More importantly, the vaccination rollout was slow-moving with no real goal. The Government are now playing catch-up on vaccinations, yet another lock-down the only option until we are all vaccinated.

We are set for a difficult new, new normal. 2021 is “the golden year,” says epidemiologist David Skegg, “when we open the border, things are going to get tough.” He reckons we’re “going to be at war with this virus for years.” Rather than spending so much energy defending and justifying past policies, the Government needs not only to own up to failures but make plans for when they inevitably happen. When the game changes, they must change their minds too.

We must temper our supernatural belief in the power of the state…

For us, wanting to believe is distinct from just taking whatever we hear as truth too. We need to be discerning about the kinds of evidence we draw from—just because it aligns with our beliefs doesn’t mean it’s the real deal. Now more than ever. “The truth is out there,” it’s up to us to see it for what it is. For a COVID response that is fit-for-reality and long-term success, we must temper our supernatural belief in the power of the state, and our Government must come to terms with it as well. We can have an exceptional response, but our plans must be grounded in the way things are, not how we might wish them to be. 

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