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Prime Minister Needs to be Held to Account over Coronavirus Claims

by Steve Elers

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It’s safe to assume most New Zealanders understood this as meaning we have the potential for the virus to be gone, out of here, see you later, because elimination generally implies “the complete removal or destruction of something”. Also, the Covid-19 website says: “Our goal is to eliminate Covid-19 from New Zealand, so that we can live and work free from this disease.”

However, during Monday’s announcement about the move to alert level three, the prime minister said that we had “taken a quantum leap forward in our goal to eliminate the virus”, but “elimination doesn’t mean zero cases, it means zero tolerance for cases”. What? Elimination doesn’t mean zero cases?

Yes, the prime minister is technically correct in epidemiology speak. A Dictionary of Epidemiology, 4th edition, defines elimination as a “reduction of case transmission to a predetermined very low level”.

However, the prime minister knows very well the general population is not fluent in epidemiological jargon, so up until she decided to tell us on Monday that “elimination doesn’t mean zero cases” it’s fair to say we’ve been misled. Whether that was intentional or not, we don’t know.

The reason we don’t know is because our media failed to question the prime minister about it, bar one question that skirted around the edge: “Prime Minister, just on the elimination target, you say this doesn’t mean zero cases. Does this mean you’re prepared, or, at least, expecting, to have the virus in the country until there’s a vaccine?”

At least one journalist should have asked the prime minister why she thought it was acceptable to use “elimination” in her public speeches, when her intended meaning of the word is different from the accepted everyday use and understanding. It is fair to say our news media – or at least our political journalists – can do a better job.

During the Covid-19 daily briefings I’ve found myself yelling at the TV screen and sometimes even throwing things at it. Why? Because our journalists seem far too chummy with the prime minister instead of fulfilling their role as the watchdog for society.

A healthy democracy requires the news media to hold power to account, regardless of who is in power, and to question government decisions, just like when the prime minister says: “Elimination doesn’t mean zero cases, it means zero tolerance for cases.”

At the same briefing, the prime minister said: “Our testing has scaled up and we have now tested over 85,000 New Zealanders, one of the highest testing rates per capita in the world.” Wrong. At that time we were 31st in the world for testing rates per capita.1 I don’t think 31st can be considered “one of the highest” in the world, unless, of course, we have turned into a society where we believe everyone is a winner.

And did any journalists at the briefing query the prime minister about her claim? Not one. They just took what she said and regurgitated it to the masses – to us. Whatever happened to fact checking?

The following should have been asked at the time or at least put in writing to the prime minister’s press secretary: “Can you provide us with the source that says New Zealand has one of the highest testing rates per capita in the world?”

When the prime minister announces New Zealand has “one of the highest testing rates per capita in the world” and it goes through the media unchallenged, we’re inclined to believe it.

This can lead to a false sense of security regarding infection risk and it unjustifiably lends weight to the Government’s argument to lower alert levels. I am, of course, not advocating here that we should or shouldn’t change alert levels, I am simply pointing out that unchallenged statements that are not factually correct can be used to gather unwarranted support.

For the health and wellbeing of my TV, I hope the news media will start holding power to account. If journalists can’t find the motivation within themselves to ask critical questions of the prime minister, perhaps they should imagine she is Simon Bridges.

  1. New Zealand was ranked 31st in the world for testing rates per capita on Mon 20 April 2020, according to Worldometers. This placed New Zealand in the top 15 per cent of all countries. Mr Elers maintains his view that this does not equate to “one of the highest” countries, and media questioning should have drilled down on the data. The Ministry of Health advises comparing test numbers between countries can be troublesome, as testing and metrics used differ between nations. As of Saturday, using Worldometers, New Zealand had the 11th highest per capita testing rate of countries that had performed more than 50,000 tests; 23,851 tests completed per 1 million people. 

Dr Steve Elers is a senior lecturer in the School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing at Massey University. He writes a weekly column for Stuff on social and cultural issues.

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elocal Digital Edition – May 2020 (#230)

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May 2020 (#230)

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