I write this column half way through the historic COVID-19 lockdown. Given the daily rate of change, I can hardly imagine what our professional and personal lives will look like when it ends.
But I know this. We have the potential to create lasting, transformational change beyond this crisis – a different future for our profession and our society is possible.
The top priority for the country right now is to unite against COVID-19. Collectively and individually we’re stepping up. And as we step up, the Government is mobilising the country’s resources behind us.
Health Minister David Clark said he’s been given a blank cheque to maintain New Zealanders’ wellbeing. “As a Health Minister, it’s not often you get that mandate”, he observed, “that actually resource should not be your constraint.”
For as long as any of us can remember, NZNO has been fighting for a fully-funded health system. Now, at last, the focus is on the value of our work, not the cost. We are being recognised for what we are – “essential”.
These first days of lockdown have seen seismic shifts in practical support for our essential work.
Some cities made public transport free for us. Our need to get to work became the focus for hastily re-designed timetables. Staff parking became free for most, too.
Provision of free childcare began. Discretionary sick leave was suddenly available when we needed it. Constrained budgets for clinical supplies, like those which regularly forced the indignity of rationed continence pads, were gone over night. 640,000 PPE masks were shipped to district health boards in a day.
None of this made the health system perfect. Parts of the sector were completely overlooked. Many inequities remained. But such resourcing was almost unthinkable just weeks earlier.
This transformation extends far beyond health. As a society, we are now embracing new values and ideas. From the Prime Minister down, the message is, “Be kind”. We’re working together so the needs of the community are prioritised above individualism. New “caremongering” groups are springing up in communities, to help more vulnerable members.
We have returned to more socialist ways of thinking – “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.
The same thing’s happening internationally, too. Countries less affected by, or recovering from the pandemic are helping those suffering more – because until there’s a vaccine, the only way any of us will be safe from future outbreaks is through global control.
As World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says: “The bottom line is solidarity, solidarity, solidarity”.
We’re all in this together. He waka eke noa. As the weeks go on, we must intensify this focus on community, solidarity and kotahitanga. This is the way to keep us united against COVID-19, support essential health workers and fix the inequities still in our health system.
But let’s not shelve this approach once the virus is under control.
All around the world, countries are comparing the fight against COVID-19 to a war. And like in a war, when the battle against COVID-19 is over, we will have to rebuild.
There may be hard times ahead. But with our new priorities and values, the world we rebuild can be better than before.
As World War Two was drawing to a close, the British Government contemplated a radical vision of post-war reconstruction. It knew the people who’d sacrificed so much for the country – especially the troops on the front line – wouldn’t settle for going back to how things were before.
So, despite the war rationing and scarcity, they drew up plans to massively expand workers’ rights, social housing and the welfare safety net. Out of this came what was then the world’s best health system, the National Health Service.
I believe Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when she says, “we will get through this”. And when we do, today’s frontline will be insisting on a better future. •
First published (lightly edited) in Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand, April 2020
Grant Brookes is the President at New Zealand Nurses Organisation.