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The rest of us against Auckland?

by George Eden, in Auckland
I’m writing this from the heart of Tāmaki Makaurau, in the middle of the fourth lockdown the City of Sails has had to endure. I’m working at the “home office” – the little table under the window – while I listen to the fractious kids and their stressed parents next door, trying to get some work done to meet a deadline. It’s business as usual in Auckland, while the rest of the country continues on oblivious to the real costs of fighting the pandemic.

And on a Zoom call with some public sector people in Wellington yesterday, the meeting started with the usual joking about COVID in Auckland, and how we were probably all infectious, and why some Aucklanders are so stupid they don’t want to stay home when they’re sick. I’m sure it was intended in a light-hearted way, but to all of us dealing with a fourth lockdown there’s nothing funny about any of these comments anymore; it’s rather like making cancer jokes in the cancer ward.

Since Sunday, all our Auckland friends have been on the receiving end of comments from their out-of-town friends and family and acquaintances and sometimes complete strangers, all telling us how irresponsible we are for letting a bunch of idiots get COVID and spread it around the community. The comments have ranged from the wildly funny to the deeply insulting, with most of the bell curve clustered towards the aggressive end of the spectrum. Social media is a truly toxic place right now.

The thing is, no-one in Auckland wants to get COVID – not even the clown who went to the gym instead of going home. But for far too many New Zealanders, this is a priceless opportunity to have a go at a bunch of JAFAs … and so they do, just as the tone-deaf public sector types did on the Zoom call.

But here’s the thing: Auckland is doing all the heavy lifting in the pandemic, because the country has outsourced most of the MIQ facilities to us and largely washed its hands of the implications. There are 18 facilities up here, more than the rest of the country put together. Some 34% of the population lives in Auckland, yet we host 64% of the MIQ beds. Which means we’re doing what no-one else wants to do.

In comparison, Wellington has one MIQ facility; it has 13% of NZ’s population but only 3% of its MIQ beds. If Wellington was doing its fair share, there would be four facilities – and if it was doing as much as Auckland it would have 8. By any reasonable standard, Wellington isn’t stepping up; Auckland is doing your job for you.

So every time this sneaky and highly contagious virus gets out of MIQ in Auckland despite the best efforts of a lot of people, it’s our families and businesses that suffer – not anyone else’s. We’re the ones who have our region locked down by the Police, we’re the ones who have to check our old folks are ok and have groceries, we’re the ones who have to figure out what to do with our kids to keep them entertained and educated, we’re the ones juggling our cash flows and making sure our staff are ok and still managing to make sure all the stuff the rest of the country orders online gets delivered on time.

In comparison, everyone else in the country gets to live under level 2 and forgets to check in on the COVID app and fails to social distance and doesn’t wear masks and generally behaves like COVID isn’t even a thing. And best of all, they get to make jokes about COVID and JAFAs and still expect their delivery milestones to get met, lockdown or not, as if level 3 was just some kind of minor inconvenience Aucklanders could just take in their stride.

Lockdowns aren’t easy – they’re a special form of torture. Some businesses and families cope well and some even thrive, but the toll for the vast majority of people in this city is real. Every day of lockdown costs Auckland $20 million and 200 jobs; a week of it will knock a quarter of a billion dollars off our regional GDP and see nearly 2,500 more people chucked out of work. On a personal level, this may well be the lockdown that breaks the camel’s back for one of our close friends, who is staring down the barrel of his family’s business failing and losing their house and having to declare personal bankruptcy because the commercial landlord is a scumbag who wants every pound of flesh he can get.

And in response to this, a bunch of public sector types in Wellington think it’s funny to make jokes at the expense of Aucklanders on Zoom calls.

To us, it’s no longer a team of 5 million – it’s a team of 1.75 million in Tāmaki Makaurau and big group of increasingly aggressive armchair theorists around the rest of the country who haven’t lived through multiple lockdowns, shooting their mouths off at our expense. It’s a bunch of people who don’t have any skin in the game throwing stones from the sidelines.

There’s an awful lot of anger in Auckland – a whole pile of it directed at the people who didn’t self-isolate when they should have. But a lot of it is directed at Wellington for the way the whole COVID problem has been cynically dumped on us, irrespective of the impacts on our families and our businesses.

Wellington – and the government – aren’t coming to the party. There’s no plan to share the MIQ burden (and the risk that goes with it) more fairly around the country; the communication with the communities in South Auckland has been appalling (one TikTok clip at New Year doesn’t cut it); IRD’s phone line still has multi-hour waits to try and get through to talk about tax issues or business support; the income support for people who need to self-isolate is grossly inadequate but no-one wants to change it.

And let’s talk about that money for a second. The hard-hit communities in South Auckland have always struggled, yet they’ve also been the people who have stepped up to fill the essential jobs – to keep the supermarkets running, the buses operational, the distribution centres going, and to work in the MIQ centres. Yet if they have to self-isolate because their kids are at Papatoetoe High School or there are MIQ issues, then they get a paltry $590 a week – before tax. The median rent in the same areas is nearly $600 a week.

That’s not support, that’s Wellington raising a middle digit to the hardest-working community in Aotearoa.

And it’s not like there isn’t money to go round. Finance Minister Grant Robertson – in his new role as Smaug the Dragon – is sitting on a hoard of gold, in the form of billions of dollars of un-spent COVID funding. He could increase those payments tomorrow. But seemingly, being tested for COVID is reason enough to not have enough money to feed your kids or top up your phone or make the car payment. There’s a message that if you were stupid enough to be downwind of COVID, you deserve to be financially punished. And that’s the result of a bunch of people in Wellington thinking the size of the deficit is more important than the welfare of the people.

And so some Aucklanders do what they shouldn’t – they go to work instead of going home, just like the young woman who went to her shift at KFC.

Was that a bad idea? Of course. But she says her instructions said she was fine to go about her life – and most of South Auckland believes her, not the Prime Minister. That’s not because the PM is being disrespected; it’s the sign of an embattled community rallying around to protect their own, even as the rest of the country takes pot-shots and throws insults and makes jokes and shames her on social media.

So here’s my prediction from my WFH table under the window:

If the current trajectory continues – if there are another couple of lockdowns that target Tāmaki Makaurau while the rest of the country gets off scot-free – Labour will get destroyed in Auckland at the next election.

Everyone wants the country to be safe; no-one wants COVID; everyone understands the need for lockdowns; and the Prime Minister’s leadership and mana is widely respected and well-deserved. But the latest episode shows there’s no longer any sense of common cause in Aotearoa; it feels like the rest of the country against Auckland, expecting us to carry the load whilst being insulted for our trouble. It’s not collective responsibility; it’s collective punishment. And no-one in their right mind is going to vote for the status quo in those circumstances.

So it’s time for Wellington to step up. Things need to change – and fast.

20 comments:

  1. David Mackenzie, 4. March 2021, 9:17

    It is not entirely just and maybe a little glib to say the rest of the country is “oblivious” to the cost of the pandemic’s pandemonium. Clearly, we will all share the cost in many diverse ways. We also think about Auckland friends and relatives and worry for them constantly.

     
  2. Gina, 4. March 2021, 11:26

    I’m a Wellingtonian and yes we do joke a bit, but that’s a coping mechanism used by plenty of people in Auckland too. We feel Aucklanders’ pain and we feel worried for friends and family and are supporting them every way we can. Articles like this feel like an attack and don’t help any of us.

     
  3. Dave B, 4. March 2021, 12:04

    George Eden, could it be that you and your group of Auckland friends have landed-up with a bunch of crass tossers as your out-of-town friends and family, and also your Zoom-contacts in Wellington? No-one I know around here in Wellington would dream of joking at Auckland’s expense or blaming Covid on JAFAs. Sure, we consider ourselves fortunate not to be at the sharp end of the recent outbreaks, but we realise that this could easily happen to us if a spreader broke the rules down here.
    While a degree of banter between Aucklanders and everyone else may be a traditional part of Kiwi-culture, the idea of “the rest of the country against Auckland” is nonsensical. We sympathize, and we realise that “there but for the grace of God go we”!
    And yes, probably the Wellington-based government (which has a large number of Auckland-based MPs including the PM) should do more to tighten the country’s borders and ease the burden on Auckland, but don’t lambast the rest of the country because the government is sometimes slow to act. If you will allow me to borrow a phrase, “You are us”!

     
  4. Claire, 4. March 2021, 12:18

    George I think that is probably the last lock down. Neither the Government nor anyone else wants another one. And with the vaccine roll out (let’s hope it speeds up) there should be a transformation fairly soon. I do feel for Aucklanders mostly but there are still the rulebreakers through ignorance or even wilfully. Being in level two does also affect business with many people wondering why are we in it. I think The Government have done a fantastic job. And it’s nearly over. Cheer up.

     
  5. Toni, 4. March 2021, 13:02

    George I am sorry you are having to endure unkind comments or jokes that are not funny, but I do not believe this reflects how the majority of us think. Like Aucklanders we feel incredibly frustrated about this latest lockdown caused by people not following directives. We do feel sorry and upset for Auckland and acknowledge it has ended up more than its fair share of lockdowns, but that has been beyond our control. I cannot understand why the government has risked New Zealanders by having quarantine in the middle of any city, and by not restricting the numbers of people allowed in from high-risk countries.

    It seems that the rights of those trying to escape the high-risk countries (some who have come back to stay, but many who are using NZ as a backdoor to Australia, or somewhere safe to stay until they go back to where they came from) are being put ahead of the New Zealanders who live here, and who worked so hard to keep one another safe but are now suffering untold emotional and financial burdens.

    I hope this helps you feel that we do understand your frustration and anger and can only imagine how hard it has been for Auckland throughout the lockdowns. We are on your side even if it may not seem like it at times.

     
  6. greenwelly, 4. March 2021, 14:19

    George, did you consider that the reason most of MIQ is in Auckland is because that is where most of the large hotels are, also where the large international Airport is. As far as I am aware, there are no additional hotels in wellington (or NZ) that meet the government’s MIQ standards and are wanting to be part of the System. So it’s a bit moot to argue Wellington should be doing more MIQ-wise when it’s simply impossible for that to happen.

     
  7. George Eden, in Auckland, 4. March 2021, 14:55

    David Mackenzie and Gina – thank you for your sentiments and your moral support. However, moral support is not the only thing needed; in fact, it feels a little bit like the “thoughts and prayers” doled out in the US in the wake of preventable disasters, and those sentiments have largely become code-words for “we don’t intend to do anything about the root cause of the problem”. Personally, I think New Zealanders can and should do better, and can and should take tangible action.

    Dave B – I’m not sure blaming Aucklanders for having poor-quality friends really helps much. The many thousands of people who have conducted a huge social media pile-on against the Manukau families because they (seemingly) enjoy a bit of gratuitous outrage on social media were entirely self-selecting. There’s nothing the families could have done to prevent this – it’s a problem that can only be solved by the participants taking to heart the PM’s admonition to kindness, not by Aucklanders trying to choose their social media contacts a little better.

    And on the subject of the slow-moving nature of government – something that is all too apparent from Tamaki Makaurau – if the government can move with speed and alacrity to dump the MIQ problem on Auckland, why can’t it move with equal speed and alacrity to spread the load more equitably around the country?

    Claire – while we all hope it’s the last lockdown, the World Heath Organisation thinks the pandemic has another year to run yet. And between now and then, any escape of the ever-evolving and more contagious strains of the virus from MIQ will once again mean that New Zealand’s most populous region and the heart of our national economy is brought to its knees. With that come huge community and social and personal impacts; businesses fail, people lose their jobs and their houses and their self-respect. Telling them to “cheer up” seems a facile and unhelpful response in that context.

    Toni – like you, we have no idea why the government thinks putting long-term MIQ facilities into the CBD of the country’s biggest city is a smart idea. Sure, it was quick and expedient in the early days of the pandemic; but we are now a year into this crisis with more time to go yet – it’s going to take at least a year and maybe longer to get to suitable levels of vaccination, and quarantine may be a fact of all our lives for quite some time to come. So in that context, why has the government not started investing in purpose-built properly-designed quarantine facilities? As friends pointed out, the Ohakea Air Force base has a long international-standard runway and would be perfect for the task, so it’s puzzling to see Wellington sitting on its hands, expecting Auckland to keep suffering through all these lockdowns.

     
  8. Paul Day, 4. March 2021, 15:00

    From a Wellington hospitality business owner, I believe you really have the wrong end of the stick in many of your assumptions. You might want to visit Wellington CBD cafes during any of these higher alert levels and see how devastated our businesses are as vast chunks of the city workers remain at home. I hear your pain about the location you are in, though bear in mind that many of us have received zero income for months, we too face collapsing businesses and sectors, and most of us are in utter bewilderment at government regulations piled onto us when we are at our lowest points.

    Of the Wellingtonians I personally make coffee for on a daily basis – not one of them has made derogatory comments about Aucklanders. You are writing from a basis of anger, it’s clear, though I feel that anger would be better aimed at leaders who have should be accountable for weak systems and responses. Lambasting me for not hosting a MIQ facility is pointless, I have no power.

    Let’s not make this a Them-Us argument. The whole country faces the consequences of the disaster that is COVID, be they now or in the future.

     
  9. George Eden, in Auckland, 4. March 2021, 15:19

    Greenwelly – According to Hotel Data NZ, room income across the hotel sector is down 40% across the country, and that would seem to include Wellington. There’s no evidence there’s any shortage of hotel space in the region as a fall in room prices is demonstrating.

    And there’s nothing special about the hotels being used for MIQ facilities in Auckland. They are a mix of big flash high-end places like the Stamford and budget places like the Jet Park out by the airport – and none of them were designed as quarantine facilities, any more than the Wellington hotels were. So there’s no difference in the facilities and Wellington has as much unused capacity (on a per-capita basis) as anywhere else.

    There’s also no evidence that a big international airport is a prerequisite either. There are MIQ facilities in both Hamilton and Rotorua, and both have less international airline connectivity than Wellington. Yet on a per-capita basis, both are pulling their weight more than the capital.

    Now, I have heard the argument expressed up here that the dearth of Wellington facilities is solely the desire by bureaucrats to protect themselves and their families from COVID by keeping MIQ guests as far away as possible. Given I spent part of my working career in Wellington I think this is a cynical and inaccurate view – it seems more likely Auckland had some hotels available and the decision makers thought a bus ride from the airport would be cheaper than putting on a COVID flight to Wellington, without calculating the wider economic impact. But theories like this only get legs when there’s perceived unfairness or someone not doing their bit. From Auckland’s perspective, Wellington is not demonstrating leadership by doing its fair share – it looks like it’s shirking. People immediately attribute bad motives to that, in exactly the same way people have attributed bad motives to the families in Manukau who didn’t self-isolate correctly.

    If we’re all in this together – and we are – then we need to demonstrate the commitment with actions as well as words. That’s where Wellington is falling down at the moment, and logistical convenience as an argument doesn’t really cut much ice in that context.

     
  10. Toni, 4. March 2021, 16:46

    George, I don’t know why you have singled out Wellingtonians. Like the rest of the country, we have had no input into which hotels the government elects to use as a quarantine facility. And we may not be up in Auckland, but we do recognise your plight and the unfairness of multiple lockdowns. However, if you need somewhere to direct your understandable anger it should be at the government not us. While we may not all be in the same boat, so to speak, we are still experiencing emotional and financial problems, and blaming Wellingtonians for something outside our control does not help anyone. Regardless of how you feel about us, you do have our support from afar and we genuinely wish you did not have to go through this.

     
  11. Gina, 4. March 2021, 18:35

    George. Actually moral support is very Important and certainly not only ‘thoughts and prayers’. I have family and also look after staff in Auckland who are struggling and have done my best to proactively look after them as best I can in any way they need. To denigrate that shows a lack of understanding of human needs and alienates people like me who are doing our best especially as we are in the same side here. solidly in agreement with many of the issues you raise about the Government.

     
  12. Geoffrey Horne, 5. March 2021, 8:44

    The bigger they are the harder they fall. The team of 5 million are constantly bombarded by the thoughts of “ our biggest city” , the media rarely sees south of Otara, and most of us awake to the thoughts of someone called Gough. There is life south of the Bombay hills , and it’s good.

     
  13. Jenny Salesa, 5. March 2021, 17:52

    Absolutely agree with Dr Ashley Bloomfield that South Auckland has done so well. In August last year there were 170 positive COVID19 cases & this time there have been 15 positive cases. We should thank South Auckland for all they have done to help keep New Zealand safe! [via twitter]

     
  14. Jacqui, 6. March 2021, 8:38

    Thank you from a fellow Aucklander who is past the point of fed up watching friends and families suffer financially, mentally and emotionally all the while hearing the gloating from those out of Auckland. Seeing all those above saying cheer up and we are thinking of you comes off as hollow and superficial. You folk have no idea of the reality and long term impact this will have on Auckland and Aucklanders. For those who said that they are thinking of Auckland, thanks. For those saying they can’t do anything about the fact that most of the MIQ facilities are in Auckland not Wellington, why not try a little civil action. If a little girl can write to the PM asking for plastic bags to be banned for the safety of turtles and have it done, then surely a petition started and signed by Wellingtonians asking for the MIQ facility in Queen Street to be transferred to Wellington would have some impact.

     
  15. Claire, 6. March 2021, 9:42

    Jacqui. Not much can be achieved without being positive. If we look at what has happened overseas, that is very sobering. More deaths at 500,000 in the US than in wartime. We all have had rough times in NZ with lockdowns but the contrast above is stark. Our border workers are now nearly all vaccinated so the risk is declining. Our Govt has done a good job. The economy has fared pretty well. And yes Auckland has had more level threes by a total of ten days. Thanks for that.

     
  16. James, 6. March 2021, 10:38

    It’s more than a little ironic that in good times Auckland and its advocates want everything, based in part on being “ our biggest city” but when the proverbial hits the fan they want to share the burden. Perhaps the chickens have come home to roost?

     
  17. Pam, 6. March 2021, 21:14

    Wellington has two hotels being used as MIQ facilities, the Bay Plaza and the Grand Mercure. For the 18 Auckland hotels this is a good income stream. Transferring potentially infected people around the country comes with significant risk. Pre-departure testing is not compulsory and a positive result would result in flight and MIQ cancellations so little incentive to be tested if symptomatic or likely to be positive. There’s only one way it’s in the community in NZ, and it’s through the border. Government spin has made a lot of more vaccinations per capita than Australia but very little publicity about many more through the NZ border per capita than Australia. 20,000 temporary or visitor visas issued since March 2020.

     
  18. Northland, 7. March 2021, 22:48

    The article should concentrate on laying blame (if any) where it belongs, which is with the people who have power in these matters. Blaming ordinary Wellingtonians for the sacrifices that have been made by Aucklanders is like blaming the cleaners at FaceBook for FaceBook’s social media policy. It makes no sense.

    Please direct your ire at the people in power. Do what all of us can do which is vote with your feet at the next election if you do not like the outcomes of current policies.

     
  19. George Eden, in Auckland, 8. March 2021, 10:36

    Claire – Auckland has had three major lockdowns unique to the region since the entire country escaped from Level 4 in May last year.

    In August/September we had 6 weeks at level 3/2.5, followed by a further two weeks at level 2 while the rest of the country sat at level 1; and of course we’ve just had another 10 days of level 3 spread over the last two lockdowns, with another week of level 2 this week.

    Depending on how you slice and dice it, Aucklanders have had to stay at home to keep the country safe for more that 50 days in these lockdowns, not the 10 days you claim. And every single one of those days has cost us jobs and incomes and domestic disruption and stress the rest of the country hasn’t had to endure, or at least not to the same level.

    Northland – it might be worth looking at the state of affairs from Auckland’s perspective: politicians make the decisions, but they tell us they’re informed by officials and are only choosing between options presented to them. Officials claim to develop policy at the direction of politicians, so they’re not responsible for the decisions. Exactly no-one in Wellington seems to be one of the officials who decides which options are presented to politicians, and despite being a government town I’ve yet to meet a single person who even knows how these options are arrived at. In fact, no-one even seems to know who the requisite officials are! And apparently this is what passes for good governance in Aotearoa.

    It’s rather like an episode of Yes Minister, only real people in Auckland keep losing their jobs and their businesses and their livelihoods.

    So you’re probably right the readers of this website aren’t the right audience for our frustrations, but it’s not really apparent who is. However, your suggestion the issue should be decided at the ballot box is a good one – and my contention is that Labour is running the risk of being hammered in Auckland if there are yet more lockdowns where the load isn’t shared equitably around the country.

     
  20. Graham CA, 25. March 2021, 20:27

    George as someone who spent almost six months classified as a border worker here in Wellington I can assure you that the limited number of MI facilities in Wellington has nothing to do with the public servants not wanting to have these here but rather the limited number of suitable facilities.

    A number of the Wellington hotels that might have been suitable are unfortunately situated in buildings without any way of securing the perimeter without creating problems – the two hotels that are used have separate car parks and outside space which can be securely fenced. They are both stand alone and don’t share access ways, lifts or other facilities with other parties – unlike for example the James Cook with the major car park building as part of it or the Novotel which is part of an office block with access from a shopping complex.