New Zealand was supposed to show the world how the pandemic could be halted. The island nation largely avoided the first wave of the outbreak in March on the account of its remoteness and the hasty imposition of border controls. As the novel COVID-19 virus ravaged its way across the vulnerable populations of Asia, Europe, and North America, New Zealand locked down its entire society.
“No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous” ~ Edgar Allan Poe, Masque of the Red Death
On March 22, the nation’s government announced a month of sheltering in place. The order came from on high with the stroke of a pen, without legislative deliberation or even the process of law. Enforcement persisted for nine days despite having no legal justification – just an illegal executive decree by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Months would pass before the country’s high court censured this abrogation of democratic governance. It did not matter. Ardern’s actions were “unlawful, but justified” to halt the pandemic, the bold actions of a “hero” who knew better than her own people.
For the next month New Zealand operated under the strictest lockdowns in the world, surpassing even communist China at the peak of its Wuhan region quarantine. The country reached an astounding 96.3 out of 100 points on the Oxford lockdown stringency index.
“Act like you have COVID-19” and stay home, came the order from above. Stores and businesses were forcibly shuttered. Internal movement around the country was forbidden, followed by restrictions on even leaving one’s own home, save to obtain groceries or medicine. Ardern ordered the military to patrol the streets for violators. Police set up a website to encourage New Zealanders to report on neighbors who ventured outside for unapproved reasons. New Zealanders used it to file over 4,300 reports within the first week alone. Arrests were made for “persistent breaches” of the mandate. The Prime Minister chasisted her citizenry for disobeying, and directed them to use the police snitch form – and all of this done at a time, as we now know, that her mandates still operated outside of the cover of law that it finally secured by post hoc legislative ratification in early April.
“But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious.”
Ardern’s actions elicited barely a word of dissent, and those who did speak out found themselves the subject of scolding mobs. How dare they “question the science” – or the leadership of a rising progressive political star. Instead, the media showered her with praise and puff-pieces about her gimmicky uses of social media to soft-peddle the police state she had just imposed.
New Zealanders needn’t worry about their slide into autocracy – the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy had been deemed “essential workers” and thus exempt from the decree. The rule of law had been sacrificed to epidemiology modeling and “nonpharmaceutical interventions.”
Socialist Cindy placed her entire country under house arrest, and did so to thunderous applause for her boldness, her heroism, and her “science”-driven leadership. In the eyes of the press and much of the epidemiology profession, Ardern had become a model of COVID leadership for the world to emulate.
“A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”
New Zealand suspended its internal lockdown in mid-May after a month of shelter-in-place mandates and another half-month at a level of stringency that exceeded all but the hardest-hit European nations. In total, New Zealand police prosecuted over 600 lockdown violators, and issued warnings to another 5,000.
To the adoring news media however, Ardern’s leadership had proven an unambiguous success. Owing to its early containment, COVID-19 never really took root in New Zealand and the tiny number of cases that made it through before the lockdowns proved to be a manageable number. “We are confident we have eliminated transmission of the virus in New Zealand for now,” Ardern announced in early June.
Like much of the world, the lockdowns left New Zealand’s economy in tatters. The country posted its largest GDP contraction in three decades for the first quarter of 2020. Much of the contraction likely stems from the country’s tourism-heavy economy, which seems unlikely to recover anytime soon as it is effectively proscribed for an indefinite term by government mandate.
You see, Ardern’s strategy for lifting the internal lockdowns rested upon maintaining one of the world’s most restrictive border entry policies. The New Zealand border remains closed for all intents and purposes for foreign visitors prohibited save for a tiny number of exceptions. New Zealand residents who were stranded abroad at the start of the pandemic – likely numbering in the tens of thousands – may only return after going through a mandatory 14-day quarantine under strict guard at a designated border facility.
Persons who do not qualify for a handful of exemptions must also foot the bill themselves – a total of $4,000 (NZ) for the privilege of being cooped up in a government-managed hotel room. Ardern’s government has also intentionally restricted flights into the country as a strategy for rationing the available quarantine spaces.
For all intents and purposes, Ardern created Fortress New Zealand – a bubble strategy in which the internal reopening rests entirely upon the government’s ability to erect and maintain a nearly impermeable barrier to entry from the rest of the world. Furthermore, such a strategy must continue indefinitely until there is a coronavirus vaccine or cure.
“It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.”
It was supposed to be an occasion for celebration. New Zealand passed the mark of “100 days without COVID,” we learned on August 9th. New Zealand, it appeared, had beaten back and defeated the disease. Media commentators across the globe proclaimed the strategy victorious – an “emblematic champion of proper prevention and response to the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.”
Epidemiologists used the occasion to proclaim vindication of lockdowns, border closures, and “science-based” progressive government. “New Zealand is seen as a global exemplar,” announced the World Health Organization’s Director-General in an August 10th statement. A combination of strict lockdowns, border closures, contact tracing, and enforcement had made New Zealand “COVID-free,” and for that Ardern’s government “would make no apologies.”
The American media, which had already been championing the New Zealand approach for months, touted the case as an example of what could have been if only the United States and other countries stuck with their lockdown strategies.
“In New Zealand, life is ordinary again after 100 days with no community spread,” announced a triumphalist report from NPR.
The 100-day mark also carried high political significance for Ardern, who came to power in 2017 under a tenuous coalition arrangement between the left-wing Labour Party with a smaller nationalist-populist party best known for its hardline anti-immigration stance (Ardern reconciled her coalition at the time by adopting immigration restrictions of her own on the grounds that they would help to achieve “environmental sustainability”).
Under normal times the Labour-New Zealand First coalition might have expected a strong challenge from the center-right National Party, which holds a plurality of seats in the New Zealand parliament.
But 2020 was meant to be the COVID election – a victory lap for the governing coalition after having successfully driven the disease from the island nation, as the external world still struggled to contain the virus. Ardern used the 100-day mark to kick off her reelection effort with a day full of campaign stops and politicking to get out the vote. “When people ask, is this a COVID election, my answer is yes, it is,” she explained at a campaign launch party the day before the milestone. For all intents and purposes, the media predicted an easy coast to reelection, fueled by the successful defeat of the virus.
“And thus too, it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before.”
It happened on the 102nd day, and it took the world by surprise. The festivities of the milestone and the associated electoral campaign had yet to dissipate, but COVID-19 was back in New Zealand. A family of four tested positive in Auckland, triggering a panicked government plan to contain its spread.
Within 24 hours the country’s largest city was back under lockdown. Police checkpoints, internal travel restrictions, police and military in the streets, arrests for violating lockdowns, runs on supermarkets, appeals to snitch on violators – a mad rush to contain the spread by any means necessary.
Government authorities still do not know how the virus made it through the border fortress, but it breached the walls nonetheless. Then the familiar, frantic pattern set in. The initial 3-day lockdown of Auckland became 12 days. As the expiration date approached, Ardern slapped on another emergency extension that will supposedly expire August 30. But coronavirus has a strange track record of converting previously habitable places into geographical oddities – two weeks from everywhere.
Media outlets that celebrated the 100-day milestone suddenly found themselves having to explain what went wrong, with little in the way of a plausible story. Within less than 24 hours of posting, NPR even hastily amended the aforementioned headline to account for the change of circumstances: “In New Zealand, Life Was Ordinary Again With No Virus Spread, But It Didn’t Last.”
“When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image (which with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role, stalked to and fro among the waltzers) he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.”
The unexpected outbreak similarly upended Ardern’s predicted coast to reelection, taking the centerpiece of her campaign message with it. With evidence of the containment policy’s effectiveness shattered but an ideological resolve to double down and stay the course, the Prime Minister now comes across as simultaneously panicked, enraged, and flustered.
Amid the self-imposed chaos of the Auckland lockdown and mounting pressures from opposition parties, Ardern exercised her legal prerogative as Prime Minister and pushed back the polling date by a month. It remains to be seen how New Zealanders will react when they go to the polls in mid-October, save to note that it will likely hinge on the uncertainty of the renewed lockdowns and on the competing parties’ abilities to frame the latest outbreak to their advantage at the ballot box.
The current outbreak notwithstanding, it still remains true that New Zealand has weathered the medical dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic better than most. The country currently stands at a little over 1,700 cases and 22 fatalities – a tiny fraction of the devastation seen in hotspots around the globe. But these medical statistics conceal an unsettling reality about how Ardern’s government has weathered the crisis.
Far from a paragon of science-guided policy, the New Zealand approach hearkens back to the time of medieval plagues and associated superstitions – of walling oneself off in a castellated abbey in the countryside for the duration, of hoping, praying the crisis will pass by your fortress as it ravages the outside world, and of inevitably letting one’s guard down at a moment of frivolity and celebration.
And for a passing moment, such a strategy may nominally succeed – particularly if the fortress is isolated – as remote Pacific islands tend to be – and if one is willing to accept isolationism backed by the recurring and draconian enforcement measures to maintain it. But the fortress approach to a pandemic is neither a sustainable strategy for New Zealand nor an adaptable model for the rest of the world.
As the events of the last three weeks demonstrate, the perceived victories of the Ardern government on its 100-day milestone were fleeting, overturned in an instant by human error or even a chance occurrence that somehow allowed the virus to slip through the gatehouse.
The Ardern government’s current low case count only conceals a much greater and self-inflicted vulnerability that arises from the lockdown strategy. The policy of eliminating COVID-19 by shutting out the rest of the world only “works” if one assumes that they can perfectly maintain the bubble until somebody on the outside discovers a vaccine, or the virus dissipates globally from external herd immunity.
“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death.”
But the medieval strategy of lockdown-imposed isolation is inherently fragile – so fragile, in fact, that it can collapse into chaos at any moment, precipitating a mad rush to regain the illusions of control over the situation. If even the slightest thing goes wrong though – if somebody slips through the border with an undetected case, if a bureaucratic administrator makes a paperwork mistake, if a worker who came into contact with an infected person in quarantine forgot to wash his or her hands, or untold thousands of other similar scenarios play out – then the whole system of isolation and containment collapses. It’s back to rolling lockdowns, imposed without warning at any moment, and continuing in perpetuity.
Far from adopting this strategy as a model, the world must avoid the corner of perpetual recurring lockdowns in which New Zealand now finds itself. And New Zealand’s government would be wise to drop the hubristic pretensions of commanding and controlling a virus through medieval self-isolation, seeking instead an alternative strategy that is robust to unexpected setbacks and equipped for long-run recovery.