How bad is this coronavirus pandemic? Well, it depends on who you are asking. Through news stories and acquaintances, it has become clear to me that the pandemic is not an all-consuming issue in all parts. Where I am stationed in Massachusetts, we are still under a stay-at-home advisory and are feeling isolated with only essential business operating. However, other countries are moving at speeds closer to normal and international travel is even permitted. As someone who has spent over two months mainly at home, it can feel surreal to imagine that other parts of the world are operating under completely different rules.
On May 18, after two months of COVID-19 lockdowns, children in New Zealand returned to school. However, on the other side of the world in the United States and Western Europe, colleges and universities are already declaring their intent to move courses online for the rest of the year. For example, the chancellor of the California State system announced that the fall semester would be moved entirely online, while Cambridge University stated that it would only offer virtual education until summer 2021. Why is there such variance in the severity of the pandemic? This is an unfair question as the spread of the pandemic cannot be boiled down to a single factor.
Some argue, however, that political leadership is the factor to praise or shame for the spread of the coronavirus. In many countries there is a divide on how this crisis is managed. Governments are forced to respond both to the spread of the virus itself (i.e. creating policies like travel bans and social distancing) as well as respond to the economic situation (i.e. allowing some business activities, issuing direct payments to citizens and support to businesses). How governments juggle these two large and dire issues will bear influence on the outcome of the pandemic.
I saw a news article recently with the title “How New Zealand Beat the Coronavirus.” At the top of the article, the country’s Prime Minister is pictured looking discerningly into the distance. The story then continues to detail the swift action the government took to impose strict restrictions on movement. New Zealand is an island nation with a population about as big as South Carolina. The United States is a country with a population of about 66 New Zealands. While I think that it is amazing that New Zealand was able to contain a virus that is crippling other parts of the world, in my opinion, it is simply unfair to compare New Zealand to the United States. Instead, we should look at New Zealand and learn.
In response to the virus, New Zealand virtually closed down its borders; all people were denied entry into the country with the exception of some essential healthcare workers and returning New Zealanders. Additionally, New Zealand imposed a strict social distancing policy that urged people to only come into contact with those that they lived with. While many other countries adopted similar mandates, it seems that the timing of the policies was the key to success. While New Zealand adopted these measures in mid- to late March. The United States never adopted a national stay-at-home advisory, rather governors have been taking unilateral actions to implement policies from late March to early April. Also, unlike New Zealand, the United States has not implemented a national travel ban. However, most land travel was eliminated (except for essential business and returning Americans) between Mexico and Canada, and flights were severely restricted to Europe at one point. Again, despite the force of these restrictions, the timing was too late to nip the germ in the bud.
New Zealand serves as a model of what good can happen when politics line up with priorities and decisions are closely coordinated. The U.S. government by nature of its federal design and by consequence of its contentious political climate make such cooperation impossible even when it matters most. In short, the United States and New Zealand are fundamentally different and so were their responses to the COVID-19 outbreak. While we cannot change the past here in the U.S., we can, of course, move forward with wisdom as our guide (I realize that I sound like a total Pollyanna, but it’s just in my nature to look forward with new hope). While New Zealanders are able to move about more freely this summer, unfortunately, Americans will be spending much of the season social distancing and at home. C’est la vie, I suppose.
So, in response to ‘how bad is this pandemic anyway?’ My response to you – it’s complicated.
P.S. the cover picture is of Scotland not New Zealand