Opinion: Advice for Simon Bridges on being responsible during a health emergency

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 27: National Party Leader Simon Bridges speaks during the 83rd Annual National Party Conference at Christchurch Town Hall on July 27, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

By Siouxsie Wiles for The Spinoff

It is the National Party leader's job to oppose the government. But as a second case of COVID-19 in New Zealand is confirmed, he should tone down the anecdotal criticisms, and rein in MPs explicitly urging people to panic-buy, writes Siouxsie Wiles, an associate professor in molecular medicine and pathology.

Dear Simon

I do understand that you lead the Opposition. I get that it's your job to hold the Government to account, and that this is an election year. Of course you and your caucus are keen to score points against the Government wherever you can. But the reality is, you don't actually have to oppose everything it does. Sometimes, such as in the case of a public health emergency, it might be worth putting the knee jerk response on hold.

I was really disappointed to hear you get stuck into the official response to the coronavirus outbreak and the testing regime in comments relying on anecdotal feedback.

And when I heard your colleague David Bennett, MP for Hamilton East, telling the listeners of Hamilton's local radio station FreeFM that the Government had "dropped the ball, big-time and put New Zealanders' safety at risk", and that people "should be out there panic-buying", well, then I started to see red.

I can't quite believe I need to tell you this, but during a serious outbreak of a new infectious disease, the last thing we need is for our elected representatives to be undermining the important messages coming from the Government, scientists, and public health officials.

For example, the message I have been sharing with the public is that we shouldn't be panic buying and hoarding. That leads to shortages. And shortages mean instead of everyone having what they need, some of the most vulnerable people in our communities will be left with nothing. Is that what the National Party wants? Surely not. Likewise, does Mr Bennett know more about this than I do? I'm going to take a wild stab in the dark here and say that, with a degree in Commerce and Law, and previous portfolios in Veterans' Affairs and Racing, he does not.

Now I know all our favourite disaster books, movies, and shows might tell us that the way to deal with a situation like this is to grab some weapons, batten down the hatches, and protect our resources from everyone around us. But, in fact, as most people recognise, in the real world the opposite is true. The communities that survive disasters the best are those that work together to share their resources and make sure no one is left out in the cold.

This is one of those times. Without the surest of evidence, it is downright irresponsible during an outbreak such as this to undermine public confidence in the official response. Because when people are scared and panic, they don't respond well to difficult situations. And this could get very difficult. Rest assured, the Government is being advised by a team of infectious diseases and public health experts who know their shit, are monitoring what's happening around the area, and adjusting their advice as needed.

It was encouraging to hear signs that you're toning down your response this morning on RNZ - in advising people, for example, not to panic. But as we all work to ensure calm, to avoid stoking fear, and to communicate clear scientific information, I would urge you and your colleagues to bite your tongues until we are through this global emergency.

Yours sincerely

Siouxsie

The Spinoff