A friend of mine recently sent me a link to an episode of the Alex Salmond show on Russia Today.
The main message from the programme (or at least the one I picked up) was that the New Zealand approach to Covid is a model for others to follow. Leaving aside the particularities of the NZ case that might have given the country an advantage to start with (small population widely dispersed, relatively few entry points that are easily covered and closed), NZ was clearly incredibly successful in keeping case numbers and deaths very low.
So, assuming the criteria for success are reduced to one - suppression of the virus - NZ was (and is, to date) clearly a massive success story.
I think, though, that measuring success by this one criterion is a mistake.
First, it’s extremely reductive as an interpretation of what ‘public health’ means. It’s been interesting to see how epidemiologists and related health professionals have come to dominate the political and mediatic interpretation of what ‘public health’ is. There is obviously much more to public health than treating Corona patients, from the mental health issues caused by lockdown to the thousands of cancer patients whose symptoms have been missed and treatment delayed because of the relentless Covid focus - and everything between and beyond.
If we take ‘public welfare’ to be the criterion for policy-making rather than ‘public health’ (however widely we interpret that term) then leaving the field to epidemiologists and virologists seems even more odd. My sister has lost her job in New Zealand as a direct result of the collapse of the NZ tourist industry brought about by the severity of the lockdown there. She is a Covid casualty too. From their public pronouncements it is hard to avoid the impression that the 650,000 people who have already lost their jobs to Covid in the UK are regarded by epidemiologists and the like as collateral damage to be put up with in the name of a greater good, much as civilian deaths in a war are regarded as a regrettable price to pay for winning the war.
How did we get to this point? One factor is the composition of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) - and, more broadly, the triumph of science over the humanities in regard to what’s regarded as useful, worthwhile and actionable knowledge. SAGE is stuffed full of people whose expertise lies in narrow fields of medicine. Where are the historians, philosophers, sociologists and - yes! - musicologists? (A philosopher might at least have brought up the possibility of a utilitarian approach to Covid - ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ as opposed to the deontological ‘save every Covid life’).
It might be that a more multidiscplinary SAGE would have come up with a more balanced approach to Covid, in which ‘public welfare’ rather than virus suppression would have resulted in a different policy mix (and maybe people like my sister would have kept her job).
More broadly, the severe lockdown approach to Covid, recommended by Salmond’s epidemiologist, prepares us very badly for crises such as the Climate Emergency and for participatory politics more generally. There might be a top-down, do-as-we-tell-you approach to climate change but a) I doubt it would be successful in the long term, and b) I doubt I’d want to live in the paternalistic kind of society that took such an approach.
In sum, if some malign force had been asked to design a method for sowing fear, suppressing public participation and inducing a sense of helplessness, such a force would be hard pressed to come up with something better than Covid and the SAGE-type response to it.