Coronavirus: 'Selfish', 'terrifying' or 'successful'? How New Zealand's COVID-19 response has fascinated the globe

Right from the get-go, New Zealand's COVID-19 response has been the subject of fascination and speculation abroad, with some praising the "successful" elimination strategy and others questioning our "terrifying" restrictions. 

From as early as April, the Government's decision to impose a strict lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus was criticised as too harsh, sparking the creation of the group 'Plan B', who argued the response was greater than the virus itself. 

The Sydney Morning Herald picked up on the controversy, running an article headlined 'Experts defend New Zealand's strict lockdown rules in face of criticism'. It was clear that New Zealand's response to the virus was being watched with curiosity. 

Despite the alert level 4 lockdown and subsequent level 3 measures delivering New Zealand more than 100 days free from the virus, the criticism continued to build up and speculation grew about how Kiwis were being stripped of civil liberties. 

An overseas Twitter account in August described New Zealand as "a hellhole" where "quarantine camps are public knowledge", alluding to the managed isolation and quarantine facilities (MIQ) run by the Government where returnees complete two weeks of isolation. 

Kiwis were quick to defend their home in response, with a flood of Twitter posts depicting the many ways they were allowed to be out and about, despite the level 3 restrictions in Auckland and level 2 rules for the rest of the country at the time. 

But the speculation that New Zealand is running "quarantine camps" hasn't stopped. 

Fox News recently ran a segment in which a man from the conservative-leaning American public policy think tank Hoover Institution condemned "New Zealand's institution of coronavirus quarantine camps".  

Host Laura Ingraham told viewers New Zealand has had a "terrifying new response" to "rising COVID case numbers", despite no new community cases being identified for days, and that the Government is "throwing people into quarantine camps". 

A four-month-old clip of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is played of her discussing how returning New Zealanders who refuse a test in MIQ have to stay an extra 14 days to avoid the virus potentially getting back into the community.  

"No leaving the camp until you're negative," Ingraham says into the camera, speaking in an attempted Kiwi accent to make fun of Ardern. 

It wasn't the first time footage of high-profile New Zealand figures in Government had been manipulated to fit the narrative of so-called "quarantine camps". 

British politician David Kurten retweeted a video in August of Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield talking about the Government's new plan to put people confirmed with COVID-19 into MIQ, rather than let them self-isolate at home - at no cost of their own. 

"New Zealand becomes a police state nightmare - quarantine camps for anyone who has a cold, and their families," Kurten captioned the clip on Twitter. 

'Absolutely horrific'

Another British politician Suzanne Evans of UKIP, the same political party as Kurten, recently likened New Zealand to Nazi Germany after learning of our "absolutely horrific" MIQ protocol, in a tweet showing the same clip of Dr Bloomfield. 

Evans called on Amnesty International to "act" on it.

Ardern defended New Zealand against Donald Trump in August after the US President claimed New Zealand was seeing a "surge" in COVID-19, despite just nine new cases in New Zealand at the time compared to 42,000 in the US. 

"Even New Zealand, you see what is going on in New Zealand. They beat it, they beat it. It was like front page," Trump told a rally. "The problem is [there's a] big surge in New Zealand. It's terrible. We don't want that."

"Obviously it's patently wrong," Adrern said of Trump's comments. "We are still one of the best-performing countries in the world when it comes to COVID and our workers are focussed on keeping it that way."

Not all commentary surrounding New Zealand has been so negative, however. In fact, the Prime Minister was tipped for a Nobel Peace Prize this year because of her response to COVID-19, and how she has steered the nation through several crises.

CNN ran a segment in April heaping praised on Ardern and her measures to combat COVID-19, with senior international correspondent Ivan Watson describing the Government's elimination strategy as "ambitious".  

The segment was titled 'Lessons in leadership: New Zealand's virus response'. 

Ardern's handling of COVID-19 was also praised in an article published in US magazine The Atlantic. It said the Prime Minister "may be the most effective leader on the planet" for how she put the country "on track for success against coronavirus. 

The Washington Post also had nothing but admiration for Ardern, with the newspaper's Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield writing that the Prime Minister's goal of eliminating the virus, rather than opting for "containment", was showing promise. 

Even the United States' top infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci commended New Zealand's handling of the coronavirus in a chat with former Prime Minister Helen Clark. 

Clark said Dr Fauci, who has led the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, "recognised New Zealand has had a successful response" to COVID-19.  

But for all the praise, Ardern has repeatedly come under fire by economists and commentators across the globe who questioned the need for such strict lockdown measures. 

"If New Zealand's the COVID-19 role model then we're in strife", Sydney-based journalist Adam Creighton argued in August

"New Zealand is held out as a role model, but it's a small, remote country. Its biggest industry, tourism, has been ruined, and at some point its citizens may want to come and go," he wrote in a piece for The Australian.

'Grossly incompetent'

The newspaper ran another piece by Gideon Rozner this month calling Ardern a "grossly incompetent administrator" who "excels" in "woke gesture and progressive symbolism" and is undeserving of the global reputation she has gained.  

Telegraph columnist Madeline Grant has also questioned New Zealand's restrictions. 

She wrote that "restrictions on movement, and a collapse in funding for humanitarian agencies, are blocking the distribution of aid to the neediest people on earth".

Grant says she's so against the New Zealand approach because it's a "selfish form of nationalism". 

You be the judge

These opinions are but a snapshot of the commentary surrounding New Zealand's response to COVID-19 - a nation of 5 million at the bottom of the globe, which has lost 25 people to the virus in a world of more than a million deaths. 

The Government's restrictions haven't come without a heavy cost, with billions of dollars of taxpayer money spent on wage subsidies to keep businesses afloat and hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into maintaining MIQ. 

But for all the criticism of Ardern's response, her Labour Party won the election by a landslide, which some commentators have attributed to the Government's virus response.

And as our allies France and Germany announce new lockdowns to contain fresh outbreaks, and the US battles with predictions of deaths more than doubling by January, perhaps it's no wonder the freedoms we now enjoy in New Zealand have the world green with envy.