Northern Advocate Column

Lockdown is a victory for humanity

It might not seem like it right now, but this is a victory for humanity. 

“How can this be?” you ask. How can this be, when I’m scared and worried about the future? How can this be, when I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills? But that’s what it is, absolutely. It’s a victory for all that’s decent in us; for an altruistic spirit that exists alongside our more selfish instincts. 

Think about what we’re doing in New Zealand. Think about what people of different ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities are doing all over the world. We’re stopping everything at a high cost to the global economy, so lives may be saved. Mostly elderly lives, those we might be tempted, in a worse world, to say are expendable. 

An economic rationalist could interject right now and say that the cost-benefit analysis of the situation means that we should do nothing.  Let coronavirus run its course. The economy is more important. 

But our government, to its credit, has said no. We have a chance to prevent the deaths of tens of thousands of New Zealanders loved by their friends and families. 

This decision will come at a cost. It will have political and economic ramifications for years to come. Still, we do this because it’s the right thing to do. Because there’s something in us that says to do otherwise would be abhorrent, would be inhuman. 

This is a victory of human decency. It’s a victory of human society over economic society. No matter how we got there, something good has kicked in that has allowed us to arrive at decisions that will prevent untimely, early deaths. This is incredible when you think about it. We’re participating in something decent, honourable even. 

My personal freedom is being restricted, yet somehow I’m liberated. I can see clearly how what’s good in us can enable our often clumsy and flawed institutions to make a noble decision. 

In the days, weeks, months ahead, we can remind ourselves that this is what it feels like to make a sacrifice for the greater good. Can a monetary value be put on that feeling? 

Unfortunately, there will still be deaths from coronavirus in New Zealand over the next four week period and beyond that. But we can expect the number to be less than what might have occurred if the lockdown was not put in place. This is our achievement. 

In recognising the enormity of what we’re embarking on, doesn’t mean there aren’t issues to debate, new decisions that need to be made which flow from the ones already made. 

There will be wrong decisions. There will be contention, differences of opinion, great and small. Politics can never be suspended. Politics is about different ideas for the way forward. Politics is about different interest groups applying pressure to the decision-making processes of society. 

There will be political battles fought in the months and years to follow. If I have the opportunity, I will certainly push to expose and argue against the control of economic society by an elite few. The interests of the global class of capitalists and bankers are still behind many of the decisions made by Finance Minister Grant Robertson and the Reserve Bank. 

The forces that control economic society are, however, on the back foot, which will help the side of human society. Those struggles are ahead of us. Kia kaha. 

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Northern Advocate Column

Proverbs in times of crisis

I like a good proverb. I enjoy scouring the wisdom of the past for some insight that speaks to me. So I was intrigued by an exhibition at the Geoff Wilson Gallery in Whangārei that paired artist’s creations with proverbs from different cultures.

The artworks were interesting, but being a wordy-type, it was the proverbs (or whakataukī) that held my attention. I couldn’t help but read them in light of coronavirus. It’s in trying times that proverbs—essentially short meaningful sayings—can offer some comfort or perspective on the situation. They might also impart a warning.

I’ve selected five proverbs here and give my interpretations in the context of the life-changing and era-defining events unfolding.  

“There’s no iron so hard that rust won’t fret it, and there’s no cloth so fine that moths won’t eat it.” – Scottish Proverb

The global economy, mind-blowing in scale and complexity, can be devastated by a microorganism. We should never forget nature’s ability to bring down what we build-up, and that time can bring the end to all things. So maybe we shouldn’t be too confident to believe that what we achieve or construct will last. Like many proverbs this one is a warning against hubris. 

“The gem cannot be polished without friction nor man perfected without trials.” – Chinese Proverb 

The threats to health and income will test many people over the coming months. This Chinese proverb offers the hope that from adversity we might grow and improve. Individuals will rise to the challenge, within families, in the health system, within government. Our institutions, particularly those meant to ensure the well-being of all, maybe strengthened and improved. A positive for when we face future crises. 

“Corners of a house can be seen, but corners of the heart cannot be seen. He kokonga whare, e kitea, he kokonga ngakau, e kore e kitea.” Hauraki Proverb

We can never know exactly what’s going on inside another person. This proverb should remind us to cut people some slack if they’re moody or offend us in some way. There might be something worrying them that we don’t know about. Good advice always, but pertinent now. It can also be read as a warning. People’s motivations aren’t always clear. They could have selfish motives behind appearances, or a hidden agenda. In response to Covid-19 and the economic fallout, there will be a rising pitch of voices. That’s to be expected. There will be agendas—honest and upfront ones—but also ones that are concealed. Is that politician, social media influencer, investment advisor, or business leader really motivated by a wider concern, or is there self-interest involved? 

“Because my house has become soiled, let the smoking ashes be cleansed by the four winds of heaven. Waiho mā ngā hau e whā hei whakaatea ai te poa i taku whare.”Hauraki Proverb

This one punches heavy, influenced perhaps by that book of heavy punches, the Bible. Something has become so soiled, rotten-through, that the best action is to reduce it to ashes. Those four winds of heaven, however, offer the possibility of cleansing. The past can be blown away, and we can start over. There’s maybe a nod to the four horsemen of the apocalypse here. Or I’d like to think, the winds that come from four directions, North, South, East, and West. The world will not be the same after coronavirus. The unpredictable winds of change are going to buffet governments, corporations, banks, and the economic orthodoxies that have prevailed in recent years. Some good may come of it. 

“On looking back, the land was covered white with ghosts. I te huringa kō muri, e haramā te whenua i te kēhua.” – Maori Proverb

As we move forward, doing what we have to do, we should pause at times to reflect on the loss of wisdom and experience being felt by communities and families around the world. 

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Poetry

I’m an unknown tulip seller

I

I’m an unknown tulip seller
wasting along empty streets
delivering sweet-scent bouquets
to locked-down city doors.

II

Why did I take this chance
to walk away? I remember still
that night; the shooting stars
shot through our wilted hearts.

III

I place a weak-stemmed flower
in the deserted square, a gift
for you, with a note which says,
“Take my offering of regrets.”

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Poetry

On looking at a statue of the Buddha

She must have been beautiful, Prince,
and your love for her as the Ganges flows.

She must have hurt you, for you to wish
you’d never experienced the dream.

It’s vanity to walk beside beauty
and trust the pleasures of the heart.
All this was well known.

Did you tear the jewels from your ears
for being so duped?
And was the pain not enough?
Did your pride demand more?

You haven’t fooled me,
I know why you sat under a tree
for forty-nine days and nights.
I know why your legs
are awkwardly crossed.

The serenity chiselled on your face,
the laugh lines sanded away―
your own hand the torturer of flesh
that once caressed her…

Or was that too, poor Prince,
something which happened only
in your infinite mind?

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Poetry

Shadows preserve the frost

Shadows preserve the frost. He observes
their dark edge giving way

to a soft halo-rim
where thin white ice melts
into green-fresh trimmed grass.

The low sun has made for him
a palisade of a picket fence.

It’s the defended enclosure
he’s hiding behind, having fallen

over sideways from the world
and its familiar regrets, into the shadows

where frost still lingers.

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Poetry

Mercenary

Notes she still writes
with warm regards,
her wounded ‘I’s capitalised
with a weak hand.

Reading without feeling,
alone in a bunk-bed,
way out past the front,
in enemy barracks.

Cut-off from logistics
and support. The walls
all shot through;
the windows smashed.

No point composing
an answer now;
no knowing which way
the war will go.

You’re a mercenary
of words, who should
never have pleased anyone
to lick your sword.

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Northern Advocate Column

Embracing the ban

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There’s been a lot of banning and restricting lately. A ban on fires is in place across Tai Tokerau. In the Far North, people are having to cope with severe water restrictions. Due to coronavirus, there are restrictions on international travel. Telling people who’ve had contact with the virus to stay at home is a ban of sorts.

At another level, Ngātiwai has a temporary rāhui in place to stop people visiting the Mermaid Pools at Matapōuri Bay. At Ahipara and the Karikari Peninsula, local iwi have banned motorcycling in the sand dunes because of the damage caused.

Last year—without the world ending—disposable plastic bags were banned by the Government. And of course, in the wake of the mass shooting in Christchurch, semi-automatic guns have been outlawed.

By and large, all those bans and restrictions have had general acceptance. Not complete acceptance, perhaps, but you get the feeling they’re supported by most of us. We recognise that for public health reasons, environmental reasons, safety reasons, individual freedoms must be curtailed for the greater good. Even if motorsport enthusiasts would like to ride on the dunes, they’re too small a minority to sway everyone else who agrees that protecting dunes is important.

The key to a good ban is broad public support. It might be imposed by iwi leaders, a civic authority, or the state, but it’s willed in a sense by the majority of the population. Leaders with the power to decide on a ban or introduce restrictions will have calculated that most people are going to back us on this.

A good ban works because it’s equitable. Water restrictions in the Far North apply to all households. Rich or poor, everyone’s equally affected. Imagine the outcry if authorities decided to deal with the water shortage by imposing a high price on each litre of water piped from public dams and bores. Anyone with lots of money would be fine. The poorest in the community would have a greater barrier to accessing the water they need. You might expect widespread anger and even violence as a result.

Having made a case for bans and restrictions, and our grudging acceptance of them, I’d like to make a comparison with the dominant policy response, so far, to the threat of catastrophic climate change. It’s to put a price on carbon emissions. This is done through emissions trading schemes or via direct taxes, which add, for instance, to the price of petrol.

Almost all the policy initiatives and recommendations put forward by our mainstream political parties will affect low and middle-income people the most, and the rich hardly a jot. There are multi-millionaires concerned about global warming, no doubt. Still, there’s not one policy initiative that’s going to have any discernible impact on their lifestyles. That’s why banning something or restricting its use is fairer. A good ban, remember, is equitable, affecting rich and poor alike. It’s certainly got more chance of being widely supported.

If we are serious about doing something real to reduce carbon emissions, in a way that’s fair to all citizens, then we have to embrace the ban. Ask yourself: are you ready for restricting the number of times anyone can travel by plane in a year? Or restrictions on the use of concrete (one of the worst materials for emissions)? What about limiting the number of cows per farm?

How do you feel about allowing only one car per family? All families would be put in the same situation, regardless of purchasing power. Both would be inconvenienced, both could embrace the opportunity to get healthier through more walking and cycling. Or feel good about themselves and their contribution to saving the planet while sitting on a bus.

We’re not going to combat global warming or adjust to resource scarcity, and maintain any sort of societal stability, without bans and restrictions. It’s up to us.

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