With no new Covid-19 cases in the past 15 days, and a rapid recovery in the number of old infections, authorities in New Zealand have effectively achieved their goal of eliminating and eradicating the spread of Covid-19, via both external and internal transmissions. While New Zealand’s approach to the virus was initially criticized by various politicians and leaders, the island nation’s prompt decision of combining science with credible leadership has been successful in protecting their population of 4.82 million. With their Covid-19 death toll standing at just 22, New Zealand’s approach to the virus is now being hailed as an exemplar across the globe.
Amidst all this, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister has played a brilliant role as a communicator and an empathetic leader by focusing her attention and trust on scientific evidence and kindness. Her swift and steady decision regarding New Zealand’s public health has been hailed as the most decisive and effective lockdown in the world at the moment. Ardern’s commendable approach to Covid-19 included ‘direction-giving’, ‘meaning-making’, and ‘compassion’ which motivated her followers to give their best in the fight against the pandemic. By freely acknowledging the challenges and pain that her citizens faced in terms of loss of income, social distancing and radical changes in sports and recreation, Ardern showed solidarity to her pupils when they required it the most. Likewise, by appearing on daily televised briefings to answer questions and issues that require prompt attention, to developing a transparent framework which easily explained the government’s action, Arden was quick to transform into the pillar of support that her people needed at such unprecedented times; all of which made her performance against the pandemic a global model to follow.
In this backdrop, Nepal has had an unpremeditated response and a weak leadership to fight Covid-19, which in its own is a direct reflection to its post-2015 earthquake measures. The persistent surge in positive cases in recent days has created a new wave of fear regarding the pandemic across the nation. While the government has implemented a strict nationwide lockdown, closed all international borders, and instructed citizens to adopt safety measures; the ground reality of lockdown completely contradicts the expectations from it.
How was Nepal’s leadership weak during the lockdown period?
Despite our prime minister’s repeated assurance and defence regarding the government’s efforts to control the pandemic, community transmission in Nepal has been increasing at an alarming rate. While the initial lockdown period was implemented to offer a window opportunity for our health care system to arrange proper logistics in carrying out wide-scale testing; its continuous extension has now brought in economic consequences which are more detrimental than the virus itself. Nepal now faces huge economic and social challenges as its post COVID-19 gross domestic product (GDP) growth is estimated at a meagre 2.4 percent; which is a huge downturn from its previous achievement of over 6.5 to 7 percent.
Moreover, the government has been widely criticized in its management of domestic migrant labourers. With no jobs and pay, thousands of domestic labourers stranded at various border entry points and other labour destination countries have adopted informal channels to gain access to their homeland. While the government did intensify the development of quarantine facilities, proactive screening via testing and tracing, and other isolation wards to manage the huge influx of returnee migrants; how effectively these measures were implemented, evaluated, and mitigated has been a topic of hot debate that most of our leaders are yet to clarify upon.
Lastly, the government was embroiled in a series of corruption allegations while procuring personal protective gears (PPE), polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines, rapid diagnostic test kits (RDT), and other essential medical equipment. The government’s attempt to pass controversial bills/laws to strengthen political agendas at a time when more attention was required in strengthening the public health care system has also been heavily scrutinized by opponent leaders and experts from the health sector; all of which shows that the nation lacks credible leadership in its battle against the pandemic.
Lessons that Nepal can learn from New Zealand-
At a time where even the richest and most developed nations are frantically struggling to curb the spread of Covid-19, the cataclysm has engulfed much of Nepal’s socio-economic and healthcare system. To combat this, Nepal needs a well-planned strategy to see itself through the next year or two which includes stable, strong and credible guidance from its government. A few lessons that Nepal can follow from New Zealand’s approach to Covid-19 are:
- Our government should revamp their public health services by emphasizing more on ‘precautionary approach’ and ‘best available science and health advice’. Just like Ardern laid out her Covid-19 work-plan based on the factual evidence from a pre-existing Influenza Pandemic Plan, Nepal could set out four alert levels which could be applied depending on the extent of the virus’s presence in the country. The four levels (prepare, reduce, restrict and lockdown) can be applied after analyzing the intensity of community spread of the virus on different areas to curb the effect of the spread. This will allow the authorities to slow down and test as many cases as possible throughout the country; all the while allowing people in less affected areas to carry on with their normal social and economic life.
- Learning from Ardern’s experiences with the virus, our government could marshal its resources in implementing an ‘elimination strategy’ rather than ‘mitigating the pandemic influenza’. By taking the former approach, the government could use vigorous interventions to interrupt domestic disease transmission, which includes rigorous quarantine facilities at the borders, expanding testing and contact tracing, and using additional surveillance measures to provide assurance for when elimination is achieved. The current ‘flattening the curve’ approach can reduce the infected cases to manageable levels, but only at the cost of prolonged lockdowns adversely affecting the economy while waiting for effective vaccines or antibodies; for which Nepal cannot wait anymore.
- Lastly, our government should put health before the economy, with clear message and notification coming from leaders in respect to any decision or move against the virus. Instead of declaring a ‘War on Covid-19’, the government should urge the country to come together. Ardern’s repeated appeal to her people to ‘Unite Against Covid-19’ got them through their battle. Thus, our government too can carefully and calmly communicate complex health issues around Covid-19, reach out to its people, and pave the way for successful implementation of cabinet decisions. Without doing so, there would be low level of compliance amongst the public and even the most effective pandemic response would be in vain.
 “New Zealand- Ministry of Health”, Covid-19 Updates, 07 June 2020. Retrieved from- https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-novel-coronavirus/covid-19-current-situation/covid-19-current-cases
 “From quake to coronavirus, knee-jerk response from Nepal leadership”, Subina Shrestha, ALJAZEERA, 25 April 2020. Retrieved from- https://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/asia/2020/04/quake-coronavirus-knee-jerk-response-nepal-leadership-200425063912872.html
 “Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19”, Suze Wilson, SAGE journals, 26 May 2020. Retrieved from- https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1742715020929151
 “Elimination: what New Zealand’s coronavirus response can teach the world”, Michael Baker and Nick Wilson, The Guardian, 10 April 2020. Retrieved from- https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/10/elimination-what-new-zealands-coronavirus-response-can-teach-the-world
Thumbnail picture source: https://time.com/5824042/new-zealand-coronavirus-elimination/