Israel’s ambassador to Wellington describes life in corona-free and jubilant New Zealand

“People are simply happy. After 75 days of being closed in their homes, now is the time to let loose,” says Ambassador Itzhak Gerberg

Diana Bahur Nir 17:3513.06.20
After 75 days of social distancing, during which most residents shuttered up in their homes, New Zealand celebrated on Monday its coronavirus-free status marking zero active cases after the last ailing patient was declared fully cured. On Monday night, all pandemic-related restrictions were lifted across the country and the residents celebrated in the pubs and the streets. Even the prime minister said she broke into dance. The only limitation left in place is the ability of foreign nationals to enter the island country.


“People were stuck at home for 75 days. It’s time to blow off some steam. The borders remain hermetically shut,” Itzhak Gerberg, Israel’s ambassador to Wellington for the past four years told Calcalist in an interview this week.


Itzhak Gerberg, Israel’s ambassador to New Zealand. Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Itzhak Gerberg, Israel’s ambassador to New Zealand. Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs
You selected the best country to serve in these days. New Zealand is the first country to declare itself Corona-free.


“No doubt it is a place that stepped up and successfully met all its challenges. New Zealand is the foremost country when it comes to solving the Covid-19 crisis. Not only was the last patient cured, but they also marked 28 days with no new infections and on Monday we went back to full normalcy, apart from the prohibition on foreigners entering the country. There are no more social distancing measures in place and everything is back to what it was before; pubs, football games, public events, movie theatres, rugby. They’re crazy about rugby here. There is huge excitement. People are simply happy. After 75 days of being closed in their homes, now is the time to let loose.”


How is it expressed?


“Pubs and bars are packed, people are happy, it’s a great atmosphere. It’s not completely back to normal because there is no entrance to foreign citizens, the borders are hermetically sealed. Those who enter one way or another are New Zealanders and they are subject to two-weeks quarantine. In addition, people are being asked to manage a digital diary. It means that if you arrived somewhere like a wedding, you take a photo of a bar code on your phone so that if a remnant of the virus is found, the authorities will know to locate you.


Is there an estimate of when the borders will re-open?


No, but there is a new slogan that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern started spreading: ‘unite for the recovery.’ It means she’s now encouraging everything that was banned: shopping, tours, leisure, simply put, everything that leads a person to spend money to assist the New Zealand economy. Other catchy slogans calling on people to buy local produce and goods and visit the country’s local attractions, or in essence don’t forget to let other people earn money because that’s what recovers the economy. The prime minister herself has been out of the capital for the last few days, instead, she’s traveling around the country and displaying herself making purchases in different places to show everyone she’s contributing to the economy.”


New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Getty Images New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Getty Images
“What did she buy in this PR tour?


“For example she got her picture taken with colorful socks she bought, ordering food at a restaurant, drinking coffee, talking to people, mostly buying small items. She is very good at public relations. You can’t argue with the results. The proof is in the pudding.”


What did New Zealand do right?


“Apart from full credit to the health services and the total lockdown, a study conducted by the university here in Wellington attributed the success to the feeling of national belonging and systematic trust that things were managed correctly. People were very observant in obeying the regulations, New Zealanders are disciplined. When they were told to keep two meters apart, they kept two meters apart. They didn’t view it as a private matter, but rather as a personal contribution to the war on Covid-19. You must also remember that there are elections here on September 19th and the recovery increased the trust in the political system and gave the prime minister a lot of credit points.”


New Zealand is less urban, and has a small and spread out population. Is that what made the difference in your favor?


“It is a small country, with fewer than five million residents. It can’t be compared to giant countries. It will always be easier to treat and manage five million people. People also tend to live in private wooden homes, rather than highrise buildings, because of often occurring earthquakes. So, yes, it is less crowded and there is a smaller absolute number of residents to manage.


Wellington, New Zealand. Photo: Shutterstock Wellington, New Zealand. Photo: Shutterstock
When will they open the skies to international travel?


“The current inclination is not to do it at all. If they open anything, it will only be to Australia, in September and as a result of internal political pressure to the pacific islands gradually afterward. I can’t see flights to places like Singapore, Europe, or the rest of Asia on the horizon. As far as New Zealanders are concerned, here we’re clean of the virus, but the rest of the world isn’t. The prime minister has already clearly stated that she will not take the risk and will assess the conditions in other countries, holding off on opening the skies for as long as it takes.”


How did New Zealand manage to keep unemployment at 4%?


“Government aid arrived very quickly. I think it had a psychological impact, people didn’t get as stressed here as they did in other countries. Growth also only went down by 3.8%”


The prime minister cut her own salary by 20%. A symbolic act of solidarity?


“It was a successful public relations move. For a limited time. People here place a lot of importance on things like that, even though it was largely symbolic. One of the things she said that people liked to hear was that success was a result of everyone being in the same boat. In my eyes, the determination and consistency of treatment was the key thing. We were indoors for 75 days, and in complete lockdown for a month. I don’t think Israelis could survive a month-long lockdown, but the New Zealanders did. It’s a matter of motivation and trust.