'COVID-19 free New Zealand' : What can other nations learn from NZ ?
On June 8, New Zealand announced itself as a Covid-19 free nation, with the last of its coronavirus patients having recovered. With the country now at alert level 1, June 9 was New Zealand’s health chief Ashley Bloomfield’s last day of providing a health bulletin, which was ardently released at 1pm daily, however will continue to release one each week to provide updates about ongoing health efforts. As June 10 marks the 19th day of no new cases witnessed in New Zealand, its health officials also confirmed that it was the third day that New Zealand had no active cases of Covid-19 in the country.
According to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University, there have been just over 1500 confirmed and probable cases reported across New Zealand, including a death toll of 22. As the country inches closer to its 28 day completion to officially declare June 15 as its ‘Covid-19 elimination day,’ border controls would continue to remain and everyone entering New Zealand would be tested.
Recently, a crew of a Singapore Airlines’ first passenger flight returning to New Zealand was kept under strict quarantine in their usual hotel accommodation suites. Upon arrival, the crew was taken straight to their hotel, through a chartered bus and after checking in, they were barred from leaving their rooms during their three-day layover – not even to meet their fellow crew members. Unlike other returning travellers on managed isolation, the flight crew members were not allowed to step outside for exercise, or even a walk. They got their meals served on trays left outside their doors.
What is considered one of the toughest lockdowns anywhere in the world, New Zealand implemented various methods to contain its situation from becoming worse. Nine significant clusters in the country were put to rest, with the most recent closure being an Auckland community cluster. This was largely believed to be possible due to New Zealand exercising its 75 days of restrictions including about seven weeks of a strict lockdown in which most businesses were kept shut and everyone except essential workers had to stay indoors.
What did New Zealand do?
The Republic of Ireland, another island nation, for instance, with a similar population, has had over 25,000 cases and 1,679 deaths. So what were New Zealand’s most effective strategies for beating COVID-19?
The country established the public use of fabric face masks, which is also one of the updated recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO), that everyone wear fabric face masks in public areas where there is a risk of transmission. According to a study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, the findings showed that 100 per cent mask adoption combined with on/off lockdowns prevented any further disease resurgence for the 18 months required for a possible vaccine. The researchers point out that “crude homemade masks primarily reduce disease spread by catching the wearer’s own virus particles, breathed directly into fabric, whereas inhaled air is often sucked in around the exposed sides of the mask.”
While downloadable apps appear insufficient, both New Zealand and Singapore in order to improve contact tracing effectiveness, are trial-testing bluetooth-enabled devices which appear to perform better. Applying a science-based approach to border management, was one of the key methods used by New Zealand. This opening up includes two very different processes. One is a broadening of the current categories of people permitted to enter New Zealand, apart from the local residents, their families and a small number of others. The other potential and safest expansion is quarantine-free entry, from those countries that meet similar elimination targets and upon confirming their elimination status.
Apart from establishing a dedicated national public health agency, New Zealand also committed to transformational change to avoid other major global threats. Their argument being, even if Coronavirus is brought under control with a vaccine or antivirals, other major global health threats like climate change, loss of biological diversity and existential threats (for example, pandemics arising from developments in synthetic biology), remain and cannot be sidelined.
Drastic comparisons, yet a learning for other nations
Following WHO’s advice over mass testing and robust contact-tracing has been key to curbing the death toll in New Zealand. Last week Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country could carry out up to 8,000 tests per day, one of the highest testing rates per capita in the world. In total, it has tested just under 295,000 people, again giving it a comparatively high per capita rate of testing.
Besides New Zealand, nine other smaller nations like Tanzania, Montenegro, Eritrea, Papua New Guinea, Seychelles, Vatican, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Fiji and East Timor have successfully managed to stamp out Covid-19. While geography of New Zealand being a relatively isolated island, with a relatively low population, it does not mean New Zealand cannot be used as a benchmark by other countries.
To find, test, isolate, and care for every case, and to trace and quarantine every contact, which was religiously followed by New Zealand, is what other countries can and should learn from the nation.
After receiving worldwide praise recently, New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern had also reportedly cautioned against a resurgence, but had said that while the country is confident of “ having eliminated transmission of the virus in New Zealand for now, but elimination is not a point in time, it is a sustained effort,” and ensured that if at all cases do resurface in New Zealand, they will be and are prepared.
The South Pacific nation with a population of about five million is emerging from the pandemic, considering it as their milestone that cannot be left uncelebrated. Although, the situation contrasts dramatically with the rest of the world. Countries such as Brazil, UK, India and the United States battle their way out to curb the virus spread.
India that has just started to relax its nationwide lockdown, is experiencing its peak period, with an average spike of over 2000 cases everyday. Maharashtra has recently crossed over 85,000 cases including more than 3,000 deaths, a worrisome milestone, by having more coronavirus cases than China, which as of June 8 had 84,191 cases with 4,638 deaths so far. While the country holds a huge population, battling Coronavirus at this time has become an onus on not just the government but also on citizens equally.
Relaxation guidelines still seem to be violated in all forms in various states. With India expected to reach its extreme peak by late July, experts say that drawing inspiration by simply yet strictly following safety measures and learning from experiences of countries such as New Zealand, is the only way forward.