Harrop: What New Zealand did — and we didn’t — to curb virus

Because of the serious steps Kiwis took earlier, their economy is now open and thriving.

By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern forced a shutdown so strict that no one was allowed to go fishing or golfing, easy pursuits for social distancing. But her super-tough “go hard, go early” policy has virtually stamped out the coronavirus in this country of 5 million.

Not only can New Zealanders again fish and golf but 30,000 of them just packed a stadium to watch a rugby match. They no longer have to wear masks even on public transportation, though that is encouraged. New Zealand is back in business.

The political results are also in. Ardern and her party just won reelection in a landslide, offering a hint of how Donald Trump’s failure to manage the pandemic could produce the direct opposite here.

The president’s weak polling numbers largely reflect his incapacity — whether as a leader or human being — to treat the coronavirus as the health crisis it was and still is. Ardern, meanwhile, has been hailed as “the anti-Trump.”

Some critics of this comparison note that New Zealand is less densely populated than the United States, which makes social distancing easier to do. That sounds plausible, except that North Dakota and South Dakota have far fewer people per square mile than New Zealand, and they are reporting the largest number of new covid cases per capita in the United States.

Because it contained the virus so rapidly, New Zealand was able to reopen as early as May. Kids were back in class. Office workers returned to their cubicles. Diners filled restaurants. Five months ago!

The one major industry still suffering is tourism. And that’s not because tourists fear getting the virus there. It’s because New Zealanders fear the tourists will bring it in. Americans are not allowed to enter the country unless they are permanent residents.

How would Americans take to such harsh medicine to combat the virus’ spread? Let’s just say that governors who instituted serious lockdowns are among the most popular. It happens that Michigan is a swing state Trump won by less than 1 percent in 2016. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s approval rating is running well ahead of his.

Consider that she had to endure both anti-mask goons waving guns on the statehouse steps (and plotting to kidnap her) and Trump’s verbal sniping. At a recent rally in Michigan, Trump watched his crowd chant, “Lock her up!” to which he replied, “Lock ‘em all up.”

Who “all” is remains unclear. But one can imagine that the jail in Trump’s head would happily accommodate another female politician enjoying acclaim for competence, namely Ardern.

But no governor seems to arouse more Trumpian anger and envy than New York’s Andrew Cuomo. When his state was hit with an explosion of cases early in the year, Cuomo aggressively clamped down on large gatherings, beefed up testing and hectored New Yorkers daily to cocoon. And how did the electorate respond? Back in the dark days of April, Cuomo’s approval rating soared to an amazing 81 percent.

New York’s transmission rate is now among the lowest, and business is crawling back. Movie theaters in most of the state are about to reopen.

Few societies would curtail activity to the extent New Zealand did. But no advanced country, other than ours, has a leader who mocks wearing masks and ignores more than 200,000 deaths.

Interesting contrast here. Political moderates have begun to restore their pre-covid business conditions, while so-called conservatives oversee economies flailing under the weight of spreading sickness.

In New Zealand, as here, advance voting hit record levels. In its case, the surge pointed to a desire to reelect. Here, the surge strongly suggests the opposite.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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