New Zealand’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic under the leadership of Jacinda Ardern and the labour party has arguably been the best in the world. The strength of a government can be defined by how well it cares for its people, and New Zealand has done exceptionally well under that definition. The island nation of almost 5 million had around 1000 active cases in mid-March and managed to virtually eradicate the virus by the end of May.(1) The country was COVID free for 102 days before a new outbreak in early August.(2) New Zealand’s success dealing with coronavirus is strongly tied to its competency as a democracy. New Zealand has a near perfect Freedom House score of 97/100, and the 3 points against it are due to historical and systematic discrimination against the Maori population which the current administration is prioritizing for the next term.(3) The parliament has been very responsive to its peoples needs and has emphasized transparency in its Coronavirus response. New Zealand has a strong multiparty system which has, so far, always relied on a coalition in parliament making sure that no one party can dominate decision making. By acting quickly, efficiently, and putting its people first when dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic New Zealand has demonstrated that by prioritizing its citizenry a government will be more successful in the long term than if elected official prioritizes themselves
When compared to other nations, New Zealand’s coronavirus response has been exemplary. So far the United States has had over 200,000 deaths and at no point was a mandatory lockdown put in place; whereas New Zealand’s response was immediate and forceful. On March 23rd, just after surpassing 100 cases of coronavirus, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a total lockdown to begin two days later.(4) The lockdown period in New Zealand mandated no social contact with anyone outside of one’s own household for six weeks.(5) To deal with the financial strain imposed on people by stopping industry wage subsidies were made available three days after the lockdown was put in place.(6) The New Zealand strategy had the intent of stopping transmissions altogether, not merely to keep transmission rates low–as most other Western countries tried to do– and it worked brilliantly for the nation. Ardern stressed transparency and caution while dealing with coronavirus, holding weekly facebook live events to update the people on what was going on.(7) Restrictions started to loosen in late April, and by mid May things are mostly back to normal. The day most restrictions ended, May 14th, the government announced a $50 billion recovery package. Schools, businesses, and even sports facilities were able to reopen safely. The health authorities also deemed it safe to allow gatherings of up to 100 people by late May.(8) It seemed as though New Zealand had managed to eradicate COVID-19 from its shores, and although there has been another small outbreak the country is doing much better than most other places in the world.
Jacinda Ardern is New Zealand’s 3rd female prime minister and was the world’s youngest head of government at the time of her inauguration in 2017. In the past few months multiple news outlets ran stories about how female led countries seem to be doing better than male led countries using Ardern as a key example. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic women leaders have tended to put a focus on preserving human life, acting quickly to shut down their borders.(9) There is not enough information to make a decisive claim, but it is still interesting to consider why female led countries may be handling the pandemic better. David A. Bell, the essay-ist who first observed the trend, posits that female leaders are combining “public empathy with political skills and technocratic know-how” instead of relying on strongman/victory mentality which treats the coronavirus pandemic as a war to win.(10) Another theory is that the female leaders themselves are not the reason for a better response but that if a nation that is forward thinking enough to elect a woman as a head of state it is less likely to have a body politic willing to put short-term economic stability over human lives.(11) Ardern’s strategy of prioritizing citizens and her initial quick and cautious reaction to Coronavirus has paid off for New Zealand.
The Labour party platform says “The best economic response to COVID-19 was a strong health response, and the results speak for themselves.”(12) Because most things in New Zealand have been able to return to basically normal their economy is in better shape than most places in the world. Still unemployment has risen to a high for this century, at nearly 10%, but New Zealand has put in place a thorough economic recovery plan.(13) In order to create jobs the Labour party made apprenticeship and trade programs free, started infrastructure initiatives with projects around the country, placed a special focus of sustainable energy projects, and created 11,000 “jobs for nature” that focus on maintaining the environment as they work towards their goal of 100% reliance on renewable energy by 2030.(14) Already 78% of the nation’s energy comes from hydroelectric power plants and other renewable sources.(15) No government can be a perfect democracy, but by continuing to strive to create a stronger nation New Zealand is demonstrating their ongoing commitment to democratic ideals.
Although not directly related to Coronavirus, this administration’s emphasis on Maori relations and breaking down systematic barriers shows the same prioritization of the people that they demonstrated with their health response. Under the Labor party New Zealand is putting more emphasis on the long neglected Maori community and working towards making sure that Maori interests are fully represented in the historically very white parliament.(16) Inclusiveness, meaning the number of people who are able to participate in government, is one of the two key factors in Robert Dahl’s definition of democracy: as a nation gets more inclusive and as it creates more room for public contestation the stronger a democracy becomes.(17) By starting an office of Maori Crown Relations and channeling funding into reforms,(18) the Labour party is showing how even though they are already one of the most equitable and stable democracies in the world they want to do better.
The people are pleased with their government. Public opinion polls taken regarding the upcoming election rank Ardern’s popularity at 54% while the opposition candidate has 18% support.(19) In many Western countries (like France, Sweden, the US, and Germany to name a few) populist parties have been gaining traction and political polarization has been on the rise. New Zealand on the other hand is more united than ever and the populist party “New Zealand First” might not win any parliamentary seats in the upcoming October election.(20) Due in part to the Labour party’s success in dealing with Corona, this election may be the first since the reorganization of the New Zealand government in 1995 that one party will have a straight majority in parliament– allowing the Labour party to dissolve the coalition that it currently has with the Green Party and New Zealand First.(21) Seymour Lipset theorizes that countries “which are high on the scales of both legitimacy and effectiveness, will clearly have stable political systems” because by filling the basic needs of their citizens they gain the trust and support of the people.(22) The case of New Zealand, and the Labour party in particular shows that a strong democracy that looks out for its people is profitable. A government that cares for its people is self stabilizing.
The thing that stands out about New Zealand’s government’s Coronavirus response is its dedication to the people. The administration currently in power has shaped their policy around saving lives rather than preserving economic interests, which would up being economically prudent in the long run. The Labour party platform is built around creating a more equitable and sustainable future for all citizens– they are still striving to perfect their democracy even though it is already more functional than most in the world.
1 Susan Strongman, “Covid-19 Pandemic Timeline.”
2 Pannett, “New Zealand Has Just One Remaining Case of Coronavirus.”
3 “New Zealand,” Freedom House.
4 Strongman, “Covid-19 Pandemic Timeline.”
5 Rachel Pannett, “New Zealand Has Just One Remaining Case of Coronavirus.”
6 “Our Policies.” New Zealand Labour Party, 2020.
7 Damien Cave, “Jacinda Ardern Sold a Drastic Lockdown With Straight Talk and Mom Jokes.”
8 Pannett, “New Zealand Has Just One Remaining Case of Coronavirus.”
9 Amanda Taub, “Why Are Women-Led Nations Doing Better With Covid-19?”
10 David A. Bell, “Why Female Leaders Are Faring Better than ‘Wartime Presidents’ against COVID-19.”
11 Taub, “Why Are Women-Led Nations Doing Better With Covid-19?”
12 “Our Policies.” New Zealand Labour Party, 2020.
13 Cave, “Jacinda Ardern Sold a Drastic Lockdown With Straight Talk and Mom Jokes.”
14 “Our Policies.” New Zealand Labour Party, 2020.
15 “The World Factbook: New Zealand.” Central Intelligence Agency.
16 “Our Policies.” New Zealand Labour Party, 2020.
17 Robert Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, 7.
18 “Our Policies.” New Zealand Labour Party, 2020.
19 Praveen Menon, “New Zealand’s Ardern Seen Cruising to Victory as Election Contest Heats Up.”
22 Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” 9.
Bell, David A. “Why Female Leaders Are Faring Better than ‘Wartime Presidents’ against COVID-19.” Fortune, August 20, 2020. https://fortune.com/2020/08/20/women-female-leaders-vs-wartime-president-trump-jacinda-ardern-angela-merkel-covid-19-coronavirus/
Cave, Damien. “Jacinda Ardern Sold a Drastic Lockdown With Straight Talk and Mom Jokes.” The New York Times, May 23, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/23/world/asia/jacinda-ardern-coronavirus-new-zealand.html?auth=login-email&login=email
Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” American Political Science Review 53(1): pp. 69-105.
Menon, Praveen. “New Zealand’s Ardern Seen Cruising to Victory as Election Contest Heats Up.” Reuters, September 22, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/newzealand-election/nz-ruling-labour-party-support-drops-in-poll-but-still-seen-winning-idINKCN26D0LL
“New Zealand.” Freedom House, 2020. https://freedomhouse.org/country/new-zealand/freedom-world/2020
“Our Policies.” New Zealand Labour Party, 2020. www.labour.org.nz/policy
Pannett, Rachel. “New Zealand Has Just One Remaining Case of Coronavirus.” The Wall Street Journal, May 31, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/new-zealand-has-just-one-remaining-case-of-coronavirus-11590917539
Strongman, Susan. “Covid-19 Pandemic Timeline.” Radio New Zealand, October 8, 2020. https://shorthand.radionz.co.nz/coronavirus-timeline/
Taub, Amanda. “Why Are Women-Led Nations Doing Better With Covid-19?” The New York Times, May 15, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/world/coronavirus-women-leaders.html “The World Factbook: New Zealand.” Central Intelligence Agency, February 1, 2018. www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook/geos/nz.html