Pandemic Leaders Respond To Power, Not Science
What has happened as of late in New Zealand is a lesson for conservatives and right-populists hoping to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror.
Nearly two months into the country’s latest lockdown, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern finally acknowledged what every regular person knew a year ago—Covid-19 is here to stay.
“We’re transitioning from our current strategy into a new way of doing things,” Ardern told members of the media at a press conference Monday. “The return to zero is incredibly difficult, and our restrictions alone are not enough to achieve that quickly. In fact, for this outbreak, it’s clear that long periods of heavy restrictions has not got us to zero cases.”
“What we have called a long tail,” Ardern said, which “feels more like a tentacle that has been incredibly hard to shake.” Ardern then went on to announce that New Zealand would begin to lift some lockdown measures—particularly in Auckland, the nation’s largest city—despite an ongoing spike in cases due to the delta variant. However, the current case spike in New Zealand topped out at 83 new infections in a single day.
In fact, each of New Zealand’s Covid spikes since the beginning of the pandemic pale in comparison to those experienced by most western nations. As it stands now, New Zealand has accumulated just over 4,000 cases and 27 deaths.
When Covid-19 initially made landfall in the island nation of just over 5 million, Ardern’s government acted quickly in an attempt to nip the outbreak in the bud. New Zealand’s borders were shuttered, and just four days after New Zealand unveiled the 4-tiered Alert Level System, Ardern increased the country to Alert Level 4, which placed the country in near-complete lockdown. At the time, New Zealand had just over 200 confirmed cases of Covid-19.
New Zealand’s Covid-19 containment strategy seemed to work. By June 8, 2020, New Zealand declared itself Covid free, as its last active case resulted in recovery and there had not been a new case of Covid-19 in 17 days. As of that date, there had been 1,154 cases and 22 deaths from Covid-19 in New Zealand.
At the time, New Zealand apparently bucking the China bug was certainly cause for celebration. New Zealand became the envy of the world. Journalists from corporate media outlets and Twitter blue checks—particularly in the United States, but in other countries as well—sung Ardern’s praises as a girl boss lady kween and told their readers this is what pandemic leadership looks like. They yearned for other world leaders, not least the evil orange man, to model their countries’ pandemic policies after New Zealand, or at least South Korea.
While the media continued cheering New Zealand on from oceans away, New Zealand’s era of zero covid was short-lived. By June 22, 2020, nine cases of Covid-19 were reported in New Zealand with each of those cases put in isolation upon entering the country. For a time, New Zealand was able to use isolation to purportedly keep Covid out. However, on Aug. 9, 2020, the country announced four members of an Auckland family had contracted Covid-19, despite no known overseas travel or contact with quarantine facilities. In other words, it seems New Zealand never actually reached Covid zero. Covid-19, known for its ability to infect and spread asymptomatically, did exactly that, and eventually yielded symptomatic cases.
Since then, New Zealand has added another 2,806 cases to its cumulative total and only five more deaths.
I’m not presenting these numbers as a form of schadenfreude. If I was, I’d be no better than the corporate media journalists hunting for unvaccinated Trump supporters to shame while they’re on their deathbed. Nor does it give me any source of joy to admit that Covid-19 has moved from a pandemic to an endemic.
The numbers show that New Zealand has weathered the disease aspect of the pandemic very well, which is why Ardern and her Labour Party won by a considerable margin in the October 2020 general election. But, as neighboring Australians are learning all too well, the pandemic goes well beyond the virus. After Covid-19 resurfaced in New Zealand, Ardern and her government continued doing what they could to prima facie return to Covid zero with occasional blips of success. All the while, the National State of Emergency declared back in March 2020 meant New Zealand continued to fluctuate between different levels of lockdown.
The latest round of strict lockdowns have essentially remained in place since Aug. 17, when the country moved from Alert Level 1 to Alert Level 4 overnight. Despite going back into harsh lockdowns, cases continued to spike. Alert Level 4 was dropped Aug. 31, but the country has since oscillated between alert levels two and three.
Now, even New Zealanders, who have been generously compliant to their government’s wishes and respectful of its mandates, have reached their breaking point. On Saturday, thousands of Kiwis broke Ardern’s stay-at-home order and protested the government’s Covid-19 containment strategy. The demonstration was New Zealand’s largest anti-lockdown demonstration since the pandemic began, which makes Ardern’s Monday announcement all the more interesting. It wasn’t a new scientific study, revelation, or innovative therapeutic that changed Ardern’s mind about lockdowns.
Nor was it the proliferation of the Covid-19 vaccine. Because New Zealand’s level of Covid-19 infection has been (and remains) low, the government did not start diligently pushing the vaccine until last month. Right now, just over 40% of the country has received two doses of Covid-19 vaccines, and to completely buck Covid-19 pandemic controls, Ardern’s government says that number must go way up.
Rather, it was a show of will and force by some fed-up Kiwis that finally bent Ardern’s ear. It is power, not science, that our Covid rulers respond to.
The pandemic situation in New Zealand is clearly different than in the United States. The media’s use of New Zealand as a model for the United States’ Covid-19 policy early on was ridiculous then as it is now. But, perhaps Ardern was willing to abandon Covid zero more readily because of New Zealand’s parliamentary system. One of the advantages of the parliamentary system is that it makes politicians more keen to respond to public demonstrations in times of crisis. I’m not suggesting the U.S. should consider scrapping the Constitution and adopt a parliamentary system, but the U.S. has had its fair share of anti-lockdown protests in various states with little such effect. Because Ardern could face an ousting at anytime (although that remains highly unlikely right now), she’s constantly concerned about maintaining her position. In the U.S., where if you elect a septuagenarian with failing mental faculties, voters have to wait a full four years to vote him out, or rely on elected representatives to find a clear and extreme reason to impeach and remove them from office.
Neither New Zealand’s Covid-19 policies nor its parliamentary system should serve as a model for the United States. However, what has happened as of late in New Zealand is a lesson for conservatives and right-populists hoping to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror. The pandemic will never be over until we force our leaders to admit it is.