I'm an American tourist stuck in New Zealand, here's how the country is handling the pandemic much better than my own

Zoe Hannah for InsiderThe writer (right) and her partner (left) in Auckland, New Zealand.
  • Due to the coronavirus pandemic, New Zealand has been under level 4 lockdown since March 25.
  • I’m an American tourist in New Zealand, and I’ve moved from my camper van into an Airbnb home for the duration of the lockdown.
  • With its quick action and clear, abundant messages, New Zealand’s government has effectively taken action to prioritise the safety of its residents and stranded visitors, like myself.
  • I’m nervous about the safety of my family, who are at home in the United States, but I’d rather be here in New Zealand.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Two months into travelling around New Zealand in our camper van, my partner and I found ourselves in one-hour free parking, scraping Wi-Fi from a Starbucks – an ordinary day for us.

But instead of watching YouTube videos or messaging friends, we were frantically scouring Airbnb for a place to stay locked down and isolated in for the next month during the global coronavirus pandemic.

By the end of March, New Zealand had entered a strict lockdown

Trent Burns for InsiderA sign warning visitors to keep out of a public track area.

In early March, New Zealand shut its borders to all travellers who were not citizens or residents, and my partner and I began to prepare for the worst since we are tourists from the United States.

We also knew that as COVID-19 swept across New Zealand, many of the services we heavily relied on – like the showers at beaches and public pools or the Wi-Fi and charging outlets in coffee shops – would be unsafe to use.

By mid-March, New Zealand began to face community transmission of the coronavirus.

On March 23, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the entire country would immediately go into level 3 lockdown, which consists of basic social distancing rules and the closure of large public venues. She said that, in 48 hours, New Zealand would move to a level 4 lockdown, with all nonessential businesses and travel to close for at least four weeks.

In a press conference that night, Ardern’s guidance was concise and incisive: “Act like you have COVID-19 … Breaking the rules could kill someone close to you.”

Based on the harrowing tales we’d heard from the US, we were braced for all-out panic.

Our friends at home had already recounted to us their woes of life in self-isolation: surprise lay-offs, barren grocery-store shelves, and a president whose only concern seems to be maintaining “[total] authority” over the situation.

And now, with little hope from our loved ones back home, my partner and I had 48 hours to figure out where we were going to live for the duration of the lockdown.

The next two days were frantic, but the government’s clear guidelines were everywhere

Zoe Hannah for InsiderThe writer and the van she had been staying in during her New Zealand travels.

Much to my surprise, my partner and I quickly felt safe, comfortable, and even hopeful during this global crisis – and much of it has to do with the New Zealand government’s response.

While our friends at home in the United States were still figuring out if they were allowed to go outside, we were getting direct, clear answers from the New Zealand government and its branches.

We called the Ministry of Health hotline and officially confirmed that our camper van would not suffice for self-isolation and we would need accommodation for at least four weeks. The call also made it clear that we’d be able to go to the grocery store, and that the country’s essential supply chains would remain intact.

That said, Kiwis were not immune to panic-buying, misinformation, and confusion about what was expected of them.

Fortunately, the government responded with much-needed urgency to give those in New Zealand clarity, peace of mind, and realistic expectations for what our lives would look like during the crisis.

We didn’t even have to actively seek out the government’s guidance and instructions – it was everywhere.

In just a few hours, the government had acquired valuable ad space on the websites of daily newspapers, like the New Zealand Herald, and on social media platforms. Its eye-grabbing, bright-yellow “Unite against COVID-19” marketing push told Kiwis at every turn that they are expected to stay home except to shop for essentials, like groceries.

Even now, the “Unite against COVID-19” program provides detailed updates to those in New Zealand on a regular basis and across multiple platforms.

Even one trip to the grocery store showed me how quickly the government had distributed crucial information to essential businesses

New World GroceryZoe Hannah for InsiderA sign outside of New World supermarket encouraging shoppers to continue shopping normally.

New World, one of New Zealand’s biggest supermarkets, had prominently displayed anti-panic shopping messaging, with “Keep Calm and #ShopNormal” on its welcome signs. Laminated information about how to shop safely was also hung on the grocery-store doors.

Inside the store, tape and paint told us where we can stand while checking out so shoppers remain far apart, per social distancing guidelines.

Grocery stores had been regulating the purchase of highly desired items, like toilet paper and rice, since mid-March in order to keep supply chains intact, and they were continuing to do so.

Meanwhile, the US is facing empty shelves in supermarkets around the country as supply chains continue to be overwhelmed. Many US cities are struggling to enforce social distancing guidelines in grocery stores since there is not direct, clear guidance from the federal government.

New Zealand’s government has continuously provided clear guidelines and shown compassion, which I have not seen from many US leaders

Trent Burns for InsiderThe writer’s partner outside of the pair’s temporary home in New Zealand.

Through all of this, my partner and I repeatedly read that we should not rely on the American government to help us. It was (and still is) unclear if and how the US government would be able to assist us since we are overseas.

Fortunately, I don’t mind staying in this country for a little bit longer. As an American living in New Zealand, I am shocked and heartened by the competence of this country’s leadership during the global pandemic, and many Kiwis seem to agree.

It’s clear that New Zealand’s government leapfrogged the US in its COVID-19 response, even though the country had a lower number of cases and little proof of community spread at the time.

New Zealand’s response is not without flaws, but, at the time of writing, the country has just over 1,000 cases of the coronavirus with only nine reported deaths. New Zealand has a COVID-19 mortality rate of 0.3%, which is shocking, even for a country this small. The US’s mortality rate is closer to 4%.

Since settling into our lockdown accommodation – a comfortable home in the New Zealand township of Marybank with impeccable gardens, unbeatable views, and four gracious Kiwi hosts – we’re repeatedly reminded of how lucky we are.

Fortunately, we had been saving for our trip for years and were financially prepared for the worst, though we’d never anticipated a global pandemic. We found one of the last local Airbnb stays available before the level 4 lockdown. We have enough money for food and we are isolating with our hosts, who have become our impromptu family.

The government’s ability to provide us with clear, compassionate communication while admitting its faults and unknowns as they arise has offered instances of hope and stability, two words I haven’t heard uttered by an American in weeks.

Yes, things could still get worse for New Zealand. But we’re happy to be in this beautiful country, where we feel like the government is keeping us safe – even as guests.

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