How covid affected Jacinda Ardern’s legacy as New Zealand prime minister

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SYDNEY — Jacinda Ardern was on a work trip in the northern New Zealand coastal city almost exactly a year ago when her van was suddenly surrounded by anti-vaccine protesters. He called the prime minister a “Nazi” for requiring some workers to get the coronavirus vaccine, and shouted “shame on you”. Some screaming obscenities. When a car tried to block Ardern’s exit, his van had to drive onto a curb to escape.

When asked about the incident a few days later, Ardern laughed and shrugged.

He said that in this work one has to face new and different experiences every day. “We are in an environment at the moment that has an intensity that is unusual for New Zealand. I also believe that in time it will pass.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern resigned before the election.

However, a little more than a month later, protests against the vaccine mandate outside Parliament literally burst into flames. Protesters set fire to their tents and gas canisters. Demonstrators pelted police with the same paving stones on which they had scrawled warnings to Ardern and other politicians that they would “hang them high.” More than 120 people were arrested.

This time, Ardern didn’t shrug. Instead, he seemed angry and upset.

“One day, it will be our job to try to understand how a group of people could fall prey to such wild and dangerous misinformation and misinformation,” he said.

In the end, New Zealand’s new era of fierce rhetoric and dangerous misinformation will overtake Ardern, who announced on Thursday that she is stepping down after more than five years in office.

“I know what it takes,” the 42-year-old said in an emotional resignation speech. “And I know I don’t have enough in the tank anymore to do it justice.”

Ardern did not mention the protests or the extreme rhetoric or the threats they have faced. But he mentioned the coronavirus pandemic. And in many ways, his handling of the health crisis was his greatest achievement, but it made him a divisive figure in New Zealand.

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“I think that will probably be his greatest legacy,” said Michael Baker, an epidemiologist who served as an outside adviser to Ardern’s government during the pandemic. He likened Ardern to Winston Churchill, who defeated Britain only in the 1945 election during World War II.

“It’s very difficult to even imagine going through such a severe threat that lasts so long,” he said. “There was a deep bitterness over the experience of the people at the end of it, and unfortunately it has been somewhat pointed out even though he has done an extraordinary job.”

Ardern acted quickly at the start of the pandemic, closing her country’s borders to foreigners even though tourism is one of New Zealand’s biggest industries. That decision, along with strict quarantine requirements for New Zealand’s return and snap lockdown, kept his country largely Covid-free until early last year.

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By the time the virus hit New Zealand, the majority of adults had been vaccinated. As a result, the country of nearly five million people has recorded fewer than 2,500 Covid-19 deaths – the lowest Covid-related death rate in the Western world, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Baker noted that New Zealand’s death rate is still so low that fewer people have died than in normal times.

For nearly two years, the charismatic Ordinance was the global face of “Zero Covid”: an approach that admired other countries and seemed to do so with his own personal style of consensus-based governance. In the fight against Covid, he called New Zealanders “our team of 5 million”.

But that sense of team unity began in late 2021, when Ardern introduced requirements that certain types of workers be vaccinated, and required proof of vaccination to be shown to enter gyms, hairdressers, events, cafes and restaurants. go

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“It saved a lot of lives from a public health standpoint, but it had this political cost,” Baker admits. “It probably contributed to the intensity of the anti-vaccine movement because it was seized upon by some groups who called it the ‘overreach’ of the state.”

The same policies that propelled New Zealand and its prime minister to zero-covid success and made Ardern a lightning rod for anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine sentiment.

“Because she was such a global and public symbol, she was the center of attention in these attacks,” said Richard Jackson, professor of peace studies at the University of Otago.

“Her opinion was that she was destroying New Zealand society and bringing in ‘communist rule’ and yet the whole world admired and admired her,” he added. “It pissed the hell out of them.”

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Protests across the country followed suit, from the van incident in the northern seaside town of Paia in January last year to a similar incident in the South Island a few weeks later, when Ardern visited a primary school. What was simply referred to as “the killer”. By the protesters waiting outside.

By then, hundreds of anti-mandate and anti-vaccine protesters had gathered on the lawns of Parliament in Wellington. Some held signs that mocked Ardern or compared him to Hitler. Others hung nooses commemorating the attack on the US capital on January 6, 2021.

The rise of extremist rhetoric and radical ideas in New Zealand has been fueled in part by far-right movements in the United States and Europe, Jackson said, including pundits like Tucker Carlson, who often target Ardern. were The Prime Minister himself called it “an import style of protest that we have not seen before in New Zealand.”

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After increasingly aggressive behavior by protesters, including throwing balloons at police, riot officers began to clear the grounds of Parliament on the morning of March 2.

Ardern reminded the crowd that “your actions over the past two years have saved thousands more lives as New Zealanders than on the front lawn of Parliament today.”

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However, in the eyes of some, this moment was a turning point for the country.

“The level of people advocating violence, the level of vitriol, the hatred, people threatening to hang politicians, it’s not part of the tradition of New Zealand politics,” he said. Alexander Gillespie, Professor of Law at the University of Waikato.

“It was a huge shock to the country,” said Jackson, who described the protests as the most violent since clashes in 1981 during a tour of the apartheid-era South African rugby team. “The way it ended, I think it dawned on everyone that what we thought of as a fairly moderate and peaceful and tolerant politics was over, and now we have There is a much more intense, polarized and extreme” environment.

The vitriol continued after his announcement on Thursday: A bar owner in Nelson posted a doctored photo of Arden in a wood chipper drawn by a blonde, but took it down after receiving complaints.

In recent months, Ardern’s wider popularity had begun to wane. The Labor Party he led a little more than two years ago has now trailed his rival in the polls, and his party is expected to lose heavily in this year’s elections.

Baker said that like Churchill, Ardern had led her country through a dark period, but eventually lost support to a crisis-ridden public.

But this decision seems to have lifted a burden from the Prime Minister’s shoulders. She told reporters Friday morning that she would “sleep well for the first time in a long time.”

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