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Like most Britons this past year, I’ve spent more time than I care to admit doomscrolling social media. But in between the muted festive lockdown celebrations, I also saw photos of crowded house parties, family barbecues and road trips to baches and beaches. My social feeds have split into alternate realities. Because although I’m a British citizen living in Oxford, I’m also a resident of New Zealand, where things really couldn’t be more different.
As a resident of two countries, with friends and family in each, I’m used to witnessing events and political developments in both places at once. Usually this experience is a rewarding one where new ideas and cultural differences cross-pollinate in my brain and expand the way I see the world. But in 2020 it’s been an exercise in frustration. The torture of watching how one country has handed the Covid pandemic so well, while living in another that has bungled it so badly, has been one of the defining characteristics of my past year.
By now the whole world knows the tale of New Zealand’s success. The difference of approach was obvious even at the beginning of the crisis. Announcing a lockdown on 23 March, Jacinda Ardern took a firm line, telling the country that the worst-case scenario of thousands of deaths was “simply intolerable” and that her government “will not take that chance”. It was a marked contrast to Boris Johnson, who, in a recorded televised address 10 days earlier, had announced that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”.
Both prime ministers were true to their word. Despite the virus entering local transmission in New Zealand, the swift actions of Ardern’s government to close borders meant that to date only 25 people have died from Covid-19. Compare that with Britain, where hospital admissions are now higher than in the peak of the first wave, and the death count is spiralling again. No eradication strategy has ever been mentioned, and the number of deaths – more than 75,000 so far – is inexcusable.
And yet excuses are what us Brits make. Any time I raise the comparison, it’s as if I’m deliberately going out of my way to undermine the myth of British exceptionalism. The reply is: New Zealand only did it because it’s remote, it’s small, it’s empty. But it’s far from the only country that has managed to keep the virus at bay. Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand – all countries with larger, higher-density populations – have all suppressed it, too.
The subtext is, Britain couldn’t have avoided this situation. Even some of those who are usually critical of the Tories’ handling of the pandemic are oddly quiet on this point. The government’s doing the best it can. But for me, living between the two countries, I know that their best isn’t good enough – that it’s not even good. While Brits can hardly believe people are going to gigs in Auckland, I wake up to their Instagram stories. And for every one of Johnson’s press conferences where he fails to effectively communicate anything between his nationalistic bombast and Churchillian turns of phrase, there are many more when Ardern confidently and clearly unpicked the situation for the nation.
When Johnson dithered over whether to keep schools open, Britain felt gloomier than ever. With a third lockdown ordered, we’re scarcely better off now than we were in March. And winter has made things even harder. It feels especially galling queuing outside a supermarket in sub-zero temperatures, or going for a run in the rain because gyms have been closed yet again. At this stage, I’d give anything to have a healthy slice of Wellington normality, good day or no.
It is clear to me that these alternate realities aren’t just dumb luck or geographical good fortune. They are the result of different political choices. The virus arrived on Kiwi shores in the exact same way it did around the world. And it continues to do so on a regular basis with returning New Zealanders, who head straight into isolation. Already six cases of the new highly infectious variants have been apprehended in managed isolation facilities on arrival from the UK and South Africa.
The crucial difference is that, unlike in Britain, nothing is left to chance. Ardern drew a red line. Her government was resolute. In “going hard, going early”, the lives of New Zealanders were paramount.
Everyone in the world has been reminded of the power the state has to reshape our lives. For us Brits that power has been the regional tier system, shutting shops and pubs, paying or not paying wages in the furlough scheme, deciding whether or not you can get a haircut. But in New Zealand, political power used well has created a whole alternate reality – the old normal that we in Britain so long for. The lesson is not that New Zealand is a lucky country, but that with good governance nations make their own luck.
• Todd Atticus is an artist and designer, living in Oxford, England. He worked on the New Zealand Labour party’s 2020 election campaign
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Watching New Zealand’s Covid success from bungling Britain has been torture | Coronavirus