Before recording a single coronavirus death, New Zealand set out a response strategy much tougher than most of the world: a Level 4 lockdown was imposed, closing off the country’s borders, schools and businesses, confining millions of people to their homes.
At the time, some questioned if it was too severe. But at a press conference on Thursday, prime minister Jacinda Ardern outlined details of potentially loosening restrictions in the country – a signal that some say shows her plan of complete eradication of Covid-19 is on track.
To date, New Zealand, a country of five million people, has had just 1,239 cases and only nine deaths.
Ms Ardern’s approach has been praised as swift and transparent, much like her handling of the Christchurch massacre in March 2019. And it has once again propelled her to global prominence. But how exactly has she thrived when so many world leaders have faltered?
Key to New Zealand’s success has been the so-called “elimination” policy. Most countries were, and still are, trying to contain the virus via social distancing until a vaccine is produced.
But in March, the prime minister detailed an articulated plan with the goal of completely ending transmission of Covid-19 within New Zealand’s borders.
A State of National Emergency was announced. Central and local government, emergency services and the defence force were automatically handed new powers to stop any activity that contributed to the spreading of Covid-19 in the community.
New Zealand had closed its border to foreigners by 19 March, despite being a country that relies heavily on tourism with four million international visitors a year.
On 21 March, Ms Arden outlined her plans for a full lockdown: “We go hard, we go early.”
At this point, Boris Johnson was still resisting the same measures for the UK.
Two days later, moving from Level 2 to 3, she gave the country a further two days to prepare for the lockdown of level 4.
“We currently have 102 cases,” she said. “But so did Italy once.”
Supermarket and chemists were the only businesses to remain open: “Stay home, save lives”, she said. Those who flouted would be imprisoned for six months under the Health Act Order.
It took just 10 days for the number of new cases to start falling, even with a huge increase in testing.
Nevertheless, Ms Arden said New Zealand would complete four weeks of lockdown – two full 14-day incubation cycles – before easing measures.
Shaun Hendy, the head of the Auckland University scientific group advising the government, told The Independent that without Ms Ardern’s quick thinking the country would undoubtedly be facing the same situation as the UK, Italy and Spain right now.
“Although New Zealand was initially less prepared for a pandemic than many other countries, Ardern was able to quickly bring in the right team of advisers and act on their advice with confidence and speed,” explains Mr Hendy.
Easy access to funds
Before New Zealand went into lockdown, the government announced a NZ$12.1bn coronavirus package to support businesses, increase benefits for seniors and low-income families, pay people who can’t work because of self-isolation, and boost virus testing and intensive care capacity.
It initially dwarfed the coronavirus response from neighbouring Australia, which has since been inflated to AU$320bn. And in the US, the majority of “eligible Americans” are still waiting for their share of the US$2 trillion stimulus package passed by the Senate in late March.
But in New Zealand, NZ$5.3bn was released to those affected by Covid-19 in less than a week.
Businesses were eligible for 12 weeks of wage subsidies ($585.80 per week for full-time staff, $350 per week for part-time staff) if they could show a 30 per cent decline in revenue, attributable to coronavirus.
Many New Zealanders reported that they had the lump-sum payment in their bank less than two days after applying online in a simple one-page application form.
“Everyone that is shut down is eligible for this scheme,” the PM promised.
Ms Ardern also urged the nation to avoid releasing funds from their retirement packages. “Before going down that track, you really want to make sure that you’ve accessed all of the support that may be available to you already from the government,” she added.
Mental health schemes
Ms Ardern’s eye has been firmly on the mental health of her nation, with the New Zealand government using part of its NZ$500m Covid-19 response health package to fund three new mental health apps that were released to the nation in mid-April.
The first was Mentemia, created by All Blacks legend and mental health advocate Sir John Kirwan and an expert team of mental health advisors. It provides users with practical tips and techniques to help them take control of their mental wellbeing.
The second app, Melon, provides users with a health journal, resources and self-awareness tools, aimed at the 13- to 24-year-old age group.
And finally, Staying on Track is an e-therapy tool that teaches practical strategies to cope with the stress and disruption to everyday life.
Ms Ardern also urged the nation to check in with new mums, stating they were now a high-risk group when it came to mental health issues.
“I know many new mums will of course stay at home for a long period after having a newborn, but they usually get visits, extra contacts, extra support,” Ms Ardern said. “I just ask people in their wider circle to stay in contact, reach out, check in on those families, see how they’re doing.
Solidarity in real terms
On 15 April, Ms Ardern announced that she and other ministers would take a 20 per cent pay cut lasting six months to show solidarity with those affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
“If there was ever a time to close the gap between groups of people across New Zealand in different positions, it is now,” the PM explained during a press conference.
The pay cut will reduce Ms Ardern’s salary by NZ$47,104. Cabinet ministers would take a cut of NZ$26,900 each, while deputy prime minister Winston Peters’ salary would be cut by NZ$33,473.
In Australia, prime minister Scott Morrison was quick to state that he would not be following suit, keeping his complete annual salary of AU$549,250. “It’s not something that’s being considered,” he said during a radio interview on the same day.
Constant transparency – and humour
During the four weeks of lockdown, which looks set to be scaled down in the coming weeks, Ms Ardern gave daily updates from either the podium of a news conference, or in a casual sweatshirt in her home via Facebook.
As well as continuously keeping the public informed, many noted that the language she used was simple. The nation should stay home; have no contact with anyone outside of their household “bubble”; and be kind. There was no room for interpretation.
“Be strong, be kind, and unite against Covid-19”, she urged, appealing to the country’s “creative, practical, country-minded” culture.
But with rising anxiety over the pandemic, she was also sure to inject some humour and light relief into people’s lives, assuring younger citizens that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were considered “essential workers” and would be visiting.
When a journalist asked her if she was scared, her response was straightforward: ‘No. Because we have a plan.’
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