COVID-19, Health, World Affairs

How New Zealand Is Beating COVID-19

Things are getting back to normal in New Zealand. In the past two months, every time I have been to my local supermarket the rules have changed. At the start of Lockdown Level 4, a two-meter spaced queue had been marked out and a long tent had been erected to accommodate it. There was a “one trolley, one person” rule, an insistence on a single “designated shopper” per household, and a ban on bringing recyclable bags into the supermarket. Contactless payment was preferred and cash was discouraged. Customers were required to maintain two meters distance from the person in front of them at the checkout. All staff wore some kind of PPE, and some wore face visors. Perspex barriers appeared at the deli counter and the checkout. There were shortages of baking products, yeast was for some reason unobtainable, customers could purchase no more than two packets of pasta or tins of tomatoes, and messages were broadcast over the Tannoy system instructing customers to shop normally.

In response to the sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, policy was being made on the hoof. Every few days at the supermarket, the rules were tweaked and tightened. Now, as rapidly as these rules were introduced, they are being relaxed and discarded. Under Lockdown Level 3—less stringent than Level 4 but still severe—I was allowed to venture to Noel Leeming to pick up gas refills for my Sodastream. Three weeks ago, I made an appointment to “click and collect.” I was met at the door by a shop assistant in PPE. I handed over my empty CO2 bottles and picked up refills paid for online. I was also now able to go to my local pub and collect takeaway by appointment.

A couple of days ago, under Lockdown Level 2, I saw checkout operators without facemasks for the first time in weeks. The wipe-down-your-shopping-trolley-with-sanitizer service at the entrance had been discontinued. The tent that sheltered the queue to get in had been taken down. There was still a person on the door counting people in and out but the number allowed inside had increased and the queue was now gone. (I would like to give the management and staff of my local supermarket, Lincoln New World, a shoutout—they have been fabulous.) Other businesses are now opening up again. At the weekend, my family went out for brunch at a café for the first time in two months. For the purposes of contact tracing by the venue, I had to sign in, which I thought quaint.

At the time of writing, New Zealand had reported just three new cases of COVID-19 in nine days. There were six days with no new cases and three days with one new case each. Around five percent of the population has been tested for COVID-19. The authorities have been conducting random tests to accrue solid data with which to inform public policy. So, if you want a picture of what competent government during a pandemic looks like, you might look at Wellington. In New Zealand, the curve has been flattened. ICU wards have not been overwhelmed. Testing has been widespread. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has handled a difficult situation adroitly—she listened to the epidemiological science and then sold the recommended policies to the people. As a result there have been very few COVID-19 deaths in New Zealand. As of May 20th, only 22 people have died.

The following scatterplots show new cases of COVID-19 per day in New Zealand compared to other countries. I use scatterplots (that show individual daily data points) rather than logarithmic scales with smoothed cumulative lines for various reasons. Firstly, I prefer my data served raw. Logarithmic scales can mislead by turning alarming hockey sticks into soothing curves. Secondly, lines based on cumulative totals always go up, which can be unduly depressing. The raw unmassaged daily data of new cases shows a more encouraging picture. In many countries the rate at which new COVID-19 cases are being detected is slowing. New cases in New Zealand are close to zero. To give a consistent baseline, the New Zealand data are represented by solid black dots in each graph.

The first scatterplot compares New Zealand (NZ) with Ireland and Denmark. These are Western democracies with similar population sizes (around five million). On its worst two days, Ireland recorded more new cases of COVID-19 than New Zealand has recorded since the pandemic began. As you can see, the NZ data shows the efficacy of the “go hard, go early” policy the country adopted. Like many other nations in the eurozone, Ireland’s numbers have been high. However, they are now trending downwards:

The second scatterplot compares New Zealand with Singapore and Norway. Again, both these nations have populations of about five million. Singapore was widely praised for its COVID-19 response a few weeks ago but Bangladeshi workers in crowded dormitories are thought to be the cause of a dramatic new spike in cases, while cases fell in Norway and New Zealand:

Norway, adjacent to Sweden, adopted similar measures to New Zealand. The border was closed, schools were shuttered, and a general lockdown was enforced. In Sweden, policies were less restrictive. As it has a population of 10 million, I have halved Sweden’s daily new case count to give a per capita figure expressed as “new cases per day per five million people”:

Given these data, it puzzles me that writer after writer in the Spectator has extolled the virtues of Swedish COVID-19 policy. Objectively, Sweden’s numbers only look good when compared to nations with really poor figures such as the UK. Compared to neighbouring Norway, Sweden’s record in combatting the disease is unimpressive. When it comes to winning the epidemiological battle against COVID-19, Oslo and Wellington are streets ahead of Stockholm at present.

As for Washington and London, their figures show a rather similar pattern to Sweden—volatile daily numbers with relatively little in the way of a downward trend. Again the figures are adjusted for population size.

The democracies that have handled the COVID-19 pandemic best are not the traditional great powers but smaller players like Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea. Australia and New Zealand seem to have taken a close look at what was going on in South Korea and rapidly adopted similar policies (flight bans, closed borders, lockdowns, contact tracing). Again these figures are adjusted on a per capita basis:

It should be noted that New Zealand is favoured by its remote location. From my local airport, Christchurch, there are 100 direct flights a year to Antarctica, which is a five-hour hop. Its nearest neighbours, Australia, New Caledonia, and Fiji are each a three-hour flight away. Nevertheless, the government has performed well under challenging circumstances. It listened to the scientific advice, watched how China’s closest neighbours responded to the gathering threat, and then acted accordingly. The delay in reopening bars at Level 2 was prompted by a policy reversal in Seoul. Bars were reopened in South Korea a few weeks ago but a single asymptomatic superspreader started a new cluster and the government closed them down again.

Almost every day for weeks, Prime Minister Ardern has faced the media alongside the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Calmly and patiently, she has explained the situation, explained the scientific advice, and persuaded her fellow citizens of the measures required. Her messages have been simple and clear. Stay home. Save lives. Be kind. Stay strong. She has transparently fielded the media’s questions and yet remained relentlessly on message. Not everyone is satisfied, of course—there will always be those who think they know better than government. But for New Zealand, the worst looks like it may be over. It is too soon to declare victory, but the government now has a clear picture of the patterns of infection. The authorities have explained where all the clusters have occurred without divulging individual details. The papers and studies informing public policy have been available to anyone who wants to read them.

The policy fix for COVID-19 implemented by the NZ government was simple. Close the border. Impose a 14-day quarantine on all new arrivals. Encourage social distancing and hand-washing. Impose a hard and early lockdown to snuff out new infections. Close down all non-essential businesses for five weeks. Ramp up testing. Ramp up contact tracing. Get new cases down to zero. These policies have worked. Now New Zealand can focus on restarting its economy. As things stand, the cost will be considerable. Facing an election in September, Ardern will have her work cut out to minimize the number of business closures and job losses resulting from quarantine. And, as restrictions on business ease, there remains the risk of fresh outbreaks, particularly from people without symptoms.

Under Level 2, venues and their patrons are required to cooperate with contact tracing policies. I had to scrawl my contact details for brunch and takeaway pizza at the pub. On Tuesday, New Zealand introduced a voluntary contact tracing app. Custom-built and developed in-house by the Ministry of Health, it will supplement manual contact tracing methods. It has been designed with privacy in mind and approved by the country’s privacy commissioner.

The economic battle to get back to normal will be longer and harder. Sectors like tourism and aviation are in dire straits as demand has collapsed due to quarantine. To stave off commercial calamity New Zealand has set up a $50 billion COVID-19 fund. That is a lot of emergency cash to find for a country whose normal annual budget is around $90 billion. That said, overall people feel optimistic. There is a sense that catastrophe has been avoided and that things are getting back to normal. There is a long way to go, of course, and it would only take a couple of asymptomatic super-spreaders to move those numbers above zero again. But for the moment, as far as COVID-19 is concerned, there is a sense New Zealand has reached the end of the beginning if not the beginning of the end.

 

Sean Welsh holds a PhD from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He is the author of Ethics and Security Automata, a research monograph on machine ethics. Follow him on Twitter @sean_welsh77.

Comments

  1. So far the only positive thing I’ve seen as a result of the Wuhan virus are supermarkets making use of plastic bags with no comments or questions about such.

  2. Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I walked into a bank while wearing a mask and I wasn’t arrested. (Unlike the last time. (rimshot)).

    I’m not sure it’s a positive sign of anything, but the novelty appealed to me.

  3. Is this some kind of IQ test? “Which country doesn’t belong?” A: Oh, NZ because NZ is in the Southern Hemisphere.

    Might be relevant as all Corona viruses have a seasonal aspect to them.

    There are so many factors and the data is murky at best, so comparisons between countries… yeah, good luck controlling for all the determinants that have an impact on infection rate and spread.

  4. Gosh, an extremely isolated island nation with a population half the size of NYC spread over 100,000 sq. miles. And as @hanku points out, in an opposite climate to the rest of us.

    Gorgeous place, been there, loved it, but… spare me the hyperbole.

  5. I think everyone, everywhere, should be optimistic. With the fatality rate everywhere at the end of the day will be .001 or so, the terror exacerbated by the media and some politicians worldwide needs to go away. New Zealand with 4.8 million people and near 30 million sheep has a major advantage of space. It’s a beautiful country that I was lucky to visit once and I wish them well.

  6. You might find this interesting. Seems to be based on recent US CDC findings:

    In a global sense, as befits a global pandemic, one’s risk of dying from covid-19 is about the same as dying from a lightning strike.

    It seem New Zealand is winning its game of tilting at windmills and slaying dragons that are actually houseflies.

  7. State governors in the US have been saying for weeks that a second 2-3 month full lock-down may be necessary later this year “if” the number of COVID-19 deaths start to rise as a result of easing current restrictions.

    (I use scare quotes because it’s not a matter of “if”. Of course the numbers are going to rise. We always knew that they will rise, and a vaccine won’t be ready in time to mitigate.)

    But I wonder what the author thinks of New Zealand’s chances of avoiding complete economic collapse if (when) NZ has it’s own second lock-down?

  8. I appreciate your not posting cumulative graphs and scaling cases to population unlike many MSM articles, but it seems disingenuous to say you’re “puzzled” by Sweden. They will tell you, “you’re graphing the wrong thing.”

    The right things to graph, according to Sweden, would be:

    • the fraction of the population who will have died early by the end if the epidemic
    • damage to children’s future through economy, education, or despair

    You’re graphing the fraction who were infected, not died. The Swedish strategy was to tilt infections toward younger people less likely to die. They admit this part of their plan failed, but to see the failure you would graph deaths, not infections. Maybe this would make New Zealand look even better, I don’t know. But you must settle on a goal, then a graph.

    Graphs of “cases” are not graphs of infections. You say New Zealand should be complimented for conducting broad, random testing to understand the epidemic but then don’t use these numbers to understand the epidemic. Some of the countries you’re comparing to also have good statistics from randomized testing, don’t they? If they do, it’s puzzling to use the remedial mismanaged-country stats of how many people present at hospitals. Those statistics are very poor, heavily manipulated by cases of patients who call in and are told to stay home, or patients who come to the hospital and, whether treated or sent home, are not given a test, as was the rule early on in NYC. The true graph of New York is probably more front-loaded than it looks (though you can look at proxies like “pneumonia” or excess deaths from any cause, as is commonly done in honest retrospectives of flu-like epidemics).

    You’re graphing in the middle of the epidemic, not at the end. Granted, models are often wildly wrong, but it’s still necessary to use them. Not using a model at all is still a kind of model, just a ludicrously bad one that assumes, without discussion, that your “very few infections” trend can continue indefinitely into the future, which is exactly the point on which Sweden would most strongly disagree! They would compare themselves with you by how much damage to children and loss of life you have created, scaled to how far along you are in the epidemic, which they would say will inevitably conclude and is not far along for you.

    https://medium.com/@wpegden/a-call-to-honesty-in-pandemic-modeling-5c156686a64b

    Others have pointed out, even though you may open business, you still can’t open travel. They can.

    You can disagree with Sweden:

    • Sweden will not achieve immunity because the virus will mutate, or antibodies will diminish in spite of continued pressure from the virus.
    • travel in New Zealand can be opened. Contact tracing is sufficient.
    • infections cause permanent damage somehow. Deaths are the wrong metric.

    Those are all things about which reasonable people could disagree, but you haven’t disagreed. Sweden has considered and picked their side. You, and honestly most of the world whether competent or not, just post graphs of cases with no discussion, as if the rest could be assumed, absent a clear goal or a discussed epidemic model.

  9. Perhaps a comparison with Taiwan would have been appropriate?

    As a fellow inmate of “Cindy’s Kindy” I’d like to offer some counter to this rather partisan essay.
    The government line, repeated here, of “going hard and going early” is incorrect. Our borders were leaking waves of fresh contamination for well over a month before any meaningful control was implemented. Our advantage of geographic isolation was recklessly squandered with, effectively, open borders save having a card waved at arrivals asking for volunteer isolation. We had five cases, no internal transmission and a missed golden opportunity to avoid the horrendous disruption subsequently imposed.

    Australia, with a similar low death rate had a far less draconian regime in place and would have fared even better if not for a few clusters due to laxity around rest homes (NSW) and a large social gathering involving health workers (Tasmania).
    Not mentioned was the disgraceful blockading of our roads by Maori ethno nationalist activists and by criminal gangsters or the complete abdication of responsibility by the government in dealing with it. Unfortunately, increasingly emboldened, they pose a direct threat to our liberty, justice and social cohesion. They will have to be dealt with; all the harder now for having the ugly reality swept under the carpet.

    Regardless, we have come out OK and the people think Ardern is our saviour which gives her some cover for the disastrous performance of her government in other areas and a huge tail wind going into the September election. The conservative opposition have a new leader (Todd Muller) that looks to be a formidable threat with serious credibility on the economic recovery; the main focus of the upcoming election.

  10. …4.8 million people and 30 million sheep, resilient creatures all, but easily led.
    NZ is closer to Sweden these days in terms of the intrusive role of government generally, but unfortunately not in terms of pandemic management. Massive damage has been done to the domestic economy in the name of eradicating the virus. Having done that, how to rejoin the infectious world? The country will struggle to regain the standard of living it’s enjoyed for the last 30 years.

  11. No Morgan, while that would be theoretically possible it would be impractical unless we shut out all arrivals. The thing is, now that we’ve got it down to zero, do we keep shut down? We’re heavily reliant on tourism so that’s not a realistic option.
    Not sure what the plan is or even if there is one.
    Re the blockades, they’re still continuing; the perpetrators of the intimidation have simply modified their excuse.
    From the Northland Age:

    "Northland MP Matt King set off for Cape Rēinga, with his wife and parents, on Tuesday, but he didn’t get there. State Highway 1 was blocked several kilometres south of the cape, and the four people manning it had no intention of letting him past.

    By the time he had given up, however, he was convinced that the roadblock had nothing to do with Covid-19.

    “I got them to admit that it was about Māori land,” he said.

    "They told me they owned the land, and they weren’t going to let me past.

    “I just wanted to go to the cape, on a public road, which I am entitled to do.”

    One of those manning the gate, he said, had threatened to knock him out, while another said one phone call would bring 500 reinforcements to the gate, and that they would “eat me alive”.

    A police officer was present, but did not intervene, and left when King did, following him south. (Police have given an undertaking that officers will be present at every Covid-19 checkpoint).

    The constable had looked very uncomfortable, he added, and had King’s sympathy.

    “He was in a real bind,” he said.

    “He said he had been told not to take action, so he was in an impossible position, but his role had been to keep the peace. If he hadn’t been there it could have become quite ugly.”

    King said he had been contacted by numerous people, including tour operators, who were concerned and upset by the road closure.

    Most of them were afraid to speak publicly, so he was speaking for them".

  12. I don’t normally look for reasons to discount someones experiences or opinion. However I have to admit. I really do not care to spend much time navel gazing why Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and (I am just guessing here) Madagascar are doing so well in dealing with the pandemic.

    The South Korea’s of the world are far more useful to me.

    And even South Korea is not that useful. Given they have a heavily fortified northern border and water to the East, West, And South.

    Why its almost like the more control you can have over your borders, the more control you can have over what comes into your country.

  13. …shut the gate ! Everyone stay inside ! Do what mummy tells you alright ?

    That’s the thinking which informed the response.

  14. I have commented publicly in the past about the unsanitary nature of reusable shopping bags and I have been ignored. “We need to understand science especially when there is 97% agreement among scientists To do otherwise is to be a denier”. However to ignore the obvious potential for disease spread from contaminated reusable bags is denial at its best.

    Banning paper and plastic has no effect on the environment and merely allows for holier that thou virtue signaling as well as creating an unnecessary sanitation issue.

  15. As a New Zealander, I think I can say that this a rather naive article. Arden’s government did little to stem the spread of the virus till mid-March, when (like everyone else) it saw the pictures coming out of northern Italy and read the Imperial College report, at which point it panicked and threw the country into a sudden, severe lockdown. Now it has a population of 5 million with pretty much no immunity to the virus - and a crashed economy. There seems to have been little thought about what comes after, given that NZ is a trading nation, heavily reliant on overseas tourism, whose population traditionally likes/needs to travel internationally. Ardern is personable and good at PR; but the notion that she is some kind of strategic mastermind is ludicrous.

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