New Zealand is in total lockdown. Why aren’t we?

Across the Tasman, my friends’ social media feeds fill with pictures of jigsaws, chocolate supplies, an elderly pet in front of the fire, a video tour of the back garden. Early each morning, a musician friend, also a published poet, returns from his solo run to post lyrical descriptions of the deserted Wellington streets.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: occasionally stern but always warm and compassionate.Credit:Getty Images

Last week, when a curfew for the over-70s was declared, this ageing rocker who feels “like a teenager” was taken aback to discover he was officially old. A mutual friend posted about the wake-up call: “That moment when you are worried about the elderly and realise that you ARE the elderly.”

New Zealand, the country of my birth, where I lived almost half of my life and visit – visited – often, is in total lockdown for four weeks. There are exceptions – bus drivers, rubbish collectors, emergency service workers. Pharmacies and grocery stores, calm and mostly well-stocked, remain open. But there is no popping out for a haircut. Since 11.59pm on March 25 a state of emergency has been in place. “Follow the rules and STAY AT HOME,” the alert says. “Act as if you have COVID-19. This will save lives.”

New Zealand, population 4.8 million, fears the pandemic will overwhelm its overstretched health system. But wait. That sounds familiar. Australian doctors have issued that warning for more than a month. Professor Raina MacIntyre, of the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute, believes up to 2 million Australians could need hospitalisation.

In New Zealand, the messaging has been straightforward, calm and authoritative. No sniping, no “divisions”, as a deputy chief medical officer acknowledged last night. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, praised for her handling of last year’s Christchurch mosque shootings, delivers them clearly and concisely. She is occasionally stern but always warm and compassionate.

On the lockdown’s first evening, after putting baby Neve to bed, Ardern posted a video “checking in” with her people. Hunkered down on her Auckland couch in a tracksuit and without make up, she apologised for her casual garb, saying that putting toddlers to bed can get messy. She was encouraging and, in a classic example of Communications 101, delivered bad news with a carrot.

There was a time lag, 10 days or more, before lockdown results would be seen, she said. New Zealanders should expect a steep rise in cases – “several thousand” – but she urged them not to be discouraged. Urging them to help neighbours but leave their shopping at the front door, she said: “Stay at home, break the chain and we will save lives. It is as simple as that.”

What a contrast between my two countries. On this side of the Tasman – my side on and off for 35 years – a multitude of voices deliver mixed messages: the Prime Minister, state and federal ministers, state and federal medical officers, senior police. Those messages are sometimes unclear, sometimes downright contradictory, as NSW and Victoria push a tougher line. Stay at home, but you can get your haircut or exercise in the park. Schools are open but keep the kids home. There are reports of people with COVID-19-like symptoms who don’t meet the testing criteria.

Of course, the two countries aren’t exactly comparable. New Zealand is small, with a single government. But surely there are lessons here: firm, decisive action, clear credible messaging, explanations people can understand. And the human touch. Who can imagine Scott Morrison broadcasting from his couch in a tracksuit?

Speaking of helping neighbours, how about the more than 650,000 Kiwis in Australia, Mr Morrison? Many of these Australian taxpayers, excised from our welfare system since 2001, are in dire financial straits but don’t qualify for Centrelink. A friend’s son, working in Australia for five years, has been stood down from his job and cannot pay his rent or buy food. Ardern has telephoned Morrison, pleading their case.

A fortnight that seems like a lifetime ago I cancelled an extended trip to New Zealand, reluctant to get on a plane. “You’d be safer over here,” one friend said. But my home is here, my sister, my cat, my superannuation and my house, the value of the last two dropping like a stone. So I stayed. I hope I made the right choice.

Sue Green is a Melbourne writer.

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