Experts begin to doubt New Zealand's no-covid strategy

style="float: right; margin-bottom: 10px; font-weight: 600;"Wed 18th Aug, 2021

Day one of New Zealand's strict curfew began with an update from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who - in now-familiar fashion - checked in with her citizens via Facebook before the official press conference. "Good morning, I hope you are all taking good care of yourselves today..."

New Zealand, which relies on a no-covid strategy, had already imposed an immediate lockdown again after a newly discovered Corona case in the country. Now there have been nine more positive tests, Ardern announced Wednesday. These were the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, which has also forced large parts of Australia, including Sydney and Melbourne, into lockdown. Further cases are also feared in New Zealand, he added.

According to Ardern, a large proportion of those infected were younger people who were quite active. Meanwhile, a casino and a church in Auckland have been identified as possible sites of infection. Among others, a nurse in Auckland was said to be affected. An "internal lockdown" had been imposed on the clinic. The first case spent a lot of time in popular vacation areas where travelers from all over New Zealand have stayed.

Lockdown in New Zealand means strict restrictions: In addition to essential stores, all other stores, restaurants, cafes, gyms, and places where people normally congregate must close. The country's schools have also switched to online classes. Those who were not at home on Tuesday have 48 hours to return there.

Many experts applaud this approach: According to Michael Plank, a mathematician and statistician at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, the strict lockdown is "definitely the right decision. The situation in Sydney, where several hundred cases are currently recorded every day, shows how "half-measures can quickly lead to disaster." That's why it's better to react harshly at the beginning and then relax, he said. "There are no second chances with Delta," is his opinion.

There is also agreement from the Australian side: according to epidemiologist Ivo Mueller, who works at the Wehi Medical Research Institute in Melbourne, the New Zealand method of responding hard early will wipe out the outbreak, as he explains in a video phone call. This sounds "extreme" but is ultimately better economically, the expert says.

The New Zealand method is being watched around the world, and it is also meeting with approval in the country itself: for example, thousands of comments are gathering under the government leader's Facebook post supporting the politician's approach. "This will prevent us from ending up like Sydney," writes Diana Edwards, for example. Others thank Ardern for her commitment and clear communication. New Zealander Mhairi Fraser comments, "Waimate cancer patient - thank you for responding so quickly."

Encouraging sayings also circulate on the Internet, such as, "We're isolating ourselves today so no one will be missing when we get back together." Even controversial German entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, who has lived in New Zealand for years, is rallying support for New Zealand's no-covid strategy via Twitter: "Dear Kiwis, we are a solid team. Let's get this done," he writes.

But as rosy as New Zealand's pandemic response sounds at first glance - an ever-responsive, empathetic prime minister, a motivated, obedient people - the first cracks are starting to appear behind the "euphonious slogans," as Oliver Hartwich puts it. Hartwich is director of the think tank New Zealand Initiative and has lived in the capital, Wellington, for almost ten years. In an e-mail, the commentator immediately lists a number of weaknesses in pandemic management: the insufficient capacity for contact tracing, the overbooked quarantine facilities, the lack of a digital vaccination certificate. That the country has come through the pandemic so successfully so far can be attributed more to a dose of "luck," the country's remoteness and low population density, Hartwich says.

Another problem, in his eyes, is the vaccination campaign: "The vaccine doses weren't ordered until February, by which time Israel was almost done vaccinating." So far, only about one-third of the nearly five million New Zealanders have received a vaccine dose, and about 20 percent have been fully vaccinated.

"New Zealand could deal much more calmly with the cases that are now occurring if vaccination had been better and faster," Hartwich says. In his eyes, it is even more incomprehensible that the government even briefly suspended vaccinations during the lockdown. "Actually a scandal," finds the New Zealand expert. "After all, there was enough time to prepare for exactly this case."

Photo by Liam Shaw


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