Coronavirus: How Jacinda Ardern is using soft propaganda to beat Covid-19

The death toll in New Zealand rises to four after two older people with underlying conditions die in hospital.

OPINION: Go hard and go early.

It's our pandemic catchphrase. Buzzwords to sum up the collective effort to beat the novel coronavirus, Covid-19.

Jacinda Ardern repeats it over and over in her frequent press briefings. Our mission, pain, fight, stay the course and sacrifices. Other words that crop up regularly in the prime minister's addresses.

It's an iron fist, dressed up in velvety words.

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In these extraordinary times, New Zealanders are being asked to do extraordinary things. Give up our freedoms, financial security, time with loved ones, and submit to digital surveillance and forced quarantine.

Jacinda Ardern has emphasised compassion and duty in her coronavirus pandemic messages.
Jacinda Ardern has emphasised compassion and duty in her coronavirus pandemic messages.

The alternative to this was a devastating level of death.  But these incursions on our liberty have not been seen before in peace time.  Why did New Zealanders comply so readily, when other countries have struggled to implement restrictions?

A large part of that is political leadership.

Ardern is recognised as an excellent communicator, and her brand centres on positivity, kindness and empathy.

That helps: persistent messages of doom and gloom are not effective tools of mass persuasion. 

But what she is asking of us is unpalatable, so the pill must be sugar-coated with unthreatening concepts like the bubble, the Easter Bunny and Nigel Latta.

The language and the message she uses would not be unfamiliar to war-time leaders. 

This is being defined as our finest hour, when we sacrifice selfish desire and pull together for a common purpose and spirit. Our narrow and immediate self-interest has been subordinated for the greater good.

We are being asked to support a noble cause. This week, as the curve flattened, that has been reinforced. It is a noble - and successful - cause.

And, this is a home-front sacrifice. What better way to unite New Zealanders than compare them favourably with other unfortunate countries, struggling to contain their self-centred citizens. It must be true, the Washington Post said so.

Kiwis have largely complied with a nationwide lockdown to stamp put Covid-19.
Kiwis have largely complied with a nationwide lockdown to stamp put Covid-19.

Ardern has decisively shaped the discourse and it is being echoed across the country, from newspaper editorials to celebrity social media posts and neighbourhood Facebook groups. 

She is firmly in control of those conferences: even when faced with the blip of Health Minister David Clark's blundering disregard for lock-down rules.

But hey, whatever works. A little low-level propaganda is more favourable than police and military enforcement.  It's definitely preferable to Covid-19 rampaging through the community.

And we can count our blessings. In the US, White House reporters have begun skipping President Donald Trump's briefings because his boasting, attacks on the press and rivals, and misinformative rants don't have enough news value to merit breaking social-distancing measures.

However, reassuring as these daily news conferences are, they don't substitute for truth and accountability.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her Beehive office.
Office of the Prime Minister
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her Beehive office.

A lot of questions are going unanswered. Most pertinently there seems to be a huge gulf between these Beehive briefings and experiences of frontline health care workers over personal protective equipment, contact tracing and levels of testing. 

It's still not clear why initial border controls were so haphazard and slow to be implemented.

These briefings give the appearance of effective and extensive communication and transparency in a time of crisis.

For the media and by extension the public, it's useful access to some of the decision makers and offers an up-to-date assessment of the numbers on the ground. 

But it's unsatisfactory because, at present, it's really our only chance to ask questions. They can't be detailed, they can't contain specific answers, and they are rarely allowed to be followed up.

They concentrate all news-gathering from official sources into one narrow time-slot, and into the hands of a few figure heads. (And a narrow slice of media representation: the parliamentary press gallery).

As the government grapples with getting a grip on Covid-19, we can expect this imperfect flow of information to continue, for at least the period of Level Four.

So long as we stay alert and wary of how the message is being imparted and manipulated to influence our behaviour.