December 1, 2021

As Auckland — home to a third of New Zealand’s population — prepares to exit its 100-plus day lockdown on Friday, there has been little celebration or fanfare. Instead, the population is cautious and guarded; worries abound about further cases and deaths once the country opens up.

The mood is a far cry from the breathless commentary during the first 18 months of the pandemic, when New Zealand was held up as an extraordinary case of pandemic management, contrasted with the disasters in Europe, the UK and US. Indeed, the country’s tough border closures, skilful contact tracing, tough lockdown restrictions, commitment to Zero Covid and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s empathic and inclusive leadership were lauded as a model for the rest of the world.

And yet, contrary to ill-informed hot takes half a world away, New Zealand’s approach had its merits. Following an initial lockdown last year, the country recorded only 1,500 cases and 22 deaths from Covid-19, and succeeded in eliminating the virus in the community. Importantly, this was achieved without significant restrictions on individual liberties or substantial cost to the economy. While the rest of the world has spent the past two years in crisis, New Zealanders have lived remarkably normal lives. Undoubtedly, there was some luck involved, given New Zealand’s isolation from the rest of the world. But, as its neighbour Australia illustrated, isolation is no guarantee of success.

However, this New Zealand model came with two important caveats. First, the cost of normality enjoyed by citizens at home was paid for by its citizens abroad. The country’s harsh border regime, which allocated a limited number of places in a 14-day hotel quarantine system, meant that thousands were stranded abroad, unable to return home, often left facing destitution. Likewise, while the economy thrived, the cost was borne by the tourism industry — 18% of the economy — whose reliance on international visitors left it on the verge of collapse.

Secondly, the New Zealand model could never be sustained long-term, once it became clear that global elimination of the virus was unlikely. As such, there was a need for an exit strategy, which seemed to centre on vaccinating the whole population before the virus got in. This was always a gamble and a race against time; one which Ardern lost this August, when a cautious re-opening of the border to Australia led to the arrival of the Delta variant, and sparked a new outbreak.

Despite the fact no country had managed to eliminate Delta, the Government reverted to its tried and tested approach, closing the limited openings at the border, announcing a snap lockdown, and re-committing to eliminating the virus. But this time, it didn’t work.

While the outbreak was contained to Auckland, the key pillars of New Zealand’s model — contact tracing and tough lockdown restrictions severely curtailing people’s movements — proved no match for the infectiousness of the Delta strain. Case numbers refused to budge, totalling more than 8,400 for the current outbreak, while deaths have nearly doubled to 43. Admitting defeat, the Government formally abandoned elimination as a strategy in October. Nevertheless, Auckland’s “snap lockdown” — meant to last for two weeks — has now dragged on for over 100 days, with predictable consequences for children’s schooling, mental health and the economy.

While the situation still compares very favourably to many parts of the world, New Zealand’s sheen has started to come off. Contrary to its claims of exceptionalism, throughout the current Delta outbreak, it has shown itself to be a normal country just like every other: faced with the same dilemmas, failures, trade-offs and divisions when it comes to dealing with the pandemic. What’s more, it hasn’t necessarily dealt with them any better.

Take vaccination. One consequence of the New Zealand model was complacency when it came to the roll-out, with many convinced that the country could take its time while the pandemic raged elsewhere. As a result, less than 20% of the population was fully vaccinated when Delta arrived in August, leaving it unprepared for the outbreak. In response, the government tied the lifting of lockdowns to the vaccination rate, setting a very high target of 90% before restrictions would be eased.

Still, while this was eventually abandoned, 86% of New Zealanders are now double-jabbed, making it one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. As we also saw in Australia, nothing concentrates the mind when it comes to vaccinations like a prolonged lockdown.

This is not to say that the issue hasn’t been divisive. Behind the high overall rates, there remain significant pockets of unvaccinated people in New Zealand, especially in the regions, and among the indigenous Maori population. Higher rates of poverty and disadvantage, and low levels of trust in the Government mean that only 68% of Maori are fully vaccinated, despite repeated efforts to roll out culturally specific and targeted programmes.

Meanwhile, the high rates of poor health outcomes have left the Maori more vulnerable to the virus, leading to demands that any re-opening be delayed until vaccination rates exceed the rest of the country. The Maori Party has been warning of a “modern genocide” if lockdowns are lifted while the virus remains in the community, with some local iwi (tribes) threatening to set up roadblocks to keep Aucklanders from visiting their regions once freedom of travel is restored.

More broadly, despite the high vaccination rates, the Government has not shied from introducing controversial vaccine mandates. With the country slowly opening up, Ardern has described vaccination as “the golden ticket to freedom“, requiring vaccine passes to enter most workplaces, hospitality, retail and entertainment venues. At the moment, unvaccinated people can do little more than shop for essentials, creating a two-tier society and sparking bitter conflicts. The Government has doubled down, stressing the mandate will continue into next year, and showing little sympathy for the unvaccinated minority.

This, in turn, has sparked protests for the first time in the pandemic. When the current outbreak started, commentators mocked a lone demonstrator at an anti-lockdown protest in Auckland. Since then, crowds have grown, with thousands recently marching across the country against lockdowns and the vaccine mandates. While they have not matched the numbers or violence recently seen in Europe, these protests bring together a similar constellation of far-Right agitators, conspiracy theorists, wellness gurus and ordinary citizens increasingly marginalised and excluded from society. It’s part of a wider fragmentation taking hold in the country, with support for the Government’s handling of the pandemic dropping from 80% to 46%. Ardern’s personal popularity has also declined to 34%, while more people now think the country is heading in the wrong direction for the first time since 2008.

This is a far cry from the ‘Team of Five Million’ approach championed by the Government in the first 18 months of the pandemic. And Ardern seems fully aware of this: the Government recently rushed through new laws to lock in many of the draconian restrictions on the unvaccinated, bypassing the usual means of oversight and scrutiny, in a move labelled “a constitutional disgrace” by legal experts.

In short, over the course of the past four months, many of the key features of New Zealand’s pandemic response have been found wanting. Yet old habits die hard. While the rest of the world has largely opened up and travel has begun to stage a comeback, New Zealand’s plan for reopening its borders announced last week remains extremely cautious.

Fully vaccinated citizens will only be able to return from Australia from mid-January, provided that they quarantine at home for seven days. This will be extended to other countries in mid-February, while foreign nationals will not be allowed to enter until the end of next April. There is no detail yet on how long the seven-day quarantine requirement will remain in place, and the tourism sector has reacted with dismay, describing the plan as a “body blow” that will delay its recovery until 2023. For a country approaching a 90% vaccination rate, this seems needlessly restrictive, a relic of the Zero Covid mentality, rather than the long-promised exit strategy.

And this was before the emergence of the new Omicron variant. Here, New Zealand has been depressingly ordinary, following many other countries in shutting the border to non-citizens from the nine ‘high risk’ countries in southern Africa, and holding out the possibility of delaying the border reopening plan. While labelled as ‘temporary’ and intended to buy time to learn more about the new variant, this response highlights the continuing reluctance to finally begin living with Covid.

As the pandemic enters its third year, New Zealand might end up with the worst of both worlds: facing the same problems as everyone else, but persisting with an unsustainable Zero Covid approach to them.