The story of New Zealand’s lockdown has the makings of a powerful unifying national myth, writes Professor Nicholas Agar of Victoria University of Wellington

We are getting a better sense of the immense economic costs of the lockdown. The drive to eliminate Covid-19 has delivered a major blow to businesses and public institutions that, most painfully for me, include universities. Comparisons with the 2008 global financial crisis appear insufficient – we seem set for joblessness on par with the Great Depression. It challenges us to balance lives saved by the lockdown against jobs lost and businesses bankrupted.

Marc Daalder reports on modelling from the University of Auckland that tells us Covid-19 could have killed 80,000 people in New Zealand without lockdown. But the fact remains we are forced to infer the deaths of this path not taken. We see the victims of economic dislocation. Seeing has greater emotional impact than inferring. Moreover, the longer the lockdown goes on the worse the experience of economic harms will be.

One job for a philosopher in this age of declining support for the humanities is to think in imaginatively expansive ways about the diverse challenges of our frenetic times. Can we look beyond the immediate economic pains of lockdown to divine its meaning for future generations of Kiwis?

I see in New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 the makings of a potent and unifying national myth.

Gallipoli is a national myth. It’s more than just a battle fought over a hundred years ago with some Kiwis in attendance. It’s a story of heroism and sacrifice we continue to celebrate. It has meaning for all New Zealanders.

I’m participating in the sense of collective pride in our fight against Covid-19. Ours seems to be a distinctively Kiwi response. We definitely aren’t doing as the Mother Country does or as Uncle Sam directs. 

Covid-19 came comparatively late to us so we were able to adopt some approaches that seemed to be working elsewhere and shun measures that seemed to be failing. We dodged the fake temptations of doing little and seeking herd immunity. Our response seems tailored to the specifics of our geographical location and our distinctive ethical sensibilities.

The British historian Eric Hobsbawm hoped we’d soon dispense with nationalism and its myths. Recently we’ve seen these exploited by populist leaders to stir up hostility toward outsiders.

Writing in the Independent, columnist Mary Dejevsky explores a more positive role for national myths. She suggests so long as we remain aware of their many falsehoods we can view national myths as  “mostly a positive force” – a way for people to “feel collectively good about themselves”. This view resonates with me.

There is significant value in our Anzac Day celebrations even as we allow that they offer a varnished version of the truth. On the day itself, we don’t want too much speculation about why comparatively few Turkish soldiers were taken prisoner. We certainly don’t ask Germaine Greer to give an Anzac Day speech with the concluding line:  “Perhaps the bravest thing the Anzacs could have done at Gallipoli in April 1915 would have been to mutiny.”

On Lockdown Day – perhaps to be celebrated on March 25, the date New Zealand went to Level 4 – we would remember those we lost. We won’t talk about lockdown violators. Perhaps we will celebrate part of the day in our homes, but when there we will feel separately together. 

We will honour Kiwis making sacrifices of varying magnitude, finding different ways to reach beyond the physical limitations of self-isolation to help each other. Perhaps Lockdown Day will feature a parade of essential workers – doctors, nurses, police and supermarket workers. I hope teachers now finding creative ways to continue to educate from their homes will feature prominently.

The great thing about a national myth of the Kiwi lockdown is it wouldn’t follow the familiar pattern of glorifying war. 

Dejevsky offers her endorsement of national myths as part of a discussion about how Russians might make more positive use of the story of the battle of Stalingrad – the immense five-month struggle in 1942 and 1943 that saw Hitler turned back from the Caucasus. No matter how much varnish Russians apply to that myth, you can just can’t get too far from the fact it glorifies the killing of hundreds of thousands of Germans. 

The sacrifices we celebrate on Lockdown Day won’t involve killing. Instead they will emphasise our strong commitments to each other.

To be worth celebrating the lockdown must be a success. I mean that not purely in terms of the number of lives saved. Lockdown Day would be a lie not because it elides and simplifies – all national myths do that. It would be a lie if it turned out to be mainly a fascinating experience of self-discovery for the affluent but a tragedy for the poor. A national myth must deserve celebration.

Wilfred Owen’s poem The Parable of the Old Man and the Young points to the awkward truth about all World War I commemorations that we are celebrating old men sending young men to die. The unequal nature of the Anzac sacrifice is something we should all bear in mind on Anzac Day.

Letting the poor suffer disproportionately would be a real spoiler for a lockdown myth that’s supposed to emphasise getting through together.

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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