Studying abroad in New Zealand this semester was one of the best decisions I could have made for myself. Their response to COVID-19 has made me feel incredibly safe and secure. Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s leadership and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield worked together to keep New Zealand safe and updated. Both leaders are very transparent in their answers at press conferences and are clear in their expectations for the country. The government created a plan, with a lockdown in Level 4, restriction in Level 3, reduction in Level 2, and preparation in Level 1. Street signs, social media, tv ads, and more spread the slogan “Unite against COVID-19” to unify the country toward a common goal. I truly felt that I was working with the country toward the cause of eliminating COVID-19.
Level 4: Early Prevention
Restrictions around COVID-19 from China started on February 3, 2020. Travel from China was banned, and Kiwis traveling from China had to self-isolate for 14 days. On February 28, New Zealand had its first case from an older man traveling from Iran. The next day, health officials began to meet flights coming from Asia. By March 14th, the government required passengers from all flights except the Pacific Islands to self-isolate or face deportation. Case numbers passed 100 on Monday, March 23. Jacinda Arden announced a strict lockdown for a minimum of four weeks to begin in 48 hours. Jacinda decided to operate at a Level 4, even though the country was actually at a Level 2. She said, “We must fight by going hard and going early.” Only essential businesses were to be open, including only grocery stores, convenience stores, and pharmacies.
This was one of the strictest lockdown policies in the world. The next day, on March 24th, four cases involving community transmission were reported. Things were about to take a dark turn in New Zealand, so action had to be taken. Level 4 was the hardest part for me because there weren’t many answers available. It was an uncertain time. The dorms are a bit small for isolation, and the congested nature of the city did not help. I made do with the situation by visiting the local park and taking walks daily.
Moving Down to Level 3
By the 18th day of lockdown, cases were declining. By April 15th, only 20 new cases of COVID-19 were reported. Jacinda announced what stepping down from lockdown Level 4 to Level 3 may look like. Five days later, she announced that Level 4 would be extended for an additional five days as a precautionary measure. April 28th was the first day of Level 3. Basically, Level 3 means takeout and stimulating part of the economy, but the same strict social distancing rules apply as in Level 4. Case levels decreased and Level 3 continued for 2 more weeks. I felt more comfortable going outside and takeaway mixed up my routine a bit. Level 3 provided much-needed hope.
Transitioning to a New Normal in Level 2
Now, as of May 14th, New Zealand is in lockdown Level 2. This means personal bubbles can be extended to friends and family for gatherings under ten people, domestic travel is allowed, and business, public venues, and event facilities may reopen. Level 2 reopens the economy and relaxes social restrictions. For the past week, new cases have been under two each day, with several days in a row of zero cases. Jacinda plans to continue to assess the situation and move towards Level 1, which would allow larger gatherings. Overall New Zealand is doing a great job of eliminating COVID-19, but eliminating the virus does not mean zero cases. It means that the new cases are traceable. The government is strictly enforcing sign-ins at shops with contact information to track possible spread.
Things are a new normal. Life isn’t like it was before the lockdown. The majority of my international friends returned to their home countries and I’ve grown close to the ones who stayed. My classes are still online, but now I have the freedom to travel domestically. The ability to travel around New Zealand is one of the main reasons I chose to wait the situation out. Not everything is open yet, but there is enough that I’m hoping by the end of the semester I will feel like I’ve seen a fair amount of the country.
Why is New Zealand’s Strategy Successful?
For a country of just under five million, 1,428 recovered patients and 21 deaths is not a bad track record considering the spread in other parts of the world. A large part of New Zealand’s success is due to citizens actually listening to their leader and staying inside to save lives. Jacinda created trust with citizens by outlining exactly what the public should be doing backed by medical experts to explain why. She is clear, consistent, and calm in her delivery. Jacinda relates to New Zealanders and shows she follows her own rules by conferencing in from her loungewear in her home. Along with graceful leadership, another advantage New Zealand has is the time to look at other countries’ responses to COVID-19. For example, Jacinda chose not to reopen bars until next Thursday because they pose the most risk, after seeing what happened in South Korea when a new breakout occurred after a bar crawl. Additionally, geography is another strength of New Zealand. The ability to shut its borders as an island nation is unique.
Challenges New Zealand Faces
Economically, New Zealand will struggle with COVID-19 like many other nations. According to Tourism New Zealand, tourism is New Zealand’s largest export in foreign exchange earnings, contributing 21%. The industry employs one in eight Kiwis. With New Zealand’s borders closed for the foreseeable future, this will take a huge hit on the economy. Now, New Zealand must rethink its tourism strategy, perhaps by marketing to the domestic market. Economists predict that the economy will enter a slump due to several factors in addition to tourism, such as the lockdown putting a pause on normal business activity for numerous weeks. However, COVID-19 has been an unprecedented event. There is no realistic scenario where the population stays entirely healthy, and the economy thrives. Given everything that has happened, Jacinda’s leadership and calm demeanor are admirable. I have faith that New Zealand will overcome this obstacle by continuing to play it safe.