How New Zealand Is Beating the Coronavirus Pandemic

The countries doing the best against the virus have one thing in common: They are all led by women.

Florida is a red-hot COVID zone, Texas is on a one-way ride up the infection escalator and California is reversing course after early lockdown success. Together, these three states make up 20 percent of all new global coronavirus cases. The United States is a pandemic-policy mess, and the whole world is watching the meltdown.

Not every nation, however, is experiencing Washington’s infighting, chaotic approach and inability to implement a nationally coordinated pandemic response. New Zealand is an odd exception in a coronavirus world in turmoil.

How did such a small place take on such a big role on the world stage to lead the fight against infection’s spread throughout its country?

Basically, there are two reasons: First, it had an almost airtight month-long lockdown during which only supermarkets and pharmacies remained open. Second, the population trusted its public leadership and complied with strict safety protocols. Pretty basic. As a result, on June 7, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand had “eliminated transmission of the virus.”

New Zealand’s government and public-health officials were not alone in clearly articulating the problem and getting their people to accept and implement tough behavior. Greece and Iceland, both heavily reliant on tourism, swallowed the bitter pill of shutting out visitors and closing down commercial activity. While Iceland has the population of a small American city, Greece has more than twice the number of people of New Zealand.

Greece deserves international accolades for its COVID-19 response, especially since the country is surrounded by threats and still recovering from economic depression. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, for example, simultaneously is controlling the virus’s spread and managing refugees weaponized by Turkey to enter into his country. Unlike Greece, island nations can more easily manage who gets in and out of the country. New Zealand has totally shut down.

New Zealand may also seem exceptional because its distantly remote location has kept it safe during this global crisis. That geographic isolation has given Silicon Valley entrepreneurs an earthbound survival destination. In fact, it’s where hardcore 2016 Trump supporter Peter Thiel, who founded PayPal and Palantir, plansto escape the global apocalypse. It’s unclear what his plan will be to escape the effects of climate change or nuclear fallout, but at least New Zealand will be a kinder, gentler place than the venture capital centers of the world.

Marianne Williamson, who ran in the Democratic presidential primary, recognized New Zealand as a special haven. At the Miami debate, Williamson challenged Ardern’s goal to make New Zealand “the best place in the world to be a child.” Author-candidate Williamson boldly asserted the next U.S. president should earn this title for America. A tough sell but a noble goal for the USA, especially when it comes to issues like kids and guns. Just ask the grieving family of Jace Young, a 6-year old Black child randomly shot dead in his San Francisco neighborhood on Independence Day.

New Zealand is not immune to gun violence. In March 2019, it experienced a horrific, racist shooting at two mosques that left 51 people dead. The response? The country made assault weapons illegal. Parliament voted 119–1 in favor of the weapons ban similar to one once in force in the United States. Even after that terror attack, most New Zealand police still don’t carry guns.

Policies in nations such as New Zealand may seem distant and irrelevant to big industrial nations, but its size and remote location have not divorced it from geopolitics. Far from it. It is a critical partner to a consortium known as The Five Eyes — five English-speaking nations that have coalesced around common security concerns and intelligence sharing.

The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand are part of the same-secrets club, recognizing that it is not only a common language that binds them, but also a shared commitment to democratic values, universal human rights and free markets. The language commonality means that they operate relatively seamlessly across national boundaries. They may not all spell “color” the same way, but they do see “colours” similarly, although Wellington clearly saw COVID’s red warning signs to which other anglophones were blind.

New Zealand’s overall pandemic response and vigilance has kept the virus at bay for two-and-a-half months. It’s easy to credit its distant isolation and adherent society, but some focus on a special leadership characteristic: Women get the job done.

A popular meme credits multiple nations led by women as being more effective in managing a nation in crisis. Prime Minister Ardern makes the list along with Germany, Taiwan, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Not a bad line-up of successful women leaders, especially when they are juxtaposed against more than a few presidents and prime ministers who have failed miserably in the age of the coronavirus.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.