Did COVID kill Jacinda Ardern?
Democratic governments that impose vaccine mandates are often wildly unpopular. Protests against vaccine mandates were strong in 19th century Germany and England. In New Zealand, they may have led to the resignation of Jacinda Ardern, even though she won the last election by a landslide.
Liberals loved Ms. Ardern. She was everything Trump wasn’t, an inspiration to eco-warriors and feminists and follow-the-science technocrats everywhere. She had a baby in office and adjusted her meeting schedule to nurse the baby. She was inclusive and culturally sensitive as the world became insular and intolerant, though also not afraid to call opponent an “arrogant prick” or to raise money for cancer research by selling the video showing that remark. She explained parliamentary government to Stephen Colbert. She had it all.
In the early days of COVID, Jacinda Ardern was hailed as the world’s most effective leader in the battle against the pandemic. She was in a unique position, as leader of an island nation, to close the borders and prevent the virus from spreading. She acted decisively to do that and to close businesses and mandate immunizations for many workers. As a result, New Zealand had the lowest mortality rate from COVID of any industrialized country. With a population of about 5M, NZ had only about 2500 deaths, half the mortality rate of similarly-sized Norway and one-sixth the rate in the USA.
Ardern was uniquely effective at implementing infection control strategies while maintaining public support, trust and confidence in the government. She and her party were re-elected in a landslide in October, 2020. After that, though, her popularity waned. Throughout 2021 and 2022, her popularity was dropping as the threat of COVID receded and New Zealanders became more concerned with economic issues and a rise in violent crime. Opposition leaders thought her policies were too draconian and that restrictions should have been lifted sooner than they were. Her political career can be read as a barometer for the world’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Opposition to her government’s policies sparked violent protests that went on for months outside Parliament.
Ambrose Bierce defined “physician” as “One upon whom we set our hopes when we are sick and our dogs when we are well.” The same might be a description of governments in a time of plague. Draconian policies save lives. Ardern’s policies saved thousands of lives. But the saved lives are invisible and the suffering that follows lockdowns is tangible.
Coercive policies need to be carefully titrated to the need. Throughout the COVID pandemic, the need for such policies changed with each innovation in prevention and with growing herd immunity. The risks of getting infected or dying from infection dropped dramatically as most high-risk people were immunized and natural immunity from prior infections made the virus less deadly. But policies became fixed and politicized. To change policies was seen as giving in to political pressure. Leaders were no longer following the science. Instead, they were firing up their core supporters. The policies that were effective in the early days of the pandemic became worse than the problems they were intended to solve.
Ms. Ardern’s downfall illustrates the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished. She was the right leader for the time. She served New Zealand well. It will be a shame if her inability to shift rapidly enough on pandemic policies endangers her efforts on gun control, environmental protection, and minority rights. It will be a shame if her failure to mentor a successor leaves her party without a viable candidate in the upcoming elections.