New Zealand’s first COVID-19 case was reported on February 28, 2020. Since then, the country has had one of the best responses in the world to eliminate the deadly virus. New Zealand has had a total amount of 2,618 cases, with 2,568 of them currently recovered. Compared to the rest of the world, these numbers remain considerably low as many nations are currently tackling the second and third-wave of infections. Other countries have a lot to learn from New Zealands’ great successes in the management of COVID-19 as we start to think about our future post-pandemic.
Before the pandemic hit New Zealand, the country began implementing travel bans on certain countries like China and Iran, where the infection numbers were overwhelming, compared to the rest of the world. It was also one of the first countries to impose mandatory quarantine on international travel, with the restriction taking effect on midnight of March 16, 2020. Only three days later, in collaboration with the Australian government, New Zealand closed its borders to all non-residents. These were some of the strictest measures in the world, early on in the pandemic.
While restrictions were implemented when the COVID-19 cases worldwide averaged just below 19,000, New Zealand realized early on that the ultimate goal had to be complete termination and not just containment of the virus. Thus, the government opted to shift away from the initial mitigation strategy towards an elimination strategy.
A mitigation strategy is an approach used to delay the arrival of disease. In New Zealand’s case, the early application of increased measures to flatten the curve as the pandemic progressed was not enough to address the increasing pressure on health services and the diminished hospital capacity. Thus, the primary mitigation approach was not sufficient to properly curb the pandemic.
As a result, the elimination strategy became a more favorable alternative for New Zealand. The considerably riskier approach meant stronger measures to start and stricter border control to eradicate chains of transmission.
Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, said that she was not deterred by the considerably low likelihood of achieving complete elimination during this time, because even if the more ambitious eradication plan was not entirely successful, it would still save lives.
New Zealand adopted a 4-level alert system to inform the public of the current state of infections and health and safety requirements. When the national situation rose to Level 4 on March 25, 2020, with a total of 205 cases, Minister for Civil Defence, Peeni Henare, declared a state of emergency followed by a complete nationwide lockdown. During the lockdown, the public was required to practice self-isolation to reduce the number of transmissions.
The lockdown lasted a total of 7 weeks, with five weeks being spent under Alert Level 4 and two weeks under Alert Level 3 as the country saw a rapid decline of new cases.
During this time, the country also adapted Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ), an online portal where travellers must book a spot to be matched with managed isolation facilities to start and complete their travel successfully. This is a costly system for both the government and citizens, as each stay at these facilities costs $6,000 out of the $499 million budget set aside for the system in 2020. At the same time, an individual is liable to pay $3,100 of this fee during their stay at these facilities. Nonetheless, the system has proven to be effective, having detected 215 travellers with a COVID-19 infection entering New Zealand as of October 2020.
With these extreme measures, the government announced its last case in early May 2020 and moved back to Alert Level 1 on June 8, 2020. After 103 days since its first case was reported, New Zealand was extremely close to declaring the pandemic over. Even though in August 2020, the country saw a sizable increase in COVID-19 cases and an outbreak suspected to originate from overseas, New Zealanders could return to reopening the country while bringing the number of infections closer to zero.
Back to Reality
While most of the world continues to struggle with high rates of infection and still has to enforce intense restrictions, New Zealand was able to adapt to a better reality closer to pre-pandemic times. This past October, the world watched as 30,000 people filled the Wellington Stadium to attend a rugby match between New Zealand and Australia. Many applauded this accomplishment and congratulated New Zealand’s government on its successful COVID-19 management, as spectators watched the match without mask requirements. The country was also able to host its largest festival, Rhythm and Vines, during the New Year celebrations for 2021 without social-distancing measures.
The economy also seems to be recovering fairly quickly for New Zealand, too. The predicted debt is falling 2.7% under the previous forecast and the economy grew a record 14% in the third quarter— clear evidence of New Zealand’s excellent pandemic management. Finance Minister Grant Robertson believes that economic growth will improve even more rapidly in 2021.
Recent Infections and Vaccination
On February 27th, 2021, the government moved the country into another lockdown, one of many since New Zealand was able to eliminate the virus, due to a series of new infections. The lockdown lasted a total of seven days, ending March 5, 2021, after officials solved the case origins, linking back to a family that defied isolation orders. The government was able to isolate the cluster that was limited to 15 cases. New Zealanders have been dealing with situations like this ever since restrictions began, however, citizen compliance overall has helped eliminate community transmission, and health authorities have been steadfast in singling out cases.
As of May 2, 2021, New Zealand has 24 active cases. Ten of these active infections were from people who arrived in New Zealand on the same flight from India on March 27, 2021. While additional testing is conducted to see if these cases from the plane are related, the spread being detected on day 0 testing shows the importance of early isolation and government involvement.
The New Zealand Ministry of Health announced that it has acquired enough doses to vaccinate everyone in the country. While these vaccine shipments are expected to arrive in the second half of the year, the New Zealand vaccine rollout plan aims to start vaccinating the general population by this July. The National Party of New Zealand is asking the government to be more transparent with the vaccine rollout. Chris Bishop, the party’s spokesman, is encouraging the government to follow the lead of other countries and at least set a goal to get 70% of its people vaccinated. Currently, authorities have yet to set a target to get a certain percentage of the population vaccinated by an estimated date.
While New Zealand is not completely perfect, it is an outstanding example of how countries can decrease the impact of COVID-19 on their citizens and save more lives with comprehensive and firm preventative measures.