New Zealand’s Prime Minister Ardern “is now an exemplar for how to live our best coronavirus-free lives,” read a concise summary of the conventional wisdom via the Independent’s Hannah Selinger. If we were smart, had more competent leadership, and were less beholden to antiquated concepts like federalism, “we should be doubling down on what New Zealand did right.”

For months, New Zealand’s response to COVID-19 has been hailed as exemplary. Sure, some conceded, the United States isn’t an archipelago at the edge of the world with a population the size of Los Angeles and roughly six times more sheep than people. But it was New Zealand and its progressive government that took the noble leap of faith—opting to “eliminate” the curve rather than just flatten it.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s strategy for containing the virus was remarkably simple. In her words, “go hard, and go early.” By mid-March, with just six COVID-19 cases nationwide, New Zealand imposed “Level 4” lockdown restrictions across the country. International travel was prohibited. Domestic air travel was halted, and vehicle traffic restricted by checkpoints. Beaches and parks were closed. Any social interaction outside the household was forbidden. All non-essential commerce was proscribed. Only grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals, and gas stations could operate, and with tightly restricted services.

To all this, polite opinion—at least, that which found its way into the Western press—maintained that these necessary burdens were a precious gift from an enlightened leadership caste. “Crunching the coronavirus curve is better than flattening it, as New Zealand is showing,” the Guardian declared. Looking upon the epidemic in America from Auckland’s vantage, Washington Post contributor Clare Alexander expressed gratitude for the restrictions that prevent her from ordering takeout, getting a coffee, or just taking a walk in a park.

“We have done what very few countries have been able to do,” Ardern asserted in late April. “We have stopped a wave of devastation.” True, if devastation is measured in health outcomes alone. But lockdown’s negative consequences are far more expansive than that.

In the second quarter of 2020, New Zealand’s economy contracted by 1.6 percent—a modest percentage relative to the U.S., but still the steepest economic decline the nation had experienced in nearly 30 years. The third quarter’s contraction is expected to be much worse. In early August, the country’s unemployment rate declined unexpectedly by two-tenths of a point, but only because a staggeringly large number of New Zealanders left the labor force. They’re no longer looking for work, in part, because there is no work to be had. By mid-April, surveys suggested that as many as one-third of businesses in New Zealand’s biggest city expected that they would never open their doors again. The government has warned that, when emergency relief aimed at maintaining existing payrolls expires next month, thousands more jobs are likely to be lost.

Not surprisingly, these oppressive constraints on all public life in combination with New Zealand’s unique circumstances effectively arrested the spread of this unique Coronavirus. Despite the economic devastation these policies wrought, the American press went about transforming Ardern from a flawed and improvisatory politician at sea amid a storm into a familiar trope: the omnicompetent anti-Trump.

The 39-year-old prime minister was heralded as, no joke, a “saint” in the Financial Times. The Washington Post marveled at the prime minster’s remote press conferences, delivered on Facebook, from her bedroom, in a comfy sweatshirt. The New York Times gushed over Ardern’s style, which blended “epidemiology brightened with empathy, law leavened with mom jokes,” and wondered whether New Zealand had crafted the “perfect democracy.”

By early June, with fewer than .02 daily cases per 100,000 residents and a test-positivity rate of just 0.1 percent, Ardern declared her nation all but coronavirus-free. Though her nation must remain vigilant, and foreign travel restrictions would remain in place, the prime minister announced that New Zealand could resume much of what previously constituted business as usual.

In New Zealand’s success, Ardern found vindication: “A strategy that sacrifices people in favor of supposedly a better economic outcome is a false dichotomy,” she averred. It should now be clear, though, that Ardren has become infatuated with lockdown to the point that it has become the policy of first resort.

Last week, after 102 days without any observed community transmission of COVID-19, New Zealand announced that the virus was back. One man in his 50s with no history of overseas travel had tested positive, as had three other members of his family. Immediately, the nation was again yoked. The 1.8 million people who live in Auckland, where these four new cases were observed, were consigned again to “Level 3” restrictions. Bars and restaurants were shuttered, as were schools, and non-essential businesses told their staff to stay home. The rest of New Zealand was not spared, as “Level 2” restrictions on social gatherings and business practices were once again imposed.

These prohibitions were intended to last just three days, but the circumstances Wellington defines as dire did not improve. Investigators soon learned that the isolated infections they observed were part of a cluster, justifying ever more dramatic interventions into the conduct of daily life. On Monday, New Zealand announced that it would postpone the country’s national election by four weeks.

Unlike the United States, New Zealand’s constitution allows for this postponement, but that doesn’t render this reaction anything less than draconian. At the time of this announcement, there were precisely 78 active COVID-19 cases and only 5 hospitalizations in the entire country. In the U.S., where primary elections have been underway since the start of the pandemic, there is scant evidence that keeping polling places open constitutes an unjustifiable risk.

Suddenly, the Western voices who held Ardern over their heads as an exemplary leader in a time of coronavirus have gone silent. But not all the praise for New Zealand’s overzealous prime minister has gone dry. “She might have just added 5 percent to her polling by making an announcement that many New Zealanders will think is reasonable, fair, and sensible,” one local professor of politics told the New York Times.

Advocates of a New Zealand-style lockdown in the United States never grappled with the unique legal and cultural obstacles that render such a program unthinkable. But that was never the point. The point, more narrative than comparative, was to make Jacinda Ardern the antithesis of Donald Trump. But when Trump floated the prospect of postponing the election in deference to the pandemic, the cascading deluge of bipartisan condemnation that rained down on him quickly disabused the president and his supporters of the idea that democracy should take a backseat to a crisis. Maybe that’s not what a “perfect democracy” would do, but the perfect is so often the enemy of the good.

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