New Zealand is in lockdown—again. Residents are required to stay home, and most are only allowed out for groceries or exercise. The government locked down the country after one COVID case. Which sounds extreme unless you’ve been paying attention to the way the Delta variant has ravaged and is ravaging parts of the world, including the U.S.—one rural Texas town even had to fully shut down because 42 percent of its population was positive.
“We have seen what happens elsewhere if we fail to get on top of it,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said. “We only get one chance.”
New Zealand knows all about not squandering their chance to stomp out COVID before it becomes an unstoppable blaze. Early in the pandemic, as governments were scrambling to get a handle on COVID, New Zealand emerged as a beacon of good sense. How many of us looked on at Ardern’s thoughtful, science-based approach to the pandemic and wished we had even an ounce of that rhetoric in our leadership?
This entire pandemic, they have not fucked around, and it has paid off in every way.
New Zealand Locked Down Early
New Zealand locked down swiftly and securely in the first phase of the pandemic. In late March 2020, with only 102 confirmed cases and no deaths, New Zealand told everyone, except essential workers, to stay home.
By and large, New Zealanders listened. Most New Zealanders stayed home. Largely, I believe, because they trusted their leaders, who listened to science, communicated a consistent message, and gained the public trust. As a result, ten days after lockdown started, cases began to level off.
By early June, Ardern announced, “we are confident we have eliminated transmission of the virus in New Zealand for now.” By that point, all patients had recovered completely and there’d been no new recorded community transmissions. Aside from a few social distancing measures, New Zealand went back to normal for a while, back to a world not constantly dominated by COVID.
Before this most recent case, the last COVID outbreak in New Zealand was in February 2021. For anyone too pandemic-fatigued to do the math, that’s six blissful months of COVID-free life.
A Testing And Contact Tracing System To Be Envied
Contact tracing is critical to fighting COVID. New Zealand recognized that and acted upon that. During that initial phase of lockdown, New Zealand took the time to develop a testing and contact tracing system that the World Health Organization (WHO) praised.
Which means—when New Zealand emerged from lockdown, they emerged with a plan and an acute awareness that COVID is nothing to be ignored, even when it seems to be in retreat. The country developed an app, the NZ COVID Tracer, to assist with contact tracing. Users scan a QR code when they enter certain places. If they later test positive, contact tracers can review where that person went. They then decide whether it’s necessary to alert others.
Simple, painless, and effective.
Just 26 People Died
What all of this comes down to is simple—saving lives, keeping each other safe. New Zealand didn’t mess around—they locked down, they developed a testing and contact tracing system, they emphasized science above ego. As a result, as of this writing, New Zealand has experienced only 26 COVID deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s compared to the more than 600,000 in the United States, where we can’t even agree that science-backed vaccines are more effective against COVID than a drug used to treat livestock.
The Slow Rollout Of Vaccines Is Not Ideal
The one hiccup in New Zealand’s response has been their vaccination rollout. According to NPR, only 32 percent of New Zealand’s population has received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, and only 18 percent is fully vaccinated. That’s unfortunately low, particularly when vaccination is the quickest way out of this pandemic and lockdowns do come with a heavy price.
Ardern acknowledged that cost, and acknowledged that as the virus evolves, so will the response to COVID. She said, “Going into next year let’s continue to get their (experts) advice. But I would say that’s always been our approach … constantly learning, constantly adapting.”
That in and of itself speaks volumes about New Zealand’s leadership in a way we should all envy.
New Zealand’s “one case” has already ballooned to 35. The number of close contacts is at a staggering 14,000, and experts believe the outbreak could grow bigger than the outbreak New Zealand experienced last August. No doubt, once again, New Zealand’s swift and efficient approach will prevent it from experiencing what we are in the United States—entire hospitals becoming overwhelmed, ICUs filling up, people dying unnecessarily.
Lockdowns are hard. No one disputes that. But, when done right, the way New Zealand does it—they seem to be short and temporary. And they lead to a life where every day doesn’t bring a new story of a young and healthy person who’s succumbed the virus.