The first time that New Zealand thought it had eliminated the coronavirus from its isolated shores, a mysterious outbreak in its largest city shattered any sense of victory over a tenacious foe.
Now, after a second round of strict lockdown, the country believes — if a bit more tentatively this time — that it has effectively stamped out the virus once again.
On Wednesday, New Zealand moved to lift the last of its restrictions in Auckland after 10 days with no new cases linked to a cluster that first surfaced in August. The government will now allow unrestricted gatherings, and trips on public transit without social distancing or masks, in the city of 1.6 million people.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is facing reelection next week, called the reopening a validation of the country’s “go hard, go early” response. The strategy is aimed at eradicating the virus with a swift, science-based policy, one that trades weeks of lockdown and sacrifice for an emergence to full economic activity.
“Our team of 5 million, a little more battle-weary this time, did what national teams do so often. We put our heads down, and we got on with it,” Ardern told reporters in Christchurch on Monday as she announced that the restrictions would be loosened, referring to the total number of people in New Zealand.
“You only had to look around the world to see the alternative to our approach here in New Zealand,” she said, adding that there was a 95% probability that the country had eliminated local transmission of the virus.
Experts cautioned that New Zealand’s small population and isolation meant it was uniquely positioned to manage the disease. But its success presents a stark contrast to many other parts of the world as deaths from the pandemic have surpassed 1 million.
India is being devastated by the virus after proceeding with its economic reopening even as a second wave washed over the country. In the United States and Brazil, leaders have continued to play down the pandemic’s dangers even as they themselves have been infected.
The word “elimination” in relation to the virus, said Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago, “might stick in the throat for some politicians, because it seems too tough, but as we found in New Zealand, it’s a goal you aim for, and you accept you might have outbreaks.”
Baker helped devise the country’s elimination strategy. He said that despite early fears that severe lockdowns would irreparably damage the economy, New Zealand’s approach had proved that the best economic response was a strong public health response, including a blitz of testing, contact tracing and quarantining.
Much of the rest of the Western world, Baker added, has “adopted the approach of complacent exceptionalism — that they wouldn’t get the virus, or it wouldn’t be as severe as they thought, and the pandemic has proved them wrong.”
In Auckland, where gatherings had been restricted to 100 people and masks had been mandated on public transport, the rules were eased at 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday. People are no longer required to wear masks in public but must continue to sign in at and keep records of locations they visit, maintain good hygiene practices and, if unwell, remain at home and get tested for the virus. The national border remains closed to almost all travelers except New Zealand citizens and permanent residents.
While residents said they were relieved, they did not expect an immediate return to normal life.
“People have stayed in their suburbs and supported their local restaurants, so where in the past I was in a really good spot, now not so much,” said Yael Shochat, who has run Ima Cuisine, a restaurant in downtown Auckland, for almost two decades.
“But the most important thing is we have eliminated the virus again, and that makes people confident to come out,” Shochat said. “I’m hoping that as Christmas comes, people will really want to go out and party — it’s been a horrible year.”
Others said they had been frustrated at restrictions that seemed too stringent, preventing them from applying for visas or doing work considered nonessential by the government. And some who acknowledged that the measures were necessary said they felt that not enough had been done to assist them.
“I can’t get any help from the government,” said Sherrie Edwards, 51, who after losing her job as an importer in recent months said she feared that she might have to sell her home to make ends meet. Edwards said she was feeling “quite depressed.”
While the economic pain has been acute for many, New Zealand has kept the number of cases and deaths from the coronavirus low. The country has had 1,505 confirmed cases and 25 deaths in total, and as of Wednesday, just three new cases of the virus had been recorded, all of them people still in quarantine after arriving from overseas.
The numbers have worked in Ardern’s favor, placing her ahead in the polls before the country’s elections Oct. 17.
“I was always leaning toward Labor, but this has well and truly solidified it for me,” said Christopher Carroll, a 31-year-old primary school teacher in Auckland, referring to the party that Ardern leads. “I feel like we’re in a better situation than in other parts of the world, where this thing is going on and on.”
Two months ago, however, many in the country wondered whether that success would continue.
The Auckland cluster, the country’s largest, involved 179 cases. At the same time in neighboring Australia, its second-largest city, Melbourne, was in the grip of a severe second wave from which it is only now emerging. And although disease detectives struggled to pin down the origins of the Auckland outbreak, the country was ultimately able to quash it through a citywide lockdown that began the day after the first cases emerged.
New Zealand is not alone in successfully pursuing an elimination strategy, with Taiwan among those following the model. And other places, including Hong Kong and Vietnam, have stamped out second or third waves. But experts said this approach would not necessarily work everywhere.
“They’ve never had a major outbreak where the number of cases have overwhelmed their public health capacity,” Adam Kamradt-Scott, an associate professor of global health at the University of Sydney, said of New Zealand.
He added that even though the country’s size, isolation and disaster preparedness gave it distinct advantages, an elimination strategy may not be viable in the absence of a vaccine.
Michael Plank, a mathematics and statistics professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, said that until that time, it would be wise for New Zealanders to continue wearing masks — even if the virus appeared to have been defeated.
“We need to be really careful not to let our guard down,” Plank said. “We think we’ve got a high chance now that we’ve eliminated community transmission of the virus. But that doesn’t mean it won’t come back.”