Are you sick of Covid reckons? We are.

“Opinions are like assholes – everybody’s got one,” said some genius. PAT PILCHER calls time on ill-informed, scurrilous Covid rants.

I don’t know about you, but I feel sick and fatigued. No, I don’t have Covid. That said, I am beyond sick and tired of being bombarded by the poorly informed and frequently ignorant reckons of armchair experts on the Covid pandemic. I get that people want to vent on social media. Still, there’s really no excuse for the poorly informed nonsense being cranked out at improbable volumes by supposedly reputable media outlets.

This week’s case comes courtesy of Wellington-based journalist David Cohen in the venerable conservative UK publication, The Spectator. In it, Cohen takes aim at New Zealand and delivers a hot take on Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the pandemic.

 

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Cohen’s rant may make for attention-grabbing reading for conservative Brits unfamiliar with New Zealand’s politics, but his write-up rides rough-shot over the principles of good journalism. This is all the more surprising when you consider that a respected publication such as The Spectator published it in the first place.

When reading the piece, it became apparent that Cohen had cherry-picked issues and done little fact-checking, instead opting for the dramatic. Cohen starts by exhorting, “The place has gone mad.” Inevitable comparisons with NZ’s closest neighbour, Australia, are made. Cohen argues that while Australia is relaxing Covid rules, NZ introduces self-isolation requirements, which he then calls “House arrest”. Sigh.

He might win drama points for using the term “House arrest”, but one of good journalism’s key principles is factual correctness. Suppose Cohen had bothered to do any research. In that case, he’d have realised that the Australian government requires its population to self-isolate should they return a Covid-positive result. But then I guess house arrest in Australia doesn’t sound as dramatic or punchy as house arrest in New Zealand. It isn’t just Australia. The UK government also has stay-at-home requirements in place. Could it be that the NZ government is following best practices from other countries rather than forcing what Cohen uncharitably calls “house arrest”?

If Cohen had stopped there, it’d just be an irritating read, but he continues:  “According to the latest announcement, anyone known to be infected will now be required to lock themselves in their homes for 14 days. That is only the start of it, however, because anyone else in the house automatically becomes classified as a close contact; they must also now ‘isolate’ for the same period and then for an additional 10 days as well. And if it so happens in those last 10 days that one of the previously un-infected close contacts in your house tests positive then the whole process starts all over again. If Omicron spreads as quickly here as it has in other countries, it seems possible that at some point nearly every household will be forced into isolation.”

Suppose Cohen had bothered to check the NZ government policies. In that case, he’d have discovered that the NZ Government has a 3-phase plan for Covid. Phase three of the plan isn’t draconian. It outlines a well-reasoned and carefully thought-through approach to what needs to happen to keep Kiwis safe and our health system from being swamped by Covid cases. Funnily enough, the term “house arrest” is nowhere to be seen in the Government’s Covid plan.

Bizarrely Cohen can’t seem to help himself. He boldly states that “Fortress New Zealand has also just closed its borders completely to outsiders. Tourists, visa-holders, and citizens abroad will no longer be able to access the mandatory managed isolation and quarantine facilities that newcomers are required to pass through to visit. No date has been given for when the old system will resume.”

Sadly, it appears that Cohen twisted the facts to suit the narrative. A key piece of New Zealand legislation, The Bill of Rights Act 1990 guarantees that all New Zealand residents have unrestricted access back into NZ. To this end, additional managed isolation spaces have been added for Kiwis returning to NZ. Again, something as simple as a few minutes spent with Google would have set Cohen straight and prevented readers from being misinformed.

Clearly, research wasn’t going to happen when cheap shots at Jacinda Ardern’s expense could be had. “There’s no disputing that Ardern and her ‘team of five million’, as she put it, have made it through the pandemic in pretty good collective shape. New Zealand – which has fewer intensive care beds per head than almost any other country in the OECD – has had just 52 Covid deaths in the past two years. On the other hand, it was always possible that Ardern’s apparent success in riding the pandemic wave may simply have been one of the perks of leading a sparsely populated, far-flung island nation.”

Perhaps Cohen could try telling that to the Australians. The last time I looked, they were arguably almost as “far-flung” as NZ. According to the world bank, they’re also more sparsely populated. Australia has just three people per square km, while NZ has 15. That Australia has recorded a whopping 1.8 million Covid cases and 3402 covid deaths to date has also been ignored by Cohen.

Could it be that NZ’s unscathed Covid status might have more than a little to do with good management than Cohen is prepared to admit? Why let something as inconvenient as facts get in the way of a good rant?

Not content taking cheap shots at Ardern, Cohen goes on to say that she oversees “…what has long been recognised as a politically demure populace. Kiwis are not politically screamy like the Americans, still less given to kicking back against bureaucracy like the British. Shortly after arriving in New Zealand from London in the late 1930s, Karl Popper marvelled over what appeared to him to be ‘the most easily governed’ people on the face of the earth.”

While most Brits could be forgiven for missing this, most Kiwis will probably ask why Cohen failed to mention Brian Tamaki and the thousands regularly protesting up and down NZ. Good journalism is about providing both a balanced and factually correct perspective. Cohen is well wide of the mark on both counts. The reality is that no government anywhere will come out of the Covid pandemic unscathed. Tough decisions must be made, and there are no perfect answers. Sadly, it seems that no-win situations don’t sell newspapers.

I don’t get what Cohen is trying to achieve with his ill-informed and irresponsible rant. Does he want an end to self-isolation, even though reputable organisations such as the centre for disease control strongly recommend it? Does he want the borders opened? I wonder if we’d see another piece from him in The Spectator bemoaning a surge in Covid cases if New Zealand’s borders were opened.

Put simply, the Government is in an impossible situation. No matter what policies they implement to minimise the impact of Covid on New Zealanders, some will disagree and worse still, Covid cases will continue to grow. What is needed is fact-based news and opinion pieces that inform people on how to stay safe. Hosing an unsuspecting public down with ill-informed reckons helps no one.

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