“Team of Five Million”: The crucial role of the New Zealand national identity during the COVID-19 pandemic by Grace Miller

Runner-up in the 2021 SAANZ Student Blog Writing Competition

Following its nationwide outbreak at the beginning of last year, COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed society as we know it. It forced citizens to collectively abide by their government’s guidelines of staying home and social distancing, changing their daily lives as an obligation to their nation. New Zealand’s efforts to contain the virus, in particular, have tested the strength of our national identity, as we came together to be one of the first in the world to significantly slow and stop its spread. This brings me to consider what constitutes the ‘New Zealand identity’ and the positive and negative implications this nationalism has brought about in its response to COVID-19.

National identity applies to the concept of a nation, a community of individuals who, by sharing a common culture, place and experiences, are interconnected and therefore align themselves with an identity that represents this wider group (Bell, 2017). These individuals may identify themselves as New Zealanders if they share certain ‘markers’ of identity such as common ancestry, place of origin and sense of ‘belonging’ (Kiely, Bechhofer &

McCrone, 2005). This idea of the New Zealand identity may appear as common sense at first; however, when we delve deeper into nationalist discourse, we reveal it is a fairly recent social construct. For example, New Zealand pride and nationalism have been ingrained in us from our education system, the media we consume, and symbolism unconsciously surrounding us. This was referred to by Michael Belig in 1995, as ‘banal nationalism’, everyday things we associate with our national identities such as the national anthem, rugby and the New Zealand flag. In turn, iterations of banal nationalism prime us for ‘hot’ nationalism – transformational or tragic events that bring a nation together, intensifying a feeling of patriotism and solidarity. When COVID-19 first came into play, it was ‘hot’ nationalism for New Zealanders, we united together and were prepared as national citizens to follow state orders and do what was required for the health of our nation. According to Chris Sibley’s New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, New Zealanders surveyed in the first two weeks of lockdown expressed a higher level of patriotism and institutional trust in the government, police and health authorities compared to results of a control group surveyed in 2019 (2020). 

Media coverage at this time significantly contributed to this sense of community and patriotism. Throughout the country, daily news conferences were broadcast, with mandated instructions on alert levels and updates on the status of the pandemic. Jacinda Ardern aptly referred to New Zealand as “a team of five million”, actively interpellating every individual as a national subject (Smith, 2020). When New Zealand was placed under lockdown, despite its multiculturalism and differences in ethnicities and backgrounds, five million people residing in the country cooperated with one another, to ensure the health of the nation. This can be understood as an ‘imagined community’, a concept explaining that most members of nations will never meet all of their fellow members or even know of them, but in their minds, is a mutual communion with one another (Anderson, 1983). It is important to remember national identity was originally constructed and continues to operate as a naturalised political ideology. It is endorsed by the government because it subtly exerts power over a group of people, prescribing them morals and social rules that benefit current political structures (Finlayson, 1998). Ardern, by nationalising the entire population of New Zealand, prompts us to forget our individual differences, reminding us we are obligated as part of a nation to follow government guidelines during COVID-19. By asserting this national identity to a group of people, politicians maintain a claim to political legitimacy over the state. This is a powerful means of mobilising a population, calling on national pride and shared values to encourage New Zealanders to fulfil certain ‘civic duties’ (Bell, 2017).

In many ways, COVID-19 helped strengthen the New Zealand national identity, and this may prove pragmatic, particularly in the future, if more community cases arise or we face a completely new calamity. However, as it has brought people together, strong nationalism can create a divide between those within a nation and others that may be perceived as a threat to the national body. It can form an “us” versus “them” scenario, where people who consider themselves as New Zealanders based on ascriptive identity markers like ancestry, language or place of origin may have an intolerance for immigrants and people outside of their imagined community (Wright, 2011). This is evident in the recent growth of anti-Asian sentiment as an unfortunate result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Xenophobia and racism towards Asian people has pervaded political and social responses all over the world, demonstrated in physical attacks, racial slurs and everyday microaggressions (Elias, Ben, Mansouri & Paradies, 2020). Asians in New Zealand are being told to “go back to China with your virus” and being shouted “Wuhan!”, unable to go about their lives without experiencing some level of hate speech (Te, 2020).

The discourses of race and nation are thoroughly intertwined as historically, they are embedded in colonialism (Elias et al., 2020). Anti-Asian sentiments related to COVID-19 are reminiscent of white immigration policies that propagated the idea of “the yellow peril”, a constructed racialisation that equated their presence to that of the plague (Leug, 2008). Political propaganda by Donald Trump exacerbated this by labelling the virus a “Chinese virus”. These callous acts of nationalism, in conjunction with racism, instigated fear to target minority groups and push the blame of the virus’ spread onto the shoulders of innocent people (Reja, 2021). Additionally, with the closing of borders and staying inside our household bubbles, a stronger sense of national identity can foster more polarising views on immigrants or non-citizens within the nation and individuals on the outside. The temporary deglobalisation of border closures facilitated a retreat to nationalistic instincts and weakened global collaboration (Barker, 2020). This has evolved to some New Zealanders having a more parochial and insular view on people outside of their imagined New Zealand identity – another source for increased racism towards Asians and other minorities. 

“National identity is about good feeling, solidarity and community” (Bell, 2017, p. 44). Although this is true, looking beyond the nation’s success of containing COVID-19 reveals how this solidarity would not be made possible without the state’s careful construction of the New Zealand national identity. Furthermore, a strong sense of national identity can breed racism and exclusionary nationalism, resulting in for example, the resurgence of anti-Asian discrimination.


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