"Do not talk to your neighbors." New Zealand back on lockdown

Yoan Valat/Pool Photo via AP

It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on New Zealand and the “success” of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in “defeating the virus.” That’s because the residents of the small island nation have been largely free of any pandemic restrictions for months now. Of course, their tourism industry is all but destroyed and they’ve lost the majority of the foreign labor their businesses have traditionally relied on, but at least they kept the novel coronavirus at bay, right? Well, that all changed this week. There’s been a new outbreak and the country is back to living under some of the most stringent lockdown conditions seen anywhere outside of China. The restrictions are initially scheduled to run for three days (for now) across the entire country and one week in Aukland, their largest city. And how big was this “outbreak?” It was one case. (Reuters)

New Zealand’s city streets were largely deserted on Wednesday as the country returned to life in lockdown for the first time in six months in a bid to halt any spread of the infectious Delta variant of COVID-19.

New Zealand had been virus-free and living without restrictions until Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ordered a snap 3-day nationwide lockdown on Tuesday after a single case, suspected to be Delta, was found in the largest city Auckland.

Ardern on Wednesday confirmed the new case was the Delta variant and said there were now 5 confirmed cases in total, all linked to the original infection.

That’s right. This response was triggered by one positive test. Later they found five more, all linked to the first patient by contact tracing. The extent of the restrictions on the rest of the country is rather breathtaking. Local reporting shows that the government is putting people into a panic and telling them not to speak to or come close to any other human beings. The Kiwis are literally being instructed not to speak to their neighbors if they venture out of their homes. (Emphasis added)

Ardern announced that New Zealand’s Cabinet decided to raise the country’s COVID-19 threat level to Alert Level 4, under which public facilities, such as bars and restaurants, must close, and New Zealanders must stay home except for “essential personal movement.” This “Alert Level” also legally mandates that New Zealanders wear face coverings and maintain social distancing.

“We ask people to stay two meters away from anyone you pass, stay local, and do not congregate,” Ardern said in a press conference announcing the order. “Don’t talk to your neighbors. Please keep to your bubble.”

Keep to your bubble.” Run away from any human beings outside of those you live with.

There were reports of “panic-buying” and empty shelves in supermarkets in Aukland yesterday. (Very silent shopping, I would imagine.) And this was all the result of one 58-year-old guy testing positive, along with a literal handful of others who came in contact with him.

Amazingly, there was actually a brief bit of protesting in the capital city of Wellington after the announcement. But it was only a few dozen people and they broke up almost immediately after the police started arresting people. (For walking on a sidewalk carrying signs.)

Jacinda Ardern has done an admirable job of selling herself as the savior of New Zealand and the antiviral warrior who saved them all. She won her last election handily running on that image. What she’s almost entirely failed to do, however, is get her people vaccinated. Fewer than 20% of the population is fully vaccinated at this point. The country has one of the lowest COVID death rates on the planet, but it’s also distributed among the fewest doses on a per capita basis than almost any other developed nation.

How long can Ardern keep this up? Will the people finally wind up pushing back and demanding their freedom, or is the culture in New Zealand just that different from America’s? Time will tell. But at least for now, everyone is back in their homes, sitting alone, and hoping that nobody rats them out if they wave to their neighbors.