On February 26, New Zealand imported the first known case of COVID-19 and the last case has been detected on May 1. The elimination of the deadly virus took 65 days. Whilst the other countries are still unable to control the community transmission of the Coronavirus, here is how New Zealand took stock of the situation:-
Collectively, these measures have achieved low case numbers and deaths compared with high-income countries in Europe and North America that pursued a suppression strategy.
As far as New Zealand is concerned, the country is one of a small number of jurisdictions – including mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia, Australia and Fiji – pursuing COVID-19 containment or elimination. Most have had new outbreaks. The exceptions are Taiwan, Mongolia, Fiji and New Zealand.
Just like New Zealand, Australia also adopted very similar responses to the pandemic and it is imperative to note that most states and territories are in the same position as New Zealand. However, Victoria and, to a lesser extent, New South Wales are seeing a significant resurgence.
Unlike other countries, the key difference is that New Zealand committed relatively early to a clearly articulated elimination strategy and pursued it aggressively. An intense lockdown proved highly effective at rapidly extinguishing the virus.
A vigorous, decisive response to the pandemic was highly effective at minimising cases and deaths.
Total all-cause deaths also dropped during the lockdown. This observation suggests it did not have severe negative effects on health, although it will almost certainly have some negative long-term effects.
Elimination of the virus appears to have allowed New Zealand to return to near-normal operation fairly rapidly, minimised economic damage compared with Australia. But the economic impact is likely to keep playing out over the coming months.
Without effective control measures, COVID-19 is likely to continue to spread globally for many months to years, ultimately infecting billions and killing millions. This infection also causes serious long-term consequences for some survivors. In such a scenario, the knowledge reinforces the huge benefits of sustaining elimination. Now people are aware that if New Zealand were to experience widespread COVID-19 transmission, the impact on Māori and Pasifika populations could be catastrophic.
Maintaining elimination depends on adopting a highly strategic approach to risk management. This approach involves choosing an optimal mix of interventions and using resources in the most efficient way to keep the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks at a consistently low level. Several measures can contribute to this goal over the next few months, while also allowing incremental increases in international travel.
New Zealand cannot change the reality of the global COVID-19 pandemic. But it can leverage possible benefits.
An official inquiry into the COVID-19 response should be conducted so that people learn everything they possibly can to improve their response capacity for future events.
A specialised national public health agency should be developed to manage serious threats to public health and provide critical mass to advance public health generally.
Business as usual should not be an option for the recovery phase. A recent Massey University survey suggests seven out of ten New Zealanders support a green recovery approach.
New Zealand’s elimination of COVID-19 has drawn attention worldwide and a lot can be learnt from the country’s handling of the virus.