TThis week, New Zealand’s blockaded cities woke up to a brave new world of lifted restrictions: picnics in state-approved parks, the prospect of reopening schools, a chance to reunite with friends and family. Yet infusing the visions of grass-stained blankets and beers by the beach is a heavy dose of Covid anxiety. Cases continue to circulate in the community and the country’s long-standing commitment to elimination is being scrapped.
As New Zealand moves into the unknown with its Covid approach, so does its Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Having led the country through the pandemic largely unscathed thus far, she was rewarded with great popularity and political confidence. Now, the prime minister faces the difficult task of guiding her through a new era of Covid suppression, and it could be the most significant political challenge she has faced yet.
“There will be continued restrictions, more cases, more deaths, and that’s something New Zealand hasn’t seen yet,” says Clint Smith, a political communications worker and former communications strategist at Ardern.
“This is where it almost becomes ‘real’ for New Zealanders. The phase-out strategy has meant that we have not dealt with cases, deaths, and restrictions in our daily lives in the way that people abroad have for the past year and a half. Keeping our collective attention high and focused on solutions will be a great 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 at press conferences, it could be summed up in a few words: stay home. Eliminate the virus. Life jacket. Eliminating that means New Zealand goes from black and white to the endless grays of managing a pandemic, a realm of fringe calls and dead-end decisions.
The country must move from one-time, early compensation – severe blockades and closed borders traded for a Covid-free life – to thousands of individual options, each with their own bitter costs. Exactly how many deaths is too many? Do the benefits of opening schools outweigh the risks of Covid infections among unvaccinated children? Are cafes, picnics and shopping malls a worthy exchange for a higher death toll among indigenous people?
These are the decisions that governments constantly make, says political analyst Dr. Lara Greaves, but Covid-19 forces them to make calls in a particularly brutal and public way.
“A lot of policy and governance decisions revolve around balancing things like finance and the economy with the cost of human life or the cost of a good year of human life,” says Greaves.
“People always say, ‘You don’t want to see a sausage being made,’ and this goes something like this: it’s those behind-the-scenes things that are happening in government, those compensations that we don’t do. [usually] see as the general public. “
Often times, those fringe tradeoffs are ugly, and the Ardern government hasn’t been forced to make that many before.
Fracturing a single large decision into thousands of smaller decisions also makes strategy harder to communicate and easier to discuss. The removal was so popular with voters that every major political party backed it.
But over the past two weeks, the National, Act and Green parties have parted ways with the government, openly denouncing the new approach or offering new plans of their own. Ardern and his ministers continue to doubt whether the phase-out is over, something that Smith says could prevent them from communicating a clear new vision for New Zealand’s way forward.
In a sense, Ardern could now be a victim of his own success, says Ben Thomas, a communications consultant and former member of the national government staff. The government’s takedown campaign was so compelling, and its results so strong, that it garnered widespread support: Polls topped 80% for most of the pandemic.
“Part of the prime minister’s problem is that she did a good job of rallying New Zealanders to this cause, convincing them, correctly, that elimination was an achievable goal and instilling a real fear of the virus. It’s a very difficult thing to overcome, ”says Thomas.
“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 during a strategy of repression? Probably the vaccination rates, but to give us the same pride that we had last year in our response to Covid, that is the big challenge facing Jacinda and her team now. “
The most likely candidate for that new vision is vaccination, but it’s harder to grasp the urgency of that message while arguing that the country is still shedding the virus.
The launch of the vaccine in New Zealand got off to a slow start. Their problem was not unique: Several countries that were successful in initial responses 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 that of the countries because its population “did not die while they waited.”
Acceptance since large shipments of doses began arriving has been strong, and at one point, New Zealand was administering more daily doses per 1,000 people than any other country. As of this weekend, 67% of the total population and 79% of the eligible population (12+) have received at least one dose. 53% of those eligible are fully immunized, or 45% of the total population. That’s a couple percentage points behind Australia, far behind the UK, and it will likely overtake the US in the coming weeks. The government aims to vaccinate everyone who wishes with at least one dose by the end of the year, but even if successful, that could still leave months of Covid purgatory ahead, where a large portion of the population remains unprotected.
‘Ardern needs a new vision’
If New Zealanders are unhappy with the new approach, it is still unclear 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 resounding support for Covid’s response.
“Ardern’s gigantic victory last year was entirely the result of the pandemic and the Covid response,” says Thomas. “First of all, due to the excellent health outcomes: very few deaths from Covid. The social results: being largely on the fringes of lockdowns for most of the year, unlike many of our peer countries. But the third thing was the really strong economic rebound … that caused older voters or traditionally conservative voters to go over to government. “
If those gains start to dissolve, so could part of that political support.
But if Ardern stumbles into the next stages of the pandemic, the opposition may be too fragmented and dysfunctional to take advantage of it. While Labor polls have already fallen from the all-time highs of the last elections, the Labor-Green bloc has maintained the majority, and in the bets of preferred prime minister, Ardern is light years away from his opposition: a poll of 44% , in front of the National. 5% from leader Judith Collins.
“The popularity of Labor had already fallen before the last outbreak, and the National Party failed spectacularly to capitalize on that,” says Thomas. “The laws of political gravity say that National should benefit from [a Labour drop]. If they cannot capitalize in these circumstances, there is something very wrong with the leadership and with the party.
And while New Zealand is now entering a tougher stage of the pandemic than it has ever been through before, Ardern tends to be at its best in a crisis, from the Christchurch terror attacks of March 15, 2019 to the volcanic eruption. of Whakaari, until the first days. of the pandemic.
“We’ve seen Ardern provide insight in times of crisis time and time again,” says Smith. “It has been the defining aspect of his first ministry. And now he’s in the position of having to come up with a new vision. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism