Public Trust In Times Of Crisis – New Zealand’s Successful COVID-19 Response

In times of crisis, people look to their leaders to take decisive action. The COVID-19 pandemic has exemplified this well as the global population relies on their governments to prevent widespread infection and minimize fatalities. While many global leaders, such as U.S. President Donald Trump, have been criticized for inadequate and inconsistent responses to COVID-19, others have risen to the challenge. For example, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been praised by global media for the success of her ‘go hard and go early’ strategy.

New Zealand has been in a nationwide lockdown since March 26th, in an effort to act pre-emptively before virus transmission rates multiplied and ultimately reduce the chances of large scale infection rates. A recent poll by Colmar Brunton found that 84% of people approve of the way Ardern’s Government has responded so far to the pandemic. This shows an overwhelming amount of public trust and is higher than that of all G7 countries, who produced average approval ratings of 54%.

However, public perceptions of COVID-19 responses are not simply a reflection of how successful a country has been at avoiding widespread infection and death. For instance, Italy had a 76% approval rating despite having the second-highest number of fatalities, while Japan had a 35% approval rating despite its relative success in containing the virus. This suggests that perceptions of leaders’ management of a crisis – in addition to health outcomes – are significant in gaining public trust.

In this regard, Ardern has an excellent track record. Following the Christchurch shootings in March 2019, she immediately banned semi-automatic weapons in a manner that was logically and honestly communicated to the population. Her response to COVID-19 has replicated a similar sense of urgency, complied with expert advice, and effectively communicated the necessity of lockdown to the public.

Unlike many countries who waited to take action despite the risks, Ardern chose swift and significant action despite only a few hundred cases and no deaths in New Zealand. Ardern’s implementation of the ‘go hard and go early’ strategy has evidently garnered public support and respect, as high levels of compliance to the lockdown rules are observable in Google’s mobility data trends.

The next chapter of the COVID-19 crisis for New Zealand will be how to strike a balance between personal and economic health as the growing threat of recession increases the pressure to resume normal business activity while the virus is still a threat. Though Ardern has demonstrated effective leadership to date, continuing to manage the remainder of the COVID-19 storm appropriately could prove to be her toughest challenge yet.