Liam Hehir: The Amity Island solution

Liam Hehir: The Amity Island solution

In 1975’s Jaws, which is one of those rare perfect movies, only some of the conflict is with the shark, which is visible in just a handful of shots. For most of the film it is an unseen menace. Indeed, as the characters stare out at an impenetrable ocean, they can never be quite certain if it is there at all.

Coronavirus is, of course, invisible to the human eye at all times. And if you do share an environment with it, the results could be as permanent as an encounter with a Great White. But the chances that you will personally be a fatal victim of the disease are, in fact, pretty slim.

Amity Island had a decision to make. Did it chance more shark attacks by keeping the beaches open or did it destroy the local economy by closing them til the shark ran out of food? In favour of the first approach was the mayor and local businesses. In favour of the second you had the police and the sole shark expert on the scene.

In the end, the town went for a compromise. The beaches were kept open but a protective watch was set up. The authorities attempted to preserve normalcy while being ready to escalate things if needed.

The inevitable happened. The shark killed again and the beaches were closed anyway. Compromising only ended up delaying what was always going to happen for the price of a gruesome death.

There was nothing malign about the mayor’s intent. Quite the opposite. He was trying to think about the town as a whole.

When the decision to keep the beach open had been made, the town had already suffered the aftermath of the first two shark attacks. A large tiger shark had been caught and for all anyone knew that had been responsible. And even if it hadn’t been, the chances were the killer had moved on.

But however good the chance, it was still only a chance. Jaws isn’t a movie about a shark just going away.

The town gambled and lost. Well, that’s in the nature of a gamble. The question is whether you’re prepared to face the costs of getting it wrong.

The question facing New Zealand policy makers now is what gamble they are willing to take with human life to preserve the means of human prosperity. That is to say, how much should we relax the lockdown to save the economy. It’s not an enviable proposition at all – and it’s an especially difficult one for politicians.

Think about it this way: what if Amity had closed the beaches all summer? Well, the one thing we do know is that almost everybody in the town would have wound up on foodstamps. What we don’t know is just when the shark would have gone away – or if it was even an ongoing threat at all. For all anyone knows, there was no positive effect from locking down the beaches.

If we persist with the strongest possible lockdown until we know vulnerable people in our community are safe, we will inflict maximum damage to our standards of living while doing the most we can to preserve human life from immediate threat. If we reverse course, we will inflict as minimal damage to our living standards as we now can while doing much less to preserve human life. If we take the Amity approach of adopting a half-measure, we may well end up with the worst of both worlds.

Note: Please don’t email me about how Jaws made popular an irrational fear of sharks disproportionate to their true threat. I know that and we’re going with the in-universe assumptions because it makes for a useful analogy.