Facing a president who continues to deny that the coronavirus pandemic is a major public health emergency and a federal government which has been reticent to offer robust economic relief to families, tens of thousands of Americans are looking to New Zealand as a potential escape plan as the small island country boasts one of the world's Covid-19 success stories.
According to Immigration New Zealand, visits by Americans to the country's immigration website were 37% higher in April than they were last year at the same time, and skyrocketed by 65% from last year in May. About 80,000 Americans researched the possibility of moving to New Zealand over the two months.
Americans' apparent interest in moving to New Zealand more than 6,000 miles from the U.S. mainland first spiked as New York City became a global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, accounting for 5% of the world's cases in late March.
"These are hard-won gains, and we have as a government no intention of squandering them. The idea that we should open our border in this environment has a price, and that price could be a second wave of Covd-19 in our country at worst—at best, added restrictions for the rest of us."
—New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
The number of inquiries nearly doubled again in May, just after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that Covid-19 had been "effectively eliminated" in the country on April 27.
New cases of the disease had been in the single digits for several days when Ardern made the announcement. The government maintained caution even after sharing the good news, requiring physical distancing at businesses that reopened, encouraging people to continue working from home if they were able, and limiting attendance at events like weddings and funerals to 10 people.
The country has reported fewer than 1,500 cases of Covid-19 and 22 people have died. Two women tested positive for the coronavirus in mid-June after arriving in the country from the U.K. and being given permission to leave their 14-day mandatory quarantine early, ending a 24-day streak with no new cases.
Meanwhile, the U.S. leads the world in coronavirus cases, with more than 2.9 million people infected and more than 129,000 deaths.
As the infection rate continues to climb in the U.S.—with surging cases in states including Texas, Florida, and Arizona—President Donald Trump claimed over the weekend that 99% of cases are "totally harmless." According to the Washington Post, the White House's current hope is that "Americans will grow numb to the escalating death toll and learn to accept tens of thousands of new cases a day" as Trump attempts to win reelection in November.
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New Zealand's response to the economic toll of the pandemic has contrasted sharply with the U.S. government's. Ardern enforced a strict lockdown in the country on March 25—before any deaths were reported—forbidding New Zealand residents to leave their homes except to exercise outdoors.
The public was able to comply with the order, which was in place for five weeks, thanks to a relief package amounting to about 4% of the country's GDP. All wages for people who had to self-isolate were covered under the plan, and businesses were given subsidies to continue paying their employees. Healthcare spending was also doubled.
In the U.S., the federal government offered some individuals a one-time payment of $1,200 to ostensibly cover expenses for a public health crisis that experts expect to go on for months. Unemployed people were also given $600 per week on top of their standard unemployment benefits—a move which temporarily helped reduce poverty in the U.S.—but Republicans who control the U.S. Senate are reluctant to continue the benefit past July. As the White House downplays the pandemic and calls for daily life and economic activity to return to normal, some Republican-led states have threatened to take away people's unemployment benefits if they don't return to work out of fear of Covid-19, as their industries open.
One public health expert in New Zealand last month called the U.S. response to the pandemic and its effect on millions of Americans "heartbreaking."
Unfortunately for Americans hoping to move to New Zealand, the country's borders are currently closed to foreign nationals. Ardern criticized calls from the opposition party last week to reopen the borders, saying to do so would be "dangerous" considering that there are dozens of countries around the world, including the U.S., where the pandemic continues to worsen.
"These are hard-won gains, and we have as a government no intention of squandering them," Ardern said. "The idea that we should open our border in this environment has a price, and that price could be a second wave of Covd-19 in our country at worst—at best, added restrictions for the rest of us."
Other wealthy countries, such as the 27 member nations of the European Union, have also rejected the possibility of people traveling there from the U.S., citing the high infection rate—and intensified the isolation of the U.S. under Trump.