New Zealand is set to reopen its economy next week, following a complete lockdown in late March due to the novel coronavirus.
As of April 27, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the country will move to ease its strict work restrictions that saw severely limited travel and all mass gatherings cancelled. By next week, businesses, kindergarten and elementary schools that teach ages 1 to 10 will reopen.
In March, the New Zealand prime minister made the decision to “go hard and go early,” locking down the country after around 100 residents tested positive for COVID-19.
“We have the opportunity to do something no other country has achieved: elimination of the virus,” she told reporters last week. “But it will continue to need a team of five million behind it.”
Experts believe the Canadian government could learn a thing or two from Ardern’s leadership.
Craig Janes, director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, said New Zealand’s quick implementation of travel restrictions and bringing the country to an essential halt “stopped the transmission in its tracks.”
“They acted very quickly before they had too many infections in that country,” Janes said.
Ardern’s strategy appears to have worked.
New Zealand has remained one of a few countries to avoid a widespread outbreak. As of Wednesday, data from Johns Hopkins University showed 1,451 confirmed cases. Only 14 people have died, and cases have dropped from an uptick of 90 per day in April to just five as of Tuesday.
Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccine expert at the University of Auckland, told the Canadian Press the virus “doesn’t have superpowers.”
“Once transmission is stopped, it’s gone.”
Petousis-Harris said the country’s methods, such as its four-level alert system, which clearly outlined the varying degrees of government response to the virus, managed to avoid the confusion and half-measures that have hampered the response in many other places, like Canada or the United States.
“New Zealand got everything right,” she said. “Decisive action, with strong leadership and very clear communications to everybody.”
Timothy Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Public Health, said what New Zealand has managed to achieve is “something quite remarkable.”
Part of their success, he said, can be attributed to their testing diagnostics. He added that New Zealand was able to test citizens faster due to their smaller population.
New Zealand and Taiwan, another country that has successfully mitigated COVID-19, are also champions of temperature screening.
Temperature screening involves a touchless scanner that measures if a person has an elevated body temperature. It can be done anywhere, and results are instant.
Sly said the practice is considered somewhat controversial and unreliable — as it is possible to develop elevated body temperatures without being sick and in the case of COVID-19, many carriers remain asymptomatic. But Sly noted even if it missed half of Canada’s infected, the tests will “at least get half of those people coming into the country.”
With that in mind though, Sly said New Zealand already had a geographical edge over Canada when it came to containing the virus.
New Zealand is a sparsely populated island country of five million people surrounded by water and Antarctica to the south, which Sly said helped their government keep a closer eye on every airport and seaport and prevent community spread.
“The government really got that ability to control or to monitor the borders,” he said. “Almost all of their cases, at least half of their cases coming in, have been traced directly to a source outside of the country.”
Canada, on the other hand, shares its borders with the United States.
“Canada has this huge border with a country to the south that, frankly, isn’t doing very well,” Janes said.
When Canada finally does reopen its economy, Janes said the federal government may run into difficulties controlling reintroduction to the virus, given how interconnected the country is with the U.S. and the number of travellers that regularly cross between borders.
Even then, Sly said he expected social distancing will remain a part of everyday life for some time.
“The bottom line is that the more you do take the lid off and people come out, expect the numbers to increase,” said Sly.
If the government does it carefully, Sly said the numbers will increase slowly without overwhelming Canada’s public health-care system.
If not, “stand back, because about 10 days later you’ll see the case numbers beginning to increase and they’re going to skyrocket way up, just like it did in New York.”
— With files from the Canadian PressView link »