On 28 February 2020, the New Zealand authorities were confirming the country’s “first” Covid-19 case. “PANDEMONIUM”, wrote the New Zealand Herald from its first page. Aucklanders made a dash for the supermarkets, according to the same paper, cleaning out toilet paper supplies and gridlocking the city’s major transport nodes. The government was advising national caution after barring travellers from China earlier that month and organising repatriation flights for New Zealanders through the next.
Four weeks later, on 25 March 2020, the country went into a nationwide lockdown.
On 28 February 2021, exactly a year after recording the first case, Aucklanders were sent into another level 3 lockdown only two weeks after the last one. This time, after testing found a further case in the Papatoetoe cluster, the news was met with a shrug and a sigh. Again? The first lockdown in March 2020 had all the high drama of politics – a national purpose – but after a second and third lockdown Aucklanders know the drill. This is life in 2021, and we lockdown to protect just that: people’s lives.
This is what distinguishes New Zealand from other, less successful countries. The government’s lockdowns come with a social license and the requirements of each level – from the soft limits at alert level 2 to the hard limits at alert levels 3 and 4 – come with a remarkable social consent. Perhaps this is something to do with New Zealanders’ nature. We hate making a fuss. The typical person is more likely to eat around an undercooked chicken than risk sending it back and creating a scene. Any child who went through primary school between the 1940s and 1990s knows instinctively how to “form a line”. New Zealanders like doing as they’re told, and we prefer to avoid confrontations of any kind.
But good habits are no protection against a pandemic, especially the virulent strains arriving at the border. Instead New Zealand’s success is structural. Our parliament is unicameral, meaning it contains only one law-making chamber, and our executive – the cabinet and public services departments Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern leads – is uniquely powerful. That means decisions, like a national or regional lockdown, can happen quickly and efficiently. In the US and parts of Europe decision-making is diffuse (read: slow) and any delay or indecision is an ally of the virus buying it time to spread, mutate, and do its deadly work.
New Zealand’s highly centralised government, though, can do its work at speed. Between 28 February and 25 March 2020, Ardern’s government would close the country’s borders, fly thousands of citizens and residents who were overseas back home, confirm the four-level alert system, formulate economic support measures like the wage subsidy, and implement a comprehensive “elimination strategy” that was the envy of the world. Last week the government was working at the same speed, confirming the active community case on Saturday and moving Auckland to alert level 3 come 6am the next day.
This time Aucklanders, and the rest of New Zealand which is at alert level 2, met the change without fuss or drama (which is quintessentially Kiwi, of course). The last year feels strangely timeless. As if we are, collectively, stuck in a holding pattern. In some ways, it’s a version of hell, cycling in and out of different alert levels as if you were struck in an airport waiting lounge where the next flight never departs. Yet in other ways it’s as if time is moving quicker than ever. At the University of Otago, where I work, approximately 4,000 students are starting their first week of university and most will do so from an online classroom. “The future” (in this case, of learning) is here – only much faster than we were told.
But with the vaccine rolling out at the border and in South Auckland, where those border workers tend to live, the year March 2020 to March 2021 might seem like nothing more than a fever dream. Time, and ordinary life, can resume. When it does, we’ll have Aucklanders (particularly South Aucklanders) to thank for containing the virus all that time. And we can confirm that our government – and, importantly – its structure – are worth keeping.