While most countries strive to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections, New Zealand set a more ambitious goal: to eliminate the disease completely. Since the first case was detected in the country on February 28, it has confirmed a total of 1,487 coronavirus cases. New Zealand statistics reveal that the disease has infected about 30 in every 100,000 people and has killed 20 people—fewer than one in every 100,000 people.
These figures, compared with those in the US, are incredibly impressive. The US currently has more than 1.2 million confirmed cases—nearly 300 in every 100,000—and more than 50,000 people have died. Recently, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that at present, the country has defeated the virus. She also announced lifting some restrictions imposed to halt the spread of COVID-19. "There is no widespread undetected community transmission in New Zealand. We have won that battle. But we must remain vigilant if we are to keep it that way,” Ardern said.
Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s director-general of health, stated that the small number of new cases in recent days "does give us confidence that we have achieved our goal of elimination." According to EcoWatch, a leading environmental news site engaging millions of concerned individuals every month, Bloomfield added that while they have achieved their goal of elimination, this doesn’t mean that there will be no more cases coming. Nonetheless, we can see that the country’s strategies are indeed working.
In many countries, governments use the mitigation approach to flatten the curve of the pandemic. A variation of this approach is the suppression strategy, where the curve is flattened to the point where there are relatively few cases. To achieve this, countries need to have a prolonged ‘lockdown’ response which may last for months until an effective vaccine or antivirals are available. However, New Zealand decided to use a different approach: eliminating the disease.
According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, disease elimination partly reverses the sequence by using vigorous interventions early to interrupt disease transmission. But, it still needs to implement lockdowns. By March 21, the government introduced a four-tier response system and the country was placed on ‘level 2’ response. In Level 2, the government enforced limitations on mass gatherings and encouraged increased physical distancing.
However, it quickly escalated on the evening of March 25 when the government announced the level 4 response, which involved closing all schools, non-essential workplaces, social gatherings, and severe travel restrictions. At the same time, a national emergency was also declared, giving authorities additional powers to enforce control measures. This gave New Zealand authorities time o ramp up the critical measures required for elimination to work. This includes more rigorous quarantine at the borders, expanded testing and contact tracing, and additional surveillance measures.
According to Time, an American weekly news magazine and news website, borders are shut, except to citizens and residents, who are required to quarantine or self-isolate for 14 days upon entry. Nearly all businesses were also forced to close down. “Only the businesses absolutely essential to ensure the necessities of life, like supermarkets and pharmacies, can stay open. If in doubt, the business premises should be closed," the government said.
Recently, New Zealand downgraded its COVID-19 alert to level 3. This means nearly all businesses are allowed to reopen. According to the announcement, businesses and professions that require face-to-face contact will remain closed until the alert level is reduced to another notch."Your business must be contactless. Your customers can pay online, over the phone or in a contactless way. Delivery or pickup must also be contactless,” Arden said.
New Zealand also responded relatively fast. Throughout the whole month of March, Arden announced that anyone entering the country would need to self isolate for two weeks; banned foreigners from entering the country; announced that the country was going into lockdown, and conducted testings across the country. To date, New Zealand has carried out 126,066 tests. The country has ramped up its testing, carrying up to 8,000 tests per day.
"Decisive action, going hard and going early, helped to stamp out the worst of virus," Ardern said in a statement.
According to CNN, an American news-based pay television channel owned by AT&T's WarnerMedia, New Zealand took a strong approach not only because it will benefit its people but also because the government feels it has a responsibility to protect its Pacific neighbors. Reports showed that mass testings are doing well as the country’s test positivity rate is around 1%. This suggests that there isn't widespread community transmission that's slipping under the radar.
Science and Leadership
Arden’s leadership also stood out. Dr. Siouxie Wiles, Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, said that the prime minister and government visibly put people's health first, while other nations delayed to impose social distancing measures for fear of economic damage. Experts also said that the country’s strategies have been effective so far because of the combination of good science and leadership.
Ardern has appeared alongside Bloomfield at regular press conferences throughout the lockdown period. The scientific insights from Bloomfield helped the country in dealing with the pandemic. "From the outset, he has carefully and calmly communicated many complex health issues around Covid-19 paving the way for government decisions. Because he had clearly communicated the trajectory we were on in terms of the increase in the number of cases, when Jacinda Ardern said we were going into lockdown, people understood why,” Sarah Robson, a senior journalist at Radio New Zealand, said
According to BBC, an operational business division of the British Broadcasting Corporation responsible for the gathering and broadcasting of news and current affairs, Prof. Michael Baker from Otago University's Public Health Department said that Ardern is a brilliant communicator and an empathetic leader. "But what she's said also made sense and I think people really trusted that. There's been a high level of compliance,” he said.
"In New Zealand, it has been a wonderful link between good science, and brilliant leadership, and the two together are I think are really highly effective. I've been really disappointed that countries who have far more, absolutely the top science resources in the world, that is the US and UK, many countries in Europe, have not fared better than countries like New Zealand which has limited resources,” Baker added.