With an election just six months away, the last thing the Government needs to add its challenges is a sustained outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus, Covid-19.

While there is yet much to learn about this virus and its impact, it is already raising significant domestic and international public health issues. The likely social disruption it will cause will be substantial, in New Zealand as elsewhere.

Our economy and services sectors are already taking considerable hits, with predictions of a recession looming, which will quickly impact on brittle business confidence, economic growth and employment. None of this is the sort of news any government wants to hear so close to an election.

Sadly, when dramatic and sudden health crises occur, truth and balance in reporting and the provision of such measured, accurate information as is available are invariably amongst the first casualties. So, we should not be surprised about what has been happening in recent days.

Panic buying, which has broken out in some quarters, reflects the mounting public uncertainty about what is going on. Reports about access to medical centres and certain medicines potentially needing to be restricted to protect the wider public interest are not helping either.

Worst of all, on top of this, consistent sensationalist reporting on an almost daily basis by the two major television networks and some newspapers is further fuelling public anxiety. Scaring people unnecessarily, while to some extent unavoidable in a situation like this, is neither necessary, nor responsible.  

For its part, the Government has handled the situation reasonably carefully so far. It seems to have backed away – sensibly – after some early conflicting messages, from what looked a likely strategy at the outset of having the Prime Minister or Minister of Health front all major announcements.

Rather, it has been very fortunate that the Director-General of Health has to date performed with aplomb. His quiet, reasoned, informed, patient and clear approach has been welcome, and has inspired a measure of confidence in the strategy being adopted to deal with an outbreak of Covid-19 in New Zealand. And so far, it seems to be working.

But the Government still faces a major problem. The slowdown in trade will be serious in the short term and potentially long-term, given this country’s reliance on the Chinese market.

Already, supply problems are being reported over a range of products imported from China, and the cancellation of forestry contracts and the subsequent laying off of workers here will have a negative impact, especially in rural and provincial areas.

The slowdown in tourism is becoming evident – airlines are cancelling flights, the hospitality sector is reeling, and potential tourists face increasing uncertainty about their plans. Universities and other education providers are complaining about the impact of the loss of overseas students on their services and budgets. The path to a recession seems inevitable.

All these various sectors are looking to the Government for some form of relief, with some obvious rapid adjustments having to be made to the forthcoming May Budget, which looks less likely, day by day, to be the election year Budget the Government was looking to at the start of the year.

Although the Government has been sure-footed in its response so far, it does not appear to be getting credit for its actions.

More frustrating for the Government is the likely reality that as Covid-19 and its impacts settle in here over the coming winter months, public demands for a range of further Government interventions will be intensifying, not reducing.   

There may be some optimists within Government circles seeing Covid-19 as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in the way it deals with all these issues and thereby gain election year kudos, but they are most probably deluded.

Although the Government has been sure-footed in its response so far, it does not appear to be getting credit for its actions.

A poll carried out last week for Stuff showed less than 50 percent approval for the Government’s response to date. While those approving outnumbered those disapproving, the brutal fact is that less than half of those polled supported the Government’s actions so far. What is significant about that is that it will likely be the high point, as it is almost inevitable that as the crisis deepens, frustration at the response will correspondingly increase.

That seems to be the way of these things, and, perversely, is nothing to do with the calibre or depth of the official response, or those providing it.

Often, there is a surge in support for those in power at the outset, which steadily subsides as the crisis continues. If last week’s poll figures are accurate, the Government’s immediate response has failed to resonate, meaning that as the next six months get grimmer, things are likely to be very tough for it on this front.

There are some parallels worth considering. In September 2010, incumbent Christchurch Mayor, Bob Parker, was trailing badly in the lead-up to the October election – until the September earthquake struck. The Mayor’s skillful handling of the immediate aftermath, both on the ground and in the media (not to mention his ubiquitous orange parka!) saw him surge to an unlikely victory just four weeks later.

However, as the earthquakes continued, and the impact on people’s lives intensified and frustrations mounted over the length of time it was taking to rebuild homes and the shattered city, Parker’s leadership, though no less committed and thorough than before, steadily lost its sheen, to the extent that he chose not to seek re-election in 2013.

Last year, in the wake of the Christchurch mosque terrorist attacks, the Prime Minister won thoroughly deserved praise in all quarters for her empathetic, compassionate and focused leadership. Unsurprisingly, her ratings and those of her Government soared to near record levels in subsequent opinion polls in recognition of that, but, like Bob Parker’s beforehand, dropped steadily once the immediacy of the tragedy passed, and by year’s end and subsequently, the Government has been lagging behind the Opposition in opinion polls.

As Covid-19 appears to tighten its grip and the onset of winter nears, the worry for the Government right now must be that it does not appear to have the customary cushion of a short-term uplift in its support to help it get through the six months to the election. As well as all its other ongoing internal problems, it now also has deal with all the machinery of government issues about the best response to Covid-19 and its many consequences.

Almost certainly, whatever actions it takes will cause frustration and annoyance in one sector or another. So, while six months will not be long enough for the spectre of Covid-19 to be removed, they will be long enough for frustration over the way it is being dealt with to become widespread and difficult to shift.

The advent of Covid-19 has released a new range of uncertainties for the world to address. However, one certainty is that a new dimension has just been added to our election, already shaping up to be one of the interesting and unpredictable of recent times.

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