OPINION | New Zealand's COVID-19 'success' looks a little different from the inside

New Zealand got a lot of things right, but it’s not the utopia the coronavirus-infected world is searching for.

It's so much easier to heap praise when you consider a country from a great distance

Surfers prepare to enter the water at Sumner Beach as Level 4 COVID-19 restrictions are eased in Christchurch, New Zealand. The country implemented some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world. (Mark Baker/The Associated Press)

This column is an opinion from Kate MacNamara, a New Zealand-based journalist who was formerly based in Calgary.

Brobdingnag is a fictional land in Jonathan Swift's 18th century satirical novel Gulliver's Travels.

When the traveller, Lemuel Gulliver, sees a woman at a distance, he is struck by her great beauty. It is only later, when nearby, that Gulliver discovers how smelly and unattractive Brobdingnagians are, men and women both.

They are a race of giants and so huge they are physically grotesque: a mole "broad as a trencher, and hairs hanging from it thicker than packthreads."

I would never suggest that my fellow New Zealanders, from Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on down, constitute such an unsavoury vision.

But there is something about proximity — living here, writing about the response to the novel coronavirus for which the PM and the country have been richly praised abroad — that makes me think how much easier it is to heap praise when you consider the country at a distance, often a very great one. 

The Atlantic recently proclaimed that Ardern may be the most effective leader on the planet, though the first person it cited was former New Zealand Labour prime minister Helen Clark. Imagine the weight you'd give such praise if it was heaped on Jason Kenney by his old boss Stephen Harper.

Not only is Clark a mentor to Ardern, but she's someone Ardern herself has said she's spoken to for advice in the current crisis. Not that The Atlantic muddied the water with that detail.

In this March 21 photo, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern holds up a card showing a new alert system for COVID-19. The Atlantic recently proclaimed that Ardern may be the most effective leader on the planet. (Nick Perry/The Associated Press)

Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper wrote that New Zealand's current plan to eliminate the virus (for clarity that means keeping it stamped down to a tiny, manageable number, probably not zero) makes it an ideal place to do business in the age of coronavirus. Better than New York and London.

Why not fly over the team, he wondered, settle for a year and resume life with work meetings, schools and cafes as if this global nightmare never happened?

If you're looking longingly out your Scenic Acres window thinking that grass certainly sounds greener, there are some things you should bear in mind.

The first is that New Zealand hasn't yet managed to keep anything stamped out without harsh lockdown.

So for now, none of those things suggested by Kuper are actually possible. Office workers are still working from home, schools reopened last week, but only to the children of essential workers (in the order of one per cent of children attended), and restaurants and cafes were allowed to resume selling takeaway food and drink only. Before that they were closed. 

One of the world's hardest lockdowns

Lockdown here happened so suddenly and absolutely that thousands of bars, restaurants and cafes were left to bin millions of dollars worth of food and drink. It reminded me of Calgary restaurants in 2013 when floodwaters washed through parts of the city.

For close to five weeks, New Zealand went into one of the democratic world's hardest lockdowns.

Houses languished without roofs as all construction ceased; most forms of recreation, including swimming in our still tolerably warm sea, was illegal; and commerce was so bafflingly, absolutely prohibited that even a gardener couldn't walk from her nearby home to my neighbour's empty house to water outside plants. 

Food production continued, medical equipment was made. Only limited food retail continued and nothing but "essentials" could be ordered online. No books. No hardware that wasn't needed for immediate health and safety. You couldn't even buy paint.

In fact, the modest reopenings that were allowed here from April 28 put our now relaxed lockdown rules on a par with what have passed for the deepest lockdown measures in much of the rest of the world.

The deserted beach in Piha, New Zealand, which is normally filled with surfers. For five weeks, most forms of recreation, including swimming, were illegal. (Luke Darby)

It's true, New Zealanders still hope to reap the benefits of "going hard and going early" as our PM put it in mid-March, before lockdown, when the country had only a handful of cases of infection.

If the virus can be held to the current, very low level, then greater reopening of the economy and normalizing of life will be possible. Cabinet is due to make a decision on further loosening next week.

There is also no doubt that, measuring by deaths, New Zealand has done extremely well. The death toll from coronavirus stands at just 20, and none of those who have died here were younger than 60 years.

By comparison, Alberta, with a population of 4.3 million (to New Zealand's 4.9 million) has had slightly more than 100 deaths linked to the virus (the numbers are as of May 5). And, of course, death rates are drastically worse in other parts of the world.

But in many ways, New Zealand isn't like the rest of the world. It is essentially a thinly populated pair of islands, it has little in the way of mass transit, and when the virus first struck, it was still summer (as with flu, seasonality may play a part in the spread of this virus).

A late arrival

The virus was also late to arrive. Our first known case came in from overseas on Feb. 29. Calgary's first confirmed case returned to the city from the cruise ship the Grand Princess on Feb. 21.

The one country we are most like is Australia; and with less draconian limits on civil liberty and commerce, Australia has managed an even lower death rate per capita than New Zealand. Some states have already started to ease those restrictions, and more loosening is anticipated this week.

Not that Whoopi Goldberg and her pals on ABC's The View had anything to say about Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last month when they tackled the subject of Ardern's "strong" and "decisive" leadership. But why spoil a myopic romp across international headlines in search of women leaders who outstripped the men?

What New Zealand, Australia and indeed the United States did recognize early — much earlier than Canada — was the threat posed by Chinese travellers. The virus originated in Wuhan. Of the intelligence sharing group The Five Eyes, the U.K. and Canada were the only two not to respond with border closures to those coming from China, a major source of early infection.

Air New Zealand planes sit idle on the tarmac at Christchurch Airport. What New Zealand, Australia and indeed the United States did recognize early — much earlier than Canada — was the threat posed by Chinese travellers. (Mark Baker/The Associated Press)

Ardern got other big calls on the border right, too. On March 19, she took the then extraordinary step of ordering all travellers entering the country to isolate for 14 days, though enforcement was sometimes lacking.

But in many ways she spent much of March prevaricating. On the 14th, she held up that now ubiquitous graph and announced we would "flatten the curve." Days later, she changed tack, waved a different graph, and explained that we would instead aim for a series of smaller peaks pushed out over time.

Finally, on March 23, Ardern altered course again. Curve flattening and small peaks were out; we were aiming for elimination. Hard lockdown was upon us two days later.

OK, there are a few things I should concede about Jacinda (because most people do call her by her first name). She did tell us all to be kind to each other. She's undoubtedly empathetic. When asked at her daily lockdown press conference about the (high) price of cauliflowers, she seemed to know that the SuperValue in Whanganui had been charging $12.99 a head.

She didn't tell people to eat cabbage (obviously inferior with cheese sauce, though more attractively priced). 

She's fresh faced. She smiles a lot. She's a fairly new mum with a toddler, but she doesn't make a big song and dance about it. 

If the grass is still brown outside that Scenic Acres window, I should tell you that it's lush and green here. My winter peas are just starting to sprout. 

But it's not the utopia the corona-infected world is searching for.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Kate MacNamara

Business Reporter

Kate MacNamara is a New Zealand-based journalist. She was a Calgary-based national business reporter for CBC Radio from 2007 to 2017.


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