My Turn: True leaders – like New Zealand’s Ardern – get the big things right

  • New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern holds up a card showing a new alert system for COVID-19 on March 21 in Wellington, New Zealand. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 4/18/2020 7:00:04 AM

A few weeks ago, I wrote from Wellington, New Zealand, as the country went into level-4 lockdown as part of the COVID-19 emergency. The goal of the restrictions here, stated clearly, is to eliminate COVID-19 from the country.

My wife and I are still here, having intended to depart in early April, but found ourselves unable to return home. Now, a few days from what may be the end of level-4 lockdown period, there appears to be encouraging news.

First, it’s important to recall that New Zealand’s leaders imposed this lockdown, banning commerce and transportation for other than essential services, quickly and assertively. As an island nation, it was able to close the borders almost instantaneously to all travelers other than returning citizens and residents. Anyone returning from abroad was required to go into 14 days of self isolation, and anyone demonstrating symptoms was tested and put in quarantine, in hotels paid for by the government.

The rules of level 4 are serious. People are required to stay at home and if they go outside for exercise, stay in their neighborhood. Public transportation is reserved for essential workers only. Air travel is essentially shut down. Schools, cafes, bars, retail stores and shops other than supermarkets and pharmacies are closed. The tourism industry, that last year attracted 4 million visitors producing half of all the country’s foreign trade, is shut down and much of it may not recover. Once the border opens again, foreign visitors will be required to go into two weeks of monitored isolation, for the foreseeable future.

No non-local domestic travel is permitted. One health minister was caught taking his family 20 kilometers to the beach. He was promptly called out and admitted he had behaved like an “idiot.” He didn’t lose his job, primarily because the prime minister said his expertise and experience was needed in the emergency, but I suspect when it’s over he will be looking for other work.

The government acted quickly to ensure that there are adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, and hustled to make sure it was distributed rapidly. No doubt there have been some stumbles along the way, but in very large part the response of government has been effective. As I write this 770 people have recovered from the coronavirus, and the total number of infections has reached 1,401. Nine have died. More than 60,000 tests have been administered. The total population of the country is about 5 million, about the same as South Carolina and less than Massachusetts.

Over the past few days the number of new cases each day has dropped to under 20. In anticipation of the end of the initial four weeks of level 4, the government described what level 3 would look like, but made no commitment to when it would be initiated. The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, reminded everyone that leaving level 4 too soon would be worse than keeping it longer, if it meant a possible resurgence of the disease.

An opinion poll last week found that 80% of New Zealanders felt Ardern and the government were handling the situation well. It’s been said that true leaders have to get the big things right. I think of leaders like Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and now add Jacinda Ardern.

Throughout the crisis her message has been clear, concise, direct and unequivocal. Her director-general of health, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, who gives daily reports and press conferences, has taken on a nearly national hero status. The actions of the government may have “squashed the virus,” as described in a Washington Post story on April 7.

Our own personal situation remains as it was at the start of the lockdown. Our “bubble” of five family members doesn’t leave home except for walks in the neighborhood. We stay six feet away from all other pedestrians on the street and trails. People are generally very good about making sure that happens, and most of the time say “thank you” or “hi” when we swerve out into the street to maintain the distance.

Our grandson has been happily entertained by the sighting of stuffed bears and other creatures in the windows of cars and houses along our walks. As of this week, he’s counted more than 500 (although there’s no certainty that there hasn’t been some double counting). Finding new routes every day is a challenge, but his goal is to get to 1,000. One has to love a 4-year-old’s resilience and enthusiasm.

We are fortunate and thankful. This is as good a place to be in a pandemic as there is. Even so, we agonize over the news from home, the cases counted, the lost loved ones, the lost jobs, the homes and businesses at risk. We will eventually return to New Hampshire and do our best to help restore a semblance of normalcy, just not right now.

(Paul Doscher lives in Weare.)

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