Green New Deal, Part VIII: New Zealand’s Zero-Covid-19 Strategy Shows how Politics Can Serve the Common Good
“What we need from you is to support one another. Go home tonight and check in on your neighbours. Start a phone tree with your street. Plan how you’ll keep in touch with one another. We will get through this together, but only if we stick together. Be strong and be kind,” said Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, as she prepared society to go into precautionary lockdown on March 23.
New Zealand dealt effectively with Covid-19, among many nordic European and east Asian countries. Ardern’s leadership had excelled after the Christchurch white supremacist terror attack in March of last year. But New Zealand is still no fairytale.
Critics at home assert that Ardern has not delivered on her 2017 electoral pledges to transform New Zealand by addressing the social and ecological crises we face.
Yet in context, comparing the country to countries that are failing on Covid-19, what’s happening here is like a different planet. New Zealand’s Covid-19 ethos offers a gateway toward organizing society for the common good, something essential for a green, just transformation.
A life-saving approach
When Covid-19 transmission occurred earlier this year, Ardern explained that New Zealand would lock down collectively. The message was clear: “Go hard, go early”. According to her statement, “Together, we must stop that happening, and we can… Our plan is simple. We can stop the spread by staying at home and reducing contact. We will continue to vigorously contact trace every single case.”
Importantly, actions supported words, and included encouraging community-based solidarity through micro-grants enabling people to help feed their neighbours, and encouraging people to act in bubbles, or mini-communities, to support one another.
Reflecting on the value of zero-Covid strategies globally, including in New Zealand, the Lancet journal highlighted four pillars of action:
- An effective find, test, trace, isolate, and support system.
- A clear and transparent plan.
- Extending social distancing (via ‘bubbles’, screens, face masks) after other restrictions are lifted.
- Robust auditing of infection rates before easing restrictions.
Jennifer Prah Ruger wrote for the British Medical Journal, about the correlation between governments “committed to the common good” and positive Covid-19 outcomes worldwide:
“These countries were able to respond quickly and effectively because they steep their responses in justice, recognising mutual interdependencies and shared vulnerabilities.”
By contrast, countries failing to deal with Covid-19 have generally ignored collective justice, interdependence and well-being, and not only with Covid-19.
Ending business as usual
One reason New Zealand dealt so effectively with Covid-19 was it ignored the false dilemma, which became popular elsewhere, between keeping the economy open or suppressing the virus. A zero-Covid strategy came first, meaning the economy could be reopened after the virus had been aggressively suppressed.
Effectively, New Zealand diverged from a key neoliberal tenet — enshrined for the last four decades — that all other concerns are subservient to the economy. Instead, collective public health came first, the logic being: if we don’t change business as usual, the virus will kill many of us. The country had an honest and open dialogue in which the pleader invited transparent conversation with the media and the broader public.
New Zealanders — along with citizens of other coronavirus-resilient countries — used science and other expertise to determine what to do and what to stop doing to protect life. Importantly, not only did New Zealand’s government say the right things, but actions substantiated rhetoric. The country disproved the argument that dealing effectively with a pandemic is worse for the economy. Today, unlike in many places, people of New Zealand can host and attend major sporting and cultural events along with other mass gatherings.
To deal with climate change, and other crises, we can build on the way New Zealand responded to Covid-19 to create a green transformation. Simply put, we need to base what we do in science. We must act collectively for the common good. Actions need to substantiate words. Universal well-being, including ecological, needs to come first.
The manner in which New Zealand has dealt with Covid-19, the approach Ardern took after the Christchurch white supremacy mass murder attacks (including bringing people together and establishing tighter gun control) and other positive stories can make the country seem like a political paradise. Yet New Zealand’s society still faces severe challenges.
What New Zealand should learn from itself
Before becoming PM, Arden said that dealing with climate change is “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”, August 2017.
New Zealand became a nuclear-free zone in the 1980s after a struggle that started in the 1950s. Yet, as PM, Ardern has failed to take strong action to support her rhetoric on climate change. Two key areas for concern are agriculture, where intense dairy farming means the sector is the nation’s largest source of emissions; and transport, the fastest growing sector for greenhouse gases.
Another promise Ardern made in her premiership was tackling child poverty, including building more social housing. But more work is needed. A scheme to build 100,000 homes in 10 years, called Kiwi-Build, was scrapped after her government said its plans were “too ambitious,” despite New Zealand facing a major housing crisis. Also, official figures looking back on Ardern’s first year in office only show a moderate reduction in child poverty rates, despite her promises.
Since these figures were compiled, Ardern’s government introduced a Families package, including support to target fuel poverty alongside other welfare support. Hopefully these figures continue to move in the right direction.
Yet to grapple with these problems and rebuild post-Covid-19, New Zealand must transform its economy with the energy it brought to fight the pandemic. Greenpeace New Zealand is hardly alone in suggesting that there are ready-to-go solutions. Four ideas include a basic income; insulating and eco-heating homes; rewilding; and attaching social and ecological stipulations to government bailouts.
There appears to be strong public support to implement a green and just recovery. A survey of over 1,000 New Zealanders, taken during lockdown, found that seven in 10 people want a clean, green and just recovery. The survey also revealed high support, around two-thirds, for greater investment in public transport, rewilding, developing clean technologies and building energy efficient homes.
Clearly, New Zealanders’ next challenge is to create the pressure on the government to deal with climate and social emergencies as they dealt with Covid-19.
Many places in the world need to realize, as New Zealand did, that tackling Covid-19 means rejecting business as usual to stop unnecessary deaths. Once countries start this shift, dealing with the climate crisis may become less of a faraway undertaking.