Tin its week, New Zealand’s enclosed cities woke up to a brave new world of lifted restrictions: picnic in state sanction in parks, the prospect of reopening schools, a chance to reunite with friends and family. However, infusing the visions of grassy carpets and beer by the beach is a strong dose of Covid anxiety. Cases continue to circulate in society and the country’s long-standing commitment to elimination is rejected.
As New Zealand steps into the unknown with its Covid approach, so does its Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. After bringing the country through the pandemic largely unharmed so far, she was richly rewarded with political popularity and confidence. Now the Prime Minister is faced with the difficult task of guiding it through a new era of Covid repression – and this may be the most significant political challenge she has faced yet.
“There are ongoing restrictions, more cases, more deaths – and that’s something New Zealand has not really seen yet,” said Clint Smith, a political communications officer and former communications strategist for Ardern.
“This is where it almost becomes‘ real ’for the New Zealanders. The elimination strategy has meant that we have not faced the cases and the deaths and the limitations of our daily lives in the way that people abroad have for the last year and a half. Keeping our collective heads up and focusing on the solutions becomes a huge challenge. ”
‘You do not want to see how a sausage is made’
One of the great virtues of New Zealand’s Covid-zero strategy was its clarity and simplicity. On posters and in press conferences, it could be distilled in a few words: Stay at home. Remove the virus. Save lives. Phasing out means New Zealand steps out of black and white and into the endless grays of pandemic control, an area of marginal calls and no-win decisions.
The country must transition from a single, front-loaded trade-off — hard lockdowns and closed borders, exchanged for a co -id-free life — to thousands of individuals, each with its own bitter costs. Exactly how many deaths are too many? Do the benefits of opening schools outweigh the risk of Covid infections among unvaccinated children? Are cafes, picnics and shopping malls a worthy prey to higher death rates among indigenous peoples?
These are the decisions that governments are constantly making, says political analyst Dr Lara Greaves, but Covid-19 is forcing them to make calls in a particularly brutal and public way.
“Many of the decisions in politics and governance are about balancing things like economics and economics with the cost of human life or the cost of a good year with a human life,” Greaves says.
“People always say, ‘you do not want to see how a sausage is made,’ and that’s the way it is – it’s the things behind the scenes that happen in government, the trade – offs that we do not make. [usually] see as the general public. ”
Often these marginal trade-offs are ugly, and the Ardennes government has not been forced to do this to many of them before.
Fracturing a single major decision into thousands of smaller ones also makes the strategy harder to communicate and easier to quarrel over. Elimination was so popular with voters that all major political parties backed it.
But over the past two weeks, the National, Act and Green parties have all peeled off from the government, loudly condemning the new approach or offering their own plans. Ardern and her ministers continue to question whether elimination is over at all – an inhibition and hawing that Smith says could prevent them from communicating a clear new vision for New Zealand’s way forward.
In a way, Ardern could now be a victim of its own success, says Ben Thomas, communications consultant and former employee of the national government. The government’s elimination campaign was so convincing and its results so strong that it won enormous support – voting over 80% through most of the pandemic.
“Part of the Prime Minister’s problem is that she did such a good job of bringing New Zealanders together for this cause, convincing them – correctly – that elimination was an achievable goal and creating a real fear of the virus. It is a very difficult thing to relax from, ”says Thomas.
Smith says: “Elimination was something that New Zealanders could be proud of, it brought us together and became a common goal.” And the challenge now is to find – what is the common goal under a repression strategy? Probably vaccination rates – but to give us the same pride we had last year in our Covid response again, that’s the big challenge Jacinda and her team face now. ”
The most likely candidate for the new vision is vaccination, but it’s harder to catch the urgency with that message, while at the same time arguing that the country is still eliminating the virus.
New Zealand’s spread of vaccines started slowly. Their problem was not unique – a number of countries that were successful with the initial reactions to Covid, including Australia and Japan, had similar delays in securing vaccine supplies. In April, Ardern said New Zealand’s delivery schedule was slower than countries because the population “did not die while they waited”.
Uptake since large doses began to arrive has been strong, and at one point New Zealand administered several daily doses per day. 1,000 people than any other country. This weekend, 67% of the total population and 79% of the eligible (12+) population had at least one dose. 53% of those eligible are fully immunized or 45% of the entire population. It is a few percentage points behind Australia, far behind the UK, and is likely to overtake the US in the coming weeks. The government aims to vaccinate anyone willing to take at least one dose before the end of the year – but even if successful, it could still leave months with the Covid purgatory, where large chunks of the population remain unprotected.
‘Ardern needs a new vision’
If New Zealanders are unhappy with the new approach, it is not yet clear how much it will hurt Labor’s leadership in the polls. In the 2020 election, Labor won enough seats to govern alone — a rare result in New Zealand’s typically coalition-based political system and a narrow adherence to the Covid response.
“Arden’s huge victory last year was entirely the result of the pandemic and the Covid reaction,” says Thomas. “First and foremost because of the excellent health results – very low deaths in Covid. The social outcomes – are largely untouched by lockdowns most of the year, unlike many of our peer countries. But the third thing was the really strong economic rebound … which caused older voters or traditionally conservative voters to swing over to the government. ”
If these gains begin to dissolve, so could part of the political support.
But if Ardern stumbles into the next stages of the pandemic, the opposition may be too fragmented and dysfunctional to exploit it. While the Labor vote has already fallen from historic heights in the last election, the Labor-Greens bloc has retained a majority, and in the preferred prime ministers ‘efforts, Ardern is light years ahead of his opposition: 44% poll against national leader Judith Collins’ 5 %.
“The popularity of the work had already declined before the recent outbreak, and the National Party did not succeed spectacularly in exploiting it,” says Thomas. “The laws of political gravity say that National should benefit from [a Labour drop]. If they cannot capitalize under these circumstances, there is something very wrong with the leadership and with the party. ”
And while New Zealand is now entering a tougher phase of the pandemic than it has been through before, Ardern tends to be the best in a crisis – from the terrorist attacks in Christchurch on March 15, 2019 to the volcanic eruption in Whakaari to the early days of the pandemic.
“We’ve seen Ardern give a vision in times of crisis over and over again,” Smith says. “It simply came to our notice then. And she is now able to come up with a new vision. ”