Friday, 8 May 2020

Transparency and humility in a time of coronavirus

No one really expects the Government to be omniscient but everyone is terrified of a Government which isn’t omniscient. It must be tough for politicians to square that circle.

The last time citizens were warned about a “new normal” was 20 years ago after 9/11. On September 10, the world was one way, a day later it was another. But the fact remained: the US Government failed to live up to its propaganda of being omniscient. Three thousand people died to prove this was always an illusion and that a bit of humility would have been better for all.

Back then, plenty of folk thought the US Secret Service had surface-to-air missiles on the top of the White House. There weren’t. Even more people assumed the dozen US intelligence agencies talked regularly to each other and robustly cooperated. They didn’t. 

Fast-forward two decades. News services and international health organisations say a global pandemic of coronavirus has broken out. Thinking New Zealand’s health system was one of the best in the world, Kiwis assumed it would have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) in storage since the risk of a pandemic was surely part of a competent Government’s plans.

It turns out sufficient PPE was in remarkably short supply, just like the competence. Every other day, the Ministry of Health spokesman tells Kiwis that the Government has fixed that oversight and now has enough PPE to go around. But this is a half-truth.

The Government has sufficient PPE now because some private dentists and medical clinics are still importing masks, gloves and other equipment into the country. In other words, the Government can pretend it is competent only because private companies actually are. It probably makes little difference if a private group brings PPE into the country or the Government does. But for a Government committed to transparency, it’s a bit disingenuous not to clarify.

Last month, doctors also said they had too few influenza vaccines. Judging by the sudden 1000% increase in Twitter epidemiological expertise, most people know there’s a difference between influenza and coronavirus. But that’s not the point. The doctors were worried the lack of flu vaccines might mean the Government will make the same mistakes with a Covid-19 vaccine.

The prime minister “disagreed” with the doctors’ assessments and told media the country had plenty of flu vaccines and blamed District Health Boards for not distributing them. But a leaked letter from the Ministry of Health last this week showed there weren’t enough flu vaccines after all. The GP Owners Association said the prime minister had been “misleading” the public.

The recent history contact tracing isn’t much better. The Government belatedly released an Otago University independent report on its contract tracing efforts. The report showed the country doesn’t have a workable contract tracing system and lacks the hardware and expertise to run it.

In response, the Ministry of Health sheepishly pushed an extra $55 million to 12 public health units so they can expand their capabilities. Yet one of the conditions for coming out of lockdown will depend heavily on whether a contact tracing system is trustworthy. The Government still is not being proactive by releasing information on whether the system will be ready.

It has other questions to answer. For instance, does the technology for a contract tracing system capable of reliably informing people when they are near an infected person exist? And even if it did, would it require drastic alterations to privacy law? To many folk, the pursuit of contact tracing appears to be more about rebuilding the illusion of Government omniscience than about fighting Covid-19, which at least explains why there has been so little said about its status.

Every journalist knows the first story is always the wrong story. Time and new data change all estimates. The computer models warned of 88,000 deaths from Covid-19 without a lockdown. New Zealand has had 20 deaths. The models weren’t simply off, they were wrong.

The Government could righteously say its lockdown decision stopped 88,000 people from dying. But one could just as easily say the virus wasn’t all that deadly to begin with, given the exact number of asymptomatic people carrying Covid-19 is still unknown. Without that figure, the Government is being disingenuous when it says the lockdown was effective. It can’t possibly know this.

Indeed, this problem alone has split the universe in two. One group of people say the lockdown stopped a deadly virus, while another group say it was an overreaction because the virus was less deadly than people thought. The thing is, neither group will ever have enough data to prove they are correct. The Kiwi Covid-19 experiment had an n-size of 1 – there is no second planet on which to test the competing theory. A bit more humility about this reality would be welcome.

Perhaps the greatest missing piece of murky information is what, precisely, was the Crown Law advice for the police during the Alert Level 4 lockdown protocols. The new Police Commissioner said asking for more transparency on this issue right now is unimportant when the virus is still being fought. Yet sooner or later those rules are bound to come out. 

The problem here is the way the Official Information Act work. The OIA necessarily creates a buffer between the moment a rule is created and the time when the public hears about the rule. Last year, in a world without a pandemic, perhaps the public could swallow this delay. But in extraordinary times it can tempt a Government to shoot first and ask questions later.

The OIA lets politicians plausibly convince themselves that since journalists will eventually discover what went on, they don’t need to be transparent today and can get on with running the country. Yet it is precisely the extraordinariness of extraordinary times that should compel the Government to be extraordinarily transparent. Hiding behind “but the rules say” is not a good excuse if the game has fundamentally changed. 

As after 9/11, once this Covid-19 crisis is over, it probably won’t take long for the public to forget the life-lesson learned over the past few months: Government is not omniscient and should never claim to be. 

Being honest about how little it knows is at least forgivable. Obfuscating or misleading the public only diminishes faith in the Government and weakens civic trust between Kiwis. That’s not the path to “unity.”

Last week the Government passed the wrong bill in parliament. That got a giggle from anyone mature enough to realise that in any large organisation – public or private – the default is always incompetence. It’s much better to be honest about that than pretend to be all-powerful and all-knowing.

After all, transparency and humility are the foundations of unity. Without them, those two universes that have now been created by the Covid-19 lockdown – “did it work” vs “was it necessary” – will only pull New Zealanders further apart.

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