By Chris Trotter*
What lies in store for the “Team of Five Million” when finally the Covid-19 virus runs out of human-beings to infect? One way or another, this was the fate of all the great pandemics by which human civilisations have been assailed. In the past, the most important question, after the immediate trauma of the plague had faded, was: “What happens now?” There is no reason to suppose that the response of a post-Covid world will be any different.
The Black Death, like Covid-19, had its origins in the Eurasian heartland and spread both east and west, petering out finally in the cold fastnesses of Norway, but not before it had killed between one third and one half of Eurasians living north of the Tropic of Capricorn. It being the Fourteenth Century, the Americas were spared the ravages of the Black Death. Six centuries on, however, it was from the heartland of the North American continent that the H1N1 virus found its way into the global human population. By the time the deadly Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 ran out of human-beings to infect, upwards of 50 million people, from Glasgow to Samoa, had succumbed.
Covid-19’s extraordinary infectiousness is a big plus for the virus, at least in the short term. From a broader evolutionary perspective, however, the ease with which it is transmitted may prove disadvantageous to the virus’s long-term survival. Ultimately, the combination of natural human immunity, the constant mutation of the virus itself, and the impact of humanity’s technological ingenuity – most decisively in the form of a vaccine – will bring the Covid-19 Pandemic to an end.
By the time that happens, however, Covid-19’s global death toll is likely to be numbered in the millions. Even a fatality-rate of just one-tenth of one percent would result in approximately eight million victims. Not much to set aside the horrors of 1918-19 – let alone 1345-1353. But, the economic cost of the twenty-first century humanity’s determination to protect its weakest members will pose the “What’s next?” question with equal urgency.
If Jane Clifton (formerly of The Listener, now safely installed behind Business Desk) is to be believed, the Covid-19 Pandemic will be followed by a new Age of Austerity. Having stepped out of the epidemiological frying-pan, New Zealanders will be invited to step into the economic fire.
The money borrowed by governments around the world to carry their citizens through the economic disruptions occasioned by the measures required to contain and eliminate the virus must, as our own Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, is at pains to remind us, be paid back. Within the political mainstream, the only question to be debated is how quickly that should happen. National’s Paul Goldsmith wants a fast-track pay-back, Labour’s offering a slightly slower pace. Neither of the major parties, however, are disputing the need for dramatic reductions in government spending.
Labour’s election strategists will be hoping that the National Party’s leaders are as reluctant to spell out the details of this looming period of austerity as their own. Remaining silent about exactly where and how deeply their fiscal knives will have to cut, must advantage both parties electorally – or, so Labour hopes!
For National, however, there is much to be gained, and not that much to lose, by making a virtue out of the necessity of austerity. After all, the people most likely to be hurt by swingeing cuts to government spending are Labour’s – not National’s – voters. Indeed, by offering policies designed to cushion the middle-class against the worst effects of its austerity programme, National could lure back some of the support lost to Labour when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s, Team of Five Million was uniting against Covid-19.
Were National to follow such a course, Labour would, at least theoretically, be in a quandary. In order to reassure its working-class electoral base that they would not be asked to bear the brunt of Labour’s post-election assault on the deficit, the party would be forced to announce a raft of “progressive” policy measures, such as tax increases for the well-off. Such measures would, of course, be more-or-less guaranteed to snap former National voters out of the warm fuzzies of Covid togetherness. Fickleness, thy name is the middle-class voter threatened with higher taxes!
The problem with this argument is that it assumes the existence of a working-class of sufficient political consciousness to recognize the dangers of austerity, and which is, moreover, capable of mustering the political will to challenge it.
But, if such a social formation existed, would Labour have dared to introduce its two-tier benefit system? The labour movement of fifty years ago would have screamed red-bloody-murder at any government crass enough to offer those on salaries an unemployment benefit twice as generous as the meagre dole paid out so grudgingly to wage-earners. The labour movement of today, however, represents, overwhelmingly, the salaried staff of the state sector – hardly any of whom relate positively to the hairy-armed trade union militancy of yesteryear.
Indeed, so great is the electorate’s affection and admiration for “Jacinda”, and so atrophied are the defence mechanisms of Labour’s working-class base, that, with just a little tweaking, the prospect of her government “going hard and going early” to “stamp out” the Covid deficit, could be presented to New Zealanders as yet another opportunity for the Team of Five Million to show it’s stuff. To please “Jacinda”, Kiwis may turn themselves into the All-Blacks of Austerity. The old-fashioned “solutions” of National’s Judith Collins and her “stuck-in-the-eighties sidekick, Goldsmith, could then be greeted with scorn. Channelling Crocodile Dundee, the Labour leader would find herself perfectly-positioned to sneer: “Call that an austerity programme? Nah. This is an austerity programme!”
It may even transpire that, in the aftermath of the Covid-19 Pandemic, Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand discovers that it has come to be seen as one of the best places in the world to live and do business. The Prime Minister and her Finance Minister may find themselves besieged by international investors bearing billions. With the USA in chaos, and the City of London a mere shadow of its former financial greatness, New Zealand may find itself being held up as the safest of safe havens. Paradoxically, this country’s eye-wateringly costly eliminationist strategy for dealing with Covid-19 could end up paying for itself.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.