There’s no true happy news when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, but New Zealand comes close. As of August 10, New Zealand has been free of new cases of the virus for 101 days. That’s a global record. So how did the island nation beat COVID-19?
A Quick Pivot to Elimination
Here’s how New Zealand beat COVID-19. When the virus was first blazing its unhappy trail through countries, New Zealand had as much risk — maybe more, due to its island isolation — than any other nation. What the country did differently was through its speed and decisiveness.
According to Contagion Live, New Zealand knew in March that its testing and contact tracing ability wasn’t up to the challenge of merely tamping down the virus, so it opted to simply eliminate it. On March 26, it went to a Level 4 Lockdown, engaging all of its 5 million citizens in a radical effort using three tactics:
- Ongoing border controls to stop COVID-19 from entering the country.
- A lockdown and physical distancing to stop community transmission.
- Case-based controls using testing, contact tracing and quarantine.
Masks, of course, were mandatory until quite recently (and with a minimum of fuss). Social distancing was strict and discouraged community spread. Because there were no new cases coming in from outside, contact tracing was doable. Now, although the country is COVID-19 free, it is still shut down to outsiders. Once it opens up, viral surges could occur.
A paper from the revered New England Journal of Medicine wrote that “Rapid, science-based risk assessment linked to early, decisive government action was critical. Implementing interventions at various levels (border-control measures, community-transmission control measures, and case-based control measures) was effective.”
Another innovative tactic: a government spending program that supported businesses during the lockdown and supplemented the incomes of those who either lost jobs or whose jobs were endangered.
With a relatively small national population of 5 million, the country was able to aptly get across the idea of coordinated teamwork and achieving the common goal: virus elimination.
“Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern provided empathic leadership and effectively communicated key messages to the public—framing combating the pandemic as the work of a unified ‘team of 5 million’—which resulted in high public confidence and adherence to a suite of relatively burdensome pandemic-control measures,” they wrote.
According to Contagion Live, “at the time of the paper’s publishing, New Zealand had just 1569 cases, 22 deaths, and a coronavirus-related mortality of 4 per 1 million—the lowest reported rate among 37 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”
Go to New Zealand right now—of course, you can’t, because its borders are still closed—and life looks remarkably normal.
“Shopping, movies, entertainment, going to bars,” said Radio New Zealand’s Colin Peacock to NPR. “We can dance as close as we like to each other in nightclubs as late as we like. So everything is just fine in that regard, and business is carrying on as normal.”
The American Equivalent: Hawaii
Hawaii is probably the only US state that could beat COVID-19 like New Zealand. It’s an island chain with a fairly low population (1,415,000). When Hawaii instituted its own lockdown in late March, it also did its best to shut down air travel to its shores. But since Hawaii is a state and not a standalone country, it was unable to completely isolate itself from the world.
The states’ numbers have, comparably to the rest of the US, been quite good. Most of the cases were confined to the island of Oahu, both the most populated and most visited, which includes Honolulu, the state’s largest city. Other islands like Kauai and The Big Island of Hawaii, had tiny numbers, ranging from 0-15, and few to no deaths.
However, since opening up for inter-island flights, the cases surged, especially in Oahu which hit triple digits. Another problem: the 14-day mandatory quarantine for travelers was often unenforceable. One Kailua Kona waitress told Parentology that she served couples in her section who told her, “We just got off the plane.” Why, she wondered, weren’t they holed up in their rental or hotel room?
For the time being, inter-island travel is limited and quarantines are in place. On Oahu, beaches and parks are closed, once again. And, tragically, there were two deaths in the last week.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said on Hawaii.gov, “The passing of these people really demonstrates how rapidly and invisibly COVID-19 is spreading through our communities, particularly on O‘ahu and in some instances in association with clusters. The man who passed away was exposed by a household member who attended a spin class at a gym with a cluster of cases linked to a positive case from an airlines cluster.”
The things that New Zealand did right, from complete border shutdowns to mass cooperation among the population to listening to the scientists, are not things the US is doing as a whole. While Hawaii might be doing fairly well, its geographic isolation (the Hawaiian island chain is the most isolated on earth) might make it easier to control an influx of contagion. States with mere borders, however, don’t have the Pacific Ocean between them and COVID-19 positive people.
For the time being, wear a mask, don’t make unnecessary trips outside the home, and wash your hands.