New Zealand

How New Zealand's zero Covid strategy fell apart

2 April 2022

6:00 PM

2 April 2022

6:00 PM

The biggest thing in the political rock world returns to the international stage this spring with a one-off appearance at Harvard University on 26 May. The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, is booked to be the venerable institution’s main speaking act at its 371stCommencement, welcoming the classes of 2022 and 2021. Harvard lauds Ardern as ‘one of the most respected leaders in the world’. But trying telling that to fed-up Kiwis.

Ardern herself has been off the international speaking circuit ever since she declared her country a no-go zone in response to the pandemic, effectively shutting the nation of five million off from all physical contact with the outside world. Out of sight, maybe, but certainly not out of mind since that snap closure of March 2020. The tsunami of laudatory notices she has received overseas continues apace.

According to Harvard’s publicity statement, the past couple of years have highlighted Ardern’s ‘decisive management’ of the pandemic. If that’s really the case, if this star of the South Seas has ‘modelled compassionate leadership that has brought together empathy and science-based solutions’ to steer her country ‘clear of the pandemic’s worst consequences’, then this latest stateside gig probably can’t happen soon enough for the 41-year-old leader and her Ivy League cheerleaders.

Commencement addresses at Harvard by sitting world leaders are old hat. There have been 16 of them to date. Nor is the hallowed institution of higher learning averse to using actual singers to fire up their young rubes, either, including a bit of unforgettable fire from that fellow in the sunglasses from U2.

Rarely, however, has a keynote guest had less to speak or sing about than Ardern, who is currently facing the battle of her political life dealing with the pandemic’s worst tidings.

When the Harvard commencement date was first announced, New Zealand’s death toll from Covid stood at just 53. That tally has since increased nearly sixfold, mostly in the last few weeks or so. Many of the other Covid indicators are now looking positively bleak too.


In New Zealand, way more people are being hospitalised each day than at any other time during the pandemic. Case numbers have been on a similar upward trend. There’s no reason to suppose that the eventual fatalities will be significantly better than any comparable jurisdiction with good vaccine coverage — around 79 per cent of Kiwis have received at least two doses — and possibly rather worse given that the country comes to this latest phase of the pandemic with little natural immunity to speak of from previous infections.

Pent-up anger from the pandemic is also spilling out on the streets of New Zealand, where widespread Covid-related protests are the order of the day. In recent weeks, a riot broke out in the political capital Wellington as police and anti-mandate demonstrators fought pitched battles in the parliamentary grounds below Ardern’s ninth floor beehive office.

Ardern’s political poll numbers also make miserable reading for the PM. From leading her Labour party to an electoral win at the last election with an outright majority of seats — a unique achievement in the country’s mixed member proportional representation parliamentary system — public opinion surveys now suggest she may struggle to muster a coalition government of any sort at next year’s election.

How different it all looked during the first 18 months or so of the plague. While other nations struggled  to get on top of the pestilence, New Zealand’s remote location and low population density seemed to offer a dazzling opportunity for keeping the waves of morbidity at bay: simply freeze all contact with the outside world until further notice, go on living as normal, and Covid be blowed.

As Europe groaned and North America tottered, outsiders marvelled at clips of carefree Kiwis playing on golden beaches washed by azure seas and the soothing words of Ardern’s coterie of scientific advisors and media fans of the ‘zero-Covid strategy’. With a possible nod to the acclaimed E.J. Thribb, one of the country’s leading poets even ventured a memorable ode to mark the world-beating moment and the emergence of our ‘stately queen’.

Some of us were not entirely convinced. As a short-term idea, fashioning a Fortress New Zealand had obvious appeal, but as a long-term arrangement it always felt a little bananas. Hiding under the bed while an intruder can be heard prowling outside your window is all well and good, but as a domestic arrangement sustained over many months it has drawbacks.

When and how was it supposed to end? Were Ardern and what she ceaselessly hailed as her obedient ‘team of five million’ just expected to remain under the bed indefinitely rather than facing up to the inevitable reality of endemicity that most other nations had already accepted as their eventual lot?

And what about the other ‘team’ of New Zealanders, the many thousands of expatriate Kiwis stranded abroad? Would they simply stay put forever? Could New Zealand, which makes much of itself as a stickler for international protocols, refuse to repatriate its own while at the same time outsourcing their welfare needs — including Covid-related care — to various host governments?

Well, yes, it jolly well could, according to the undeniably charming young leader, who as recently as last September insisted that her ‘elimination’ approach pointed the way to a New Jerusalem. And perhaps she might still have done so had the prowler outside the bedroom window not tapped on the front door, introduced himself as Omicron and made for the master bedroom to fluff the pillows.

This is not the stuff of rock and roll dreams. Hardly enough in 2022 for a halfway triumphant performance by Jacinda and The Eliminators. Ardern, a onetime DJ before going on to work for a spell as an advisor for Tony Blair, will be reaching deep into her back catalogue of hits if she wants to impress the kids at Harvard. Perhaps the assembled freshers could help by singing a doleful verse or two by The Smiths for the benefit of the lady on stage and the rest of us back home. Heaven knows we’re miserable now.

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