A virus was always the Sword of Damocles over globalisation

Nathan Smith
Insights Newsletter
6 March, 2020

Since 2008, a contagion spread through the developed world: people felt that elites and politicians were looking out for each other and forgetting them.

With this new coronavirus, murmurings about a travel ban has begun since Christmas as the virus jumped beyond China. But it took weeks for the government to enact one.

When it did, the media immediately started publishing stories about how the ban “feeds racism” and should be dropped. Other stories warned it might undermine all the good work our MFAT officials had done to build up trade ties with China.

The government has since resisted university requests to ease restrictions on Chinese student travel and has even extended the ban despite diplomatic jabs from Beijing. But a poll this week showed 34% of Kiwis are dissatisfied with the government’s response so far (47% satisfied and 19% unsure).

The public intuitively knows if enough workers in heartland New Zealand get sick, entire companies might shut down for quarantine. With some folk barely scraping together funds to survive each month, any added stress from an illness could ruin them.

They’re not going to favour a company’s bottom line or MFAT’s personal relationships. And they expect their leaders to think this way too.

Understandably, governments juggle many interests and most people don’t have the skills to parse all the reasons behind its decisions. But there was nevertheless an odour of reluctance among officials to implement any ban at all. The smell had a tinge of the GFC to it.

It would have been easy in this crisis for the government to prefer the interests of hard-won diplomacy and officials might have persuaded the public to be more lenient. Instead, it shut the borders without really having a cost-benefit analysis to offer the public about why it chose this.

However, facts don’t matter in politics, only persuasion matters. The public learned during the GFC they should watch their leaders closely in case they bend to the interests of the influential few.

It looks like the ban delayed the virus from reaching the country, so the government can tick the “good decision” box. But there remains a widespread suspicion that the decision about which group’s interest to prioritise could have gone the other way.

Globalisation only works with the consent of the governed and too many bad decisions on that road might reverse that consent. The Covid-19 crisis highlighted that the government must boost its persuasion skills if it is to convince the public it has their interests at heart in this new global world.

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