Elimination Nation: New Zealand’s socially-driven response to COVID-19

Written by: Shania Sajan

LEC x UWES Research Writing Competition – Third Place

 Which government tackled the COVID-19 crisis most effectively?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there have been a total of 758,390,564 confirmed cases1 of COVID as of March 2023 – and this only includes what was reported. Since the pandemic, many government bodies, corporations and individuals have responded differently to the exposure to COVID-19. This was dealt majorly through the governmental standpoint, as it was this establishment that was in charge of the rest (ie. introducing mandates for businesses and individuals). However, from the many nations and government bodies around the globe, there was one which stood from the rest: New Zealand’s Labour Party, led by Jacinda Ardern. This article will discuss Jacinda’s strategies in protecting New Zealand citizens, comparative country policies, and the holistic economic perspective of it all.

To start, it is important to note that not every nation can be compared side-by-side, as they differ by geographic size, population, age demographic and many more factors. An article from the New Yorker emphasizes the impact of age on the likelihood of the spread of the disease, stating “[a]round a third of the deaths in the United States have occurred among residents and staff of long-term nursing homes”2, as they are one of the most vulnerable groups. It also mentioned that high wealth (measured through a country’s GDP) – in this article, referring to the USA – did not necessarily mean they survived COVID better than neighboring countries, when looking back at research. Thus, the factors that impact a country’s health vary from place to place, and differ in importance as more data is becoming more available to epidemiologists, researchers, etc. With this being said, New Zealand seemed to be different from the rest in that the nation was decisive and quick to take action, whereas other governmental bodies had failed to see the severity of the issue.

According to The Guardian, ‘New Zealand’s Covid strategy was one of the world’s most successful’3. This can be explained by their elimination strategy, imposed on New Zealand citizens from the very beginning of the pandemic, in 2020. Under “the elimination strategy, all activities were focused on getting to and maintaining ‘zero COVID-19’.”4 This included placing strict border-control policies, stay-at-home orders for over 7 weeks straight and “preparing hospitals for an influx of patients.”5 The national lockdown was initiated on March 26th, 2020, soon after the news of the widespread disease was out. The border closures that were introduced meant that usual tourist activities in New Zealand were restricted, as the country did not allow for foreigners or tourists to visit.

Figure 1: Pandemic Strategies

As seen in the diagram above, the elimination strategy was amongst the top two that brought nations back to “normal” within just 2-3 months. The goal of “elimination rapidly escalates the stringency of control measures to extinguish chains of transmission”7. For New Zealand, this strategy had gotten the country “through the first 18 months of the pandemic until vaccines became widely available”8 When vaccines were finally accessible, there were also strict vaccine mandates implemented by Jacinda’s government. This included making sure to have received at least one dose before going to work at specific workplaces. This, in turn, aided with the fight against the disease as once the virus “did become widespread in New Zealand, the vast majority of adults had been immunized.”9 As a result, New Zealand – with a population of about 5 million people – “has recorded fewer than 2,500 covid-19 fatalities, [which is] the lowest covid-related death rate in the Western world, according to Johns Hopkins University.”10

Additionally, New Zealand took an all-of-government approach with the policies that were put forward, meaning that “the nation’s Ministry of Health and the national emergency response infrastructure [was in charge of] a coordinated governmental effort that included all ministries and government agencies”11.


Thus, various sectors within the government body were accounted for including disease treatment, physical distancing mandates and foreign relations. The public was also well aware of the mandates being put into place, as there were many streamlines of media informing them of the changes being made. Though there was uncertainty in the air as a result of the virus, New Zealand citizens, for the most part, were aware of how they were affected.
Overall, Jacinda Ardern took necessary and immediate action when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic. She was strategic as she truly understood the consequences of COVID-19 to her citizens, as well as the country’s economy. In fact, Michael Baker, an “epidemiologist who served as an outside adviser to Ardern’s government during the pandemic, [had said that he thinks] “it will probably be her greatest legacy”12. In mid-April, while other countries were starting to lift restrictions, “Ardern [was] adding to them, making all returning New Zealanders quarantine in designated locations for 14 days”.13

Ardern’s leadership is worth pointing out as a lack of a “population’s trust in authority”14 played a big role in how the pandemic played out for nations worldwide. A recent survey done by the Pew Research Center stated that a “median of 68% think their country has done a good job dealing with the coronavirus outbreak”15. In fact, from the data received, the USA seemed to be the nation with the most divide compared to others. As seen in Figure 2 below, the country with the highest percentage in both a social divide (81%) and showing political weakness through handling the COVID crisis (66%) are both the United States. A “majority also feels this way in the Netherlands, Greece, Germany, Japan, Australia and South Korea”16 Without drawing firm conclusions, it might be said that these governments did not have the trust of their citizens, or did not communicate their mandates effectively. An international survey done, “answered by 50,000 people in 150 countries, [made it] clear: most people aren’t motivated by guilt, threats or penalties.”17 Italy was one of those countries who “tried being stringent, but the population ignored [it – Italians] are cynical about the government. The army had to be called in, and by then it was too late.”18 On the other hand, Ardern took a socially-driven approach in the way she dealt with the pandemic by appealing to the point of community. This was “precisely the kind of messaging that motivates people to trust and comply”19, agreed Simon Bacon, a behavioral scientist.


Figure 2: Survey Results of Percent Socially Divided per Country

These policies were (quite obviously) put into place for the betterment of the health and safety of citizens in New Zealand. However, it is essential to look at the economic aspect of governmental policies. The pandemic was and still is “a social and an economic crisis just as much as it is a health crisis”21. In fact, COVID “triggered the most serious economic crisis since World War II”22, according to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). It hit economies hard throughout the world, and as a result, people lost their jobs and suffered severely within many industries. In New Zealand, this was no different. Since the pandemic, their GDP has lowered in percentage and now the nation is “experiencing its first recession since the global economic downturn in 2008”23. It did not help that their policies pertaining to border enclosures denied many tourist- related opportunities, which was a sector that “made up nearly 6 percent of the economy in 2019”.24 However, the nation still had an effective response, keeping the long-term economic stance in mind. This aided in their slow economic rise once the effects of the pandemic were decelerating. For example, “a huge increase in unemployment [was avoided] through the provision of significant wage subsidies.”25 Additionally, businesses were provided with tax deductions, as well as alleviated loan terms. Even if these forms of support were minor, it brought relief to New Zealand business owners, and their employees.

Though no country, business or individual could have ever prepared for the severity of COVID-19, Ardern and her government saved many lives, and set an example of the importance of action above all.


(2020, August 20). Successful Elimination of Covid-19 Transmission in New Zealand. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2025203

25 https://www.brookings.edu/research/policy-and-institutional-responses-to-covid-19-new-zealand/ 26 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/covid-19-coronavirus-pandemic-countries-response-1.5617898

Baker, M. G. (2020, December 22). Elimination could be the optimal response strategy for covid-19 and other emerging pandemic diseases. The BMJ. https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m4907

COVID-19: Minimisation and protection strategy for Aotearoa New Zealand. (n.d.). Ministry of Health NZ.

https://www.health.govt.nz/covid-19-novel-coronavirus/covid-19-response-planning/covi d-19-minimisation-and-protection-strategy-aotearoa-new-zealand

Dyer, P. (2022, March 9). Policy and institutional responses to COVID-19: New Zealand. Brookings.

https://www.brookings.edu/research/policy-and-institutional-responses-to-covid-19-new- zealand/

From equality to global poverty: how Covid-19 is affecting societies and economies. (2022, May 3). Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/equality-global-poverty-how-covid-19-affecting-soci eties-and-economies

Miller, M. E. (2023, January 20). Ardern’s covid policy was her ‘greatest legacy’ — but also her undoing. Washington Post.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/01/20/jacinda-ardern-new-zealand-covid-re signation/

Mukherjee, S. (2021, February 22). Why Does the Pandemic Seem to Be Hitting Some Countries Harder Than Others?The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/03/01/why-does-the-pandemic-seem-to-be-h itting-some-countries-harder-than-others

OECD. (2020, November 10). The territorial impact of COVID-19: Managing the crisis across levels of government.

https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/the-territorial-impact-of-covid-19-ma naging-the-crisis-across-levels-of-government-d3e314e1/

Reporter, G. S. (2022, December 16). New Zealand’s Covid strategy was one of the world’s most successful – what can we learn from it? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2022/apr/05/new-zealands-covid-stra tegy-was-one-of-the-worlds-most-successful-what-can-it-learn-from-it

Rocha, R. (2020, June 22). What countries did right and wrong in responding to the pandemic. CBC.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/covid-19-coronavirus-pandemic-countries-response-1.5 617898

Silver, L., Connaughton, A., & P. (2022, October 31). Partisanship Colors Views of COVID-19 Handling Across Advanced Economies. Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2022/08/11/partisanship-colors-views-of-covid-19-h andling-across-advanced-economies/

Wittenberg-Cox, A. (2020, April 13). What Do Countries With The Best Coronavirus Responses Have In Common? Women Leaders. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/avivahwittenbergcox/2020/04/13/what-do-countries-with-th e-best-coronavirus-reponses-have-in-common-women-leaders/?sh=3f14c4da3dec

WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard. (n.d.-b). WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard With Vaccination Data. https://covid19.who.int/

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