With little acquired immunity and low vaccination rates, New Zealand finds itself vulnerable to an explosive epidemic.
New Zealand was to Covid what Kabul Airport was to the Taliban: the last bastion of hopeless resistance. Last week, it finally fell.
Prime Minister Ardern announced that the country would ‘transition’ from an elimination strategy to one of vaccination – a journey which most of the rest of the world embarked on nearly a year ago. It means that residents of Auckland will be able to leave their homes to socialise – in a very limited way — for the first time in weeks.
So much for the boast, so often made last year, that zero Covid had given New Zealanders the sort of freedoms which our lax covid policy had stolen from us.
As Covid fires its guns in the air and Ardern scrambles on board the last transport plane out, it has to be asked: why did she, or indeed anyone, ever think it would be any different?
It was clear from the beginning that Covid, by virtue of being able to transmit asymptomatically, had the ability to sneak into a population unaware – and establish itself before anyone had really noticed. New Zealand now is pretty well in the same position as Britain was in March 2020, with pockets of cases erupting into what threatens to become one large outbreak. What New Zealand has done for the past 18 months – attempt to become a Covid-free island by sealing its borders – never was an option in Britain’s case, just as continuing with a zero Covid policy is no longer a choice for New Zealand.
Was New Zealand’s experiment worth it? If the country can get its vaccination rate up quickly it might very well be possible to argue that yes, it was – although the economic damage will still be massive. Unfortunately, however, Ardern’s government has not used its extra time to get ahead with vaccinations.
According to the CNN tracker, only 41.5 percent of the country’s population is fully-vaccinated, against 65.9 percent of the UK population.
That puts it among the very lowest of developed countries. Moreover, because Covid has been largely absent from the disease to date, very few people have acquired immunity through natural infection. The country is vulnerable, therefore, to the kind of explosive epidemic that Britain saw early on in the crisis.
Ardern’s hubris was fuelled by her international status as a rockstar of the centre-left.
I discovered the extent of this a year ago when I wrote a piece that was critical of her zero Covid policy – pointing out that in the initial fight against the disease she had done very little different from Boris Johnson’s government, and that as Covid became endemic elsewhere in the world, New Zealand faced long years of self-imposed economic downturn as it sealed itself off.
I have never had such a strong reaction to anything I have written, with tirades of abuse flowing in from all over the world.
To many on the soft-left, Arden represented all that they advocated in a government: compassion, competence and vision.
She was the living example of why we should have more women in charge of politics, business and everything else (this from the same people, naturally, who lost no chance to launch personal attacks on Britain’s two female Prime Ministers).
If Ardern is a rock star, I’m afraid she has reached second album syndrome. What looked so clever to many people a year ago no longer looks quite so smart.
The world can finally see that zero Covid was a dead end which delayed but did not eliminate Covid, while drawing out the economic damage from repeated lockdowns as far as the eye can see.
There was no easy policy for dealing with Covid, and Britain can hardly claim to have set an example – something which I am sure Boris Johnson and every other government minister would freely admit.
Yet, Ardern did think she was teaching the rest of the world how to cope with a pandemic. She has been brought down to Earth with a very loud bump.
This article was first published in the UK Daily Telegraph.