In a post lost to the mists of Internet time, on one of those forums like Tumblr or Ask A Manager, a tech support person related the tale of helping a member of the US military with a computer problem. They’d told him to make sure everything was turned off and unplugged, then, as the repair proceeded, heard a sharp, “Ow!”

“Did you unplug the computer, sir?” they asked.

The reply has been burned into my mind for maybe more than fifteen years.

“Marines don’t FEAR electricity!”

The same swaggering macho arrogance is on full show in the recent rhetoric of Aotearoa’s rightwing political parties, and their former leaders, around our COVID response.

“Fear and hope are not a strategy” declared John Key, a man who governed for nine years on little but.

“It’s time to move from fear and uncertainty to hope and optimism” ACT leader David Seymour echoed while also contradicting.

A month before Key decided to break back into the political discourse and save his party from itself, Chris Bishop, National’s tragically unsupported COVID spokesperson, characterised the general attitude of New Zealanders to COVID as “… very persuaded by the idea that one case in the community is Disasterville.”

The obvious retort, and one which makes this a very short post indeed, is to ask whether fear is an unreasonable response to a global pandemic of a massively infectious virus which has so far killed more than four and a half million people.

That’s where the machismo comes in. If your politics are rooted in ego and individualism, there’s nothing worse than showing fear. Than acknowledging uncertainty or the need to rely on other people.

I satirised it on Twitter as “what, you SCARED? You SCARED of THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE DYING? Like some kind of WUSS??? Harden UP love, destroying our health system will build CHARACTER.”

You can see the same thinking at work when Chris Bishop warned that the government, having moved Auckland to level 3, would have a “tricky decision” to make if case numbers increased. It’s only tricky if you think acknowledging “we were wrong, we need to do better” is a show of weakness, Chris.

The longer answer is perhaps crueller. It makes you ask, have the right been paying any attention to our actual response to COVID, or are they simply incapable of comprehending Ardern’s and others’ communications, the overwhelming approval they’ve been met with, and the unquestionable success of our approach?

I went back and re-watched the Prime Minister’s first (I think?) televised broadcast at the start of the pandemic, on 21 March 2020.

She reassures us that the majority of people who contract COVID 19 will have only mild symptoms. But some will need more care. We want to slow it down, so we’re just getting “groups of cases that we can manage properly as they arise”. Other places have done this! She compares the alert levels to fire risk or water use warnings – making them familiar and normal. She emphasises things you can do; and things the government can do. Supermarkets and essential services will always continue. Shop normally! She asks friends, family and neighbours to support older NZers and those with suppressed immunity. Change how you work. Limit your movement. Even at this earliest stage of the pandemic, the PM appreciates people want a lot of information, and that misinformation is a risk, and gives a strong source of truth – the official covid19.govt.nz website.

Her final message emphasises great traditional “Kiwi” values: “We know how to rally and we know how to look after one another, and right now, what could be more important than that? … Be strong, be kind, and unite against COVID 19”.

This is not the politics of fear. It’s the politics of caring for each other and taking reasonable, measured, practical steps to do it.

Nowhere is this better highlighted than in the bumper Toby Morris & Dr Siouxsie Wiles box set of graphics at the Spinoff. Whether it was flattening the curve, staying in your bubble, breaking the chain and predicting with hilarious accuracy that if our approach worked it would be denounced as an over-reaction – these graphics are serious and authoritative but also calm, approachable, accessible and (I’m going to say it) kind.

They literally went around the world, and not in a Boris Johnson “incoherent panic-inducing terrible COVID communications” way.

Now, you can argue about specific alert level decisions or point out that there have been critical errors in implementation – like when we found out that a lot of border workers, contrary to repeated statements from the government, weren’t getting tested – but that doesn’t change the simple reality that the only people sowing fear and anxiety are those who are mad we didn’t sacrifice other people’s grandparents to ~the economy~. Which would have tanked anyway. Because global pandemics are like that.

That’s the final irony. It is the right who are operating on fear. Fear that COVID will drive home lethal political lessons: that people are more important than profit, and profit doesn’t happen without people anyway. That the Sacred Economy doesn’t work if you let thousands of people die.

Fear that their model of politics, with its kneejerk reactions, short-term money fixation, and utter disregard for human life is being dismantled bit by by every day we work together and fight this pandemic as a community.

In his op ed, Key opened with an anecdote about Apollo 11 (definitely a natural thing for him to do and not the kind of intro a PR company drafts for you as part of a lobbying strategy.)

On April 11, 1970, when Apollo 13 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, its mission was to land on the moon, but on just the second day, an explosion on board changed everything.

Suddenly, with diminished oxygen supplies, a frantic process began to try to return the three astronauts to Earth.

In a crisis, humans can be creative and inventive. 

What Key and his ideological pals cannot see is that humans aren’t just creative and inventive. We are social animals. In a crisis, we come together to support each other and find solutions. It doesn’t fit the Great Men Of History model (and it’s always men, isn’t it) which assumes a few key (sorry) individuals are the trailblazers and disruptors shaping the future. But that’s because the Great Men of History model is garbage, which has always relied on downplaying and erasing the communities behind those men.

We are at our most creative and inventive when we are working together, for each other. And that’s what New Zealand has demonstrated over the past year and a half. We made evening walks a cultural touchstone. We put teddy bears in our windows and distracted ourselves making (and giving up) sourdough. And our frontline community organisations are still pulling out all the stops to get people tested and vaccinated.

There are plenty of criticisms to make about the Labour government (would you just spend some bloody political capital on actual transformational change already????) but the alternative? Now that’s frightening.

Being a both/and party

The fantastic Maryan Street was awarded life membership at the Labour Party annual conference yesterday, and in her speech she said some things which really rang true for me. She rejected the idea that Labour has to prioritise or pick and choose which principles it follows:

We’ve never been the either/or party. We opposed the invasion of Abyssinia AND we built state houses.

And spelled out something I’ve thought for a long time (slightly paraphrased):

Economic equality is not so far away from gender equality. Equity is not so far away from pay equity. The living wage – living with dignity – is not so far away from dying with dignity.

The first point I’d make is one I’ve made a few times: we can do more than one thing at a time. But too frequently, some groups – usually women, or Māori, or young people, etc – are basically told to sit down and hush and “when we get into government we’ll deal with your issues. But right now, they’re a distraction.”

On the other hand, the other side – usually the older, whiter, dudely groups – will argue that we’ve focused too much on precisely those issues. Look at the political credit we burned on anti-smacking legislation (even though it was a Green member’s bill overwhelmingly supported in Parliament) or marriage equality (even though it was a hugely popular, highly successful campaign). Haven’t you lot had enough of the spotlight?

Yet, I’d argue, just look at the bread-and-butter work of the Labour Party. We have a Future of Work commission – not a Future of Women commission. We still treat the Finance portfolio as the single most senior role after the leadership – not Pacific Affairs.

Who’s right? Everyone and no one. Both sides (and it’s a massive oversimplification to talk only of two sides) can field any number of arguments and retorts and examples to justify their sense of unfairness. No one will ever change their minds as long as we hold onto the idea that we’re talking about separate, distinct issues.

That’s where the second point comes in. Being a “both/and party” instead of an “either/or party” isn’t just about multitasking. It can mean recognising that our issues aren’t distinct.

So I flippantly say we don’t have a Future of Women commission. And someone might look at that and say “see, bloody feminists, they just want things for themselves, what about the future of men, huh?” but the fact is that the future of work is indistinguishable from the future of women. Women’s empowerment and economic activity (which we should stop talking about, but indulge me) globally, represent a massive force for change. People’s ability to plan their families, their access to healthcare or education or civic society or legal protections are just as important, if not more, than the increasing progress of technology.

A lot of that might sound like frightening, fringe-issue identity politics which don’t appeal to Middle New Zealand.

But it’s a fundamental principle of the labour movement: when you lift the wages and conditions of workers in one site or one major industry, it ripples out across the whole community. And when you reduce inequality, everyone in society benefits, even the people at the top.

We’re all fighting the same fight. Our issues all fundamentally come down to one: capitalism, an oppressive power structure that impacts everyone differently, but impacts everyone nevertheless.

And if we move out of this either/or frame of thinking, and remember that not only can we do more than one thing at a time, but we are doing more than one thing at a time when we support each other in our struggles, think how much more we could do.