The Queenstown partygoers gave lockdown a bad name. Photo: Getty Images

The first thing to note about the partying Queenstown backpackers is these acts of youthful rebellion are not an isolated phenomenon. As I write this on April 1, The Guardian is reporting on a group of people in their 20s who took the opportunity to celebrate Spring Break in the Mexican beach resort of Cabo San Lucas, many of them returning to Texas with Covid-19.

This rule-breaking partying is a test for the unifying rhetoric of our politicians – they certainly aren’t cases of “uniting against Covid-19”. But they aren’t necessarily irrational. Doubtless, many of these young people will have seen pictures of the lungs of people with Covid-19 and know young people have died. They nevertheless assess their own personal risk as small. What a great time to enjoy a youthful immunity against the nastiest hangovers and really make the most of the “party through the apocalypse” theme.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for New Zealand as we contemplate an indefinite lockdown is Covid-19’s potential to expose and exacerbate cracks in our social compact.

Most of us understand climate change is happening to the entire world and it’s basically a bad thing. But we are not equally affected. New Zealand farmers can look at their Australian counterparts in perpetual drought and feel comparatively fortunate. A consequent difference in the willingness to make sacrifices is the real test for the rhetoric of “we’re all in this together”.

It’s the same with Covid-19. It’s horrible for many. But our dog is loving it – lots of short walks and no distressing morning departures for work and school. Covid-19 seems worse for men than for women. It’s worse for older people – I think we can credit the partygoers in Queenstown and Cabo San Lucas with excluding people in this group. It’s worse for people with certain chronic conditions. But even in this group there are differences. I’m a member of a vulnerable group and as I peruse the Covid-19 stats part of me is wondering how my particular group is stacking up in the league table of risk against other vulnerable groups. How are we well-controlled type 1 diabetics stacking up against you asthmatics? Sorry, asthmatics, but this is how people think in times of stress.

The longer this lockdown continues the stronger will be the pressure to restart the economy and just accept that lots of people are going to die. This is a theme among populist leaders – see Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissal of Covid-19 as just “a little flu” and calls for Brazilians to get back to work.

A challenge is that the strategy of seeking herd immunity against Covid-19, once advocated by British prime minister Boris Johnson and then repudiated, but still in place in Sweden, will work … eventually.

The economy-first approach of going back to work and just accepting the consequences was essentially what was hit upon when the Black Death periodically terrorised Europe for centuries starting from the mid-1300s.

Europeans lacked even the most rudimentary knowledge of the rat-and-flea-borne bacillus Yersina pestis that was killing so many of them. But getting on with things and disposing of the dead in open burials near the town limits – an approach hauntingly lampooned in the “Bring out your Dead” sequence in the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail – did minimise the plague’s effects on the economy.

If you had a stall in a market, you certainly couldn’t go into lockdown – who would feed you? You had to carry on as before and hope your prayers had been heard. Some were lucky – others not.

I hope we can continue the unified approach even if four weeks under lockdown extends into eight weeks and beyond. It would be nice if this shutdown were just a kind of economic suspended animation with Jacinda’s finger hovering above the restart button, poised to recommence activity at precisely the point we left it. But the longer this goes on the greater will be the atrophy of the sinews of our economy.

It is so important we not be overawed by these economic costs. They must be considered alongside the immense collective benefits of demonstrating we, as a society, can approach the many challenges of the future without seeking to dispose of the weak in a pit somewhere on the city limits.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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