Commentary: An ex-pat Atlantan and former CDC staffer on what we could learn from nearly coronavirus-free New Zealand

"It is a strange time to be an American and former CDC staffer living in New Zealand," says Rachel Blacher

New Zealand COVID-19 response
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference at Parliament on May 27.

Photograph by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

My children are back at school. We eat out at restaurants. No one wears masks, and no one is concerned. This isn’t a wild dream; this is New Zealand.

It is a strange time to be an American and former CDC staffer living in New Zealand. When my family moved to here in January, I had no idea that we would soon be living in the first country to eliminate COVID-19 while my home country fumbled its response. Now, as the United States continues re-opening amid reports of rising infections, no clear national strategy to address the pandemic, and more than 120,000 Americans dead, New Zealand has successfully eliminated transmission of COVID-19 within the country and is resuming life as normal. New Zealand’s success can be completely attributed to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s data-driven approach and compassionate leadership.

“Go hard, go early”
In the days leading up to her decision to close international borders and implement a shelter-in-place order for the entire country, Prime Minister Ardern received data and guidance from her government and external public health experts to understand the impact that the novel coronavirus would have on New Zealanders. Even under the best modeled scenarios, there was an expected high percentage of infections, overwhelming utilization of hospitals, and loss of life. The Prime Minister made the right decision to “go hard, go early” by imposing a four-week lockdown on March 25, when there were still very few cases in the country, with an ambitious goal to eliminate transmission of the virus. Making that decision was undoubtedly hard because there were so many variables and, in the end, could have been for naught. Former U.S. Secretary of State Michael Leavitt described this quandary best when he said, “Anything said in advance of a pandemic seems alarmist. After a pandemic begins, anything one has said or done is inadequate” Using the best information she had, Prime Minister Ardern prioritized the health and well-being of her “team of five million” and in doing so, saved lives.

Even though COVID-19 transmission in country has ceased, New Zealand’s next challenge is keeping new cases from arriving and spreading. International flights to New Zealand for citizens and residents have resumed and with that, the likelihood that returning New Zealanders could be infected. To help limit spread, the government has set up a quarantine program to ensure that all international arrivals are moved to a government-monitored hotel for two weeks. After an initial stumble with this approach, the government has tightened its process for ensuring that people do not enter the country until they are confirmed virus-free.

In contrast, the United States’s national response lagged from the beginning, despite data indicating that a pandemic would wreak havoc in the U.S., with national leadership missing windows of opportunity to prepare, shut down travel, and implement social restrictions before the virus took hold and spread rapidly across the country. What’s most unforgivable is that despite the novel and tricky nature of the virus, the United States would have been better prepared for this scenario had President Trump not defunded government efforts to plan for pandemics.

Compassionate communication
Much has been written about the Prime Minister’s capacity for empathy and compassion in times of national crisis. Her approach to COVID-19 was no different. In late March when Ardern introduced the four-level alert system, she consistently included language reminding New Zealanders to be kind and take care of each other. Later that week, as the country went into lockdown (a shelter-in-place order, with no exceptions to leave one’s home except for to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy), the Prime Minister logged onto Facebook Live after putting her toddler to bed, in a casual sweatshirt, and spoke to the country in a way that was entirely compassionate and personal; instantly, she was one of us.

Jacinda Ardern’s prepared and unscripted remarks were so effective because she instinctively recognized the severity of the situation. People were frightened. Everyone’s world was being turned on its head. Her empathy and compassion reminded us that she was one of us and we were in it together.

Because of Prime Minister Ardern’s leadership, New Zealand has eliminated the virus with little dissension, and we are resuming our lives, albeit somewhat differently. My kids have returned to school. We shop as normal, except that there is hand sanitizer in front of each store. And we still do contact tracing, just in case. Contact tracing happens at every building and store, either via an app or writing in your name and phone number. The burden is minimal, and the benefit is that our lives feel normal.

To be sure, it is much easier for a remote island nation with a population of five million to close down their borders, test their population, and isolate and eliminate the virus. Certainly, New Zealand’s geography and demography is an asset. However, there is no reason that any country with significant resources and infrastructure, like the United States, couldn’t also use Ardern’s approach.

And New Zealand didn’t get everything right from the very beginning. Early on, the case definition for testing was narrow; resulting in a limited number of tests. Within a couple of weeks, the government expanded the case definition so that anyone could be tested to determine if community spread was occurring. In doing so, the country has managed to test five percent of the population. Finally, challenges in keeping the disease at bay remain. The government will need to refine and improve its process for allowing Kiwi nationals back into the country while also ensuring that they do not bring the virus with them.

It is anyone’s guess how the United States will fare with the virus over the next few weeks and months. What’s most vexing is that the United States, and my home state of Georgia, keeps fumbling in management of the virus. The Trump Administration seems to discount any scientifically driven national response that doesn’t prioritize the economy. Governor Kemp’s office has been called out for muffing the state’s data tracking during the pandemic.

If there’s a second wave of COVID-19 this fall, let’s hope federal and state governments respond more compassionately and effectively. Regardless, November will give voters an opportunity to respond.

Rachel Blacher is a public health professional who worked with the CDC before moving to New Zealand in early 2020.