Just this week, New Zealand’s prime minister declared the country virus-free and lifted all COVID-19 restrictions. Meanwhile other countries, including the United States, continue to see an increase in new cases.
What did New Zealand do that worked so well? How can other nations learn from their experience?
“New Zealand probably had the toughest lockdown and criteria anywhere in the world,” said Michelle Dickinson, founder of Nanogirl Labs, based in New Zealand. “(They) decided to act early, to communicate really well with the public, and were very clear about what we were going to do, how we were going to do it, and what was coming so people could plan, so they didn’t have to panic by not know what was going to happen next week.”
Dickinson was part of a discussion held recently that addressed ways in which New Zealand has established effective responses to the pandemic and concerns regarding a possible second wave of cases.
“We locked down where the only things that were allowed to open were the supermarkets and the pharmacies,” continued Dickinson. “We did that for four solid weeks. For us and the citizens abiding by that actually meant that we were able to really get a hold of the virus, eliminate the virus, and now are living relatively free again.”
There was no lack of debate against the lockdown, however. Like in Europe and the Americas, New Zealand had its critics, but the constant flow of information and sharing of data models used to make decisions had an effect on public reception to those decisions, Dickinson and Gilbert say. They agreed that citizens, when informed, seemed to feel that they were being made a part of the efforts against the pandemic’s spread.
“We were able to listen to Prime Minister [Jacinda] Ardern’s press conferences and listen to her talk to the people,” said Mark Gilbert, former U.S. ambassador to New Zealand. “You could tell she was taking the current data, making decisions, and doing what she, the cabinet, felt were right for the people of New Zealand.”
According to Gilbert, New Zealand has been successful in combating the pandemic because of how quickly data was obtained and subsequently applied in preventative measures such as the strict lockdown. The people of New Zealand felt a sense of security knowing the thought processes behind every step towards flattening the curve.
“That’s not the case all around the world,” said Gilbert. “There are people that don’t know where their next meal’s coming from. We literally have had 2-mile-long lines of people in their car waiting to pick up food.”
Gilbert also believes that due to a multitude of factors – people out of work, people not having food, people who don’t have daycare for their kids when they return to work – it may take significantly longer to beat COVID-19 than what people believe, and the world hasn’t addressed these “side effects” appropriately.
Despite this, there must be a level of persistent optimism during every step towards overcoming the pandemic. The technology of the future as a product of this pandemic is one such hopeful prospect.
“One of the things I’ve been experiencing as part of future technology is virtual reality,” said Dickinson. “Maybe the future of sports and spectatorship as we know it – this is the time for it to change. This is when you get to be on the pitch and see the ball or be on the boat or all the other things – so it’s not necessarily a bad time, maybe it’s a time of transition to a technology.”
The webinar was hosted by the Steven J. Green School of Public and International Affairs as part of the Dorothea Green Lecture Series.
Watch the full discussion – “Managing the Pandemic: How New Zealand Got It Right” – below.