“Hold us to account. Because one day I want to be able to tell my child that I earned the right to stand here. And only you can tell me when I have done that.” These were words of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s at Waitangi two years before confronting the most challenging situation as a head of state As she declared earlier this week that New Zealand had eradicated COVID-19 with a consistent absence of fresh cases in the country, the entire world along with her countrymen have heaped praises on her inspirational leadership and the way she has led the fight against the virus through stringent and proactive government actions. She surely has deserved the right to stand at the heart of her country as its rightful leader during a time when not all heads of state have found it easy to steer their respective nations out of the crisis.
The country had reported its first ever case on Feb. 28 and within a month we witnessed the government acting on its ‘Go hard go early’ policy and enforcing a strict Level 4 lockdown where the residents were only allowed to be in contact with the ones they live with. Commonly referred to as the ‘Elimination Strategy’, New Zealand’s approach from the very beginning has been different than the orthodox ways of handling a pandemic which focuses on mitigating the threats, delaying the arrival of the virus and flattening the curve to a level where the recovery looks more promising than the rate of infection. The advantage with the all-out approach concerned with the elimination strategy is that it helps in restricting the cases and deaths to as minimum as possible, allowing a government to rebuild its economy once the elimination is complete as mentioned by Michael Baker, professor at the University of Otago’s department of public health in Wellington, who has been advising the New Zealand Government on its response. What a successful elimination strategy requires is adept surveillance and contact tracing which was made easier for the government through its decision of letting people come in contact strictly only with the people they lived with. The sources of contamination were easily detected and subsequently eliminated by quarantining the ones who were affected or were at the risk of being affected. The key to restricting a pandemic in a geographic location is not addressing the registered active cases, but the probable ones out in the open that requires to be detected at the earliest. What New Zealand had in place was a scientific model that enabled the government to restrict community transmission, much to the credit of the Prime Minister and her policymakers.
What we must also keep in mind is that how the government identified ways to implement the best practices of containing the virus as recommended by the World Health Organization that primarily included increasing the rate of testing as much as possible. New Zealand boosted its testing facilities to an extent where it could conduct as many as 8000 tests per day in a population of around 4.3 million people. When it comes to testing the focus has been simultaneously on people with symptoms, tracing of both close contacts and casual contacts with equal vigour. Arrangements were made for the testing of specific communities who are at higher risk of acquiring the virus such as those in aged residential care and health-care workers. Testing samples from sewerage were also considered to monitor control and elimination. Without the strict measures the RO was expected to be around 2.5 (which means one infected person would be able to infect 2.5 other individuals on an average) but quick and decisive action made sure that it was as low as 0.4, a huge positive for the government. As per reports, the country has administered more than 100,000 coronavirus tests—a rate of 2,190 per 100,000 people and has one of the highest testing rates per capita in the world.
Another decisive factor that has led to the success of the country is the border restrictions and regulations it imposed right from the very beginning. New Zealand’s fight against coronavirus started with a major decision to close borders on March 19, banning all inbound travel to the country. Only returning citizens and some essential workers were allowed in, just four days before the Level 4 lockdown that it imposed on the country to restrict rapid contamination at a time when only 100 positive cases had been reported. New Zealand’s border restrictions due to COVID-19 have been considered as one of the strictest ever. Even their relaxation strategy is based on a scientific and more pragmatic approach where there is quarantine-free entry, which will be safest from countries that meet similar elimination targets. This process could begin with a regional approach with Pacific Island nations free of COVID-19, notably Samoa and Tonga. Extension of this very arrangement to various Australian states and other jurisdictions such as Fiji and Taiwan seems to be the most pragmatic way out once they confirm their respective elimination statuses. The Governments of New Zealand and Australia have reportedly been in consultation for building consensus regarding this policy to allow mutual travel of passengers to their respective countries.
New Zealand’s response has been one that has witnessed a perfect blend of science, leadership and effective communication. What has also been extremely important to the success is how the government led by PM Ardern has prioritized the need for unity and non-stigmatization rather than portraying the response as a gruesome battle or war that instills fear and panic among the common masses. The Prime Minister has regularly appeared on Social Media through Facebook live and has greeted her countrymen with a smile while at the same time propagating for the need of precaution and adherence to necessary safety protocols. At a time of such a crisis, language becomes an essential aspect of a government when it comes to building trust with the people. That is what truly lays the path for an integrated strategy after all both the people and the government need to complement each other if one is to expect the results that New Zealand got as a nation.
In this age where we have witnessed rapid spread of misinformation in other countries, the New Zealand government has countered that by channelized communication of crisp and scientific messages that has been well received by the masses. The population never felt that it was being lied to, such was the way in which transparency of decision-making was maintained by the Prime Minister who has always tried to communicate to her people why there is the need for a policy that is about to be implemented, be it a rigid lockdown or a systematic relaxation of physical distancing.
One must admit that when major economies like that of the UK and the U.S. have suffered to deal with the pandemic, New Zealand has shown an exceptional display of inspirational leadership and disciplined public action. Even now as the country takes calculated steps to reopen its economy, New Zealand’s Parliament passed a tax reform package that will see over 3 billion New Zealand dollars ($1.8 billion) refunded to small businesses, the total net value of fiscal measures implemented by the government amidst the crisis amounting up to 23 billion New Zealand dollars, as reported by local media outlets. PM Ardern along with government ministers and public service chief executives have taken a 20 percent pay cut amidst the crisis. Her popularity among her countrymen, astute political leadership and foresightedness in policymaking at the most difficult hour has left the entire world amazed.
Prithwiraj Basu is a final year undergraduate student at Jadavpur University.