The View from New Zealand

I love seeing how groups of people react differently to the same events, and especially how they group themselves together. The immediate aftermath of an event can be confusing because you’re not yet sure what your tribe thinks about it. But as time goes on, the group understands what it stands for. And that often comes with a lot of “us vs them” thinking. Many discussions end up boiling down to “We all know x is the right answer, but can you believe these people who think y?” We express shock, dismay, or even disgust. But through these emotions we’re also building rapport with our in-group.

I’ve been watching to see how New Zealand copes with the pandemic, and taking note of some of the different perspectives I’m seeing emerge.

Debate #1: Do we close the borders?

The first case of Covid came into New Zealand from Iran on the 28th of February, one month after the WHO declared the virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. There was active debate over that month about if New Zealand should be closing its borders.

On one side, people argued that New Zealand needed to take immediate action to prevent the virus from ever taking root. On the other side, people argued that New Zealand’s small economy couldn’t afford such a big blow to the tourism industry.

Debate #2: Is there community transmission?

We eventually learned the answer to this question. But it was extremely tempting for the first few weeks to imagine a New Zealand where every case was traced and accounted for, with no community transmission. At this point, schools and work were still operating normally. I remember a feeling of creeping dread, but I think many people were pushing back the bad thoughts. For me, it felt like “We definitely won’t be another Italy, Iran, or China … right? I hope I’m right. I don’t know how I’ll cope otherwise.”

I had a lot of friends in this stage who were very frustrated by the lack of widespread community testing. The tests were only being given to people who had been traveling internationally, meaning a lot of people with symptoms were being turned away. This was very concerning.

Debate #3: Why are schools still open?

In the end, we did close schools. But I remember many conversations where people told me “children have a right to an education.” Which I don’t think anyone disagrees with. But when the school is on fire, has an active shooter, or a killer virus is ravaging your country, priorities temporarily shift.

Two days before schools were shut down, a parent in my kids’ school came down with Covid. In an emailed response, the school told the parents that our children that school was still safe based on the latest government recommendations. With minimal testing and a lot of fear about community spread, this wasn’t received particularly well.

Debate #4: Did we overreact?

New Zealand had one of the most strict lockdowns of any country, and certainly in the western world. There were no deliveries other than for essential items, which meant no takeaway and no online shopping. Parks, beaches, and other community spaces were closed.

For the first week or so, these strict measures enjoyed broad public support. But it didn’t take long for a vocal minority of kiwis to say we went too far. Similar arguments have been made around the world: the government has no right to force us to stay home, we’re not thinking about our economy, and the disease isn’t that bad. The economic devastation that New Zealand has experienced is real, and painful. It’s not hard to make the argument that the cure is worse than the disease.

The counter-argument to this is that a widespread outbreak is going to devastate the economy either way. So you can do it in a controlled way up front or allow it to race out of control.

Debate #5: Australia did fine without these intense measures

Kiwis arguing that we overreacted point to our neighbours to the west to demonstrate that we didn’t need to be so “extra” with our response. The overall summary is that NZ and Australia did achieve similarly low numbers, and that Australians were allowed to keep more businesses open.

There are a few key key caveats, however. NZ has far fewer ICU beds available, so it didn’t have the same wiggle room to work with. Additionally, New Zealand may be able to bounce back quicker if it can have confidence quicker than other countries. The jury’s still out on this one.

Debate #6: Our numbers are low because of low population density

This makes a lot of intuitive sense. If you spread a disease in a small room with 100 people, it’ll affect far more people than a big room with ten people. But when you chart population density against death rates, there’s no correlation:

Notice how Australia, New Zealand, China, South Korea, and Singapore all have similarly strong responses despite having a wide range of densities. On the other hand, Finland and Sweden have a similar population density but are having a much harder time with the virus than New Zealand. You can play with the graph here.

There are a lot of nuances here, and lots of smart people explaining them on the internet. But the summary is that population density does matter, but what matters far more is the timing and strength of your lockdown.

Debate #6: Testing isn’t where it needs to be

New Zealand has been ramping up its testing and aims to have some of the best tracing in the world. But there have been concerns since day one that New Zealand isn’t doing enough randomised testing in the community to truly understand how the disease is spreading.

Debate #7: We can’t get complacent

Overall, New Zealanders have followed the directions really well and are staying home. One week ago, they loosened the lockdown a bit. This means now you can do online shopping and takeaways. But this has led to a lot of concern that kiwis aren’t going to take the lockdown seriously anymore, and we’ll lose all the great progress we’ve made so far.

In my experience, this debate is very one-sided. Very few people are saying that the disease is fully eradicated and can’t possibly return. If anything, they’re arguing that any safety measures need to be balanced against the economy, not that Covid is a hoax. But as the news gets better and better, we are seeing more and more people stress how we can’t get complacent.

Debate #8: How is Jacinda Ardern doing?

Jacinda is the head of a liberal government, and the country leans to the right. This means the same old fault lines still exist. People on the left are more likely to support her, people on the right are less likely to. That said, the politics are nowhere near as polarised as in the states. Her approval ratings are quite high. (But not perfect! Ardern’s government has definitely been called to account for some misteps amongst the generally high marks)

Non-debate #9: How is Donald Trump doing?

There’s no debate here. Donald Trump is not doing a good job, and if you agree with that statement, you are part of the largest community of like-minded people on the planet.



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Jon Bell

Jon Bell

Designer, writer, teacher. I love building things.