Matt Drake

A divided nation: the true cost of New Zealand’s lockdown

A divided nation: the true cost of New Zealand's lockdown
Jacinda Ardern (Getty images)
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Jacinda Ardern did a 'little dance' and thanked her 'team of five million' when she was told coronavirus had been eliminated from New Zealand. But her celebration now appears somewhat premature. A sudden spike in cases has forced Auckland back into lockdown and revealed the flaw in the country's strategy for tackling the virus. 

In its effort to make New Zealand covid-free, Adern's government has taken drastic measures. The country's borders have been almost entirely locked down and the few visitors and expats who do arrive are forced to stump up for their time in quarantine. But even these policies – as the cluster of cases to emerge in Auckland shows – are not enough to completely defeat the virus. Now, many New Zealanders are asking what Adern's long-term strategy is. Can New Zealand really sustain going in and out of lockdown in the event that other small clusters emerge? And for the million or so expats stranded abroad, there is growing frustration at the measures imposed that make returning home an arduous if not impossible task.

'There is a view of 'we’ve had enough time to get home' and New Zealand is a safe haven from this virus', said Angus Hawke, 26, originally from Cantab but now living in Canada. 'The quarantine rules have sparked a lot of hostility towards those who want to come home. Lots of Kiwis have spouses who belong to other countries so are tied to other places in the world. The hostility arises purely because we have been portrayed as splurging on taxpayer dollars' (by coming back).

There are also accusations that in its rush to stamp out the virus, not enough warning was given to expats who might want to return home. Hugh Cameron, 78, who was born in Wanganui now finds himself stranded in Vietnam desperately hoping he doesn't become infected. 'In March, the foreign minister suggested Kiwis who felt safe abroad should stay out and hunker down. I did just that. Recently, the New Zealand embassy sent a message saying they would not write in support of a visa extension because I had had every chance to leave. Many Kiwis at home say do not come, the embassy says do not stay here.'

Rachel Jaeger Nahi, 32, is worried she may not see her six-year-old son for some time due to the extortionate cost of travelling back home from Australia. 'I moved to Brisbane on the 2nd of February with my 16-month-old daughter,' she said. 'My son who’s about to turn seven is still in New Zealand. The plan was for him to come over about every six weeks for school holidays. We’ve never been apart longer than three weeks and it’s now been seven months. Coming back to see him is not even feasible. The introduction of the costs makes going home a $10,000 (£5,000) round trip, and given the loss of jobs and impending recession going home is a luxury for the wealthy.'

Coronavirus measures have devastated jobs around the globe. The UK's benefit system, with its many faults, is one of the most generous and advanced. But not all New Zealanders have benefited from such a safety net. Auckland-born Jaswwin Narayan found himself destitute when he lost his job in Melbourne, Australia, where only nationals are entitled to benefits. He claims he was 'practically on the street' but luckily a Christian family took him in. To make matters worse, his father was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer. He said: 'I really wanted to go see him but due to my personal and financial predicament I just can't go especially after this new legislation to pay for quarantine.'

But back at home, the quarantine fee remains a popular policy. According to a recent poll in New Zealand, three-quarters support it. Yet even this popular policy may come at a price. New Zealand's tourism industry has been decimated by these new rules. Tourism generates about 21 per cent of foreign exchange earnings, 5.8 per cent of its GDP and the indirect value of added industries supporting tourism generates an additional four per cent of GDP. 

This much-needed income has vanished overnight. Yet Ardern has nonetheless announced a 'well-being' budget to put happiness before profit and stump up billions for the most vulnerable. Is this affordable given that for New Zealand – as with other places around the world which have adopted stringent coronavirus measures – an economic reckoning is coming?

New Zealand already entered recession in June, which led to the nation's biggest quarterly contraction in 29 years. GDP fell 1.6 per cent in the first quarter from the fourth, which is the country's largest decline since 1991. With a worldwide recession beginning to bite, it is only going to get worse. Ardern's celebrations, it seems, may come back to haunt her.