On December 1, 2019, the first official case of SARS-CoV-2, was reported in China’s Hubei province. Since then, the virus has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and has killed more than 81,000 people worldwide.  Some nations, like Italy, Spain, and the United States have struggled to reduce the spread of the virus. But in New Zealand, a success story has emerged.
Fewer than 14 days ago, the island nation of New Zealand began imposing strict lockdowns that put an end to non-essential activities. Not only that, but social distancing has become a new norm and only a handful of people are allowed to enter grocery stores at a single time, reducing contact with other shoppers.
In many countries, containment of the virus, and preventing its spread, has been the goal. But in New Zealand, a loftier plan is in place: elimination. Best of all: the elimination plan is working.
Beginning on April 7, the number of people recovering from COVID-19, exceeded the number of new infections. This is providing a glimmer of much-needed hope for a country that has acted swiftly to put an end to the spread of coronavirus.
“The signs are promising,” Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s director general of health, said on Tuesday.
But the slowing of the spread of the virus doesn’t mean that lockdowns will be ended and life can return to normal. Quite the contrary, according to New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. According to PM Ardern, the country’s lockdown will last a minimum of four weeks, which is approximately two incubation cycles for the virus.
“When I arrived here a month ago, traveling from the epicenter of China via the hot spot of South Korea, I was shocked that officials did not take my temperature at the airport.” Fifield wrote in her piece. “I was told simply to self-isolate for 14 days (I did).”
Not only did the country take extra care to quarantine new arrivals, on March 19th, but New Zealand also shut its borders to international visitors. In an average year, about as many people visit the country as live there – 4 million total. Following that, PM Ardern laid out a coronavirus response plan that had four stages, with stage four being total lockdown. And many leaders in New Zealand insisted that they move to Level 4 immediately.
“We were hugely worried about what was happening in Italy and Spain,” said Stephen Tindall, the founder of the Warehouse, New Zealand’s largest retailer.
“If we didn’t shut down quickly enough, the pain was going to go on for a very long time,” he said. “It’s inevitable that we will have to shut down anyway, so we would rather it be sharp and short.”
On March 23rd, PM Ardern told the country to prepare for a Level 4 lockdown starting in 2 days. During her address, she spoke of the need to act swiftly while there were still only a few cases in the nation.
“We currently have 102 cases,” she said. “But so did Italy once.”
And just before midnight local time, nearly 48 hours later, every cell phone in the nation was alerted to the change, with the alert reading: “From 11:59PM tonight, the whole of New Zealand moved to COVID-19 Alert Level 4. This message is for all of New Zealand. We are depending on you.”
The alert informed people that where they planned to stay that evening was where they would be staying indefinitely, and that you may only be in physical contact with individuals that you are living with. It reminded the country’s residents that this would likely last for weeks.
Not everyone has agreed to PM Ardern’s terms. The police have had to force surfers off of the beaches and even the nation’s health minister lost his job and was publicly chastised by the Prime Minister, for taking his family to the beach and going mountain biking, against strict orders of the country’s leaders.
However, not everyone is fighting it. Most are embracing it.
“But there has been a sense of collective purpose,” writes Fifield. “The police phone line for nonemergencies has been overwhelmed with people calling to “dob in,” as we say here, reporting others they think are breaching the rules.”
The collective work of everyone in New Zealand is bearing fruit. The number of new cases in a single day peaked on April 2 and has been dropping ever since. Most of these cases can be easily traced back to international travel, indicating that the virus is not quickly spreading through the community. To date, only one person has died of the virus.
According to Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago, New Zealand set an example that the rest of the world can, and should, follow.
“Jacinda approached this decisively and unequivocally and faced the threat,” Baker said. “Other countries have had a gradual ramp-up, but our approach is exactly the opposite.”
Eliminating coronavirus from New Zealand looks to be within reach, but making sure it stays gone is another matter. Still, many hope that life in New Zealand could soon return to something that resembles normal.
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