Prime Minister Jacinda Arden-led island nation New Zealand has emerged as a model for countries grappling with coronavirus pandemic. With its 'eradication strategy', the country took early action and kept restrictions in place till it was assured of end of community transmission. In less than two months, New Zealand is back on its feet, ready to reopen, start travel again and soon people will be able to give each other 'a quick hug'.
On May 4, the country recorded zero new cases of coronavirus marking its first day without any infection since it went into lockdown in March. While announcing the same at a press briefing, PM Arden also cautioned the citizens to continue to follow social distancing norms in order to avoid risk. She added that the country's goal to eliminate the virus completely is now 'within the reach' and one wrong step could 'squander the good work'.
"We can take heart in recording no new cases today," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said. "Stay the course," Ardern urged the public. "We cannot afford to squander the good work to date when our end goal is so close and within reach."
The country recorded first-ever cases reportedly on February 28. New Zealand's fight against coronavirus started with a major decision to close borders on March 19, banning all inbound travel to the country. Only returning citizens and some essential workers were allowed in.
“We must go hard and we must go early,” Ardern said when announcing what she described as 'world’s toughest border restrictions'.
On March 23, the country entered alert level 3 closing non-essential businesses, cancelling all gatherings and banning domestic travel. At this time it had about 100 positive cases and no one had died. 48 hours later, the country progressed in level 4 lockdown which is also dubbed as 'eliminate policy'. At this point, citizens were allowed to contact only with people they lived with.
On April 16, PM Jacinda Arden said in a press conference, "We have the opportunity to do something no other country has achieved—elimination of the virus."
On April 27, the country declared that it had 'eliminated' coronavirus as reportedly it only recorded one new case, four "probable cases" and one new death. The country returned to level 3 of the lockdown and eased some of its restrictions. People were now allowed to expand their social 'bubble' and interact with more people while still adhering to social distancing measures. If necessary, residents can even travel around the country but can "only move once, and in one direction."
Addressing a press conference on April 27, PM Arden admitted that without level 4 restrictions, the picture could have been different. She said models projected New Zealand could have had more than 1,000 cases a day had measures been delayed.
"We will never know what would have actually happened without our level 4 restrictions, but we can look overseas and see that this devastating scenario has played out in many other countries," she said. "Through our cumulative actions we have avoided the worst."
The country with a population of approximately 5 million people managed to keep the number of infections to as low as 1489 with 21 deaths. Many argue that the country's small population was also a contributing factor in successfully implementing the lockdown, while countries like UK, US, Italy are still bearing the brunt of the pandemic.
However, what also needs a mention is the terrific testing capacity of the country. WHO has time and again highlighted the importance of tests and New Zealand ramped up its capacity to as many as 8000 tests per day. As per reports, New Zealand has one of the highest testing rates per capita in the world.
Arden reportedly revealed that the country's R0 would have been around 2.5, if no mitigations were in place. But with quick action and decisive measures, the country managed to keep it as low as 0.4 . This means that each infected person can only transmit the disease to only half of a person. (R0 1 means each infected person would at least infect one other person.)
New Zealand has reportedly administered more than 100,000 coronavirus tests—a rate of 2,190 per 100,000 people.
The country will conduct a review of the situation on May 11 and will remain in level 3 till then. The government on May 7 revealed what level 2 of the lockdown would look like as people will be allowed to leave their bubbles to see families and friends. Bars, malls, hairdressers and schools will also reopen, with precautions.
PM Jacinda Ardern said at level 2 people will still be required to reduce contact with strangers. "It is very unlikely we have hunted down every case of Covid-19. So we all have to stay on guard."
Whether the country is ready to move out of level 3 will be decided in the cabinet meeting taking into consideration if the risk of community spread has been completely eliminated. Once the country decides to move to level 2, there will still be measures in place to track and stop any new transmission and stamp out any outbreaks.
"It is a large step from where we are now, so when it comes the time to move we want to move with confidence. If the advice is to move in a phased way because level 2 taken all at once has too many risks, I would rather take that advice and move out slowly," Arden said in her address.
The country has certainly emerged as a model for other countries to contain the deadly pandemic that has so far claimed 270,000 lives and infected more than 3.5 million people worldwide. Global experts have been lauding New Zealand for winning it's fight against the pandemic and 'eliminating' the virus successfully. However, many experts and reports have also claimed that New Zealand's strategy cannot work for other countries as New Zealand has various advantages including low popular, isolated geographical location, fewer travellers from China and other countries.
Another argument suggests that the cost of the implementation of a similar strategy is quite high. Experts reportedly believe that the economy of the country will not be the same as two of the major industries, travel and education, have been severely affected by the strict lockdown measures.
However, before sidelining the significance of the strategy for other countries, it is also important to note that Colorado, which is roughly the same geographic size as New Zealand, with a population of 5.8 million, has more than 16,900 cases confirmed and more than 851 people have died.
No doubt, Arden has been widely lauded for her quick and stringent measures. More importantly, her 'clear communication' with the people of the country has been hailed as an important step in establishing faith. The New Zealand PM has been conducting Facebook Live sessions and press conferences to connect with people and unite them in fight against the pandemic.