COMMENT

Corona was just the name of a beer when my family and I decided that 2020 would be the year of our return to New Zealand. I am German, born and raised in Berlin.

Two years ago my husband and I spent six months in New Zealand, living in a North Shore village. Our daughters went to school and kindergarten there. I am a writer. When I saw my daughters flourishing, I started visiting various schools.

I then wrote a book called The Dancing Principal that is now in its third edition in Germany. I describe what other countries can learn from the New Zealand education system: the systematic science-based approach, the focus on 21st century skills, the high regard for kindness, empathy and creativity, the setting of ambitious goals combined with a clear plan of how to achieve them.

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After the book was published, I often talked about New Zealand in German radio and television interviews. All the while, I missed Aotearoa. When we finally returned in early 2020, I was looking forward to the outdoors and the closely-knit community. What I didn't anticipate: that we'd have to spend our time indoors, void of company. But, oddly, the lockdown made me appreciate New Zealand even more.

Elderly people wearing face masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus go shopping at a market in Aachen, Germany. Photo / AP
Elderly people wearing face masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus go shopping at a market in Aachen, Germany. Photo / AP

My home country, Germany, is being praised internationally for its response to the Corona crisis. Even the New York Times ran a story about a phenomenon they dubbed the German exception. Unlike other European countries Germany has a low fatality rate, mainly because of a better health-care system and extensive testing.

But a closer look reveals a more complex picture. Reading the German news and talking to friends back home, I sense a lot of confusion. People are unsettled because a clear path ahead is missing.

Germany is a federal system.

There are sixteen states that make their own decisions regarding issues such as school closures and lockdown measures. Some things that are allowed in the city state of Berlin are forbidden in Bavaria, a state 500km further to the south. To make matter worse, some regional courts have even taken back decisions made by the state government.

In New Zealand, on the other hand, I was startled when, on March 25, my mobile sounded a siren-like alarm. A text appeared on the screen: "This message is for all of New Zealand. We depend on you. Where you stay tonight is where YOU MUST stay from now on.

Hundreds of people walk under blooming cherry trees, despite the coronavirus outbreak, in Bonn, Germany. Photo / AP
Hundreds of people walk under blooming cherry trees, despite the coronavirus outbreak, in Bonn, Germany. Photo / AP

"A clear message, indeed. And an ambitious goal. While other nations were struggling to flatten the curve, New Zealand decided to eliminate the virus altogether. When we arrived here, we set out to experience ordinary Kiwi life. Instead, we have become witnesses of something that strikes us as quite extraordinary.

The daily press conference at 1pm has become a jour fixe for my family. We appreciate the rational, fact-based and no-nonsense approach. The leaders of other nations introduce single measures and then take them back, and there tends to be a lot to and fro. New Zealand, in contrast, has settled on an alert-system approach that is both effective and easy to understand – and allows for flexibility.

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I am also amazed at how the Opposition largely refrains from self-serving attacks. The Government seems happy to implement Opposition proposals – as was evident when Jacinda Ardern introduced tough self-isolation measures for Kiwis returning. And I appreciate the fact the Prime Minister manages to throw in a light-hearted message to kids, assuring them the Easter bunny is an essential worker.

Although the Easter bunny may be exempt, the lockdown here is much more rigid than in Germany, where 118,000 people are infected. But only a quarter of all Germans work from home. Book shops and hardware stores in Berlin are still open and my friends tell me about meeting others because one-on-ones are still permitted.

People in their cars get refreshments at a new drive-in cinema on a field in the countryside near Marl, Germany. Photo / AP
People in their cars get refreshments at a new drive-in cinema on a field in the countryside near Marl, Germany. Photo / AP

Politicians in Germany want to have it both ways: they want to flatten the curve and keep up some form of social life at the same time. As a result, people aren't sure how seriously they should take the whole thing and tend to make exceptions.

I don't want to judge what people in Germany are doing. But it does puzzle me that a people who are known for their principled manner are struggling to comply in this particular situation. Surveys show the lockdown measures are increasingly being questioned.

"What's life worth when the freedom to live is being taken away from us?", a prominent opposition politician tweeted recently. Some well-known German journalists are attacking the infringement. One argued the restrictions pose a threat to democracy. Another said he now gets an idea of what it's like to live in a dictatorship. And I wonder: are such comments proof of a lively debating culture? Or do they show that people put individual interests over the wellbeing of the community?

In New Zealand, I hardly ever hear anyone complain. It makes me think of the famous psychological experiment that asks people to choose between instant and delayed gratification. It seems to me that New Zealand has decided to battle Corona first and go to the beach later – and I'm sure this is, by far, the more promising approach. But why are New Zealanders coping while the citizens of other Western nations are struggling?

Obviously being an island in a remote location helps, and so does the fact the population is small. But witnessing New Zealand in lockdown made me think of the research I did for my book. The same guiding principles that impressed me back then are at work now, too. The ambitious goal (eliminating and not just mitigating the virus) and the clear strategy of how to get there (alert system).

The science-based approach (testing, testing, testing). The systematic efforts (controlling rents and food prices).

And last but not least, the kindness, empathy and creativity. The people in our village have propped bears in their windows so that kids out for a walk can spot them. The principal of our school keeps in touch with the parents, writing often, sharing personal stories of treasures hunts at home and telling us not to be hard on ourselves when homeschooling.

There's yet another concept that I mention in my book. Whanaungatanga. The importance of relationships. It's one of the values at my daughters' school but I found whanaungatanga in all schools I visited: Students weaving together until they had a collaborative piece of art, or going to a nursing home to do aerobics with the elderly.

Two weeks before the lockdown my 7-year-old daughter learned another expression when her class completed a task together. Kotahitanga. Unity. And now that the nation is in the grip of corona, I find that whanaungatanga or kotahitanga are not just words. What New Zealand is doing right now shows that the sense of togetherness is real.

Other nations like my own experience the crisis in terms of a contrast between individualism and the needs of society. Here, on the other hand, there's a shared conviction that the individual only thrives when everyone is fine.

At first glance, corona seems to be an example of a wicked problem: a question that causes a dilemma because there are legitimate but conflicting interests at work. It is either people's health or the economy that will suffer. But the response of the New Zealand Government shows there need not be a contradiction. The more seriously you take the virus itself, the more quickly you can tackle the economic recovery.

Last week, I was talking to our neighbour from a safe distance. I wanted to tell her how much I respect New Zealanders for their response to the crisis. She nodded and quickly changed the subject. I told myself that Kiwis are a modest people. They don't want to be praised. But it's got to be done and I will do it now. Well done, New Zealand. You can be proud of yourself.

Verena Friederike Hasel is a writer from Berlin.
Verena Friederike Hasel is a writer from Berlin.

• Verena Friederike Hasel is a writer from Berlin currently living in New Zealand.