New Zealand has ‘effectively eliminated’ coronavirus. Here’s what they did right. The island nation chose strict lockdowns and austerity. What’s next? This National Geographic special report looks ahead.
If there is a bright spot in the global response to the pandemic, it is surely New Zealand. While governments worldwide have vacillated on how to respond and ensuing cases of the virus have soared, New Zealand has set an uncompromising, science-driven example. Though the country didn’t ban travel from China until February 3 (a day after the United States) and its trajectory of new cases looked out of control in mid-March, austerity measures seemingly have brought COVID–19 to heel.
The country began mandatory quarantines for all visitors on March 15, one of the strictest policies in the world at the time, even though there were just six cases nationwide. Just 10 days later, it instituted a complete, countrywide lockdown, including a moratorium on domestic travel. The Level 4 restrictions meant grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals, and petrol stations were the only commerce allowed; vehicle travel was restricted; and social interaction was limited to within households.
“We must fight by going hard and going early,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement to the nation on March 14.
The sudden austerity could have been a cause for panic. But each day, the 39-year-old Ardern, or “Jaz” as she’s popularly known, made clear, concise statements about the situation to the nation, bolstered by a team of scientists and health professionals. A few days after the lockdown, she announced that instead of just slowing the transmission of the virus, New Zealand had set a course of eradicating COVID–19 from its shores, by cutting off the arrival of new cases and choking out existing ones with the restrictions. “We have the opportunity to do something no other country has achieved: elimination of the virus,” said Ardern at one of her daily briefings.
From an outsider’s perspective, the interesting thing about New Zealand is that the country simply got on board. _On day one of the lockdown, the streets and highways were empty, the shops were closed, and everyone stayed home. “I think it’s easier for us Kiwis to fall in line because we trust our leaders,_” Sue Webster, the owner of the Airbnb [where the author of this article stayed].
Even if New Zealand manages to snuff out COVID–19, the road ahead won’t be easy. Once the country is virus free, it will need to maintain the total halt on arrivals until a vaccine is developed and widely disseminated—or risk the threat of reinfection. That’s a tough prospect for a country where tourism—New Zealand’s largest export industry in terms of foreign exchange earnings—accounts for 10 percent of GDP and nearly 15 percent of the workforce. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake, and forecasts suggest the Kiwi economy won’t recover until at least 2024.
Still, a recent survey showed that 87 percent of Kiwis support the government’s handling of the crisis. Having spent a month there during lockdown, I understand why: the streets were quiet and clean, public services were all functioning, stores were well stocked, and, most importantly, the risk of contracting COVID–19 seemed remote and diminishing.
Another thing NZ has going for it: “because we trust our leaders”.