Anne Salmond: Hope on the horizon

Opinion: Dame Anne Salmond looks back at solutions to calamities 100 years ago as a guide to what our leaders must do now on the big issues of Covid and climate.

NZ must seize the opportunity for profound change in how we deal with complex problems. Photo: iStock

In the wake of COP 26, Aotearoa New Zealand’s ship of state is adrift. Tossed by the storms of an ever-shifting pandemic, our leaders are beleaguered and exhausted. Locked down and resentful, people are losing their bearings, and listening to malign gossip. We run the risk of becoming an angry, mutinous ship of fools.

New Zealand has faced terrible times before. In the wake of World War I, when 18,000 Kiwis from a population of about one million were killed, the ‘black flu’ struck. In two months, it killed 9000 New Zealanders, of whom 2500 were Māori. I remember Amiria Stirling telling me how you’d go into a house in Tairāwhiti, and find that everyone inside had died.

At that time, there were no vaccines, and little understanding about how to handle a pandemic. Today, we are relatively fortunate, and protected. When set against the sacrifices made by our forebears in WWI and the loss of life in the ‘black flu,’ those who insist on their ‘right’ not to get vaccinated while baying at our leaders for trying to save the lives of the vulnerable seem lost. This is a time to take care of each other.

History tells us the future is what we make of it, for better or for worse. In the wake of World War I, New Zealand joined the League of Nations, making a lasting commitment to multilateral diplomacy. The ‘black flu’ led to a major reorganisation of the health system, regarded as world-leading. In response to the loss of Māori lives, Apirana Ngata, Te Rangihiroa and Maui Pomare fought for equality for their people, and held fast to ancestral tikanga.

In our own time, when the pandemic struck, New Zealand’s ‘team of five million’ gave up cherished freedoms to safeguard each other and largely succeeded, with a death toll that is one of the lowest in the world. Trailing the world for the vaccine largely worked in our favour, allowing us to learn from the mistakes of others, but then the Delta variant came as a surprise, and a shock.

The resurgence of the virus hit leaders and people who were already weary, and tired people do not always make good decisions. Some New Zealanders have gone haywire, waving nasty banners and trying to block motorways while fighting for the freedom to die in a pandemic, or to infect loved ones, students or patients. Some of our leaders are relentlessly negative, putting at risk a strong collective response to Covid-19.

MIQ has become an ethical and practical nightmare.

At the same time, New Zealand’s proposals to COP-26 were dismaying, seeking to shift the task of seriously tackling climate change to others. Spending five billion dollars on international credits to ‘restore’ forests overseas when our own forests are dying is like investing in someone else’s business when your own is going bankrupt. It’s irresponsible.

With both MIQ and COP-26, the task of designing our collective responses has been delegated to officials working in silos with obsolete rule books, and this has to change. If ignoring science in a pandemic is life-threatening, ignoring complexity at a time of climate change and collapsing ecosystems puts human survival itself at risk.

No doubt Covid 19 will keep on mutating, and New Zealanders will have to endure further losses and privations, alongside the rest of the world. To keep spirits high and courage alive, we need to see light and hope on the horizon.

Just as our forebears did in the wake of World War I and the ‘black flu,’ we can use catastrophes to inspire innovation. This would be a great time for the Government to open up its thinking to a new kind of future that tackles our most formidable challenges.

In responding to Covid-19, the government worked to harness scenario modelling and complexity thinking, and reached out to some of our most engaged innovators in science, business and elsewhere, including those inspired by tikanga (Te Punaha Matatini, Sir Ian Taylor and others).

That is exactly the kind of approach that’s needed to redesign the health system, engage with the wider world in trade and diplomacy, and to rethink our approach to environmental challenges, including ‘three waters,’ New Zealand’s extinction crisis, collapsing biodiversity and climate change.

In Aotearoa, by using nature-based approaches and a relentless commitment to inclusion and high quality, we can devise world-leading strategies that foster healthy, diverse, resilient communities and landscapes – in regenerative agriculture, forestry and horticulture, new kinds of housing, transport and energy systems.

Weary though they may be, our leaders must take heart, reach out and seize the future for our children and grandchildren. Mauri tū, mauri ora, mauri noho, mauri mate. Stand up, and live – sit still and die.

And setting aside the racist, misogynist, Alt Right and Nazi banner wavers, online or outside Parliament, the rest of us need to stand up, reach out and do the same.

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in anthropology at the University of Auckland.

She was New Zealander of the Year in 2013. In 2020, she was appointed to the Order of New Zealand, the highest honour in New Zealand's royal honours system.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Anne Salmond: Hope on the horizon 16 November 2021.

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