By Kalinga Seneviratne
Last year, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was hailed by the western media as the heroine of fighting the Covid-19 pandemic because her country was able to weather the first onslaught of the pandemic, but today she is fighting to keep away thousands of protestors invading the parliament calling for an end to Covid lockdowns and other restrictions.
Ardern is facing the same predicament as Asia’s unsung (by western media) heroes in stemming the first wave such as Thailand’s Prayut Chan-o-cha, Sri Lanka’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong, and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in. The more contagious delta variant has floored all these leaders forcing them into lockdowns and unpopularity with its citizens.
While most of these initially successful Asian nations are now slowly beginning to open up their countries and economy arguing that Covid should be treated as another flu variant and people need to learn to live with it, Ardern is stubbornly resisting this temptation, and as a result facing the wrath of the people.
In the capital Wellington, thousands of protesters turned up at New Zealand’s Parliament on November 9, demanding an end to Covid restrictions, while another group blocked the northern boundary to New Zealand’s commercial capital Auckland on November 9 morning.
After being used to months of zero-Covid, on August 14 this year, Auckland went into a lockdown when one Covid-19 case was detected from a returning airline passenger. Later it was extended into a nationwide lockdown and has remained so until now. Since August there have been over 7500 confirmed cases with 125 new cases reported November.
But protestors, many not wearing masks, were out in force November 9 morning blocking traffic into Auckland for over an hour. Police had to physically move some cars out of the roadway, while one protestor was reported to have bitten a policeman. Few hours later thousands of protestors marched from Wellington’s Civic Square towards the Parliament House. They were met with a large police presence.
Radio New Zealand (RNZ) reported that the protestors hurled abuse at media and police, threw tennis balls and water at them, while holding flags and signs with messages against lockdown, vaccination, the media and government. Some tried to jump the railings, and police security had to be ramped up. Which prompted House Speaker Trevor Mallard to tell RNZ that “security had never been so tight in his more-than-30 years in Parliament”.
The protesters claimed an array of grievances from being segregated and the government having “trampled on the rights of New Zealanders”. Some blamed the media and government of spreading misinformation, including about vaccination, while others said they wanted New Zealand to live with the virus and not be concerned about the risks. Some also expressed concerns about losing their jobs because they would not get vaccinated.
Generally, New Zealanders are expressing the same frustrations of people across the world, who want their lives back and are suspicious of information they are provided by the media and the government.
Even Prime Minister Ardern has been locked out of Auckland due to strict lockdowns. She has relaxed these restrictions and is expected to visit the city this week. She has promised greater freedom to the people of Auckland once the city reach the 90 percent vaccine rate towards the end of November.
New Zealand’s virologists such as Professor Michael Plank of the University of Canterbury seem to disagree with opening up the country sooner. “I think it’s a risky move to ease restrictions when cases are still rising quite sharply—doubling around every 12 days,” he told RNZ.
But Melbourne University professor Tony Blakely argues based on the experience of New South Wales and Victoria states in Australia: “Probably Auckland is at peak immunity now and you could come out to play and then as you go up to 90 percent that’ll keep the immunity pretty high but there’ll be a lot of other people with waning immunity (in the coming months), which we know is a real phenomena.”
Citing two recent large case studies in Melbourne and Sydney, Blakely said the “vaccinated economy”—where double-vaccinated people were able to go to pubs, restaurants, and events—had worked “better than expected” in the Australian context.
Like Australia, when the delta variant reached New Zealand in August, the country was largely unprotected because the vaccination rates were very low, mainly due to the success in controlling the first wave of Covid-19. But now, with Covid-19 showing a stubborn resistance to vaccinations, or immunity level of vaccinations going down with time, the government in Australia recently decided to “live with Covid” like other Asian nations such as Singapore and Thailand. It looks as if the Ardern government may also move in the same direction.
During the protest at parliament house, the protestors have played iconic music blasted out on the lawn, which were thematically chosen—including Michael Jackson’s ‘They Don’t Care About Us’, and Eminem and Rihanna’s ‘Love the Way You Lie’. The voices that pointed fingers yelled at the building housing the decision makers would have attracted attention of Ardern who was reported to be inside the building.
While the protestors have dispersed by late afternoon, Ardern said in a statement to media that the protesters’ views were not representative of the bulk of New Zealand—who she thanked for doing their part in the country’s effort to combat Covid-19.
“We’re at over 89 percent of eligible New Zealanders having had their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and I think they know and appreciate that we’re on a road to able to open up more—to having a bit more of that normality back, “ she said, adding, “Yes it’s been a tough journey, but I think they can see that what we’ve done has been on behalf of everyone”.
* This report was compiled with the assistance of news feeds from RNZ and our partner Asia Pacific Report.