‘A strong team of five million’ – New Zealand’s response to COVID-19

As I write this, New Zealand has three active cases of COVID-19 and gone 69 days without community transmission. 

A month ago, our Director General of Health, the Government’s chief health advisor, told us that had we adopted similar measures as other countries, we could have expected to have experienced 3500 deaths at that point, and about 250 new cases per day.

It begs the question – why has New Zealand’s response been comparatively so successful?  

It’s pretty remarkable, given that we entered lockdown on March 24 – gripped with a level of fear and anxiety seeing how the virus had spread from China to countries like Italy. 

But New Zealand has been united in the fight against COVID-19. As Jacinda Ardern has continuously reiterated – we are a strong team of 5 million. 

The combined effort of Jacinda Ardern’s strong leadership coupled with trusted expert advice, and the public willing to adhere to a swift lockdown is where our success lies in fighting COVID-19. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ardern proved herself to be an effective leader in times of crisis. 

Five days after a terrorist attack like we’ve never seen before in New Zealand, Ardern banned military-style semi-automatics and committed to banning assault rifles.

Critics saw this as an emotive political stunt designed to garnish support from the left. Yet the majority of the public saw it for what it was – a pragmatic response to dealing with an attack that could have been avoided if our laws and processes had been better. 

Nine months later, White Island, a popular volcanic tourist attraction, erupted. 21 People died. 

Ardern was quick to console first responders and families affected, and showed great compassion in her speeches to the nation informing us how this tragedy occurred. 

So when it came to an international pandemic placing a chokehold on our borders and our economy, New Zealand had a tried and tested leader at the helm. 

What makes Ardern a trusted crisis manager is her clear and effective communication style. 

Her key messages pre, during, and post-lockdown – “team of 5 million” and “stay home, save lives” – are simple yet unifying. 

Constant communication and key messaging builds trust, and New Zealander’s quickly understood the impact COVID-19 could have on our country. No matter one’s political inclination, people trusted what she was saying to be true and necessary. 

Ardern’s honesty is also a major reason trust was shared between the Government and the public. Her daily media stand-ups with New Zealand’s Director-General of Health Dr. Ashley Bloomfield told New Zealanders like it is. There was no sugar coating our situation. 

From the outset, New Zealanders knew that breaking the lockdown rules would bring severe health and economic consequences. I think that’s one of the main reasons why we didn’t buy into ‘herd immunity’. We held a collective belief that one death was too many, and it was important that this belief was held at the top too.

New Zealand’s success in taking the pandemic seriously has also been built out of our willingness to accept expert advice. 

Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s Director-General of Health, has been at the centre of this, advising Ardern and the public through the pandemic. 

In an age of ‘fake news’, Bloomfield and other trusted independent experts such as Siouxsie Wiles, David Skegg, and Ayesha Verrall have been swift to cast aside inaccurate facts and provide people with evidence-based information.

Expert advice has been key to improving New Zealand’s response to COVID-19 and addressing issues that have arisen. The importance of this must not be underestimated.

Their popularity in New Zealand and effectiveness is a reflection of the commitment and service of the public servants and health professionals who have been integral to New Zealand’s health response. 

New Zealand’s response to COVID-19 has involved collaboration throughout all levels – Government, Ministry, Local government, and of course the public.  

In the post lockdown stages, Councils have worked hard to promote local businesses and ensure community services had the resources required to meet the need within our communities. 

While the Government handles the macroeconomic challenges of COVID-19, local governors have dealt with the financial fallout at the community level. 

As Mayor, this meant supporting the messages coming out of Central Government in order to lead an effective local response. I never thought I would be leading a city through a global pandemic, but what I have learnt is that an effective nation-wide response starts at the community level. 

Our communities know how to get behind a common goal when our economy, health system, and our livelihoods are at stake. 

When it matters, New Zealanders act collectively – and put political stripes aside. It’s who we are. 

This sentiment will subside – it’s an election year after all. 

However, when we look back on this pandemic that stopped the world, I’m proud to be part of our ”team of 5 million”. 

Campbell Barry is the Mayor of Lower Hutt – a city of 110,000 near New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington. He is a member of the New Zealand Labour Party and stood as a Labour Mayor when he ran for election last year. He tweets @Campbell_Barry

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