Go Hard or Go Home: Is New Zealand’s Determined Approach to Battling COVID-19 Backfiring?
Credit: Unsplash

People from all over the world praise New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her government’s approach to battling COVID-19, and it was even labelled the best response to the pandemic in the world. When COVID-19 hit New Zealand in March of last year, Ms Ardern enforced a harsh ‘level 4’ lockdown for the entire country, and by July, COVID-19 had been eradicated throughout the country. Since then, Ms Ardern’s government has been extremely cautious in handling outbreaks of COVID-19, and hence, New Zealand has managed to remain relatively COVID free. However, in recent weeks, mini outbreaks of COVID-19 in the nation’s most populated city, Auckland, has left the country jumping between different COVID rules and regulations, in contrast to the strategy they maintained throughout last year. As an Aucklander myself, I start to wonder why the Ardern Government has not enforced a complete lockdown, to remove to virus from the hotspot of South Auckland, and why they are so adamant that the virus is being ‘controlled’.

A Three-Week Summary of COVID in New Zealand.

On February 14 2021, it was declared that there was a mini outbreak of Coronavirus in South Auckland, after 3 members from a South Auckland family had tested positive for COVID-19. The daughter, who attended Papatoetoe High School in South Auckland, had attended school while potentially infectious, and at the risk of community exposure, the entire Auckland region was pushed into a ‘level 3’ lockdown. However, 3 days later on February 17th, despite more people testing positive for Covid-19 that were linked to the original case, Auckland was moved to ‘level 2’ and then on February 23rd, Auckland moved to ‘level 1’, and normality returned. Many people, including opposition leader Judith Collins and supporters of the Labour government were quick to critique the rapidness of level adjustments in New Zealand. People believed that going from a strict level 3 lockdown to a level one in a span of a week is too soon, particularly when there are cases still present in the community. It is also important to note that although the majority of lockdown was living normally, the South Auckland region was strongly advised to remain in lockdown/isolation to prevent the spread of community cases.

South Auckland, which has a high population of residents of low socioeconomic status, have been hit the hardest by this outbreak. As a result of this low socioeconomic background, many South Aucklander’s, including the new case announced on the 27th of Feburary. did not isolate themselves for the recommended time frame of 2 weeks due to work commitments in the fear of their families would economically suffer if they didn’t attend work. As a result, community exposure dramatically increased and more people became in contact with the virus.

The Call to Move Back to Level Three.

On Saturday 27th February 2021, Ms Ardern alongside Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, announced that Auckland would return to level three. This was because of a new case, labelled Case M, who had tested positive for COVID-19 and after his COVID test, continued to go out into public areas, such as the gym. Jacinda Ardern expressed her frustration as she stated that “Based on this, we are in the unfortunate but necessary position to protect Aucklanders again,” and then acknowledged the region of Auckland’s move back to level 3.

This vast movement between levels is abnormal for New Zealand, which has often used the approach ‘go hard early on’ to remove the virus completely. Hence, Ardern has been criticised for her confidence and optimism in regard to Auckland’s safety and reduction of community spread in Auckland. ACT party leader David Seymour criticised Ardern’s confidence by stating that “The Government failed to ensure people stuck to self-quarantining and we shouldn’t blame the latest ‘naughty boy case’”. In addition, National Leader Judith Collins has called for “a priority vaccination programme for South Auckland, potentially ahead of elderly people in other parts of the country.” Māori Party Co-Leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer acknowledged that messages coming from the government and particularly health officials weren’t targeting the age group affected the most by this outbreak, the young people of South Auckland. “When was the last time you saw rangatahi (young people) talking about it? I can’t remember the last time I saw any of them interviewed. We see their parents, we see their teachers, we see their principals…” she states.

The Problem with Level Movement.

The ‘Alert Level System’ in New Zealand was introduced to minimise the risk and spread of COVID-19, yet a constant move in levels can be detrimental to a region, both socially, economically and psychologically. In a level 3 lockdown, most businesses are not able to stay open, work from home is necessary unless you are an essential worker, household bubbles are restricted, public venues are closed and children are to learn from home. Hence, this constant movement back and forth from level 3 has major impacts. Although the government provides economic support for businesses, individuals and whānau (family), for some families and businesses it isn’t sufficient and economic sacrifices are being made. Additionally, when a health and wellbeing survey was released in May of 2020, post-lockdown in New Zealand, it was noted that 31% of New Zealander’s felt lonely or isolated in their lockdown period. It is then suitable to assume these same feelings could be reciprocated in the constant movement in lockdown, alongside feelings of anxiety and confusion. Further to this, 36% of New Zealanders on April 5th 2020 felt nervous about the pandemic and once again it is possible to assume that these feelings could still be present in the New Zealand community, particularly in Auckland. Ms Ardern noted that “No one wants to be yo-yo-ing in and out lockdown.”, and based on this evidence, a yo-yo in and out of lockdown could be detrimental to the mental health and economic stress of many people.

Where to from here?

The Auckland region is in a lockdown for a minimum of 7 days under alert level 3, and then on Sunday 7th March, the cabinet will reconvene and discuss whether or not the alert level should change. Over the next few days, the Ardern government, alongside health officials, will be paying close attention to the number of COVID cases, and whether a much more significant lockdown of alert level 4, like in April of 2020, is better suited for this outbreak. With Case M not isolating as he should, it is highly unlikely for Auckland to return to normality soon – and New Zealand could resort to more dramatic consequences.