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  • Gaurav Bagur

New Zealand’s Successful Pandemic Response Sees Ardern Re-elected

Under the leadership of incumbent Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Labour Party made history on October 17th, 2020, for a second election in a row. Winning 65 out of 120 seats in Parliament, Labour will form New Zealand’s first single-party majority government since the country switched to its current voting system of mixed-member proportional representation in 1996. Ardern, who was 37 at the time, became the youngest female head of government in 2017 when she was elected Prime Minister of a minority coalition government between centre-left Labour and the populist party New Zealand First.

Ardern’s first term in office saw turbulence and tragedy, such as the mass shootings at Christchurch mosques and the Whakaari / White Island volcano eruption, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the chaos, she stuck to her values, succinctly expressed by her motto: “be strong, be kind”.

Ardern won her initial campaign with promises to address issues such as child poverty, economic inequality, and the scarcity of affordable housing. But her critics argue that her success with addressing these material needs has been mixed, and she has even abandoned her flagship KiwiBuild affordable housing policy. The moderating influence of centrist voters on Labour’s 2020 campaign may also have pushed Ardern away from lofty ideological goals. For example, during her first term, she ran on introducing a comprehensive wealth tax and a capital gains tax. On the other hand, in 2020, her promise of introducing a new top tax bracket is relatively modest.

Ultimately, however, Ardern’s re-election strategy paid off masterfully. Her skillful framing of the “COVID election” capitalized on her incumbency advantage. Left implicit was the inverse criticism of her key opponents, the New Zealand National Party, which has gone through three party leaders this year. This stands in stark contrast to the sky-high popularity that Ardern’s government enjoyed during the pandemic.

In fact, New Zealand’s approach has been widely praised as one of the most competent and proactive in the world. The Ministry of Health set up an incident management team on January 24th, even before the WHO declared an international emergency. Just over a week later, the New Zealand government barred entry for foreign visitors coming from China. Despite this, the country saw its first case on February 28th. As COVID began to spread across the world, New Zealand health authorities worked within the framework of their Influenza Pandemic Plan to employ mitigation efforts, such as directing arrivals to self-isolate.

Meanwhile, the government worked to build support for more ambitious measures. They gradually shifted strategies from mitigation (interventions that escalate in response to growing case numbers) to elimination: the proactive enforcement of aggressive action in anticipation of widespread community transmission. On March 14th, Ardern announced that all foreign arrivals would have to quarantine; on the 19th, a travel ban was imposed, closing borders to all but citizens and residents. Indoor gatherings were also restricted.

Ardern announced a four-tier alert system on March 21st, and declared that New Zealand was on Level 2, “Reduce”. Just four days later, the country went into Level 4, “Lockdown”. Effective immediately, schools were closed; non-essential businesses, such as restaurants and bars, were given 48 hours to close down; essential services, like supermarkets and health services, would remain open. All gatherings would be cancelled, with Kiwis instructed to stay at home.

The lockdown would prove to last a month. Over this time, Ardern’s style of compassionate and empathetic governance emerged consistently. Addressing her constituents from her home through Facebook livestreams, she constantly stressed that the country was a “team of 5 million”. Her government’s response was labelled under the slogan “Unite against COVID-19”, a stark contrast from the wartime metaphor used by other world leaders such as Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Emmanuel Macron. Ardern announced a 20 percent pay cut for all government ministers and public sector executives in solidarity with workers who had lost their livelihoods, and she beseeched landlords to be considerate of tenants and not raise rent en masse at the end of the emergency rent freeze. On April 27th, New Zealand moved down to Alert Level 3, “Restrict”.

The next few months in New Zealand proceeded with far less chaos than the rest of the Anglosphere. In neighbouring Australia, whose strategy had seen similar levels of success in, lax enforcement of quarantine rules was linked to a spike in community spread in early August. This served as a cautionary tale to Kiwis that, as Ardern put it, their country was “a safe haven in a dangerous world” — yet one that could still be vulnerable, should they become complacent. However, past emergence from lockdown, the daily case count remained in the single digits, bar a few days.

Ardern’s government not only focused on controlling the spread, but kept an eye on managing economic recovery throughout the pandemic. Fiscal policy measures targeted workers through wage subsidies, income relief for those who lost their jobs, and loans to small businesses. To offset COVID-induced costs in the educational sector, students at universities and technical schools were supported with increased funds, while the government invested in educational TV channels to promote remote learning for school-aged children.

In addition, several sectors received financial relief packages, including airlines, sports, and the arts and culture. Media broadcasters received assistance as well, and the government promised large spending to improve healthcare capacity as well as major infrastructure spending.

On the flipside, New Zealand’s strategy was not without missteps. Dr Ayesha Verrall, an infectious disease physician from the University of Otago, published a report in April, finding that government contact tracing systems were inadequate, despite the low case numbers. The report criticised the timeliness of contact tracing: on average, close contacts of COVID-positive patients were notified two days after the case was identified. In addition, public health officials were only able to reach 60% of close contacts.

The Contact Tracing Assurance Committee, an oversight group led by executive and governance expert Sir Brian Roche, was established in response to the Verrall report. In the CTAC’s final report, Roche recommended key improvements, especially reiterating Verrall’s point on timely isolation of close contacts.

The libertarian-oriented opposition party ACT New Zealand also served as a vocal critic of the government implementation of contact tracing. David Seymour, the leader of the party, criticised the government approach for failing to coordinate with the private sector. In a press release, he claimed that ACT had called for a Bluetooth-powered contact tracing app, but their recommendations went unheard until August.

Even when the government’s official NZ COVID Tracer app was finally released, many users reported widespread technical issues on launch. It created confusion among businesses and users, who described it as “clunky” and “awkward”.

ACT NZ cited the CovidCard as an example of an alternative contact tracing measure that the government should have supported. Invented by tech entrepreneur Sam Morgan, the CovidCard was a low-energy and low-cost dedicated device that would have alleviated the problems with contact tracing. However, Morgan ultimately cancelled the project, citing resistance from public health officials.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Health did not take strong stances on mask-wearing in New Zealand until late in the game. While this was consistent with WHO guidelines during the early stages of the pandemic, public health experts disagreed and urged the government to implement mask mandates.

The resignation of Health Minister David Clark in July also remained a smear on the government’s record. Clark had previously been criticized by the media for repeated failures to comply with the stay-at-home order, which led to Ardern demoting him. The last straw came with mistakes related to the enforcement of border quarantine. Clark laid the blame for these incidents on the Director-General of Health, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, a popular and well-liked civil servant. This was widely perceived as an inability to take responsibility on the minister’s part, and the public reacted accordingly.

On the whole, however, New Zealand has had one of the most successful pandemic responses in the world. By stamping out community spread, they minimised the devastating economic and social costs of protracted lockdowns seen in other parts of the world. Although being an island nation made border control easier, they managed to implement this key element of their strategy with relative success. This gave the island country a path to exit lockdown and return to a semblance of normalcy.

The standout elements of New Zealand’s strategy, though, were the least tangible ones. Jacinda Ardern’s competent and unifying approach to governance ensured that social cohesion persisted, despite the difficulties of lockdown. The consistent and clear messaging from the government led to high confidence and adherence of strict guidelines. Ardern has provided the world with an exemplary and unique blueprint for politics, proving her point that leaders can be strong and kind.


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