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Dear America, From New Zealand

A love letter from a dual citizen

Kaila Colbin
7 min readAug 25, 2020


Dear America,

First, a quick update from New Zealand. Despite what you may have heard, we do not have any “massive breakouts” or “big surges” of coronavirus. Our pandemic response has most certainly not turned our country into a “hellhole.”

As of this writing, we have 111 active cases, or 2.27 per 100,000 people. To put this in context, the US currently has 3,655,979 active cases, or 1,114 per 100,000 people.

We do not have any uncontrolled community transmission, by which I mean we are not finding cases in the community where we have no idea how they got it. 92 of our active cases are from a single cluster. We currently have 3 people in ICU, and we’re praying for them.

We’ve had 22 deaths, or 0.45 deaths per 100,000 people. The US has had 175,343 deaths, more than 53 deaths per 100,000 people.

Let me frame these numbers another way: on a per capita basis, the US has almost 500x as many active cases as New Zealand and well over 100x as many deaths.

I’m not telling you this to show off or be smug. I’m an American as well as a Kiwi, born and bred in New York with stints living in Florida and Colorado before migrating to Middle Earth. The failures of the US COVID response are mine as much as yours.

And New Zealand is far from perfect. We have serious problems with child poverty, youth suicide, racism, colonialism.

I’m telling you this because it’s important to understand WHY these two countries have responded so differently to the pandemic, and — more importantly — HOW we Americans can turn things around.

Let’s start with the why.

Five reasons New Zealand has been able to respond well to the pandemic

It’s not just that one is big and the other small, or that one is surrounded by a giant moat and the other isn’t.

It’s tempting to focus on those things, because they are outside our control — and if they’re outside of our control, we don’t have to do the difficult work of reckoning with them.

But there are plenty of things that are within our control. And those are the things we should be paying attention to.

(Disclaimer: I’m well aware these are gross generalisations. I’ve included some of the counterpoints below to highlight that these issues are never black and white.)

Number 1: New Zealand has competent and respected leadership, reinforced by transparent, consistent, calm, kind and decisive communication. (I’m well aware there are people who think Jacinda talks down to us.)

Number 2: In New Zealand, public trust is high, largely as a function of Number 1. Regardless of political affiliation, there is very little suspicion about whether the numbers are accurate, or whether the government is operating with the best interests of the country in mind. (I’m well aware we have a growing problem with people swallowing and regurgitating misinformation and conspiracy theories.)

Number 3: New Zealand has a highly functioning, socialised healthcare system, accessible to everyone. There is no charge for COVID-19 testing or treatment, and therefore no financial barrier to doing what is medically necessary to look after yourself and others. (I’m well aware the system is rife with systemic racism and mental health is severely underfunded.)

Number 4: New Zealand has government-mandated sick leave. Even before the boost from the COVID response package, people could stay home if they were sick without being terrified they would lose their job. (I’m well aware that, at 5 days per year, our statutory sick leave requirements are among the lowest in the OECD. America has no federally mandated sick leave requirement at all.)

Number 5: New Zealanders have a culture of social responsibility. Think about the gross caricature of the self-identity of a Kiwi compared to that of an American.

What is the caricature of a New Zealander? We are a rule-abiding, tidy, community-minded population; we pitch in together and get things done. If we are told to stay home, we will stay home.

What is the caricature of an American? Freedom. Independence. You can’t tell me what to do.

I first shared these thoughts back in March to make the point that these elements should be non-negotiable for all of us. I’m sharing them again because the past few months have shown us the dramatic difference between a society that largely functions as a coherent whole and one that doesn’t.

Leaders who aren’t competent, respected and trustworthy cannot possibly navigate the incredible complexity of a global pandemic—nor will their citizens follow them.

And public healthcare and government-mandated sick leave don’t just benefit the individuals receiving those benefits; they benefit all of society. If people with easily communicable illnesses can’t afford to stay home from work and get medical care, the virus will spread to more and more people, making things worse for everyone—including people who can afford private insurance.

These thoughts might seem obvious to you. You might already be on board with these ideas. You might be thinking, I know our current leadership is incompetent, disreputable, mistrusted. You don’t need to convince me—I’m already registered to vote.

But here’s the thing: if you’re American and you agree with these thoughts, voting is not enough. We must become more determined in the exercise of our citizenship—and more sophisticated in our understanding of how power works.

As my friends Eric Liu and Jená Cane, co-founders of Citizen University, say, “Our dream is a country in which Americans are steeped in a sense of civic character, educated in the tools of civic power, and are problem-solving contributors in a self-governing community. A strong democracy depends on strong citizens… We all have the power to make change in civic life and the responsibility to try.” (Emphasis mine.)

What does this mean, in tangible terms, about the position we’re in right now?

It means it is up to us to ensure that the upcoming US election is as robust as possible.

Which means we have to do everything possible to make sure our own votes count—and then we have to do everything possible to help other people’s votes count as well.

How Americans can turn things around

(Massive acknowledgment to threads written by election security advocate Jennifer Cohn and President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Vanita Gupta; I combined their recommendations for the below lists.)

Step 1: Make sure your vote counts

Voting isn’t just about election day.

It starts right now, with making doubly, triply sure you’re registered. (You can do this at

It continues with having a plan to vote as early as you possibly can. Depending on your state, you can vote up to 46 days before the election.

If you are voting by mail, request your ballot now and complete it ASAP. If you are sending it through the Postal Service, Congressman Ted Lieu recommends posting it no later than October 15th.

Better yet, if possible in your location, deliver the ballot directly to a drop box or to the office, rather than sending it through the Postal Service.

If you’re voting in person, in addition to the screenshot of your registration, bring ID and your completed sample ballot.

This one from Jennifer Cohn is important! Ask to vote on a hand-marked paper ballot with a ball-point pen, rather than a touchscreen. “If you must use a touchscreen, compare the paper printout (if any) to your completed sample ballot to ensure the machine didn’t drop or flip your votes.”

If you have any problems voting, call the Election Protection Hotline at 1–866-OUR-VOTE. It’s run by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Also, if you have any problems voting, shout about it: talk to your poll workers if you’re in-person, tell the media, share it on your socials. Let the world know.

Step 2: Make sure every vote counts

So you’re voting! Awesome! Wow!

Now we’ve got to make sure everyone’s vote counts.

Call your senators and tell them to vote on the legislation passed by the House to provide emergency funding to the USPS for free and fair elections. The number is 202–224–3121.

Call your Secretary of State or county election official (find info here). Tell them they need to make secure drop boxes widely available. Tell them to ensure ballots postmarked on or by election day are counted within a reasonable number of days after (given USPS delays). Demand backup paper poll books for election day—electronic books often fail. Demand that every in-person voter has the opportunity to vote with a hand-marked paper ballot.

Volunteer as a poll worker, especially if you’re young and are not immunocompromised. Poll workers skew hard towards the elderly—the ones most at risk from COVID-19.

If you don’t want to be a poll worker, you can sign up as a poll observer through your state or country party to prevent and report voter intimidation or irregularities. Whatever it takes to make sure that every vote is counted and that the election represents the will of the people.

This all seems like a lot of work. Hard. Daunting. Overwhelming.

But democracy is hard, daunting, overwhelming.

If America wants to have the necessary ingredients to be able to cope with this pandemic and the other crises we face, a free and fair election is essential.

We cannot have competent and respected leadership, high public trust, robust public healthcare, sick leave, or even a sense of common purpose unless the system we use to get those things works the way it’s meant to.

In the United States, those things seem like pipe dreams. In New Zealand and other countries, it would be unfathomable to have a functioning society without them.

It is possible to have a society that works effectively, one that aims to lift up everyone rather than a chosen few. We just have to fight for it.

It’s up to us. If we want to keep our republic, we have to do the work.



Kaila Colbin

Founder/CEO Boma. Dual citizen USA/NZ. Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator. Just wants the world to be a better place.