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AUCKLAND, New Zealand—The lockdown currently underway here in New Zealand is a little stricter than much of what’s being enforced in the States at the moment, with the intent of limiting community transmission of coronavirus, flattening the curve of infection here, and eventually eliminating it. No going outside unless for food, medicine, or light exercise in your neighborhood. No leaving your bubble. No nonessential driving. Certainly no swimming. No mountain bike track rides, Health Minister David Clark! No 20-kilometer trips to the beach, newly demoted Health Minister David Clark!
It’s a dark time, with the days blurring together and the hours crawling by. New Zealanders may be known for our laid-back, generally cheerful demeanors, but truth be told we’re getting pretty ratty, pretty fast. What’s keeping us going? The daily briefings of New Zealand’s current obsession, an unlikely heartthrob, a mild-mannered health care hero: the national director-general of health, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield.
Ashley Bloomfield is the Kiwi equivalent of the United States’ Anthony Fauci, but with more power to actually make the rules and less outright antipathy toward his country’s leader. Every afternoon, Ashley Bloomfield fronts for the TV cameras (or more accurately, for Facebook Live), either alone or with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at his side, and in his gentle, measured way delivers whatever news he needs to, good or bad.
These briefings always start out the same: a tally of how many more cases and probable cases of COVID-19 there are in the country today, and how many former cases have recovered. Following a quick update on how things are going and any key developments, the floor is open to questions from the media. Nothing Ashley Bloomfield says is particularly remarkable. There have been no mic-drop moments or snappy zingers from the past two weeks’ worth of appearances. He diligently and clearly answers reporters’ questions, and when the number of cases rises, he’s there to reassure us that this is to be expected: This is how the spread of the virus works, but if we all follow the rules, then we should start to see a change in a few weeks. Literally nothing about this messaging is exciting or immediately satisfying, so you may be surprised to learn New Zealanders can’t get enough of watching Ashley Bloomfield deliver it.
Ashley Bloomfield is by all accounts a nice man who is very good at his job. Given that his job right now is to stop us all from dying in a pandemic, he’s become something of a national sensation. Google trends show NZ searches for his name spiking exponentially. A Twitter stan account has been set up, journalists tweet when they find out when his next appearance is scheduled, and his name has become synonymous with doing the right thing. Writer Anna Rawhiti-Connell wrote of our collective infatuation with the man she insists must only ever be referred to by his full name in an essay for the local website Newsroom: “On Sunday, Ashley Bloomfield returned to his rightful place as host of the Ashley Bloomfield Power Hour. On being asked about how many people with Covid-19 were Māori or Pasifika, Ashley Bloomfield gave the exact percentages to one decimal place.”
My country expresses its passion for Ashley Bloomfield in a lot of different ways. We’re concerned about him: An article about him finally having a day off was syndicated to three local news sites (in a country with about six major online news platforms total). We’re horny for him: I’ve seen no shortage of tweets like this, and “ashley bloomfield wife” remains one of the top auto-fill responses on Google.
But mostly, we just want to be taken care of by him. Ashley Bloomfield is, at this moment, his nation’s collective dad. Dad is calm and reassuring always, even when his children (the press gallery) ask once again why they can’t go kayaking even though he just explained why. Dad doesn’t lose his temper, even though he is very tired. Dad wants us all to follow the rules, not because he gets off on the power of making them, but because he wants the best for us. This pandemic is fundamentally changing the entire way our world system functions, and it’s nice to feel like there’s an adult in the room who knows what to do next.
It’s something I wish for the U.S., as I watch Donald Trump flailing about from one disastrous press conference to the next, with none of the people able to stop him seemingly willing to, and none of the people (like Fauci) who are willing to step in possessing the structural power to do so. It’s dire, and terrifying. In comparison to that daily car crash, Ashley Bloomfield’s boring civil servant competence is exactly the balm we need right now.
Lockdown is forcing us into a period of cultural modesty: no hitting up bars, no hookups, no parties. We’re all taking daily healthsome walks, or baking our own bread, or taking up knitting, or seriously thinking about finally reading Middlemarch. That a calm, kind, blandly handsome health official should be one hero of this era seems only fitting. May your country find its Ashley Bloomfield, too.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Monday’s episode of The Gist.