I am an American expat living in New Zealand. When my wife and I left the States 10 months ago, we knew at the time that we were shifting our political realities dramatically.
New Zealand’s government has vied with Denmark for the title of least corrupt in the world for several years now, topping the list in 2020. There is an expectation of transparent, no-nonsense governance that is fulfilled to a degree I could only dream of back home. I won’t pretend that the current American administration had nothing to do with my search for international opportunities, but I never could have imagined the degree to which the bluster, lies, and malicious rhetoric of officials in the federal government, as well as those in many states, could endanger the well-being of all those we loved back in the U.S.
While Trump and others were either claiming to have already defeated COVID-19 or were downplaying its seriousness and disregarding the warnings of essentially the entire international, medical and scientific communities, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and others in New Zealand’s government were preparing for a national lockdown of unprecedented magnitude and indefinite duration.
After a month of lockdown and a graduated reopening, New Zealand has now returned to some semblance of normal. Borders are still essentially closed, and there have been numerous failures in protocol in the managed isolation put in place for Kiwis returning from abroad or those entering New Zealand for other reasons. It has not been perfect, but as of July 20, we have had no community spread since the lockdown ended.
Kiwis have returned to beaches, concerts, and pubs in droves. Domestic tourism has surged as people come to grips with the notion that, though the sacrifice of total lockdown has subsided for now, we are still basically locked down together in this wonderful little country for what may be a very long time.
Numerous authors and journalists in New Zealand, including other American expats, have tried in recent weeks to parse out the differences in the pandemic experiences of the two nations. Often, these discussions boil down to an acute difference in priorities in the two nations — the prime motivation in the American public is personal liberty, while the driving force in Kiwi society is the notion of equality, particularly an equality of sacrifice under such conditions. This is an oversimplification, of course, but it is one I see playing itself out again and again in recent weeks.
This difference goes a long way in explaining why Ardern and Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health, went on live television in New Zealand daily to both publicly mourn each death from the virus and to laud their “team of 5 million” for the sacrifices made during lockdown, while Trump and sycophantic governors spent their time mocking scientists and those wearing masks. Even in instances where American leaders try to walk back such dismissiveness, they failed spectacularly.
White House officials recently tried to blame paltry intelligence briefings for ongoing COVID failures. (Trump’s CIA briefer is a woman, his preferred scapegoats for his own failings.) As historian Heather Cox Richardson recently noted, others in the intelligence community have come to her defense and insisted that Trump “cannot absorb anything that does not reinforce his worldview.” This seems true of far too many Americans now as well, and it is costing thousands of lives and the long-term health of countless more.
Meanwhile, American billionaires are battering down the doors of New Zealand’s closed borders, eyeing the nation as their bolt hole as the incompetence they have helped catalyze bears its inevitable fruit.
So much of the recent experiences of the two nations are tied up in economies of scale. I have no illusions that it is not monumentally more difficult to place a nation of 325+ million into lockdown than it is a nation of 5 million, particularly when two or three generations have passed in the United States without the general population needing to practice any kind of widespread sacrifice for a common good. The cultural memory of such efforts has faded in the U.S. and American contempt for inconvenience would be comical were it not so lethal for the rest of the world and now for themselves as well.
Memories of rationing, blackouts, and communal sacrifice still loom large in the culture and memories of Kiwis. “Equity of sacrifice” was a genuine concern during both World Wars and it resonates still today.
New Zealand has an economy approximately the size of the state of Kentucky’s, and it is geographically isolated, so it is objectively easier to lock it down for a brief period. But there is a flip side to those characteristics.
New Zealand is dependent upon trade and tourism that a global economy affords. It lacks the labor and the abundant resources of the United States. The economic hits it takes as a result of the pandemic, and its allies’ failures to address COVID-19 in a similar manner, will be felt more acutely and likely for a longer period. And yet, the complaints over the decisions that were made back in March are largely few and far between. Optimism here is surprisingly abundant, though it is tempered by the realities of the interdependence globalization has bred and the need to develop new ways forward.
I won’t pretend that the response in New Zealand was perfect, but it was likely as close as any nation will come.
Daily case counts in the U.S. have surpassed 60,000. By the time this is published, it may surpass 100,000. The world watches in disbelief, as do the majority of Americans. It is both terrifying and disorienting to watch this unfold from so far away. I have never felt so helpless, a common feeling these days.
My wife and I are among the lucky ones. Our friends and family remind us of this often, and it is impossible not to be heartbroken by it. We are surrounded by not only beauty and safety, but also competence and top-down transparency in the government of our adopted home.
Kiwis ask us how the U.S. government can be so feckless, so shameless, so spineless. How can they simply resign themselves to literal human sacrifice when, at least initially, there were options?
The convenience of the average American life has always come at high costs, mostly to populations who remain largely invisible to us — easy to overlook and mostly far away, though many were right there in America all along. Our priorities and our economy have been laid bare and shown wanting.
The arguments that the economy’s collapse could prove as deadly as the virus itself are not necessarily untrue, but they do illustrate just how deeply we have failed one another. The thin veneer of patriotism and moralizing used to cloak the military-industrial complex that has been the catalyst of the American economy since the 1940s has fallen away, exposing the cynical heart of the country.
Our chickens have come home to roost. We can’t outsource this one. Instead, we ask one another to die for it.
Michael McLane is an editor with the journals saltfront and Sugar House Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Dark Mountain, Colorado Review, Western Humanities Review, High Country News, and South Dakota Review, among others. He earned an MFA from Colorado State University and an MS is Environmental Humanities from the University of Utah. He served as director of the Utah Center for the Book and the Utah Humanities Book Festival for eight years before moving to New Zealand last year to pursue a PhD at Victoria University in Wellington.