LLike most Brits in the past year, I have spent more time than I would like to admit on social media. But amid the quiet festive lock down celebrations, I also saw photos of crowded house parties, family barbecues, and road trips to singles and beaches. My social feeds have been divided into alternate realities. Because although I am a British citizen living in Oxford, I am also a resident of New Zealand, where things couldn’t be more different.
As a resident of two countries, with friends and family in each, I am used to witnessing political events and developments in both places at the same time. Typically, this is a rewarding experience as new ideas and cultural differences pollinate my brain and expand the way I see the world. But 2020 has been an exercise in frustration. The torture of seeing how one country has coped so well with the Covid pandemic, while living in another that has spoiled it so badly, has been one of the defining characteristics of my senior year.
By now, everyone knows the New Zealand success story. The difference in approach was evident even at the beginning of the crisis. In announcing a shutdown on March 23, Jacinda Ardern took a firm line and told the country that the worst-case scenario of thousands of deaths was “simply intolerable” and that her government “will not take that risk.” It was a stark contrast to Boris Johnson, who, in a televised speech recorded 10 days earlier, had announced that “many more families are going to lose their loved ones before their time.”
Both prime ministers kept their word. Despite the virus entering local transmission in New Zealand, the Ardern government’s swift actions to close the borders meant that only 25 people have died of Covid-19 to date. Compare that to Britain, where hospital admissions are now higher than at the peak of the first wave, and the death count is rising again. An eradication strategy has never been mentioned and the death toll, over 75,000 so far, is inexcusable.
And yet the excuses are what we British do. Every time I make the comparison, it is as if I am doing everything I can to undermine the myth of British exceptionalism. The answer is: New Zealand only did it because it is remote, it is small, it is empty. But it is far from the only country that has managed to keep the virus at bay. Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand, all countries with larger and denser populations, have also suppressed it.
The subtext is Great Britain I could not they have avoided this situation. Even some of those who are often critical of the conservatives’ handling of the pandemic are strangely quiet on this point. The government is doing the best it can. But for me, living between the two countries, I know that the best of them is not good enough, that it is not even Okay. While Brits can hardly believe that people go to concerts in Auckland, I wake up to their Instagram stories. And for every one of Johnson’s press conferences in which he fails to effectively communicate anything between his nationalist bombast and Churchill’s twists of expression, there are many more in which Ardern confidently and clearly unravels the state of the nation.
When Johnson doubted whether to keep schools open, Britain felt sadder than ever. With a third orderly shutdown, we’re barely better now than we were in March. And winter has made things even more difficult. It feels especially irritating to queue outside a supermarket in freezing temperatures, or to go for a run in the rain because the gyms have been closed once again. At this stage, I would give anything to have a healthy slice of normal Wellington, good morning or not.
It is clear to me that these alternate realities are not just foolish luck or geographic good fortune. They are the result of different political choices. The virus reached the shores of Kiwi in exactly the same way as it did around the world. And it continues to do so on a regular basis with returning New Zealanders, headed straight for isolation. Six cases of the new highly infectious variants have already been detected in isolation facilities managed on arrival from the UK and South Africa.
The crucial difference is that, unlike Britain, nothing is left to chance. Ardern drew a red line. His government was resolved. By “go hard, go early”, the life of New Zealanders was paramount.
Everyone in the world has been reminded of the power of the state to reshape our lives. For us Brits, that power has been the regional tier system, closing shops and pubs, paying or not paying salaries under the licensing scheme, deciding whether they can cut their hair. But in New Zealand, the good use of political power has created a whole alternate reality: the old normalcy that we long for in Britain. The lesson is not that New Zealand is a lucky country, but that, with good governance, nations create their own luck.
• Todd Atticus is an artist and designer living in Oxford, England. He worked in the 2020 New Zealand Labor Party election campaign.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism