New Zealand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been distinctly different to many developed countries that have been plagued by inaction, divisiveness, misinformation, blame and deflection. New Zealand has shown remarkable community cohesion and solidarity and has unified behind the shared goal of eliminating COVID-19 from the country.
Post-truth politics creates a divided and fragmented society marked by disagreement and a lack of shared purpose
For many countries, their recent political arena has aptly been described as ‘post-truth’, creating a divided and fragmented society marked by disagreement and a lack of shared purpose. But not so for New Zealand.
The New Zealand government has acted quickly and decisively, with openness, honesty and empathy, while enjoying unparalleled public support. The hallmarks of ‘post-truth’ politics are nowhere to be seen.
The solidarity of the New Zealand community has been nothing short of remarkable considering the global political environment. Kiwis overwhelmingly supported the government’s plan with over 80% positive and only 9% negative. Despite having one of the strictest lockdown schemes in the world over 91% of the public indicating they intended to fully comply with Level 4 lockdown.
People stayed home, queued patiently for groceries, respectfully gave each other physical space, put messages of support in windows, on walls, and on footpaths, cautiously gave each other space while out walking, and looked after their elderly friends and family by volunteering to pick up supplies and attend to their other needs.
Compared to other countries enforcement only required a light touch. Overwhelmingly people complied with the plan. Policing focused on education rather than punitive enforcement.
What is most striking is the comparison to other countries such as the US and the UK.
Where has this solidarity come from?
New Zealand people are known for being egalitarian, inclusive and progressive. It should then be no surprise that Kiwis have banded together in response to this crisis, facilitated by their elected government, and in particular the exemplary leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Historically, Kiwis have not been afraid to vote for governments that happily wield the power of the state.
New Zealand Solidarity
This pandemic is not an isolated example of New Zealand’s potential for community cohesion under Jacinda Ardern’s leadership. Following the Christchurch shootings in 2019, the community came together in a way that is rarely seen today. Ardern’s messages were about diversity, kindness, and compassion and the public came out in force to support those affected and to show their solidarity and respect for all religious beliefs. She stood with Islamic leaders and hugged the grieving. Her respect and real compassion shaped the public consensus and brought the community together. Ardern’s leadership made New Zealand more cohesive, more inclusive, and stronger.
A crisis can, with effective leadership, be a powerful force for community cohesion with people coming together for collective action. Virtually all Kiwis have unified behind the government’s plan with a shared goal and a shared understanding of what is required and why. The solidarity is palpable. Public support has been extremely high. Bipartisan support has been almost absolute and when the opposition did break ranks to politicise the government’s actions, like in a Facebook post on April 20, they were engulfed by an avalanche of public criticism.
Despite New Zealand being comprised of diverse groups from diverse backgrounds with diverse interests, the key thread that has brought people together has been the daily government briefings by Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and often accompanied by the Prime Minister.
These briefings leave little room for alternative interpretations that might otherwise create a fragmented response. The messaging is clear, consistent, competent, calm, factual and reassuring.
There is rarely even a hint of political manoeuvring and there is no dodging, deflecting, blaming, or self-adulation. All responses are loaded with honesty, sincerity and empathy. Nothing is sugar coated; the difficult economic and personal experiences are acknowledged. They are met with purpose, explanation and empathy; the traits of great leadership.
No political manoeuvring, no dodging, no deflection, blame, or self-adulation
Dr Ashley Bloomfield is the Kiwi equivalent of the United States’ Anthony Fauci, but in Jacinda Ardern the country has a very different leader.
The pair work extremely well in tandem. Dr Ashley Bloomfield is the voice of science and enjoys the full support of the government. Jacinda Ardern’s leadership is exemplary and she readily defers to Dr Ashley Bloomfield for fact, making it abundantly clear to the public that policy is unequivocally informed by science, logic and reasoning.
These briefings have a predictable structure, starting with the number of cases and probable cases from the previous day and how many existing cases have recovered. There is then an update on how things are going and any key developments, then the floor is open to questions from the media.
They diligently and clearly answer reporters’ questions for extended periods. They are open and honest about the potential for increasing cases, for deaths, and for hardships. There is rarely even a hint of political manoeuvring or questions being ignored. Responses are earnest and sincere, with little to no dodging, deflecting or blaming.
There is nothing sensational, exciting or immediately satisfying about these briefings, but Kiwis can’t get enough of watching Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
Briefings provided a point of truth, a shared experience, that created shared meaning and understanding
These briefings provide a point of truth, a shared experience, with little potential for different interpretations since they are inherently open, honest and transparent. The goal is clear, obvious and almost universally accepted.
Society is fragmented into ‘bubbles’, with people engaging in disparate online enclaves, with little connecting our experiences in ways that give us shared purpose and shared understandings. But the government’s messaging, particularly these daily briefings, are the thread that binds our realities together. They create shared meaning and understanding. They make us feel connected and unified in the face of the crisis. It gives us purpose and makes it easier to endure any difficulties caused by the crisis.
The community felt a togetherness with each other and also felt supported and protected by the government. The empathy expressed by Jacinda Ardern and Dr Ashley Bloomfield were not empty words because the government acted quickly to support businesses and individuals with wage subsidies, loans and various other schemes. This gave people confidence in their leadership and trust that they would be looked after and provided for.
Bucking the post-truth trend
Before the pandemic there were many troubling signs that society was becoming increasingly polarised and fragmented. The role of internet, and social media in particular, cannot be overlooked for creating a breeding ground for group polarization and extremism.
Our reality is socially defined, constructed by our interactions with others and our life experiences. Our use of the internet tends to create pockets of like-minded people who interact without the introduction of new ideas that challenge pre-established beliefs. These pockets have also been described as ‘deliberative enclaves’ or ‘echo chambers’ where views echo around social space without challenge, magnifying biases and inaccuracies, leading to polarization.
This fragments society, undermining the ability for people to find agreement on the underlying structures of relevance. In a healthy democracy people have different opinions and despite these differences people generally agree on their relative meaning and significance. Diverse views are good for democracy provided there is respect for difference and debate is grounded in science, logic and reasoning.
Post-truth politics has seen the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth
This is not the case in countries dominated by post-truth politics that have seen the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth. The politics represent the views of an increasing proportion of the community. We have seen the rise of the ‘novice expert’ who rejects expert advice and scientific understanding, and readily grasps alternative explanations that suit their worldview and fuel their desire for intrigue and pleasure while making them feel like they have power because they are in the in-group; the people who really know the truth. This is in part a response to feeling disempowered and also a reflection of the depth and complexity of scientific understanding that has become out of reach for the average person.
Popularist politicians can take advantage of these views by using colourful communication that is designed to attract and distract public attention and to interrupt the background noise of conventional politics and public life.
Complex issues can be dismissed with a single word: for example ‘sham’
They provide easy and convenient answers to people who have short attention spans and who want instant gratification. Complex issues can be dismissed with a single word. The ‘sham’ explanation is appealing because it’s instant, easy and absolute. People can grab on to it and stop worrying about the issue. It is dismissed. They don’t need to think; to engage in logical consideration of the pros and cons to develop an informed position.
They pass blame to people or groups that provide people with a convenient explanation for failures and dissatisfaction with reality. A common strategy is to blame immigrants, or other countries or organisations. This gives people an enemy to unite against and a ready scapegoat that avoids leaders taking responsibility for any failings or shortcomings.
Dismissive strategies deepen divides in society
These dismissive strategies make no attempt to bridge fragmented social groups with logical, reasoned or compelling arguments. Language such as fake news, hoax, sham, scam, and labelling and name calling and designed to dismiss rather than reconcile. They are designed to dismiss competing arguments without consideration and without having to address their substance or validity. This strategy deepens the divides in society and shuts down reason finding that helps to create shared understanding and solidarity. In an environment of suspicion and distrust alternative facts can flourish since no one is quite sure what is true and what is not.
New Zealand hasn’t seen even a glimmer of post-truth tactics
This is the polar opposite of the New Zealand approach to the pandemic. A fragmented and polarised post-truth society would be a recipe for disaster in a pandemic, as we’ve seen in many other countries. But fortunately for New Zealand and its 5 million citizens, few of these trends are prevalent. There hasn’t even been a glimmer of post-truth tactics from the public face of the government. Anyone using these tactics in the public sphere has been shutdown in all but the most extremist echo chambers.
This does not mean that divisions don’t exist in New Zealand society and the influence of popularist and post-truth politics isn’t relevant to New Zealand. The underlying divisions still exist but we have momentarily been able to reach shared understandings and speak the same language. We now have broad agreement and shared purpose, but we need to ensure that we maintain the democratic principles of respect for difference and work to find shared understanding and compromise based on these underlying principles. Coming out of this crisis, the different views, values and priorities will again raise their head. Will Kiwis be able to maintain their solidarity, or will self-interest and fragmentation again divide us? Does the nature of politics fuel this division by forcing political parties to create opposing views and policy in order to gain power?
Will Kiwis be able to maintain their solidarity?
The lessons from the U.S. must not end with their failed response to the pandemic. New Zealand and other countries must see the failings of their democracy and take measures to ensure we don’t follow in their footsteps. New Zealand may be decades behind but potentially on the same trajectory unless we learn from others’ mistakes.
”Extensive, timely and frank information is evidence of trust in the people, respect for their intelligence and feelings and of their ability to understand events of one kind or another on their own.” Mikhail Gorbachev
We need to identify dismissive language and see it for what it is. We need to reject the loss of science, logic, reasoning. We need to respect other people’s views and attempt to understand them with effective communication and empathy. We need to avoid alienation by not thinking in terms of ‘us and them’ or ingroups and outgroups. We must encourage vigorous debate on the moral, ethical and pragmatic validity of the claims made by politicians, interest groups and the public. This must be accompanied by inclusive, sincere and respectful reasoning and a deep respect for truth.
Social solidarity while physical distancing
The irony is that this crisis has brought us together while underlying forces creating fragmentation of society have been accelerated. By locking down we have significantly reduced the threads of interpersonal communication that produce shared understandings.
Most people are not going to work, not socialising, and not attending events. There are fewer opportunities to meet and interact with different people where differing perspectives are ‘forced’ into consideration in the pursuit of reaching shared understanding that is necessary for collaboration.
We spend more of our time in enclaves, echo chambers, niches where we experience the views of and interact with people of ‘like-mind’. Many digital producers deliberately supply content that we are likely to be interested in, therefore more likely to consume, and therefore sell more product, advertising, or otherwise derive a profit. This content tends to confirm our existing views and biases, which leads to the formation of ‘extreme’ views. Which in turn leads to ‘polarization’ between groups, followed by a failure of the public sphere and, finally, to social destabilization. All of this is fuelled by the profit motive.
In everyday public life people generally cannot help but run into difference, however, in online interactions serendipitous encounters largely can be avoided and opposing positions easily bypassed.
Therefore, lockdown would be a perfect breeding ground for fragmentation, but New Zealand’s leadership has created shared purpose that has emphatically overcome this trend.
Jacinda Ardern has not pitted people against each other, instead calling for people to come together, help each other and emphasised that together, and only together, can we prevail. She has framed the issue as the responsibility of everyone, thereby creating strong norms for compliance, and potentially strong social sanctions for rule breakers.
Jacinda Ardern has called upon Kiwis to step up, to do it together, and to take responsibility. This approach has persuaded the collective to take responsibility for collective problems and reduced the need for enforcement or coercion. Overwhelmingly, Kiwis felt like they were on the response team, that they were the ones achieving the goal of elimination.
The result is that New Zealand now appears to be one of the few nations following an articulated elimination strategy with the achievable goal of completely ending transmission of Covid-19 within its borders.
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Photo credit: Jacinda Ardern at University of Auckland 2017 – Ulysse Bellier / CC BY