How New Zealand conquered the coronavirus | Fletcher McClellan

NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND - MAY 29: Jacinda Ardern speaks to a young supporter on May 29, 2020 in Napier, New Zealand. (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

More than 100,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, an occasion marked last week in both emotional and disinterested ways.

The U.S. accounts for one-quarter of the world’s deaths during the pandemic. America ranks among the leading countries in deaths and coronavirus cases per million.

Though the overall trend of cases and deaths has declined, particularly in Pennsylvania and the Northeast, many areas of the U.S. are experiencing surges of COVID-19 infections.

Sorry to say, it is likely that there are far more deaths related to the virus in Pennsylvania, the U.S., and worldwide, than what official statistics indicate.

With all 50 states reopening their economies, the next flu season on the horizon, and little hope of a vaccine available soon, no end to the pandemic is in sight.

Aptly, a historian of the 1918 pandemic described the American response to the coronavirus threat as “incomprehensibly incoherent.”

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Which countries are doing better? Which are handling the pandemic as badly as or worse than the U.S.? What explains the differences? What can we learn?

The poster child for success in dealing with coronavirus is undoubtedly New Zealand.

As of May 29, the island nation, adjacent to Australia with a population of nearly 5 million people, had just one active COVID-19 case.

On the same date, Pennsylvania reported 693 new positive cases.

Strong, decisive leadership by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is credited for much of the progress. She banned all foreign travel into the country and imposed a nationwide lockdown.

The 39-year old’s approach to the pandemic has been to rely on “science and empathy,” urging citizens to “Be Strong. Be Kind.”

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In addition to Ardern’s leadership, some observers have attributed New Zealand’s success to structural factors.

For example, unlike the U.S., New Zealand has a parliamentary system with a method of allocating legislative seats by proportional representation. The government includes smaller political parties and the indigenous Maori people, facilitating inclusive policy responses to COVID-19.

Another possible explanation is New Zealand’s social welfare system. Similar to social democracies in Europe, New Zealand has comprehensive benefits based on need and good outcomes such as high life expectancy and relatively low poverty.

This is important, since coronavirus has disproportionally harmful effects on the poor and people with underlying medical conditions. With its piecemeal social safety net, economic and social inequality, and disappointing health outcomes, the U.S. is especially vulnerable.

One of the more intriguing variables affecting national policies toward COVID-19 is the character of the governing party.

Prime Minister Ardern is a social democrat, leading the Labour Party since 2017. Labour heads a governing coalition that includes, interestingly, the nationalist New Zealand First Party.

Ardern gained international recognition for championing a ban on semi-automatic weapons after the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, in which a white supremacist and alt-right supporter killed 51 worshippers and wounded 49.

It has not gone unnoticed that several nations encountering problems with coronavirus spread – such as the U.S., United Kingdom, and Brazil – are led by right-wing, populist parties, some of which are openly hostile toward science and eager to play cultural politics with face masks.

There are exceptions, though. Ethnic nationalist governments in Hungary, Poland, and Israel appear to be dealing with the virus effectively, but at the cost of democratic institutions.

In fact, there appear to be no significant differences in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths among nations led by populist, liberal, or social democratic parties.

There are other possible theories explaining positive national responses to the pandemic, but each has its detractors.

For instance, noted success stories Japan and South Korea are culturally homogenous. However, New Zealand is proudly multicultural.

Perhaps because of their previous experiences with pandemics such as SARS and MERS, Asian governments seem to be more effective in tackling the coronavirus than European and North American states.

The exception, of course, is China, which boasts success but observers are skeptical.

Finally, is it a coincidence that the leaders of some of the most effective policies – Ardern, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, and Tsai Ing-wen, president of Taiwan – are all female?

Is there something about women that makes them better leaders during a public health crisis? Are women more likely to prioritize the ethics of care? Or, does female leadership only appear to be superior because of the failure of toxic masculinity?

Sadly, whether the key to national success in the age of coronavirus is politics, social policy, or leadership, the U.S. has the worst of all worlds.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College, in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears on Mondays on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.