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 northern New Zealand beach town almost exactly a year ago when her van was suddenly surrounded by anti-vaccine protesters. He called the prime minister a “Nazi” and chanted “shame on you” for getting some workers to get the coronavirus vaccine. Some screamed obscenities. When a car tried to block Ardern’s exit, her van was forced to drive over an embankment to escape.

When asked about the incident a few days later, Ardern laughed and shrugged it off.

“Every day in this job is new and different experiences,” he said. “We’re in an environment at the moment that’s unusually intense for New Zealand. I believe that will pass with time.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has resigned before the election

A little more than a month later, however, protests outside parliament against the vaccination mandates literally erupted into flames. Protesters pitched their own tents and burned gas canisters. Protesters pelted police with the same paving stones on which they wrote warnings to Ardern and other politicians that they would “hang them high”. More than 120 people have been arrested.

This time, Ardern didn’t shrug. Instead, she was angry and confused.

“One day, it’s our job to try to understand how a group of people could fall prey to such wild and dangerous mis- and misinformation,” he said.

In the end, New Zealand’s fierce rhetoric and a new era of dangerous misinformation will overtake Ardern, who announced on Thursday that she is stepping down after more than five years in power.

“I know what this job takes,” the 42-year-old said in an emotional resignation speech. “And I know there’s not enough left in the tank to do me justice.”

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

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“I think that’s probably her greatest legacy,” said epidemiologist Michael Baker, who served as an outside adviser to the Ardern government during the pandemic. He compared Ardern to Winston Churchill, who led the United Kingdom during World War II and lost the 1945 election.

“It is very difficult to imagine navigating through such a severe threat that is so chronic,” he said. “There was a deep bitterness over what people felt at the end of it, and unfortunately to some extent it was directed at her, even though she did a phenomenal job.”

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

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By the time the virus became widespread in New Zealand, most adults had been immunized. As a result, the country of about 5 million people has recorded fewer than 2,500 Covid-19 fatalities — the lowest Covid-related death rate in the Western world, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Baker noted that New Zealand’s death rate was still very low, with fewer people dying than usual.

For nearly two years, the charismatic Ardern was the global face of “Zero Covid”: it won praise from other countries and dovetailed with her personal style of consensus-based governance. In the fight against Covid, he referred to New Zealanders as “our 5 million team”.

But in late 2021, the team’s sense of unity began to wane when Ardern introduced vaccination requirements for certain types of workers and required them to show proof of vaccination to enter gyms, hairdressers, events, cafes and restaurants.

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“It saved a lot of lives from a public health standpoint, but it had this political cost,” Baker admits. “This probably contributed to the intensity of the anti-vaccination movement, which some groups seized on to call the ‘overreach’ of the state.”

The same policies that made New Zealand and its prime minister a zero-covid success made Ardern a lightning rod for anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine fervor.

“Because she is such a global and public symbol, she is at the center of those attacks,” said Richard Jackson, a professor of peace studies at the University of Otago.

“It was her opinion that she was destroying New Zealand society and bringing in ‘communist rule’ and yet the whole world was praising and praising her,” he said. “It pissed the hell out of them.”

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The van incident in the northern seaside town of Paihia in January last year came just weeks after a similar incident in the South Island that saw Ardern call her a “murderer” when she visited a primary school. By protesters waiting outside.

By then, hundreds of anti-mandate and anti-vaccine protesters had gathered on the lawns of Parliament in Wellington. Some put up signs mocking Ardern or comparing her to Hitler in a misogynistic fashion. Others hung nooses commemorating the January 6, 2021 attack on America’s capital.

Jackson said the rise of extreme rhetoric and baseless ideologies in New Zealand was fueled in part by far-right movements in the United States and Europe, including pundits such as Tucker Carlson, who often targeted Ardern. The Prime Minister himself called it “an imported style of protest that we haven’t seen in New Zealand before”.

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After aggressive behavior by protesters, including some throwing faeces at police, rioting officers began clearing the grounds of Parliament on the morning of March 2. Some protesters turned their camping equipment into firearms.

“Thousands more lives have been saved in the last two years by your actions as New Zealanders than on the front lawn of Parliament today,” Ardern reminded people.

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But in the eyes of some, that moment marked a turning point for the country.

“The level of people advocating nooses, misogyny, hate, violence, people threatening to hang politicians, it’s not part of the New Zealand tradition of politics,” he said. Alexander Gillespie, Professor of Law at the University of Waikato.

“It’s a huge shock to the country,” Jackson said, explaining that the protests were the most violent since the apartheid-era South African rugby team clashed during a 1981 visit. “The way it ended I think it brought home to everybody what we thought was a fairly moderate and peaceful and tolerant politics, and we now have a much more extreme, polarized and extreme environment,” he said.

The vitriol continued after his announcement on Thursday: the owner of a bar in Nelson posted a photo of Ardern’s wood chipper being dragged by a hearse, but removed it after receiving complaints.

In recent months, Ardern’s widespread popularity began to slip. The Labor Party he led two years ago is now trailing his rival in the polls, and his party is widely expected to lose this year’s election.

Baker said that, like Churchill, Ardern led her country through dark times, but ultimately lost the support of people suffering from crisis.

But this decision seems to have lifted the burden on the Prime Minister’s shoulders. He told reporters Friday morning that he was “sleeping well for the first time in a long time.”


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