Konstantin Richter is a contributing writer at POLITICO. He is the author of the German-language novel, “The Chancellor: A Fiction,” about Angela Merkel and the refugee crisis.
AUCKLAND, New Zealand — New Zealand, the first major country to see the sun rise every day, may also be the first to get a good look at life after COVID-19.
On Thursday, its 5 million citizens woke up to a reality both different and familiar, as relaxed rules come into effect. They can flock to the beaches and parks. They can meet in cafés and restaurants. They may even hug, because the country’s top health official, a serious-minded man called Ashley Bloomfield, said that a careful hug given to family members or close friends would be OK.
And why not? While most of the world remains in the grips of a deadly pandemic, New Zealanders can take comfort from the fact that they are close to eliminating the virus. Less than 100 people have it, and in the past couple of days there were no new cases at all. Seven weeks after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern imposed harsh restrictions to contain the coronavirus, the nation will go back to something resembling normal life. But what exactly is normal in a post-pandemic society?
Knowing there was little dissent, Ardern’s government ignored concerns that elements of the lockdown might have been illegal.
The rest of the world would be well-advised to watch. With its borders closed, New Zealand operates under laboratory conditions. What will the fallout be — politically, culturally, economically? How will personal relationships change? Which businesses will fail, which ones will survive? Is government becoming more authoritarian? Has the age of globalization come to an end?
Some lessons learned will be universal. Others, I suspect, will be specific to New Zealand, an island nation, remote and sparsely populated, that defies comparison.
* * *
I left my hometown Berlin at the beginning of March. I had witnessed the early days of the onslaught. Cluelessness and confusion. Uneasy jokes. And then, rather suddenly, a sense of doom.
We had planned our trip to New Zealand some months before the virus was known. My wife and daughters were going to go for longer, I would join them for three weeks. Because I expected to be back soon, I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. I didn’t put out the recycling. I didn’t even pack a coat. And yet, when I boarded the near-empty plane and wiped the foldout table with disinfectant, I realized that this was going to be a trip like no other.
New Zealand had five confirmed cases, all linked to international travel, when I arrived. I noticed that no one was talking about the virus yet — the fear had not set in. It was strange. I had traveled for 27 hours but I felt like I had gone back in time and gained a month. Then, when I had just settled in, the numbers in New Zealand started to rise. Borders were shut, and the mood changed abruptly. Knowing that these were still early days, I thought that New Zealand might have a shot at eliminating COVID-19.
Still, I was surprised when Ardern announced sweeping emergency measures. I had seen how European leaders had responded to the virus, acting only once the need to take action became blatantly obvious. Going into a nationwide lockdown at such an early stage seemed bold. And the restrictions were tough: no meetings with friends, no traveling by car unless it was to go shopping for food or medicine.
“We only have 102 cases,” Ardern said in way of explanation. “But so did Italy once.” On the eve of lockdown, we drove to a popular beach, a vast stretch of white sand, eerily empty.
* * *
When Ardern made her announcement — starting the clock on four long weeks of confinement, that would later be extended by another three — she said government modelling showed tens of thousands of deaths. This was a worst-case scenario, perhaps even a scare tactic.
If so, it did the trick. New Zealanders didn’t complain, they didn’t protest, they simply followed the rules. When the health minister, of all people, took his family for a 20-minute-ride to the beach, he was demoted. “I expect better,” Ardern said. “And so does New Zealand.”
A well-known journalist here once wrote a book about New Zealand called “The passionless people.” It was meant to be a withering critique of the national character: indifferent, unemotional, complacent. Be that as it may, now, in the midst of a major crisis, a certain calmness seems to have served New Zealanders well.
Tucked away safely, at a distance of some 18,000 kilometers, I followed the news back home where Berliners were openly flouting the rules. Photos of our local park, the Weinbergspark, circulated on social media. It was packed.
As the crisis progressed, Germany’s sense of national unity faded. More and more people began to question the measures and to vent their frustration at the government, at the medical profession and at a virologist called Christian Drosten, who has emerged as the nation’s top authority on COVID-19.
When I got fed up with all of those angry opinion pieces claiming German democracy was under attack, I turned off the internet and went for a solitary walk. Just to see what our neighbors in New Zealand were doing. The soothing song of lawn mowers filled the air.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ardern have been praised internationally, lumped together as shining examples of female leadership in times of crisis. Actually, they were a world apart.
Merkel communicated sparsely. “Take the virus seriously because it is serious,” she said in a rare speech to the nation, sounding like a good friend who has sound advice but doesn’t want to impose. Part of Merkel’s problem is a federal system that delegates a lot of authority to the regional states. Another is that the country remains bitterly divided over her response to the refugee crisis a few years ago. A vocal minority doesn’t trust her anymore.
Ardern, on the other hand, is drawing on a strong base of support for her crisis management after the Christchurch mosque shootings a year ago. This time, too, she was resolute and confident, emotional and pragmatic. The messages she reiterated in daily press conferences have turned into catchphrases. “Stay home.” “Be kind.” “We must go hard, and we must go early.”
Knowing there was little dissent, Ardern’s government ignored concerns that elements of the lockdown might have been illegal. Last week, a top adviser even told ministers they shouldn’t bother giving interviews to journalists, arguing there was no need.
Ardern’s approach, when compared to Merkel’s, seems almost authoritarian. But her enormous popularity worked in her favor. Faced with a once-in-a-lifetime-crisis, most voters decided to trust her.
Something else stood out to me, in comparing coverage of the crisis in both places.
A lengthy pause could give people an opportunity to reconsider how much globalization they really want.
The German dead remained anonymous. They were numbers in a utilitarian equation: How many lives are we willing to sacrifice for the greater good of re-opening?
In the New Zealand papers, every single loss of life was mourned individually. “A real Kiwi bloke,” read the headline of one obituary.
I realize, of course, that comparing a country of 80 million, located in the heart of Europe, to a Pacific island nation of 5 million is unfair in oh so many ways. The difference is both quantitative and qualitative. When I Zoomed with a Berlin friend of mine, a philosopher, he summed it up neatly: “New Zealand is a community, not a society.”
* * *
Thousands of Germans found themselves stranded in New Zealand when the lockdown came. Camping holidays, honeymoon travels and trips-of-a-lifetime all ended abruptly. Lufthansa offered repatriation flights, organized by Germany’s foreign ministry.
In mid-April, the last A380 left Auckland, taking a valedictory lap over the city. The city’s Sky Tower responded in kind, shining in black, red and gold, the colors of the German flag. But the mood on the ground was somber.
People knew that years might pass before a supersized jumbo-jet plane — a symbol of globalization — would visit again. A nation that had gotten used to millions of overseas visitors, was suddenly on its own.
Being rid of the pandemic is a blessing, of course. In the midst of a global health emergency, “100 Percent Pure New Zealand” — the well-known brand campaign, devised by the country’s tourism industry — takes on a whole new meaning.
But purity poses its own challenges. A zero-tolerance-policy, once established, cannot be abandoned. International borders will remain closed indefinitely. (Travel to and from Australia may be allowed sooner.) If no vaccine is found and other nations learn to live with the virus, eventually gaining herd immunity, New Zealand will be the odd one out.
Some New Zealanders believe that, given the circumstances, isolation has its merits. For a while now, there has been a backlash against the ills of globalization, against mass tourism, foreign investors and rising real-estate prices. A lengthy pause could give people an opportunity to reconsider how much globalization they really want. Or, indeed, how little.
Self-reliance is at the heart of the country’s identity. The notion that New Zealanders are most innovative when left to their own devices even has a name here. It’s called “Kiwi ingenuity.”
And yet, turning back the clocks is, by definition, a tricky thing. Over the past few decades, New Zealand has opened itself up to all kinds of foreign influences. Gourmet food. High-tech investors. International students and visiting professors. Some of these influences are mostly benign, some not so much. But I imagine that few New Zealanders would want the country to head back into the dark ages of utter remoteness.
Plus, New Zealand depends on tourism and trade more than isolationists may realize. Productivity growth, a key measure of economic performance, has been lagging for years. Economists argue that a virus-free New Zealand needs more global trade and foreign investment, not less, if it wants to weather the coming crisis.
One idea was floated by Simon Kuper, a columnist with the Financial Times in London, who wrote that international corporations might want to move jobs to a virus-free New Zealand. Teams or entire departments could come here, go into a mandatory quarantine and then work remotely from a safe haven. In that scenario, New Zealand would turn into a kind of home office for global business.
Which reminds me of a joke that my daughters keep telling because they love being here. It goes: God was spotted in New Zealand. Someone asks: “What are you doing in Aotearoa, God?” “Working from home, bro!”
* * *
For weeks, time in New Zealand seemed to stand still. Government officials hammered home the same messages. “Be nice.” “Let’s finish what we started.” “We cannot put the gains we made at risk.” New Zealanders took note and complied.
Then, over the past week or so, the mood shifted. On sunny Saturday, the beaches were suddenly teeming with people. One ice-cream truck on a playground in Hamilton gained particular notoriety for attracting queues. Given recent data, people probably anticipated what Ardern would announce on Monday: a move from Alert Level 3 to Alert Level 2, a return to something resembling “normal life.”
Virus or not, the coming economic crisis is not going to spare New Zealanders.
Political debates, muted for most of the lockdown period, are back, too. Ardern’s hardline stance is coming under scrutiny. Some critics argue that the lockdown had no solid legal basis. Others claim that it was needlessly tough on the economy. Still others point to an alleged arrogance in dealing with the media.
There’s dissent. And that’s good. Because it goes to show that democracy is not in jeopardy when people recognize a crisis for what it is and temporarily set aside their differences.
What’s next? As New Zealand partially re-opens Thursday, people will have to take stock of the damage, the businesses sunk, jobs lost. Virus or not, the coming economic crisis is not going to spare New Zealanders.
But they will have reasons for hope, too, because the country enters the recession on a positive note. Getting rid of the pandemic is an achievement. New Zealand will have a head start on rebuilding its economy.
When the German government offered repatriation flights last month, we couldn’t go because we had valid tickets for a commercial flight in late April. Then, that flight was canceled, and we got vouchers instead. So we’re still here. We’re planning to go back soon. But it won’t be today or tomorrow.