WITH fewer than 100 active confirmed coronavirus cases, New Zealand has almost eliminated the virus. As a result, restrictions were eased further this week, but the country will still be feeling the effects of the covid-19 pandemic for some time yet.
New Zealand was swift to respond to the pandemic, introducing some of the strictest measures in the world on 25 March – a time when the country had recorded only 205 cases and no deaths.
Under the nation's lockdown measures, schools, universities and almost all businesses were shut. People could only leave their homes for essential reasons like buying food, exercising or accessing medical care, and the nation's borders were closed to travellers.
These measures have been highly effective, with only 1497 covid-19 cases and 21 deaths recorded in New Zealand to date. Most people infected with the coronavirus have now recovered, leaving just 76 active cases. Zero new cases were reported on 12 May.
The lockdown was eased slightly on 27 April and will be lifted further on 14 May to allow gatherings of up to 10 people. Workplaces, shops, restaurants and public venues will be able to reopen. Schools are scheduled to open on 18 May, followed by bars on 21 May.
But Michael Baker at the University of Otago in New Zealand says he is nervous about the easing of restrictions because there may be undetected covid-19 cases in the community that could start to spread as people are allowed to mix more freely again.
For the nation to feel confident that it has eliminated covid-19 altogether, says Baker, it will need to have 28 days – equivalent to roughly two incubation cycles of the virus – of no new cases against a backdrop of continued testing.
Even if this goal is attained, the country will still need to be hypervigilant about not letting the virus re-enter, for example, via airline and shipping crews delivering goods from overseas, he says.
New Zealand may escape a health disaster, but the economic impact will still make it difficult for life to return to normal, even when restrictions are lifted, says Martin Berka at Massey University in New Zealand.
The government has already spent more than NZ$10 billion on a wage subsidy scheme to keep people in their jobs during the lockdown, and two of the country's biggest industries – tourism and the education of foreign students – have been shut down. “It's going to hurt a lot,” says Berka.
Another adjustment will be to not travelling overseas, which may be off limits until a vaccine becomes available, says Siouxsie Wiles at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Australia and New Zealand have proposed allowing tourism between the two countries, as Australia also has low covid-19 numbers, but officials say any such measure is a while off yet.
On the other hand, there may be some positive ways in which life will permanently change, says Wiles. “Before this whole thing, a lot of people were told they couldn't work from home or online teaching couldn't be done, but we've found out very quickly that they can,” she says. “If things like work and education become more flexible and equitable because of this, then not going back to normal might actually be for the best.”
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