Ani O’Brien: Class in the age of COVID-19

Ani O’Brien: Class in the age of COVID-19

There will be no one left unaffected by the rapid sweep of the COVID-19 pandemic, nor the measures governments have taken to prevent loss of life. Every one of us in New Zealand is experiencing a temporary loss of basic civil liberties and we all will suffer consequences in regards to our health, mental wellbeing, employment, and our ability to put a roof over our heads and food in our bellies.

The question of whether the ‘solution’ will in fact turn out to be more impactful than the virus itself has been increasingly raised the world over. Stigmatised as callous or anti-humanitarian by virtue of the fact that American President Donald Trump raised it as an issue in his classically crass way, the question is not without merit. It is certainly worth examination and no doubt our own government here in New Zealand has considered it.

Those who baulk at the idea that lengthy lockdown might not be the best solution to dealing with the spread of the virus typically employ emotive arguments around the potential loss of life should the virus take hold. These are valid concerns, but they should not be used as diametric opposites to the act of seeking less socially and economically destructive alternatives. Experts who have argued that while an initial lockdown was an appropriate course of action, nonetheless caution against continued quarantine in part because of virus elimination outcomes, but more so because of the devastating impact of a society at a stand still.

We have projections, graphs, and plans to “flatten the curve” of the virus spread, however we have not seen an analysis of the inevitable increased loss of life as a result of the lockdown. How many New Zealanders will take their own lives as a result of sustained social isolation, economic hardship, lack of mental healthcare, and general increased stress levels? How many elderly will suffer quietly in isolation afraid to visit the doctor and be a “burden” to the health system? How many vulnerable people without support networks and with no one to check on them will slip through the cracks? How will significant pressure on resources and mass reliance on government assistance effect life expectancy? How many people will die not because of the virus, but due to the extreme measures we have had to take to stop it?

When these questions are shutdown and treated as antithetical to preventing the loss of life it is evident that there is a disparity in impact assessment in regards to class and economic status. Educated, middle-class professionals are vocal in supporting continued lockdown and castigating every little perceived contravention of the new rules. Working from home where they have the space to separate themselves from family members or co-inhabitants, this part of the population has been able to continue their lives albeit under significant new pressures. Their income likely has not been severely impacted and they are confined, but not isolated with family and friends living with them or easily accessible via technological means. They can foresee themselves surviving this unprecedented and cataclysmic shift in society.

The same cannot be said for working class New Zealanders for whom work stopped in an instant when the government shut all but “essential” services and businesses down. They cannot work from home. Many of them will have been already vulnerable to income instability through the nature of contract work, unguaranteed hours, and due to being perceived as dispensable. For this significant part of our society every day in lockdown is another weight dropped on their shoulders. They may already be unable to pay rent and bills. They know without a doubt they will have to rely on the government and may never recover their financial independence fully. These people also have whanau who rely on them and just as they suffer, so do their children, partners, parents, and extended family.

Is it unreasonable for people facing such a terrifying future to contemplate that they might rather have taken their chances with the virus? Lockdown may have been our best chance as a population to protect ourselves, but for individuals and their families, it could be equally as devastating.

Analysis and public discourse must be open and take into account the vast differences in experience and impact of all aspects of these incredible events. Public spokespeople and experts must not vilify those who seek to discuss impacts and solutions. There are nearly 5 million people in New Zealand and there will be no singular experience of this time, rather each of us will endure consequences that differ in nature and in severity. It is right that we take into account the lives of our most vulnerable and not just those who will not be crippled by current measures.

How we consider class in the age of COVID-19 is central to how future generations will perceive the humanitarianism of our response.


Ani O’Brien is a gender-critical women’s rights advocate and political commentator. She is the spokeswoman for Speak Up For Women New Zealand.