New Zealand's local hero - The New York Times

LETTER 222 Can the famous official leading New Zealand through its lockdown succeed again? The letter from Australia is...


LETTER 222

Can the famous official leading New Zealand through its lockdown succeed again?

The letter from Australia is a weekly newsletter from our Australia office. Register now to receive it by email.

Last October, I attended a rock concert by Don McGlashan, a veteran New Zealand singer-songwriter, in Wellington. Halfway through, he interrupted the show to call for a round of applause for someone in the audience: Ashley Bloomfield, the country’s top health official.

Until then, the crowd had displayed the kind of gentle politeness one would expect from middle-aged officials – apparently the majority of the crowd – but with the mention of Mr Bloomfield everyone went wild. .

Before the pandemic, he was the almost anonymous director general of health for New Zealand, a position he has held since 2018. He has since become a household name and a collective crush, immortalized in hand towel and passion fruit pastry. For many New Zealanders, he occupies a position “somewhere between their beloved father-in-law and a saint,” Ben Thomas, a New Zealand political commentator, told me in a recent interview.

On TikTok, Mr Bloomfield’s near-daily appearances in pandemic press conferences have been set by fans for sensual soundtracks and accompanied by the hashtag #daddybloomfield.

While Mr Bloomfield’s self-effacing and mildly professorial manner seems to play well with New Zealanders, his popularity is rooted in the country’s success in keeping away from Covid-19.

Until recently, New Zealand seemed to have gotten through the worst of the pandemic almost unscathed. With a strong elimination strategy, the country has seen less 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 immunization effort began to intensify and in the midst of nascent reopening plans, the end has appeared in sight.

But a mysterious case emerged in the community on August 17 and quickly turned into an epidemic of nearly 350. The cases have not yet reached their peak. We’re almost two weeks into a restrictive nationwide lockdown – but instead of anger, Ashley-mania is on the rise, yet again. He is still considered the expert who can get New Zealand out of Covid trouble.

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

But that enthusiasm may wane after weeks indoors. At this early stage, New Zealand Covid-19 modellers predict confinement of one month or more for Auckland. The freedom we’ve grown used to – no masks, crowded bars, punchy concerts – might not return even after the reopening of the country. And our vaccine rollout lags far behind that of most other rich countries, putting herd immunity out of reach for months to come.

The Delta variant has already brought down the elimination strategy in some Australian states. This can now represent significant issues for New Zealand’s plans.

I will have an article on this in the near future. Please feel free to share your thoughts on New Zealand’s Covid challenge with us at nytaustralia@nytimes.com.

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