Has New Zealand “won the battle” against the coronavirus?

Not too long ago we discussed the rapid and harsh measures that New Zealand was taking to shut down the novel coronavirus in its tracks. While questions remain about how effective this can be in the long term, at least for now the Kiwis seem to think they’ve beaten the COVID-19 epidemic pretty much entirely. In fact, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern came out today to announce that victory was at hand and the country would be reopening for business in three phases, the first of which is being implemented today and tomorrow. (NY Post)

New Zealand has “won the battle” against the community spread of coronavirus, the country’s prime minister declared Monday.

The country, recently lauded for its stringent approach to fighting the virus — with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern enforcing a four-week lockdown early — now will have most of those restrictions lifted, NPR reported.

“There is no widespread undetected community transmission in New Zealand. We have won that battle,” Ardern said Monday, according to the report. “But we must remain vigilant if we are to keep it that way.”

Asked if the country had eliminated the virus, the prime minister replied: “currently.”

Just looking at the numbers, it’s tough to argue that New Zealand hasn’t “won the battle” against the virus… at least for now. They’ve recorded multiple days with zero new cases being reported the most recent report only showed five new cases across the entire nation yesterday. They’ve recorded a total of 1,469 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began and just 19 deaths. Even if we assume that further testing for antibodies will show ten times as many people had it without knowing it, virtually all of them will be past the point of being contagious within two weeks. They are engaging in what’s being described as “rigorous contact tracing.”

So is that it? Did they win? Is it over? It seems quite foolish to think so. The country is shifting from a Level 4 to a Level 3 lockdown. That means that most, but not all businesses reopened today and the majority of students will return to school tomorrow. Businesses must be contact-less if they are to reopen and schools will enforce social distancing rules. As many as one million workers are back on the job as we speak. They will consider moving to Level 2 after two weeks.

That all sounds well and good and the Prime Minister is to be congratulated for keeping the death toll so low. But she’s also now in charge of a country of nearly five million people that have virtually no herd immunity. Meanwhile, they may be able to open up their internal economy over the next month, but the ten to fifteen percent of their GDP that relies on tourism is still in limbo.

If you look at the New Zealand immigration department’s status announcements you will find that they have basically turned themselves into a hermit kingdom. Non-citizens who were already in the country when the lockdown began in March are having their visas automatically renewed so they can continue to live and work there. But basically nobody else is being allowed into the country. The borders are closed. And the few people who are being allowed in – including their own citizens who were outside the country – are being escorted to “quarantine or managed isolation facilities” for weeks at a time.

Sooner or later New Zealand will have to start allowing normal travel from the outside world. And we’re already hearing predictions that the next wave of the novel coronavirus may hit us this winter even harder than the current round. It’s only going to take a handful of asymptomatic but contagious people showing up at the airport to set New Zealand on a path to disaster. Will they simply go into total lockdown mode yet again? And if so, how many times can they do that before their entire economy grinds to a semi-permanent halt?

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