Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand was perceived as a marginal actor in international relations. At times, it became relevant, for instance in the entertainment industry due to the success of actors like Russell Crowe, and filmmakers as Peter Jackson. 

The spectacular landscapes portrayed in the Lord of the Rings series attracted tourism. Wine-lovers have discovered New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc. Maori culture has also gained a momentum and a number of celebrities all over the world got Maori tattoos.

Yet, it is fair to say that the tyranny of distance made it difficult for New Zealand to create world headlines. That happened once in a while, for instance back in 1985 when due to the antinuclear sentiment in the country, the Government prevented the USS Buchanan, an American guided-missile destroyer from accessing New Zealand’s ports. 

That created a crisis in New Zealand-U.S. relations that diminished at the beginning of the 21st Century after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with then-Prime Minister Helen Clark being the first political leader to express her condolences by phone to the George W. Bush government, even though she was on board an airplane bound for Britain the very moment the attacks took place. 

Another world headline for New Zealand was on July 1985, when the French Secret Services sank the famous Greenpeace “Rainbow Warrior” ship at the Port of Auckland. More recently a shocking experience that attracted the world’s attention occurred on March 15, when an armed man entered two mosques in Christchurch shot and killed 51 people and injured 49. The man had live-streamed the first shooting on Facebook. The terrorist attacks were condemned all over the world and put New Zealand in the spotlight for a while.

Apart from those moments, the world remained mostly unaware about events and developments in New Zealand until COVID-19 arrived in the country. Suddenly the handling of the epidemiological crisis became crucial to international affairs and, in looking for answers, New Zealand, and particularly its Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, became prominent to the eyes of the world. With 1,925 confirmed cases and only 25 deaths, Ardern has been praised by the leadership provided during the COVID-19 outbreak and by putting New Zealand in the world map, she is considered the Rockstar of the pandemic.

One may argue that social distancing is quite easy in a country with only five million inhabitants and a population density of 19 people per square kilometer. The geographical profile of the country facilitates border controls since it is a remote destination. Yet a quick reaction from the authorities when the first cases were confirmed, prevented the spreading of the disease. On March 15, the quarantine began, and a full and tough lockdown was shortly introduced. Also the rules were effectively communicated to the population while massive testing was conducted at a rate of 8,000 tests a day. Better yet, it followed the pandemic guidebook. Thanks to these measures, New Zealand may be able to recover sooner than other countries where skepticism, a lack of leadership and confrontations between national and local governments have hampered an appropriate response to the pandemic.

Recently the Kiwis went to the polls to elect the members of its 53rd parliament. The elections were originally scheduled for September 19 but postponed until October 17 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The House of Representatives consists of 120 seats and to have a majority a political party has to win 61 or more. Prior to the 2020 general election, in 2017, Jacinda Ardern, leader of the Labour Party, became Prime Minister at the age of 37, with a coalition government. Yet this time, her victory over Judith Collins’ National Party was convincing, with a gain of 64 seats, thus securing a right to govern alone. Ardern’s landslide victory is the result of the leadership shown in face of the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words: Ardern’s victory is a well-deserved recognition for a job well done.

In contrast to New Zealand’s response to the pandemic, the United States, now entering the final stage of its 2020 presidential election, leads the world in terms of COVID-19 confirmed cases and deaths. No other country in the world has been as badly hit as the U.S.. Many reasons explain this: among them a lack of leadership from the Donald Trump administration and a reluctance to shut down the country by arguing the disease “would go away” almost miraculously. Trump collided with several states governed by Democrats, such as New York, over the best measures to fight the virus. He withdrew the U.S. from the World Health Organization (WHO) and insisted that COVID-19 is a virus created by the PR China. As everyone now knows, eventually the President contracted the coronavirus himself and claimed to have learned lots of lessons. But, shortly after leaving the hospital, Trump said Dr. Anthony Fauci – the leading expert in charge of designing the response to the pandemic in the U.S. – and the scientific community are all “idiots.”

The fact the President Trump was himself infected with the virus punished him hard during the election campaign. Many experts claim he’s getting what he deserves, after months of denying the relevance of the disease and even suggesting that testing was not necessary, because “the more you test, the more confirmed cases you have”, suggesting that avoiding testing was a way to diminish the number of cases.

Thus, if the U.S. presidential election is considered a referendum on the way the current administration has been handling the pandemic, it may have adverse results for Trump. This does not mean that Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and the Democrats have the answer to fighting the virus. Yet, to the eyes of more and more Americans – many of which have already cast their ballots – Donald Trump missed the chance of leading the country and the world in a coordinated fight against COVID-19. By withdrawing the U.S. from WHO, Trump damaged the political dialogue with key allies. The trade war against the RP China and the insistence on blaming Beijing for something that the scientific community believes is a diversion tactic, has left the U.S. almost alone, isolated from the rest of the world but also debilitating international efforts against the virus. As opposed to New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, the Donald Trump Administration may be paying the cost of negligence.

Editor’s Note: The above guest commentary was penned by María-Cristina Rosas, a professor and researcher at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the author’s permission. Rosas can be reached via email at: [email protected]

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest commentary shows New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

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