Why can't America be more like New Zealand with its COVID mortality rate of roughly one person per 100,000 population versus our 120? There’s one reason they’re so far ahead of us: Everything Dr. Anthony Fauci told Donald Trump to do, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern actually did. She shut down completely on March 16, 2020, and reopened only after transmissions and deaths were down. By June, it was everyone into the pool. Restaurants, bars, and offices were open.
We are 10 months and more than half a million deaths beyond that. At his first press conference Thursday, President Joe Biden said he was elected to rescue us from COVID and to that end, he’s 48 days ahead of his promise of 100 million vaccines in a hundred days. He upped the ante to 200 million by then, likely to be met if he keeps to his current rolling average of 2.5 million doses a day.
Still with 1,541 deaths the day before he took reporter’s questions, Biden’s vaccinations, as fast as they come, won’t make up for the ground lost by the prior president who didn’t have the stomach to do what Ardern did: risk a political hit for shutting down until transmission was sufficiently slowed.
Had Trump been the type to delay gratification—resist the first marshmallow in the classic test in hopes of two later—he might have won re-election and saved us from the new normal of 55,000 new cases a day, a slight but completely insufficient decline, on top of 550,000 deaths so far. To understand the enormity of that figure, the dead would fill all 48 seats on 12,000 yellow school buses—which if you lined them up bumper-to-bumper on I-95 would stretch from the Capitol to the toll booth in Dover, Delaware.
Biden is governing a country still infected by Trump’s insistence that nothing was wrong. While Ardern shut down travel from China tightly, he made a show of doing the same, only with a loophole large enough for 40,000 travelers to fly through, all the while insisting the Kung Flu would disappear like a miracle. He bumptiously ignored social distancing, dared Fauci to move away when he crowded him during press briefings, and encouraged governors to reopen in April (he’d argued even earlier for Easter) before they’d met any of Fauci’s benchmarks. By summer, he was personally hosting superspreader events—including the Republican National Convention—at the White House, even spreading the virus personally by taking a planned trip on Air Force One after testing positive for COVID himself.
On another deadly issue, Ardern acted more decisively than the U.S. after a madman mowed down 51 people in a Christchurch mosque on March 15, 2019. Two days later, Ardern proposed taking away semi-automatic weapons. A ban passed that week. Since then, close to 1,500 Americans have been lost to mass murders, 18 in the last week in Georgia and Colorado. There have been none in New Zealand.
No gun bans in America. The first thing out of the NRA-owned Senate is thoughts, prayers, and criticism of the knee-jerk reaction of Democrats to call for modest gun control.
There are a lot of excuses for why New Zealand moves more quickly than we do. It’s a small island nation that curtsies to the Queen (so is COVID-soaked Britain). And it’s also a democratically elected parliamentary system with 80 percent voter turnout. It’s largely homogeneous (although with a large Maori population whose valiant motto is "Be strong, be brave, be steadfast”) and has a more docile culture (don’t be fooled by its famous scraggly-feathered, no-tail kiwi that can’t fly versus our ferocious bald eagle).
In reality, the Kiwis fought valiantly alongside Americans in both world wars; New Zealand enjoys a booming economy, 99 percent literacy, ranks seventh among countries in student achievement, and has a “brain gain” rather than a drain because so many people want to move there.
So much of governing is pushing an unpopular proposal, praying for it to be proved right, and living with the possibility of being run out of office if it doesn’t. That’s all Trump thought about, but it doesn’t concern the 78-year old Biden, who has a good sense that man plans and God laughs.
At the press conference, he was surprised by a question about why he’s been so slow to form a re-election committee as his predecessor had done by this time. On the second ask, he said it was his “plan" to run but added he has no idea whether he'll be running against Trump (he’d earlier scoffed that he missed him) or whether there will even be a Republican Party in 2024.
Biden’s biggest obstacle to getting us through the pandemic is us. We’re benumbed, and we long to personally gaze at a dozen varieties of pasta on the grocery shelf and party like it’s 2019. Given that, we need to be more, not less, like New Zealand. The Kiwis sacrificed enough to ring in the new year this past January with 20,000 revelers gathered in Gisborne, eating, drinking, and dancing the night away.
In Times Square, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen riffed about their kids' fashion choices until, mercifully, the red ball dropped at midnight with barely a creature on hand to notice. To do more on the Fourth of July than a hamburger in the backyard with your pod and vaccinated grandparents, heed Fauci—who says he can see the corner, but we haven’t turned it yet—and buckle down a while longer. It’s hard to realize that we don’t get to be done with the pandemic until it’s done with us. And that we’re not New Zealand.