Looking beyond COVID-19

October 1, 2020

While management of COVID-19 has captured a good deal of attention this election campaign, it is important to consider other concerns that have been around for a lot longer.

Who would have thought, as we entered election year 2020, that the world was about to be so profoundly disrupted? The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated public discourse, and acute health, economic and social issues have captured the public psyche.

These urgent concerns have pervaded all parts of society, so it is no surprise, then, that this general election is being framed as the “COVID-election”, with political parties jostling to be seen as the best crisis-managers and most “trustworthy hands”. This has led to a focus on short-term issues of border management and health and socio-economic concerns. While both important and necessary, is this distracting from a much-needed discourse on the structural issues of our society?

…while the acute response to Covid-19 is important, it appears to have overshadowed debate on the long-standing social and structural issues that have plagued Aotearoa New Zealand…

Covid-19 is a genuinely scary pandemic that leaves us with few, if any, good options. Global and national responses have varied, but each has come with massive socio-economic consequences, and often severe health implications as well. Aotearoa New Zealand chose an elimination strategy with strict border controls, but any other response was judged to come with intolerable health costs and no guarantee of economic gains.

While we’ve headed down a good path, it has consequences and our politicians must take the lead in mitigating and managing these consequences. With this in mind, the election should address how borders, health, debt and the economy will all be managed.

It is important to keep one eye on the pandemic. However, what is worrying is that the acute response to Covid-19 appears to have overshadowed debate on the long-standing social and structural issues that have plagued Aotearoa New Zealand. These issues have cost lives and compromised wellbeing in excess of what Covid-19 has, or was likely to cause.

These structural issues can vary widely – from structural racism and discrimination we see in things like gender and ethnicity pay-gaps, to aspects of the Aotearoa New Zealand’s public systems which, through underfunding or mismanagement, are now in a position where they are unable to deliver sufficiently on their roles to meet the needs of the public. Simply put, structural issues arise where, due to their design, our institutions, be they tangible, eg the health and education systems, or intangible, eg social and cultural norms, create negative outcomes for some or all of society.

Unfortunately, portions of Aotearoa New Zealand have been in chronic crisis for decades, in part because of these structural issues. While some require a collective socio-cultural response, and others arise through economic resourcing and ideology, all can benefit from political intervention. It’s surprising then, that across multiple parties and leaders, politicians have shown a baffling inability or unwillingness to manage these slow-moving crises that require coordination, planning and funding that spans political cycles.

Public infrastructure is, perhaps, the clearest example of where structural issues have arisen through the political equivalent of “passing the buck”. Public infrastructure includes our transportation network (which has achieved some development, mostly through strong lobbying), but also less visible networks like water and waste networks. Importantly, it also includes public services such as hospitals and schools. Infrastructure is a difficult issue for governments, particularly those with short political cycles like our own. Public appetite for debt or taxation is low, the costs of infrastructure investment are high and often the benefits are only observed well into the future.

Lack of health infrastructure

We see this lack of infrastructure investment very clearly in the health sector. Many of our hospitals and public facilities are under severe capacity constraints, while lack of investment and renewal have resulted in buildings that are neither fit for purpose nor enabling of the best standard of care. What is perverse is often this older infrastructure is more expensive to operate and maintain than renewed infrastructure would be, placing further strain on the health budget. As some astute health professionals have observed, the poor state of much of our health infrastructure means Aotearoa New Zealand often struggles with annual flu seasons, let alone something as severe and resource-intensive as Covid-19.

The 2020 election should be the “Covid-19 election”, and we should be judging our politicians on their ability to manage their way through this acute crisis. But that doesn’t absolve our political classes from thinking about managing the chronic structural issues which have, and continue to challenge our socio-economic development.

If Covid-19 has shown us anything, it is the value of long-term planning and good quality social services in addressing the most unexpected of events.

Matt Roskruge, PhD, Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tama, is the co-director of Te Au Rangahau and a senior lecturer, School of Economics and Finance, Massey Business School, Massey University.