Branko Marcetic: We’ve cut the Govt slack for its own Covid missteps, so let’s do the same for workers

Branko Marcetic: We’ve cut the Govt slack for its own Covid missteps, so let’s do the same for workers

The Government has made a litany of mistakes over Covid, and we have been more than willing to forgive Labour these missteps and give them some leeway. Branko Marcetic says that when members of the public also make mistakes, we should be focusing on designing a wider system that insulates the rest of us from individual blunders.


Team members sometimes make mistakes, and that’s especially the case with teams of five million people. The Prime Minister seemed to acknowledge this just two days ago as the discovery of a new case prompted the second lockdown in two weeks.

“No one wants Covid in our community. But we won’t beat it by turning on each other,” she warned.

That advice seems a universe away now, as the prime minister is embroiled in an increasingly contentious public back-and-forth with a Covid-infected fast-food worker who claims she was never told by the government to self-isolate, as Ardern charged in a press briefing. Only a day after warning Kiwis not to turn on each other, Ardern admonished the new cases for “let[ting] the rest of us down,” seemingly singling out the KFC employee who had gone to work despite being the sibling of a casual contact of the February 14 cluster. Last night, she doubled down, alternating between urging New Zealand not to get into the “back-and-forth around blame,” and making sure the country understood this was entirely the fault of the worker in question.

The government’s own finger-pointing has been accompanied by ugly harassment and cyber-bullying aimed at both the KFC worker and an infected 21-year-old MIT student who went to a gym and classes after being tested. On top of this, there’s been frustration aimed at the student’s mother, who has also tested positive, and went for a walk with an infected friend from a different household the day after Auckland went into February’s lockdown.

The government and the public should be doing everything in our power to stop this kind of thing from happening — there should be no debate about that. What is at question here is whether such individuals are exclusively to blame and, perhaps most importantly, how best to respond to it.

The Prime Minister may well be feeling pressured by ratings-chasing blowhards like Duncan Garner, who called her “pathetically weak” for not taking a harder line, even demanding criminal charges for those who broke the rules. But in fact, she had it right the first time.

As Ardern originally said, the torrent of condemnation, outrage and abuse towards these latest cases is a major disincentive for people to be honest with health and government officials going forward, which will be vital for the country’s ability to tackle future outbreaks. This is doubly so if it means being repeatedly publicly shamed and blamed by the country’s most powerful official, let alone have the threat of criminal prosecution hanging over them.

It also seems clear that none of this was done maliciously. Grant Robertson has said the case who went for a walk with an infected friend hadn’t deliberately ignored the rules or been trying to make a political point. Meanwhile, the KFC worker went to work before her infected sister was tested, and maintains the advice she was given was that she didn’t need to self-isolate. This is something that Stuff reporter Brittany Keogh has said was consistent with the advice she received after being tested in November, and, as economist Sam Warburton has forensically detailed, was the official government advice for households of casual contacts, casting doubt on Ardern’s claims.

In any case, compare this to someone like Garner, who for months used his media platform and public standing to vehemently argue against restrictions and even the danger of the virus, tacitly encouraging the same behaviour he’s now gnashing his teeth and calling for blood over.

Speaking of reckless behaviour, students and minimum wage fast-food workers in South Auckland are far from the only ones who might potentially engage in it. At least in the centre of Auckland, the response by a fair chunk of the public to the news of new cases and an impending lockdown was to go out for one last night of revelry and pile into already crowded bars, which of course kept their doors open all night for all comers, raging until just hours before the start time of the city’s Round the Bays, cancelled because of the public health emergency. Like the government deciding to end lockdown after three days, these individuals also took a “calculated risk.”

Sometimes people are reckless; sometimes they simply misunderstand or get things wrong. The challenge is creating a system that acknowledges such things are bound to happen when you’re dealing with human beings, and is fool-proof against it.

As strong and capable as the government’s pandemic response has been overall, it’s clear we haven’t quite gotten to that point. The government’s excuse is that it tried to call the KFC worker’s home and to send letters, an account disputed by her union rep who easily reached her by phone. But even if we grant the government’s story is accurate, this isn’t good enough: contact tracers should’ve been sent to physically knock on her door at minimum.

Worse, this was the exact same failure that had led one case to be missed after the 14th February cluster, allowing the student to go to work at K-Mart and potentially spread the virus much further. Anthony Bloomfield had assured the public that visits were “now happening” after that misstep, yet once again didn’t happen in this case — a clear government error that the prime minister has publicly passed the blame for to the worker.

If you’ve looked closely, similar failures have been consistent throughout the past year. The government’s decision to go down a level early and on the same day three new community cases were discovered was met with some head-scratches across the political spectrum, and we may yet find out it was the wrong decision; Ardern has only said the student who went to the gym was a “contributing factor” to the decision to go back into lockdown, suggesting there are other reasons in play. After all, the day the government eased restrictions was the day one of the cases was found to have gone to work at McDonald’s just prior to lockdown.

Last year, in November, we saw similar failures when MIQ guests mingled with neighbouring apartment block residents after a fire alarm. Beyond the ongoing question of the wisdom of housing potential carriers in the most densely populated part of the country’s biggest city, those apartment residents weren’t informed until that day’s press briefing that one of them had been infected with the virus, to their understandable anger. This is on top of a litany of other government missteps, like not testing workers at the border, or dragging their feet on instituting a mask mandate for public transport, which experts had been calling for for months.

Then there’s the question of the government’s paltry financial support for those forced to self-isolate, which is both less than minimum wage — outrageous for a Labour government — and simply trusts employers to pass it on to their workers, a process that is not only slow, but one in which we already know some businesses are simply not carrying out their part of the bargain. This is an approach that incentivises exactly the opposite behaviour of what we want in this pandemic, yet Ardern gamely insisted everything was hunky dory when challenged on it last night.

The government is not infallible, and Kiwis have been more than willing to forgive Labour these missteps and give them some leeway given the unprecedented times we’re living through. That’s perfectly fair and reasonable.

But it makes little sense to cut the government this kind of slack for its own mistakes while taking a hard, unforgiving line against the ordinary Kiwis who are overwhelmed, confused, and trying their best, but occasionally fall short — particularly when our focus should be on designing a wider system that insulates the rest of us from individual blunders. As someone once said at the start of all this:

“We will get through this together, but only if we stick together, so please be strong and be kind.”


Branko Marcetic is co-host of the podcast 1 of 200 and a staff writer for Jacobin magazine

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.