The not-so-secret sauce of New Zealand's success

The country’s effective “elimination” of COVID-19 relied on swift, strict measures but also a tone of kindness from the top.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern holds up a card showing a new alert system for COVID-19 on March 21. She set a goal to eliminate the coronavirus altogether.

Unlike most other world leaders, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has generally avoided war metaphors in uniting her country against COVID-19. She tends not to refer to the coronavirus as “the enemy” or her fellow citizens as “soldiers.” Instead, she speaks of a “team of 5 million,” the population of her nation. When asked if she was afraid of the virus, she responded, “No. Because we have a plan.”

On Monday, that “plan” resulted in Ms. Ardern announcing that New Zealand had effectively eliminated the virus, reducing the number of known cases to single digits. Instead of a war image, she used the language of a tsunami: “We have stopped a wave of devastation.” Her government, in fact, has relied on a phone alert system for tsunamis to send out messages during this crisis.

Early on, New Zealand took swift, strict, and decisive steps, such as closing its borders to foreigners by March 19. Perhaps just as effective was the tone of her language. The prime minister rarely framed the pandemic in military terms, which can cause fear and panic by evoking images of violence and “the other.”

Ms. Ardern focused on the mental well-being of her citizens as much as elimination of the virus. She encouraged people to contact new mothers, for example, to lessen their isolation. Special apps were provided to deal with mental health.

She asked people to “be kind” in uniting against COVID-19 as they were forced to stay at home. She cut government salaries to help create a closeness between officials and idled workers. She suggested people rely on the “creative, practical, country-minded” culture of New Zealand.

She brought humor to her role, such as telling children that the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy were “essential workers.” She was open and transparent, not secretive like a military commander.

Her metaphors were those that inspired selflessness during the necessary self-isolation. The country’s efforts, wrote the Weekend Herald newspaper, will be remembered for “the acts of humanity which rose to the occasion.”

The “vicious virus has sparked a revival of kindness,” the paper added. “Watch out, it’s contagious.”

For sure, other leaders around the world have used a similar approach. For instance, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg went on television to talk directly to children, who perhaps easily pick up the fears of adults.

Something like this approach was made famous in the 19th century by Florence Nightingale. In her many reforms of the nursing profession, she advised that nurses deal as much with a patient’s feelings of apprehension and uncertainty as a disease. She wrote:

“Remember, he is face to face with his enemy all the time, internally wrestling with him, having long imaginary conversations with him. You are thinking of something else. ‘Rid him of his adversary quickly’ is a first rule with the sick.”

When faced with biological threats, leaders must be careful in using metaphors of war, Lisa Keranen, a medical rhetorician, told Vox news. Such images make us “focus on fighting and not on caring.” New Zealand’s initial success against COVID-19 may prove the point. Kindness, starting at the top, can be a mental vaccine for an entire country.

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