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How covid affected Jacinda Ardern’s legacy as Prime Minister of New Zealand

How covid affected Jacinda Ardern’s legacy as Prime Minister of New Zealand

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SYDNEY — Jacinda Ardern was on a business trip to a northern New Zealand beach town almost exactly a year ago when her van was suddenly surrounded by anti-vaccine protesters. They called the Prime Minister a “Nazi” because he demanded that some workers get coronavirus vaccine and chanted “Shame on you.” Some shouted obscenities. When a car tried to block Ardern’s exit, her van was forced onto the curb to escape.

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

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

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A little more than a month later, however, protests in front of parliament against vaccine mandates literally went up in flames. Demonstrators set fire to their own tents and gas canisters. Protesters pelted the police with the same cobblestones on which they had written warnings to Ardern and other politicians that they would be “hung high”. Over 120 people were arrested.

This time, Ardern didn’t shrug. Instead, she looked angry and confused.

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

Ultimately, the new era of intense rhetoric and dangerous misinformation in New Zealand will outlive Ardern, who announced on Thursday that she was stepping down after more than five years in office.

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

Ardern did not mention the protests, extreme rhetoric or threats she has faced. But she mentioned the coronavirus pandemic. And in many ways her handling of the health crisis was her greatest success, but it also made her a controversial figure in New Zealand.

“I think that will probably be her biggest legacy,” said Michael Baker, an epidemiologist who served as an external adviser to the Ardern government during the pandemic. He likened Ardern to Winston Churchill, who shepherded the UK through World War II only to lose the 1945 election.

“It’s very difficult to even imagine going through such an extreme threat that has been this long,” he said. “At the end of it, there was a deep bitterness about the experience that people had been through, and unfortunately to some extent it was directed at her, even though she did an outstanding job.”

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

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By the time the virus became widespread in New Zealand, the majority of adults were immunized. As a result, the country of about 5 million people has registered fewer than 2,500 COVID-19 deaths – on lowest covid related death rate in the Western world, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Death rates in New Zealand are 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 in line with her personal style of consensus-based governance. In the fight against Covid, she called New Zealanders “our team of 5 million”.

But that sense of team unity began to crumble in late 2021 when Ardern introduced requirements that some kinds of workers to be vaccinated and proof of vaccination to be shown for entry to gyms, hair salons, events, cafes and restaurants.

“From a public health perspective, it saved a lot of lives, but there was a political cost,” Baker admits. “This probably contributed to the intensity of the anti-vaccine movement, as it was seized upon by some groups who called it an ‘overwork’ of the state.”

The same policies that made New Zealand and its prime minister zero success with covid have also made Ardern a lightning rod for anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine fervor.

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

“Their view was that she was destroying New Zealand society and introducing ‘communist rule’, yet the whole world seemed to praise and extol her,” he added. “It pissed the hell out of them.”

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Protesters have followed her across the country, from the van incident in the northern coastal town of Peihia in January last year to a similar incident in the South Island a few weeks later when Ardern visited a primary school only to be called “killer” by protesters waiting outside.

By then, hundreds of anti-mandate and anti-vaccine protesters had gathered on the lawn of Parliament in Wellington. Some put up signs mocking Ardern in a misogynistic way or comparing her to Hitler. Others hung nooses reminiscent of 6th of January2021, storming the US capital.

The rise of extremist rhetoric and baseless theories in New Zealand has been fueled in part by far-right movements in the United States and Europe, Jackson said, including pundits such as Tucker Carlson, who often took aim at Ardern. The Prime Minister herself called it “an imported style of protest that we haven’t seen in New Zealand before”.

Following increasingly aggressive behavior by protesters, including throwing faeces at police, officers in riot gear began clearing the grounds of Parliament on the morning of 2 March. Some protesters fought back by turning their camping equipment into incendiary weapons.

Ardern reminded people that “thousands more lives have been saved in the last two years by your actions as New Zealanders than were on the lawn outside Parliament today”.

New Zealand police battle protesters as tents burn, parliament camp cleared

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

“The nooses, the misogyny, the hate, the level of people advocating violence, people threatening to hang politicians, it’s not part of the New Zealand political tradition,” said Alexander Gillespie, Professor of Law 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 1981 visit of the apartheid-era South African rugby team. “I think the way it ended brought home to everybody that what we thought was a fairly moderate, peaceful and tolerant politics may have ended and now we have a much more intense, polarized and extreme” atmosphere, he said.

The cruelty continued even after her announcement on Thursday: The Nelson bar owner posted a fake photo of Ardern in a hearse-towed wood chipper, but removed it after receiving complaints.

In recent months, Ardern’s wider popularity has begun to wane. The Labor Party, which she led to a sweeping and historic victory just over two years ago, is now trailing her rival in opinion polls and her party is expected to lose this year’s election.

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

But the decision seems to have lifted a weight off the prime minister’s shoulders. She told reporters Friday morning that she “slept well for the first time in a long time.”


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