This year, New Zealand completed a “moonshot” that is the envy of most other nations – the coronavirus was removed.
But, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern revealed in an interview with The Associated Press, the target was motivated as much by anxiety as ambition.
She said the purpose developed out of an early awareness that the health care system of the country clearly could not accommodate a major outbreak.
And along the way, there have been several stumbling blocks. Ms. Ardern faced exaggerated allegations from the U.S. when a handful of unexplained cases appeared in August. “It’s over for New Zealand. It’s all over.”For New Zealand, it’s over. It’s all over.
“Was angry the word?” Ms. Ardern said, commenting on the remarks made by Mr. Trump. She said that while the new cases were profoundly troubling, “to be described in that way was a misrepresentation of New Zealand’s position.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment immediately.
The response of New Zealand to the virus, along with the steps taken by China, Taiwan and Thailand at the start of the pandemic, has been one of the most effective.
The country of 5 million counted only 25 deaths and managed to control the Covid-19 outbreak, allowing people to return without restrictions to their work, schools and packed sports stadiums.
When the virus started reaching Europe earlier this year, Ms. Ardern said that herd immunity or flattening the curve were the only two choices countries considered. She preferred the latter.
“Originally, we started doing it because there just wasn’t a view that elimination was possible,” she said.
But her thought changed fast.
“I remember my science advisor bringing me a graph that showed me what flattening the curve would look like for New Zealand. And where our hospital and healthcare capacity was. And the curve was not below that line. So we knew that flattening the curve wasn’t going to do it for us.”
Ms. Ardern said she was not worried that elimination would prove impractical, since the strategy would still have saved lives even if New Zealand didn’t hit the goal.
She said, “The alternative is to set a lower target and then still fail,”
The disease was eliminated in March by border closures and a strict lockout, and New Zealand went 102 days without spreading to the population. But then came the August outbreak, which remains unknown but possibly occurred overseas, in Auckland.
“We thought we were past the worst of it. And so it was a real psychological blow to people. And I felt that as well. So it was very, very hard,” said Ms. Ardern.
She said they went through different scenarios of an outbreak, but what happened was “virtually the worst you could possibly imagine.”
That’s because in heavily populated areas, she said, the disease had spread across many communities, and those who had been affected had been at large church gatherings.
But New Zealand has brought the disease back under control after a second lockdown in Auckland.
Ms. Ardern said she felt positive in her responses, but in her position as leader, she often felt a touch of imposter syndrome.
“You’ve just got to keep driving. There is a job to do,” she said. “When as a person I have self-doubt, it doesn’t mean that I always doubt what needs to be done.
Ms. Ardern faced an electoral battle two months after the second eruption. In a landslide, she secured a second term, with her Labour Party securing a majority of all votes, something that last occurred in the multiparty system of New Zealand in 1951.
Ms. Ardern said she hoped for enhanced ties between the two nations after seeing President-elect Joe Biden win the U.S. election shortly afterwards.
Her role is to develop good relationships with each chief, she said.
“But there’s no question that it’s easier when some of the ideas and values are similar,” she said. “And that’s, I think, the basis on which we will build the relationship with the new president.”