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People gather in front of Auckland War Memorial museum to rally against lockdowns on Oct. 2, 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand.

Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

New Zealand is not a pandemic failure. Far from it.

The tiny island country has been getting a lot of grief in recent days for abandoning its much-ballyhooed “COVID Zero” strategy – but it hasn’t exactly thrown in the towel.

While Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has conceded that, given the infectiousness of the Delta variant and random cases seemingly popping out of nowhere, having zero cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand is no longer a realistic prospect.

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But when there is a case – and there were an “alarming” 35 of them on Monday – the country will continue its merciless contact tracing to ensure outbreaks are small, contained and brief.

Essentially, the philosophy has evolved (or devolved) from elimination to suppression.

While that shift is subtle – almost semantic – it has caused a great deal of angst.

New Zealanders, unlike citizens in many other countries, have generally been extremely supportive of lockdowns and other severe pandemic restrictions. Then again, these inconveniences have been rare because there have been so few cases.

The recent seven-week lockdown of Auckland, the country’s largest city, was a bit different though. It failed to stem a surge in cases, and sparked a rare protest.

“Surge,” of course, is a relative term: In New Zealand, it means a couple of dozen cases a day, which is a hiccup by the standards of most Western countries.

The Pacific country, with its total population of five million, has recorded fewer than 4,500 cases and 27 deaths since the pandemic began in early 2020. By comparison, Canada is currently seeing roughly the same counts every day. B.C., with roughly the same population as New Zealand, is by Canadian standards a success story; it has registered more than 191,000 COVID-19 cases, and just short of 2,000 deaths to this point. The numbers are 50 per cent worse in neighbouring Alberta, despite its smaller population.

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Early in the pandemic, there was some debate about the wisdom of embracing a COVID Zero strategy in Canada, but it was never considered a serious option. There was a combination of a sense of inevitability of the spread of coronavirus, and a naive assumption that it would pass quickly.

Meanwhile, most provinces (that is, those west of New Brunswick) have insisted on doing as little as possible for as long as possible, with predictable results: the novel coronavirus not only gained a foothold, but came back again, in wave after wave.

New Zealand, for its part, has had dribbles. Of course, it has a geographic advantage, being comprised of a collection of islands. But the country strictly controlled its borders from the get-go, and built almost hermetically sealed quarantine centres.

Just as importantly, when cases did inevitably leak out, they were hunted down systematically. Canada never took contact tracing seriously and has, for all intents and purposes, long ago abandoned it.

The pursuit of COVID Zero was always aspirational, and became more so as the pandemic lingered and grew.

The only country still pursuing a COVID Zero policy is China, and who knows if the data they publish are a true reflection of what’s really happening.

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But before the I-told-you-so chorus gets too self-righteous about the “failure” of New Zealand’s COVID Zero approach, they should be reminded that while the country may not have succeeded fully, it benefited tremendously from its bold goals.

The country, unlike most of the world, has had 19 months of almost-normal life. The lockdowns that did occur were short and sharp. There was no overwhelming of hospitals. The economy barely felt a blip.

The challenge New Zealand now faces is that it is lagging on vaccination. Only 47 per cent of the eligible population has received two doses. But 77 per cent have received at least one dose, which is a better rate than in the COVID-ravaged United States.

If New Zealand embraces vaccination the way it did COVID-19 suppression, it should be fine. It will no doubt see a slight rise in cases, and likely a few deaths, but the country as a whole will still remain well ahead of the pack globally.

With apologies to John Donne, New Zealand’s experiment taught us that in the face of a global pandemic, no island is an island. But it also left us with a crucial lesson about pandemic suppression: It is better to have tried and “failed,” than to not have tried at all.

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