Tthis week, New Zealand’s locked cities awoke to a new world of lifted restrictions: state-sanctioned picnics in parks, the prospect of reopening schools, a chance to reunite with friends and the family. Infusing the visions of grass-stained blankets and beers by the beach, however, is a heavy dose of Covid anxiety. Cases continue to circulate in the community and the country’s long-standing commitment to elimination is waning.
As New Zealand steps into the unknown with its Covid approach, its Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is doing the same. Having brought the country through the pandemic largely unscathed so far, she has been richly rewarded with political popularity and confidence. Now the Prime Minister faces the difficult task of guiding him through a new era of Covid suppression – and this could be the most significant political challenge she has faced to date.
“There are going to be ongoing restrictions, more cases, more deaths – and that’s something New Zealand hasn’t really seen yet,” says Clint Smith, a political communications officer and former strategist in communication for Ardern.
“This is where it becomes almost ‘real’ for New Zealanders. The elimination strategy has meant that we haven’t faced the cases, deaths and restrictions in our daily lives like people overseas have for the past year and a half. Keeping your head up and focusing on solutions is going to be a huge challenge. “
“You don’t 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 summed up in a few words: stay home. Eliminate the virus. Save lives. Phasing out means New Zealand is stepping out of black and white and into the endless gray of pandemic management, an area of fringe appeals and dead end decisions.
The country must move from one and only compromise – tough closures and closed borders traded for a life without Covid – to thousands of individuals, each with their own bitter costs. Precisely how many deaths are too many? Do the benefits of opening schools outweigh the risks of Covid infections in unvaccinated children? Are cafes, picnics and malls a valid trade-off for a higher death toll among indigenous peoples?
These are the decisions governments constantly make, explains political scientist Dr Lara Greaves, but Covid-19 is forcing them to make calls in particularly brutal and public ways.
“A lot of policy and governance decisions are about balancing things like finances and the economy with the cost of human living, or the cost of a good year of human living,” Greaves said.
“People always say, ‘you don’t want to see how a sausage is made’, and it’s kind of in that sense – it’s what happens behind the scenes of government, these compromises that we don’t make. [usually] see as the general public.
Often these marginal compromises are ugly, and Ardern’s government has not been forced to do so before.
Splitting a single large decision into thousands of smaller ones also makes the strategy harder to communicate and easier to discuss. The elimination was so popular with voters that all major political parties supported it.
But over the past two weeks, the National, Act and Green parties have all pulled away from the government, vocally denouncing the new approach or proposing new plans. Ardern and his ministers continue to doubt the end of the elimination – a hem and haling that Smith says could prevent them from communicating a new, clear vision of the way forward for New Zealand.
In a sense, Ardern could now be a victim of its own success, says Ben Thomas, communications consultant and former member of the national government. The government’s elimination campaign was so compelling and its results so strong that it won huge support – polls over 80% during most of the pandemic.
“Part of the Prime Minister’s problem is that she has been so successful in rallying New Zealanders to this cause, convincing them – and rightly so – that elimination was an achievable goal and instilling real fear of the virus. . It’s a very difficult thing to decompress, ”says Thomas.
Smith says: “Elimination was something 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 in a removal strategy? Likely vaccination rates – but giving us that same pride we had last year in our response to Covid is again the big challenge Jacinda and her team now face. “
The most likely candidate for this new vision is vaccination, but it’s harder to grasp the urgency of this message while simultaneously arguing that the country is still in the process of eliminating the virus.
The deployment of the vaccine in New Zealand got off to a slow start. Their problem was not unique – a number of countries that were successful in early responses to Covid, including Australia and Japan, experienced similar delays in securing vaccine supplies. In April, Ardern said New Zealand’s delivery schedule was slower than countries because its population “is not dying while waiting.”
The absorption since large shipments of doses began to arrive has been strong, and at one point New Zealand was administering more daily doses per 1,000 people than any other country. This weekend, 67% of the total population and 79% of the eligible population (12+) received at least one dose. 53% of eligible people are fully immunized, or 45% of the total population. It’s a few percentage points behind Australia, far behind the UK, and will likely overtake the US in the coming weeks. The government aims to vaccinate anyone who wants it with at least one dose by the end of the year – but even if it is successful, that could still leave months of Covid purgatory ahead, where much of the population remains unprotected.
“Ardern needs a new vision”
While New Zealanders are not happy with the new approach, it is not yet clear how much it will hurt Labor leadership in the polls. In the 2020 election, Labor won enough seats to rule on their own – a rare achievement in the uniquely New Zealand coalition-based political system, and a resounding endorsement of Covid’s response.
“Ardern’s gigantic victory last year was entirely the result of the pandemic and the Covid response,” Thomas said. “First of all because of the exceptional health results – very few deaths from Covid. Social outcomes – largely untouched by blockages for most of the year, unlike many of our peer countries. But the third thing was the really strong economic rebound… which tipped older voters or traditionally conservative voters into government. “
If those gains start to dissolve, some of that political support might as well.
But if Ardern stumbles into the next stages of the pandemic, the opposition may be too fragmented and dysfunctional to take advantage. While Labor polls have already fallen from historic highs in the last election, the Labor-Greens bloc has maintained a majority, and in the prime minister’s favorite issues, Ardern is light years away from his opposition: poll to 44%, against the national leader 5% of Judith Collins.
“The popularity of the Labor Party had already plummeted before the last outbreak, and the National Party failed to capitalize on it in any spectacular way,” Thomas said. “The laws of political gravity say that National should benefit from [a Labour drop]. If they can’t capitalize on these circumstances, there is something really wrong with the leadership and with the party.
And while New Zealand is now entering a more difficult phase of the pandemic than it has been through before, Ardern tends to be at its best in a crisis – from the terrorist attacks of March 15, 2019 in Christchurch to the Whakaari volcanic eruption, in the early days of the pandemic.
“We have seen Ardern provide vision in times of crisis over and over again,” says Smith. “This was the defining aspect of his post as Prime Minister. And she is now in the position of having to come up with a new vision.