One word behind Jacinda’s virus success
While Australians spent this morning wondering exactly how long they were allowed to be at the hairdresser, New Zealand quietly went into full lockdown.
The entire population, minus a handful of essential workers, is now in self-isolation for four weeks under strict rules imposed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
"It won't always be perfect, but the principle of what we are doing is the right one," she told her people yesterday.
"Success won't be instant. The benefit of what we do today won't be felt for many days to come.
"Expect our numbers to keep rising, because they will. In fact, modelling suggests we could have several thousand cases before we see the measures we're taking today having an impact. But over time, we will see change if we all stick to the rules.
"You may not be at work, but that doesn't mean you don't have a job. Your job is to save lives, and you can do that by staying home and breaking the chain.
"Finally, if you have any questions about what you can or can't do, and you're looking for answers, apply a single principle. Act like you have COVID-19. Every move you make could be a risk to someone else. That is how we must all collectively think now.
"Remember to be calm, be kind, stay at home."
Now, just as Ms Ardern has her reasons for imposing a full lockdown in New Zealand, our own Prime Minister Scott Morrison has his reasons for pursuing a different strategy.
Mr Morrison has repeatedly explained the logic behind his approach, which is more conscious of potential damage to the economy and all the nasty flow-on effects that would cause.
"You're suggesting I should close down businesses where there's no medical advice that they should," he told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday.
"I don't understand why we would cause that harm to a business and all their workers and their livelihoods for the sake of some sort of message convenience.
"I think that would be quite reckless."
Australia's newly appointed Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Nick Coatsworth, backed up the Prime Minister on the ABC this morning.
"To say that we've gone light and slow would be completely inaccurate," Dr Coatsworth said.
"The measures that we've got in at the moment are unprecedented. The impact they're going to have on individual families is unprecedented."
It's clear there are reasonable arguments in support of both strategies.
But how they differ is how they are conveyed to a public eager for information in a national crisis.
The coronavirus is the third major crisis Ms Ardern has confronted during her first term as New Zealand's Prime Minister, the others being the Christchurch terror attack and the White Island volcanic eruption.
In each of those situations, she has been calm, decisive and above all, clear in her communication of critical information.
That clarity is the most important thing a leader can offer in a crisis. And in this instance, Australia - and our leaders - have not measured up.
That problem is not unique to us. Not even close. Leaders around the world have struggled to find the correct balance between conveying the seriousness of the pandemic to their people and avoiding needless panic.
In their attempts to ease fears, they have too often confused people with contradictory messages, contributing to the sort of complacency about social distancing we saw in London recently - or yes, even at Bondi Beach.
Think back to Friday, March 13, when Mr Morrison announced that events with more than 500 attendees would be banned from the following Monday. In the meantime, he said, he was still planning to go to the footy.
The Monday deadline was recommended by the government's panel of medical experts, but you can see why Australians were puzzled. When the Prime Minister tells you it's fine to go to an NRL game on Sunday, but it will suddenly become an unacceptable public health risk on Monday, how else can you be expected to react?
If clarity were the goal - and in the midst of a national health crisis, it should have been - it would have been wiser to impose the ban immediately.
Mr Morrison ended up skipping his NRL game, incidentally, but not because he wanted to set a less contradictory example. He merely said he did not want his attendance to be "misrepresented" by the media.
That is not the only time the government's message has been muddled.
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told Australians to stop shaking each other's hands - hours after doing exactly that, repeatedly, on the set of Insiders.
The government announced that haircuts would be limited to 30 minutes or less, then abruptly backflipped on the rule today.
And it's not just about the changing advice either.
This week Mr Morrison announced the convoluted news that shopping centres will stay open, but food courts inside those shopping centres must shut - unless they are only doing takeaway, in which case they can remain open too.
There is so much going on there that the Prime Minister made an error while delivering the initial announcement, and had to clarify it a few minutes later.
Does this sort of granular, nuanced approach make sense medically? Maybe. Is it easy for the public to decipher and keep track of? No.
Way too many people have had to ask this week why some clearly non-essential businesses, like gyms, are shut, while other clearly non-essential businesses, like hairdressers, remain open.
It's a fair question. The point of all this is supposed to be social distancing, and it is after all impossible to socially distance while you're cutting someone's hair.
People feel the instructions they're being given are inconsistent, and that causes the last thing you want in a crisis - confusion.
New Zealand's approach has been much easier to follow. That is partly because Ms Ardern has adopted more aggressive, black-and-white measures - like the lockdown, and the travel bans that preceded it - more quickly than most other countries. But it is also a simple function of her government communicating more clearly.
For example, New Zealand has an explicitly defined, four-tier shutdown system. It is on the government's website, where anyone can access it. It tells you the conditions that would trigger each alert level, and which measures would be implemented as a result.
The current lockdown represents a move to highest level.
Compare that to Australia, where we often appear to be making things up as we go.
On Sunday, when Mr Morrison announced "stage one" of a national shutdown, he was asked directly what stage two would look like.
"You mentioned stage two of this shutdown. What is it, and what triggers it?" a reporter asked.
"Well stage two has not been defined, and it has not yet even been defined if it will be necessary," Mr Morrison replied.
Even the government wasn't quite sure what, specifically, stage two would entail.
Another example - hopefully you received a text message from the government yesterday. New Zealanders did as well. Again, it's worth comparing our approach to theirs.
The text I got was a single sentence, which ended by pointing Australians to the government's website. It told people to "follow rules on social gatherings", but didn't actually outline those rules. Worse, it arguably implied you should only stay home if you are feeling sick, which isn't even the government's policy.
New Zealand's message was more explicit: "Follow the rules and STAY HOME. Act as if you have COVID-19. This will save lives."
One text caused no small amount of confusion, the other was crystal clear.
The last thing I want to point out is an answer Mr Morrison gave at last night's press conference, urging the media to be a little less critical of the government's coronavirus response.
"I mean, just last night you were criticising the government for not having a text messaging service. And here it is first thing this morning, and I knew that was taking place," Mr Morrison said.
"So I'd ask the media to be patient. We're obviously getting to these issues. And I appreciate there'll be criticism from time to time. But that message is very clear."
The message was not "very clear", and frankly a text should have been sent to people long before March 25, but let's put those quibbles aside.
I'm more concerned with the Mr Morrison's defensive tone, because we also saw it during the bushfire crisis a few months ago.
Being Prime Minister is rough. You suffer constant attacks on your performance, and anyone's first instinct would be to hit back; to defend yourself; to justify what you've done. Most politicians are, of course, argumentative by nature, and particularly aware of the political optics.
But during a crisis, their constituents stop giving much of a damn about that stuff. It's all a distraction. They just want the important information, delivered crisply and in a way that's easy to understand.
Ms Ardern is an effective leader in this type of situation because she doesn't waste time and energy on anything other than what matters. She just gets on with the job.
She has her flaws, as we have previously covered in some detail, but her strengths as a leader make her particularly well suited to this moment.
We saw those strengths last night. As New Zealanders prepared for the lockdown, Ms Ardern jumped online from her own home to cheerfully answer their questions on Facebook.
"Excuse the casual attire. It can me a messy business, putting toddlers to bed," she quipped.
For the next 15 minutes, she did nothing more than convey information, as simply and concisely as possible.
Can New Zealanders go for walks? Yes, said Ms Ardern, but only with people from their own household. She urged people to stay in their local area, and to remain two metres away from anyone else.
Which jobs and industries, exactly, are considered essential? She had a short list - medical professionals, police, manufacturers of protective equipment, pharmacies, banks, supermarkets and GPs.
Can Kiwis travel in a car with other people? Yes, again as long as it's only with the people in their household.
What happens to citizens returning home from overseas? If they're symptomatic, or don't have a place where they can self-isolate, they go straight into quarantine.
There was no political BS; no snark; no defensiveness. Just a politician dressed in a comfy sweater, acting like a normal human being for once and telling her constituents what they needed to know. No more, no less.
If we're honest, it is hard to imagine Mr Morrison - or most other world leaders, frankly - doing the same thing.
At midnight, the lockdown came into effect. As New Zealand woke up a few hours later, usually busy streets in the country's major cities were virtually empty.
It seems the vast majority of New Zealanders understand what is expected of them and are complying with the rules without much fuss.
That is a direct result of Ms Ardern's clarity, and it is something our own leaders could learn from.
Originally published as One word behind Jacinda's virus success