In certain quarters, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has acquired a reputation for being the most virtuous leader over Covid. The Atlantic called her the ‘most effective leader on the planet’. The Guardian celebrated Jacinda, among other ‘female-led countries,’ for keeping deaths low and the nation largely free of lockdowns.
Yet now the magic trick is over, and the ‘Zero Covid’ charade is falling apart. Despite a high vaccination rate — 93% of people aged over 12 years — and the arrival of a milder strain, restrictions are only getting harsher. While the world opens up, New Zealand continues to delay the inevitable.
In response to a cluster of omicron cases, new Covid restrictions have been imposed. Hospitality venues and indoor events are now capped at 100 (vaccinated) people, and mask mandates are in force in shops, on public transport and in schools.
Ardern, determined to martyr herself along with the rest of the country, has even cancelled her own wedding.
More alarming is the announcement that household contacts of positive cases will have to isolate for up to 24 days – effectively imprisoning citizens for over three weeks. This long isolation period risks discouraging people from getting tested, undermining the entire policy. That is if you can even access a test among the ongoing shortages.
The new domestic restrictions come as the country’s border controls develop into a full-blown humanitarian tragedy. New Zealand has been closed to most foreigners for almost two years. Citizens must enter a literal lottery for one of a small number of hotel quarantine rooms. Just 12 per cent of those seeking to enter their own country are getting a place.
Then last week, among a rise in cases in hotel quarantine, the government went even further: the lottery was cancelled, and no new rooms were released. The border was entirely shut.
This leaves even more citizens stuck in limbo outside of the country. Many without jobs or permanent accommodation. Separated from children, partners, and parents. Unable to say goodbye to dying loved ones or attend a milestone family event. Some have waited the entire 22 months to return and will be waiting still longer.
How Ardern believes locking her own citizens out of the country squares with her supposedly open-to-the-world, liberal mantra is completely unclear.
In another fateful twist, border closure has even prevented New Zealand hospitals from recruiting nurses and doctors from overseas, reducing the quality of care provided to patients and leaving the country ill-prepared for an inevitable wave of Covid infections. Meanwhile, existing nurses are departing the country due to immigration rules that make them feel ‘unwelcome and in a permanent state of temporariness’.
Ardern announced last October that New Zealand would be moving on from the ‘Zero Covid’ or elimination strategy. That was during Auckland’s ‘snap’ two-week lockdown that ended up lasting 100-plus days — only necessary because government complacency led to a slow vaccination rollout.
After that lockdown, the priority was meant to be to vaccinate the population, put an end to restrictions and begin opening the border by February. Yet the last week has revealed an inability to fulfil those promises. More restrictions are in place and the border will remain shut for even longer. This is a total failure of Ardern’s leadership.
New Zealand sits alongside China, North Korea, and Turkmenistan in trying to continue to prevent Covid from spreading. These are countries that have treated Covid as some sort of battle between good and evil, where even a single infection is perceived to be a moral failure. They have struggled to exit this mindset even as most of the world moves on.
From the moment Covid was but a spark in the eyes of that bat — or a worker at the Wuhan Institute of Virology — it set humanity on an unfortunate path. There has been extraordinary misery and death from the virus, but increasingly in the context of vaccines and treatments, from superfluous government activity.
New Zealand may be a hold out, but the facts of the world point towards Covid turning endemic and people moving on with their lives. The sooner Ardern comes to this realisation the better.
Matthew Lesh is the Head of Public Policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs