New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said her country has “done what few countries have been able to do” and contained the community spread of Covid-19 and can start easing its lockdown measures. As the BBC’s Shaimaa Khalil writes, the country’s success – and Ardern’s leadership – have won it global attention.
On 13 March, New Zealand was about to mark the first anniversary of the Christchurch shooting with a national memorial event.
I asked Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern then if she was concerned about hosting such a large gathering, just after the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared a pandemic. She said she wasn’t, based on the existing scientific advice.
Things changed overnight. Not only was the event cancelled, the prime minister announced that almost everyone coming into New Zealand would have to self-isolate for 14 days.
It was among the earliest and toughest self-isolation measures in the world, which, a week later, would lead to a complete lockdown.
“We’re going hard and we’re going early,” Ms Ardern told the public. “We only have 102 cases, but so did Italy once.”
During the next two weeks of lockdown, New Zealand saw a steady decline in the number of new cases. To date, it has had 12 deaths, and has confirmed that on average each infected person is passing the virus to fewer than one other person.
The country is now preparing to move out of its most severe level of lockdown on 28 April.
And while there has been some criticism over how the government has reacted, others say New Zealand has offered a model response of empathy, clarity and trust in science.
Health before the economy
New Zealand is of course a small nation – its population is smaller than New York City’s – and it is remote with easily sealable borders, which all played in its favour when the virus broke out.
But its relative success – it has among the lowest cases per capita in the world – has mainly been attributed to the clarity of the message coming from the government.
Unlike the countries that declared “war on Covid-19”, the government’s message was that of a country coming together. It urged people to “Unite Against Covid-19”. Ms Ardern has repeatedly called the country “our team of five million”.
“Jacinda [Ardern] is a brilliant communicator and an empathetic leader,” says Prof Michael Baker from Otago University’s Public Health Department, who helped advise the government on its response. “But what she’s said also made sense and I think people really trusted that. There’s been a high level of compliance.”
For a pandemic response to be effective, he says, “science and leadership have to go together”.
In New Zealand, that scientific insight has come through Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, who has stood alongside Ms Ardern at her daily press conferences.
“From the outset he has carefully and calmly communicated many complex health issues around Covid-19 paving the way for government decisions,” says Sarah Robson, a senior journalist at Radio New Zealand.
“Because he had clearly communicated the trajectory we were on in terms of the increase in the number of cases, when Jacinda Ardern said we were going into lockdown, people understood why.”
Shaun Hendy, professor at the Faculty of Science at Auckland University, says this strong working relationship with the science community has put New Zealand at an advantage compared with countries which “have had difficult relationships with their science community in recent times”.
“This seems to have led to a much less functional science advice system, where scientists feel they have little influence and are likely to be ignored,” Prof Hendy says.
‘Be strong, be kind’
But similar to the time of the mass shootings in Christchurch, it’s her leadership style that’s caught particular global attention.
While telling the public in detail the rules of the lockdown and the trajectory of the new cases, Ms Ardern has also focused on kindness.
She has ended almost all her public appearances with the same message: “Be Strong. Be Kind”.
After she announced the lockdown, the prime minister went on to Facebook Live, saying she wanted to “check in with everyone” as they prepared to hunker down.
She’s regularly been on Facebook, casually dressed, always smiling and sharing slivers of her personal life, but never underplaying the seriousness of the situation while answering people’s questions.
The overwhelming response in New Zealand has been public praise for her manner and steadfastness.
“Every decision is made with the disclaimer that she knows how difficult it’s going to be for people,” Thomas Weston, an Auckland-based insurance administrator, told the BBC.
“It’s delivered with kindness but also very decisive. It’s clear what we can and can’t do.”
In that vein, the prime minister recently announced she, ministers in her cabinet and public service chief executives would take a 20% pay cut for the next six months, to recognise the impact on other New Zealanders.
Dr Siouxie Wiles, Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, has also been advising the government, as well as regularly updating the New Zealand public on the latest virus research.
A lack of transparency?
Key to New Zealand’s response to Covid-19, Dr Wiles argues, was that the prime minister and government visibly put people’s health first, whereas other countries which delayed imposed social distancing measures for fear of the economic damage are now having a much harder time controlling the virus.
“Surely, a dead or a dying population is bad for the economy,” she says.
Despite wide praise for the government’s response, some journalists have criticised its daily Covid-19 briefings for not allowing enough time to ask questions, seek additional clarity on information or challenge the statements made.
Michael Morrah is an investigative journalist for the television news outlet, Newshub. He says some of the questions he’s emailed to health ministry’s communications team have gone unanswered while others took days to get a response.
“Getting clear, timely answers to questions has frequently been an arduous and deeply frustrating process,” he says. He adds that government reassurances over the availability of PPE contradicts evidence he has heard from frontline healthcare workers.
There has also been criticism over the relative lack of clarity around some of the big virus clusters which make up the bulk of New Zealand’s cases, especially where the origin of cases it not clear.
Observers have said these significant clusters – with more than 230 unknown-origin cases – show a weak contact-tracing system, which many argue is essential for containing the virus.
Prof Hendy says any lack of transparency seemed to stem from the health system being under-prepared for dealing with information flows in a nationwide emergency, rather than from any intent to disguise shortcomings.
“New Zealand is a spread country with a low population density and a decentralised healthcare system. It’s a challenge for contact tracing,” he says.
The government is now putting an extra $55m into its contact tracing operation, and it hopes it will soon be able to trace 5,000 contacts a day. It also has only eight cases now with no proven connection to other cases.
New Zealanders will begin moving out of the most severe lockdown level next Tuesday, with a partial reopening of schools and businesses and a slight easing of movement, but the prime minister has said the sacrifices made so far cannot be wasted by rushing to open up the economy too soon.
Professor Baker says the ultimate aim is to eradicate Covid-19 not just suppress it. China is the only other country working to that ambition.
“The reason we know it works is because China has done it,” Professor Baker adds. “1.4 billion people haven’t got the virus. They have been protected from it.
“If China can protect a population of that scale, surely New Zealand can protect five million people.”
Ms Ardern said on Monday that she had taken a phone call about each one of the 12 New Zealanders who have died, saying: “We may be among the few countries where that’s still able to happen.”
She gives the credit for the country’s success to medical staff and the way the public have supported the rules of the lockdown, telling them: “New Zealanders have proven themselves, and they’ve done so in the most incredible way.”