Josh Van Veen: Omicron could topple Jacinda Ardern

Josh Van Veen: Omicron could topple Jacinda Ardern

The pandemic won’t end in 2022. A new, more infectious variant of COVID-19 is wreaking havoc in Europe and North America. Omicron has yet to break out here, but it will. A recent clinical trial in Israel found that people who received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine over six months ago had almost no protection from the virus; making a third dose essential. 

It is a question of when, not if, the New Zealand Government mandates a ‘booster’ shot for My Vaccine Pass holders. The rollout will need to be accelerated. If history predicts future behaviour, this won’t happen until Omicron has seeded itself in the community. New Zealand, for all its self-congratulatory praise of going ‘hard and early’, prefers a wait and see approach.

Our geographical isolation gave us an advantage in the beginning of the pandemic. But each time the virus was ‘eliminated’, we got lulled into a false sense of security. New Zealanders lived in a dreamlike state where life closely resembled the pre-pandemic normal. Masks disappeared, few bothered to use the contact tracer app. The cities bustled and people mingled freely. COVID-19 didn’t feel real anymore.

That naïve optimism got us through most of 2021. When the Delta variant finally seeped into Auckland, the Prime Minister spoke of “a short and sharp” lockdown. She compared us favourably to New South Wales, where daily case numbers were approaching 500. New Zealand was better than that. Level 4 had worked before; it would work this time. Elimination was the only outcome New Zealanders could fathom. 

And so we plunged into the worst outbreak yet – with no plan or understanding of what life with the virus meant. It is not clear when the Prime Minister and her officials grasped that something had gone wrong. The decision to ease lockdown restrictions in October was based on a misguided belief that Delta would soon be eliminated and life in New Zealand could return to normal.

Unfortunately, that kind of wishful thinking has characterised the Government’s COVID-19 response from day one. The much celebrated elimination strategy – which, until August, had been remarkably successful – was born of desperation rather than foresight. The original plan had been to simply ‘flatten the curve’. That was the objective when Jacinda Ardern imposed the first nationwide lockdown in March 2020.

But only days into the lockdown it became apparent our public health system was not equipped for mass infection. Ardern told Associated Press last year: “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.” 

According to the Government’s epidemiological modelling, the mitigation strategy would have resulted in a peak of nearly half-a-million symptomatic cases. It was projected that 27,000 would die in this scenario. That was unconscionable to Ardern and most New Zealanders. Anything that could be done, would be done. That was the genesis of our ‘world-leading’ response to COVID-19. But in the end, all we had to do was stay home a bit longer. 

Sir David Skegg, the government’s leading expert, was incredibly sanguine about our ability to beat the virus in March 2020. “People could [soon] travel around New Zealand and have holidays,” Sir David told wide-eyed MPs via Zoom. “In the coming months, we could let tourists in with new antibody tests that can tell us who has had it and who is immune. We could open the country to an extent, so long as people can prove they are not carrying the disease.” 

Elimination was our path to freedom. But it became more than that. New Zealanders had set an example for the rest of the world. Our ability to come together and look after one another was second to none. In Trump’s America, the most powerful nation on earth, a cult of selfish individualism was giving way to the virus. The Prime Minister imbued New Zealanders with a sense of collective purpose that was lacking in other English-speaking democracies.

After the strange death of elimination, we turned to another chimera. If it wasn’t possible to eradicate the virus, then New Zealand was going to be the most vaccinated country in the world. An ambitious 90 percent double-dose target was set for the eligible population under each of the 20 District Health Boards (DHBs). But the goal was really to convince every single New Zealander of their moral obligation to be vaccinated. However, science failed to persuade a significant minority.

Having backed itself into a corner, the Government had no choice but to use hard power. Vaccines were mandated for a large proportion of the workforce (“no jab, no job”). It was assumed that ‘anti-vaxxers’ would make a rational calculation to get vaccinated rather than lose their incomes. That was a heroic assumption. For those who distrust the system, the mandates were confirmation of a hidden agenda. They felt emboldened to march in the streets on their way to the dole queue. 

Perhaps that is why several DHBs lag behind the target. Of greater concern, though, is the number of fully vaccinated people whose immunity has waned and are susceptible to the Omicron strain. Yet again New Zealand is in for a reality check. Ardern’s strength throughout the pandemic has been her ability to reorient us to an ever-changing world. Her weakness is that she is one of us. 

Our national psyche suffers from the collective delusion that, no matter what, ‘she’ll be right’. Yet death is unavoidable in a pandemic. New Zealand might have the lowest mortality rate and fewest hospitalisations for COVID-19 in the developed world. But that is only possible while the border is closed, and individual rights are significantly curtailed. 

With many New Zealanders growing impatient, it is unclear how long this equilibrium can be maintained. Ardern is hopelessly conflicted between our demands for security and freedom. Sooner or later, pressure to reopen the border will become insurmountable. Public support for mandatory vaccination might also be time-bound. 

A year from now, life could be very different in this Utopia of the South Seas. Ardern will find it increasingly difficult to rationalise her belief that New Zealand ‘leads the world’. Yet the Prime Minister’s self-image depends on this fragile myth. For peace of mind, she may choose to leave office rather than confront the bleak reality. And who could blame her? There is no obvious way out of the pandemic.


Josh Van Veen is an Auckland-based writer and political analyst. He is currently the Chair of Progress New Zealand, an independent research and advocacy group established to promote democratic citizenship and social cohesion. A former member of NZ First, he worked as a parliamentary researcher to Winston Peters from 2011 to 2013. Van Veen has a Masters in Politics from the University of Auckland. His thesis examined class voting in Britain and New Zealand.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.