How Covid Affected Jacinda Ardern’s Legacy as New Zealand Prime Minister – The Washington Post

How Covid Affected Jacinda Ardern’s Legacy as New Zealand Prime Minister – The Washington Post

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SYDNEY — Jacinda Ardern was on a work trip to a beach town in northern New Zealand almost exactly a year ago when her van was suddenly surrounded by anti-vaccination campaigners. They called the prime minister a “Nazi” for demanding that some workers get a coronavirus vaccine and chanted “shame on you”. Some shouted obscenities. When a car tried to block Ardern’s exit, her van had to pull over the curb to escape.

When asked about the incident a few days later, Ardern chuckled and shrugged.

“Every day brings new and different experiences in this job,” she said. “We are currently in an environment that is of an intensity that is unusual for New Zealand. I also believe that it will pass over time.”

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A little over a month later, however, protests outside Parliament against vaccination mandates literally erupted. Demonstrators set their own tents and gas canisters on fire. The protesters threw the same cobblestones at police on which they had written warnings to Ardern and other politicians that they would “hang them high”. More than 120 people were arrested.

Ardern didn’t shrug this time. Instead, she seemed angry and stunned.

“One day it will be our job to understand how a group of people could have succumbed to such wild and dangerous misinformation and disinformation,” she said.

In the end, New Zealand’s new era of intense rhetoric and dangerous disinformation will outlast Ardern, who on Thursday announced her resignation after more than five years in office.

“I know what this job needs,” said the 42-year-old in an emotional resignation speech. “And I know I don’t have enough in the tank left to do it justice.”

Ardern made no mention of the protests, the extreme rhetoric or the threats she faced. But she did mention the coronavirus pandemic. And in many ways, her handling of the health crisis was her greatest achievement, but it also made her a divisive figure in New Zealand.

“I think it’s probably going to be her greatest legacy,” said Michael Baker, an epidemiologist who served as an outside adviser to the Ardern government during the pandemic. He compared Ardern to Winston Churchill leading the UK through World War II only to lose the 1945 election.

“It is very difficult to imagine navigating such an extreme threat that has lasted for so long,” he said. “There was a deep resentment at the end of the experience that people had had and unfortunately, to some extent, it was directed against them even though they did an extraordinary job.”

Ardern acted quickly at the start of the pandemic, closing her country’s borders to foreigners despite tourism being one of New Zealand’s biggest industries. That decision, coupled with strict quarantine requirements for returning New Zealanders and fast-track lockdowns, kept their country largely Covid-free until early last year.

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When the virus spread in New Zealand, the vast majority of adults were immunized. As a result, the country of about 5 million people has recorded fewer than 2,500 Covid-19 deaths – the lowest Covid-related death toll in the western world, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The death rate in New Zealand is still so low that fewer people have died than in normal times, Baker noted.

For nearly two years, the charismatic Ardern was the global face of “Zero Covid”: an approach that drew admiration from other countries and also seemed to resonate with her personal style of consensus-based governance. In the fight against Covid, she described the New Zealanders as “our team of 5 million”.

However, that sense of team unity began to crumble in late 2021, when Ardern introduced requirements for some types of workers to be vaccinated and for proof of vaccination to be presented when entering gyms, hairdressers, events, cafes and restaurants.

“It saved a lot of lives from a public health perspective, but it had this political price,” Baker admits. “It likely contributed to the intensity of the anti-vaccination movement, as it was picked up by some groups who described it as ‘overstretching’ the state.”

The same policies that made New Zealand and its Prime Minister a zero-Covid success also made Ardern a lightning rod for anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination fervor.

“Because she was such a global and public symbol, she became the focus of many of these attacks,” said Richard Jackson, professor of peace studies at the University of Otago.

“Her opinion was that she was destroying New Zealand society and introducing ‘communist rule’ and yet the whole world seemed to be praising and praising her,” he added. “It irritated her like hell.”

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Protesters began following her across the country, from the van incident in the northern coastal town of Paihia in January last year to a similar incident in the South Island a few weeks later when Ardern was attending an elementary school, only to be labeled a “killer”. will. of protesters waiting outside.

By then, hundreds of anti-mandate and anti-vaccination opponents had gathered on the lawn of Parliament in Wellington. Some put up signs mocking Ardern as a misogynist or comparing her to Hitler. Others hung nooses commemorating the January 6, 2021 attack on the American capital.

The rise of extremist rhetoric and unsubstantiated theories in New Zealand has been fueled in part by far-right movements in the United States and Europe, Jackson said, including pundits like Tucker Carlson, who often took aim at Ardern. The Prime Minister herself called it an “imported style of protest that we have never seen in New Zealand before”.

After increasingly aggressive behavior by demonstrators, including some throwing faeces at police, officers in riot gear began evacuating the Parliament compound on the morning of March 2. Some protesters fought back, turning their camping gear into incendiary weapons.

Ardern reminded people that “in the last two years, your actions as New Zealanders have saved thousands more lives than are saved on Parliament’s lawn today”.

New Zealand police fight protesters as tents burn, Parliament camp is cleared

In the eyes of some, however, this moment marked a turning point for the country.

“The nooses, the misogyny, the hatred, the level of people advocating violence, people threatening to hang politicians, that’s not part of New Zealand’s political tradition,” he said Alexander Gillespie, law professor at the University of Waikato.

“It was a huge shock to the country,” said Jackson, who described the protests as the most violent since clashes during the apartheid-era South African rugby team’s visit in 1981. “The way it ended I think made it clear to everyone that what we considered quite moderate, peaceful and tolerant politics might have ended and we now have a much more intense, polarized and extreme atmosphere “, he said.

Anger continued after her announcement on Thursday: The owner of a bar in Nelson posted a manipulated photo of Ardern in a wood chipper being towed by a hearse, but took it down after receiving complaints.

In recent months, Ardern’s broader popularity had begun to wane. The Labor Party, which led it to a resounding and historic victory just over two years ago, is now trailing its rival in the polls and their party is widely expected to lose this year’s election.

Like Churchill, Ardern led her country through a dark period but eventually lost the support of a crisis-weary populace, Baker said.

But the decision appears to have lifted a load from the Prime Minister’s shoulders. She told reporters Friday morning that she “slept well for the first time in a long time.”