Covid’s Differing Opinions Ruined a Liberal Icon.
Covid’s Differing Opinions Ruined a Liberal Icon__On Thursday, Jacinda Ardern explained her decision to resign as New Zealand’s prime minister with a plea for understanding and rare political candour the same qualities that helped her become a global symbol of anti-Trump liberalism, then a target of the toxic divisions exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms. Ardern, 42, fought back tears as she announced her resignation in early February, ahead of the October election in New Zealand.
“I know what this job requires, and I know I don’t have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she explained. “It’s that easy.”
The country and the world were taken aback by Ms. Ardern’s abrupt departure before the end of her second term. She was New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in 150 years, a leader of a small country who rose to celebrity status at the speed of a pop star.
Her youth, outspoken feminism, and emphasis on “politics of kindness” made her appear to many as a welcome alternative to bombastic male leaders, spawning the phenomenon known as “Jacindamania.”
Her presidency, on the other hand, was shaped primarily by crisis management, including the 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch, the deadly White Island volcanic eruption a few months later, and Covid-19 shortly after.
The pandemic seemed to play to her strengths as a clear and unifying communicator — until extended lockdowns and vaccine mandates harmed the economy, fueled conspiracy theories, and sparked a backlash. Ms. Ardern has struggled to move beyond her association with pandemic policy in a part of the world where Covid restrictions still exist.
“People have always been personally invested in her, and that has always been part of her appeal,” said Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand.
“She turned into a totem,” he added. “She became the personification of a specific response to the pandemic, which people on the internet’s far-flung and not-so-far-flung margins used against her.”
The country’s initial goal was audacious: Ms. Ardern and a small group of prominent epidemiologists advising the government hoped to eradicate the virus and keep it out of New Zealand entirely.
In early 2020, she assisted in persuading the country — “our team of five million,” she said — to accept closed international borders and a lockdown so strict that even retrieving a lost cricket ball from a neighbor’s yard was prohibited.
When new, more transmissible variants made that impossible, Ms. Ardern’s team shifted their focus, but they struggled to obtain vaccines quickly. Strict vaccination mandates then prevented people from doing things like going to work, eating out, and getting haircuts.
Many New Zealanders were surprised, according to Dr. Simon Thornley, an epidemiologist at the University of Auckland, by her willingness to pit the vaccinated against the unvaccinated.
“The vaccine mandate disillusionment was significant,” Dr. Thornley said. “The establishment of a two-class society, and the fact that predictions did not pan out as expected in terms of elimination — that was a watershed moment.”
Ms. Ardern became a target for those who saw vaccine mandates as a violation of individual rights, both domestically and internationally. Threats against Ms. Ardern have increased dramatically in recent years, particularly from anti-vaccination groups.
Last February, the tensions reached a boiling point. Protesters pitched tents and used parked cars to block traffic on the Parliament grounds in Wellington for more than three weeks, inspired in part by protests in the United States and Canada.
The police eventually drove the demonstrators away, clashing violently with many of them, resulting in over 120 arrests.
The scenes astounded a nation unaccustomed to such carnage. Some blamed the demonstrators, while others blamed the police and the government.
“It was unquestionably a dark day in New Zealand history,” Dr. Thornley said.
Dylan Reeve, a New Zealand author and journalist who wrote a book about the spread of misinformation in the country, believes the prime minister’s international profile contributed to conspiracy theories about her.
“The fact that she suddenly had such a large international profile and was widely praised for her reaction seemed to provide a boost for local conspiracy theorists,” he explained. “They found support for the anti-Ardern ideas from like-minded people all over the world at a level that was probably out of proportion to New Zealand’s usual international prominence.”
Even after the worst of the pandemic had passed, the attacks continued. Former Trump adviser Roger J. Stone Jr. called Ms. Ardern’s Covid approach “the jackboot of authoritarianism” earlier this month.
Ms. Ardern did not name a replacement or mention any specific group of critics in her speech on Thursday, but she did acknowledge that the strain of her job and the difficult era in which she governed affected her.
“I understand exactly there will be much discussion in the aftermath of this decision as to what the so-called real reason was,” she said, adding: “The only interesting angle you will find is that after going on six years of some big challenges, that I am human. Politicians are people, too.
We give everything we have for as long as we can, and then it’s time to go. And it’s time for me.”
Suze Wilson, a leadership scholar at New Zealand’s Massey University, believes Ms. Ardern should be taken at her word. She stated that the abuse was and should not be separated from her gender.
“She’s been told she doesn’t have much left in the tank, and I think part of that is probably due to the disgusting level of sexist and misogynistic abuse to which she has been subjected,” Professor Wilson said.
On Thursday, in Christchurch’s pubs and parks, In a city where Ms.
Ardern was widely praised for her unifying response to a white supremacist’s mass murder of 51 people at two mosques, there were complaints about unfulfilled promises on mundane issues like housing costs.
Tony McPherson, 72, who lives near one of the mosques attacked nearly four years ago, described the departing prime minister as someone who “talks a lot but doesn’t walk a lot.”
She came up short on “housing, health care,” and had “made an absolute hash of immigration,” claiming that many businesses were suffering from large staff shortages as a result of the delayed reopening of borders following the lockdowns.
Many voters are preoccupied with economic issues. Polls show Ms. Ardern’s Labour Party trailing the center-right National Party, led by former aviation executive Christopher Luxon.
Shelley Smith, 52, a motel manager, said she was “surprised” by Ms. Ardern’s resignation on the deck of Wilson’s Sports Bar in Christchurch. She praised her for halting the community spread of the coronavirus in 2020, despite the economic consequences for New Zealand. When asked how she’d remember Ms. Ardern, she said, “as a person’s person.”
That allure may have faded, but many New Zealanders do not believe Ms. Ardern will be gone for long. Helen Clark, a former prime minister who mentored Ms. Ardern, continued to work on international issues with many global organisations after leaving office.
“I’m not sure she’ll be forgotten by the world,” Professor Shaw said of Ms. Ardern. “She might get a larger platform.”