How a team of five million beat a pandemic

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Dev Nadkarni tells us how New Zealand was not only able to flatten the curve but nearly eliminate the bug.

On June 8, as the Covid-19 pandemic raged on in hotspots across the world, New Zealand declared itself Covid-free. The last active case was declared recovered and the country’s four-level alert system was lowered to Level-1 – the lowest. That meant all activities could resume as normal except for the borders that will remain closed until further notice. However, at the time of writing this piece twenty-four days after no cases were reported in the country, two positive cases sneaked past the borders into and shone a light on the importance of not ever letting the guard down – but more on that later. So how did New Zealand’s ‘team of five million’, as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern likes to describe Kiwis, not only flatten the curve but nearly eliminate the bug?

Unlike the densely populated countries where the pandemic has rapidly spread, New Zealand is isolated, surrounded by a moat of oceanic proportions and is sparsely populated. Just five million people spread over a land area as much as the UK (pop. 66m) or Japan (126m). That gives the country a huge advantage in preventing the spread of a pandemic like Covid-19 or the ability to trace people who might have potentially contracted the infection. But none of those advantages would have been of any use, if people weren’t compliant and did not follow the strict codes imposed during the weeks of lockdown. New Zealand’s team of five million followed instructions to the letter.

Nearly all early cases were traced back to overseas travel and New Zealand shut its international borders and imposed a complete lockdown following a four-level alert system. The top Alert Level-4 lockdown has been described as one of the most stringent in the world with all business and social activities closed and people forced to stay indoors in their ‘bubbles’ – meaning family or people they were with on the day the Level-4 lockdown was imposed. People were advised not to breach their bubbles and were allowed out only to visit supermarkets, pharmacies and doctors.

New Zealand is one of the world’s freest countries and Kiwis are simply not used to their freedoms being impinged upon – least of all by government. Yet nearly all Kiwis complied with Level-4 restrictions and opinion polls have showed that 92 per cent of the population was happy to comply.

One factor that helped in no small measure was the constant communication that the Prime Minister and her top Ministry of Health official shared with their team of five million. Every day at 1pm throughout the lockdown, New Zealanders were glued to their television sets and online devices to watch the daily media briefing by this duo. Media were given all the time they needed to ask questions and every question was answered or clarified later. Meanwhile, as the economy went into a tailspin, the government announced the biggest economic stimulus package in New Zealand history with companies receiving subsidies to pay wages to their employees for 12 weeks and later for another eight. Other benefits were also upped accordingly. A slew of financial packages continue to be announced, which is expected to ultimately cost some $200 billion to the exchequer.

As the country emerges from the lockdown all activities have resumed, and social distancing is no longer required. There are no restrictions on the number of people who can assemble, with sports stadia chock-a-block for rugby matches. Cafes and restaurants are filling up and economic activity is rapidly coming back to normal. Unemployment, though, abounds – and is likely to remain high for some time.

But two British women who were allowed into the country on compassionate grounds to visit a dying relative earlier this week have tested positive and thrown a spanner in the works of New Zealand’s truly laudable Covid-19 campaign. The border remains the country’s Achille’s heel and its continued closure will greatly continue to affect the economy, particularly tourism. The country is headed for an election in September and predictably the pandemic and economic recovery will be major issues.

Dev Nadkarni

Mumbai-born Dev Nadkarni is a writer, consultant and an independent director on corporate boards based in New Zealand. 

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