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

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SYDNEY — Jacinda Ardern was on a work trip to a seaside town in northern New Zealand almost exactly a year ago when her van was suddenly surrounded by anti-vaccine protesters. They called the Prime Minister a “Nazi” for demanding that some workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus and chanted “shame on you”. Some were shouting obscenities. When a car attempted to block Ardern’s exit, his van was forced onto the sidewalk to escape.

Asked about the incident a few days later, Ardern chuckled and shrugged.

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

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Just over a month later, however, protests outside Parliament against the vaccination mandates literally exploded into flames. Protesters set fire to their own tents and gas canisters. Protesters pelted police with the same cobblestones on which they had written warnings to Ardern and other politicians that they would “hang them high”. More than 120 people were arrested.

This time, Ardern didn’t shrug. Instead, she seemed angry and bewildered.

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

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

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

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

“I think that will probably be his greatest legacy,” said Michael Baker, an epidemiologist who served as an outside adviser to Ardern’s government during the pandemic. He compared Ardern to Winston Churchill, who guided Britain through World War II to lose the 1945 election.

“It’s very hard even to imagine navigating through such an extreme threat that has lasted for so long,” he said. “In the end, there was a deep bitterness about the experience people had gone through, and unfortunately to some degree it was directed at her, even though she had done an amazing job.”

Ardern acted quickly at the start of the pandemic, closing his country’s borders to foreigners even though tourism is one of New Zealand’s biggest industries. The move, coupled with strict quarantine requirements for returning New Zealanders and instant lockdowns, kept his country largely covid-free until early last year.

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By the time the virus spread to New Zealand, the vast majority of adults had been immunized. As a result, the country of around 5 million people has recorded fewer than 2,500 covid-19 deaths – the lowest covid-related death rate in the western world, according to Johns Hopkins University.

New Zealand’s death rate is still so low that fewer people have died than normal, Baker noted.

For nearly two years, the charismatic Ardern has been the global face of “zero covid”: an approach that has won admiration from other countries and which also seemed to fit 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 at the end of 2021, when Ardern introduced requirements that certain types of workers must be vaccinated and that proof of vaccination must be presented to enter the workplaces. gyms, hairdressers, events, cafes and restaurants.

“From a public health perspective, it saved many lives, but it came at this political cost,” admits Baker. “It probably contributed to the intensity of the anti-vaccine movement in that it was seized upon by some groups who called it ‘overtaking’ the state.”

The same policies that made New Zealand and its Prime Minister a covid-zero success also made Ardern a lightning rod for anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine ardour.

“Because she was a global and public symbol, she became the center of many 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 bringing in ‘Communist rule’ and yet the whole world seemed to praise and glorify her,” he added. “It pissed them off.”

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Protesters began following her across the country, from the van incident in the northern seaside town of Paihia in January last year to a similar incident on the South Island a few weeks later when ‘Ardern went to an elementary school to be branded a “murderer”. by demonstrators waiting outside.

By then, hundreds of anti-mandate and anti-vaccine protesters had gathered on the Houses of Parliament lawn in Wellington. Some posted signs that mocked Ardern in a misogynistic way or compared her to Hitler. Others hung nooses recalling the January 6, 2021 assault on 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 targeted often Ardern. The Prime Minister herself called it “an imported style of protest that we have never seen in New Zealand before”.

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

Ardern reminded people that “thousands more lives have been saved over the past two years because of your actions as New Zealanders than on the lawn of Parliament today.”

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

“The nooses, the misogyny, the hate, the number of people advocating violence, people threatening to hang politicians, it’s not part of New Zealand’s 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 South Africa’s apartheid-era rugby team. . “The way it ended, I think, kind of made everyone realize that what we thought was a fairly moderate, peaceful and tolerant policy could have ended, and we now have a much more atmosphere intense, polarized and extreme,” he said.

The vitriol continued even after his announcement on Thursday: The owner of a bar in Nelson posted a doctored photo of Ardern in a wood chipper being towed by a hearse, but took it down after receiving complaints.

In recent months, Ardern’s wider popularity had begun to wane. The Labor party she led to a landslide and historic victory just over two years ago is now trailing her rival in the polls, and her party is set to lose this year’s election.

Like Churchill, Ardern had led his country through a dark period, but ultimately lost the support of a crisis-weary population, Baker said.

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

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