• December 7, 2021

New Zealand Homegrown Hero – The New York Times

LETTER 222

Can the famous official who runs New Zealand through its shutdown succeed again?

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Last October, I attended a rock concert by Don McGlashan, a veteran singer-songwriter from New Zealand, in Wellington. Halfway through, she paused the show to ask for applause for someone in the audience: Ashley Bloomfield, the nation’s top health official.

Up until that point, the crowd had shown the kind of gentle courtesy one would expect from middle-aged civil servants, apparently the majority of the crowd, but at the mention of Mr. Bloomfield, everyone went wild.

Before the pandemic, he was New Zealand’s near-anonymous CEO of health, a position he has held since 2018. Since then he has become a household name and collective crush, immortalized in hand towels and passion fruit pastry. For many New Zealanders, he is seen to occupy a position “somewhere between his loving stepfather and a saint,” Ben Thomas, a New Zealand political commentator, told me in a recent interview.

On TikTok, Bloomfield’s almost daily appearances at press conferences about the pandemic have been set by fans to sexy soundtracks and accompanied by the hashtag #addybloomfield.

While Bloomfield’s modest and slightly lectured manner seems to work well with New Zealanders, his popularity is based on the country’s success in keeping Covid-19 out.

Until very recently, New Zealand appeared to have survived the worst of the pandemic almost unscathed. With a strong elimination strategy, the country has experienced fewer than 3,000 cases since the start of the pandemic and only 26 deaths. The economy is in reasonable shape, unemployment is low and freedoms have been at pre-pandemic levels for most of the past year. As the country’s vaccination effort began to ramp up and amid nascent reopening plans, the end seemed in sight.

But a mysterious case appeared in the community on August 17 and quickly grew into an outbreak of nearly 350. Cases are still at their peak. We’ve been in a restrictive nationwide shutdown for nearly two weeks, but instead of anger, Ashley’s mania is on the rise, again. He is still regarded as the expert who can get New Zealand out of Covid trouble.

For now, staying home is relatively new to most New Zealanders. In Auckland, the epicenter of the outbreak, people are overwhelmingly optimistic about the prospect of a one week confinement, which worked well in the early stages of the pandemic. Compliance is high – we have yet to experience the lockdown fatigue that has worried Australian lawmakers in Victoria or New South Wales. (What a TikToker put it, the end of the lockdown will mean facing the sad reality of seeing Mr. Bloomfield’s face less often at press conferences).

But that enthusiasm may subside after weeks indoors. At this starting point, New Zealand’s Covid-19 modelers anticipate a block of one month or more for Auckland. The free rein we’ve gotten used to (no masks, crowded bars, noisy concerts) may not return even after the country reopens. And our vaccine launch lags far behind that of most other rich countries, putting herd immunity out of reach for the next few months.

The Delta variant has already shot down the elimination strategy in some Australian states. Now it may represent major problems for New Zealand’s plans.

I will have an article on that in the near future. Feel free to share your thoughts with us on the New Zealand Covid challenge at nytaustralia@nytimes.com.

Here are the stories from this week:




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