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Flattening the curve was ‘not sufficient’ for New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern says

Ardern said the nation’s health system would not be able to cope with a big outbreak.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Wellington today.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Wellington today.
Image: Sam James

NEW ZEALAND’S ELIMINATION strategy for the coronavirus was driven as much by fear as it was ambition, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said.

Speaking to The Associated Press, she said the target grew from an early realisation the nation’s health system simply could not cope with a big outbreak.

When a number of unexplained cases showed up in August, Ardern found herself defending exaggerated claims from US President Donald Trump, who told crowds at rallies there was a massive resurgence and “It’s over for New Zealand. Everything’s gone”.

Reflecting on this, Ardern said while the new cases were deeply concerning, “to be described in that way was a misrepresentation of New Zealand’s position.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

New Zealand’s response to the virus has been viewed among the most successful, together with actions taken by China, Taiwan and Thailand early on in the pandemic.

The country of five million people has counted just 25 deaths and managed to stem the spread of Covid-19, allowing people to return to workplaces, schools and packed sports stadiums without restrictions.

When the virus began hitting Europe early in the year, Ardern said the only two options countries were considering were herd immunity or flattening the curve. New Zealand opted for the latter, as did Ireland and many other countries. 

“Originally, that’s where we started, because there just simply wasn’t really much of a view that elimination was possible,” she said.

But this thinking quickly changed.

“I remember my chief science adviser bringing me a graph that showed me what flattening the curve would look like for New Zealand. And where our hospital and health capacity was. And the curve wasn’t sitting under that line. So we knew that flattening the curve wasn’t sufficient for us.”

Ardern said she did not worry that elimination might prove impossible, because even if New Zealand did not get there, the approach still would have saved lives.

“The alternative is to set a lesser goal, and then still misfire,” she said.

Border closures and a strict lockdown in March got rid of the disease, and New Zealand went 102 days without any community spread. But then came the August outbreak in Auckland, which remains unexplained but likely originated abroad.

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“We thought we were through the worst of it. And so it was a real psychological blow for people. And I felt that, too. So it was very, very tough,” Ardern said.

She said they had modelled different outbreak scenarios but the one that eventuated “was about the worst that you could even possibly imagine”.

That is because the outbreak had spread across multiple groups in densely populated areas, she said, and some who caught it had been attending large church gatherings.

But after a second lockdown in Auckland, New Zealand again stamped out the disease.

Ardern said she felt confident about her responses despite sometimes feeling a touch of imposter syndrome in her role as leader.

“You just have to get on with it. There’s a job to be done,” she said.

“Any self-doubt I ever have, just as a human being, doesn’t mean that always translates into doubt around what needs to be done.”

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