Why is this state different from all other states?
There are no simple answers. We are still in the “fog of war” (albeit slightly less foggy than a few months ago), and we won’t get to the bottom of this for a while yet. We don’t know if the second wave has peaked. We don’t know if there won’t be further waves (here or in other states). The judicial inquiry is barely getting started. We don’t know if government officials and ministers will fully co-operate with it.
The best way to find answers is to make sure we’re asking the right questions – the ones that go to the heart of the matter rather than picking at the edges.
My fundamental question: what is needed to get COVID-19 under control – to navigate through this crisis? I would say it needs a strong working relationship between the government and the people. That relationship is based on trust and execution, with a foundation of communication.
Trust means the people trust that the government is competent, always acting in the best interests of the people, and getting their priorities right, and will therefore accept and comply with government decisions. That depends on execution – that government has the right culture and process to make good decisions, and the ability to marshal sufficient and correct resources to execute those decisions.
The two are linked and form a cycle: if the people do what they are told, then the government is able to execute. If the government executes successfully, the people will continue to do what they are told. That is a virtuous cycle. On the flip side, if there is no trust, it makes it harder for government to execute, and if they do not execute, then people lose trust.
These two elements are built on a foundation of good communication: clear and unambiguous messaging from government regarding what is being done and why, and a government that listens and responds to the needs of the people.
We came into this crisis trusting that the government was able to do the right thing. They did not need to do anything to gain our trust, only to avoid losing it, by executing properly.
Now, deep into our second wave, and seeing other states open and living some semblance of a normal life, trust has completely eroded. When and why did this happen? Poor execution – notably the hotel quarantine fiasco, and inept contact tracing (“mystery cases” is an excuse, not a statement of fact), and poor communication – mixed messages as to what is and is not permitted, and dodging of questions regarding government decisions and actions. We have fallen into a vicious cycle where there is neither trust nor execution. The government has chosen draconian measures that punish millions with stage 4 restrictions rather than pouring resources into enforcement measures against the thousands who are flaunting the rules.
It has taken months to finally get messages of accountability and (qualified) regret from state leaders. Maybe a couple of months ago, that may have helped restore trust, but now it is too little; too late.
The current restrictions will likely lead to a serious drop in cases, and maybe even eradication of community transmission. But what confidence do we have that the current team can keep it that way? That they can successfully open things up? New Zealand went super hard the first time around and got it right. Taking the same approach for a second wave may not lead to a similar outcome.
So what needs to happen from here? The government, as a matter or urgency, needs a new strategy of better communication, trust-building measures, which in turn should lead to better execution. They need to show that they are doing things qualitatively differently and better now – that is the only way they can regain our trust. After all, they are there only to serve us – the people.