Justin Giovannetti is an editor at the New Zealand news outlet The Spinoff and a former reporter for The Globe and Mail.
On the morning of Aug. 17, I lined up at an Auckland university with more than two dozen people to greet a line of strangers at a workshop about New Zealand’s Indigenous Maori population. As part of the traditional hongi greeting, we touched noses, one-by-one, and lingered for a moment as we shared a breath. There were no masks and an elder had joked that COVID-19 had been gone so long that the hongi was fine again.
Waves of COVID-19 had been unleashing destruction around the world, but in New Zealand, life was normal. It had been more than a year since most of the country had been in lockdown. Masks had disappeared from city streets, physical-distancing requirements were lifted and strict border controls were enacted to keep the virus out.
But at that moment, there were well over 100 cases of people with the highly infectious Delta variant moving through the streets of Auckland, the country’s largest city. No one knew it yet. I was in the middle of the city at the workshop, surrounded by thousands of unmasked and unvaccinated students. By chance, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was appearing next door and people were taking selfies with her.
Two hours later, the country learned about the first community-transmitted case in months and went into its strictest lockdown nearly immediately. Headlines around the world the next day would scream that New Zealand had shut down after a single case. While technically true, it missed the context. Getting COVID-19 wasn’t something that normally happened in New Zealand. The country is a set of islands at the bottom of the world. The border is closed to all but a trickle of people who have to spend two weeks in secured facilities in order to isolate. A single case, a tradesman in the suburbs, meant a trail of yet-to-be-detected cases. Within two weeks, there were more than 1,000 infections in the country’s worst ever outbreak.
Along with its geographic isolation, the mainstay of New Zealand’s COVID-19 strategy had been known as elimination. The term “COVID-zero” isn’t used locally. The point of elimination is to find cases, contain them and stamp them out. It was very popular. All parties in Parliament supported it, Ms. Ardern became one of the country’s most popular politicians and her Labour Party won a majority government under a proportional-electoral system that had never produced a majority before.
For more than a year, elimination worked exceedingly well. Cases slowly leaked out of border facilities. In one instance, a janitor used an elevator soon after a yet-to-be-detected positive case brought it home and the infection was detected without it spreading. Each individual case led to weeks of intense public and government scrutiny to sort out what had gone wrong. This happened more than a dozen times and each time the infections got snuffed out.
The results were overwhelmingly positive. In a country with the population of British Columbia, as of August, only 27 people had died of COVID-19, and there had been just 3,000 cases, more than half of which were returnees at the border. The economy fully reopened and the unemployment rate fell to 4 per cent. Most New Zealanders don’t know anyone who knows anyone who has had COVID-19. It wasn’t a factor in daily life.
That’s all changed now. Since that day in August, the coronavirus has spread through Auckland. While the number of active cases has plummeted in recent weeks to fewer than 300, the Delta variant keeps spreading and new pockets of cases are appearing. By the time a case is found, it has already moved on to another person. It’s a game of whack-a-mole while Auckland, home to one-third of the country’s population, is in partial lockdown. Dining inside restaurants has been halted, factories and construction sites have been shut down and masks and physical distancing are now ubiquitous. The great stretch of Kiwi normalcy is over.
On Monday, Ms. Ardern conceded that New Zealand won’t be able to eliminate Delta. The plan now is one of suppression, to keep case numbers as low as possible. The border remains closed and a race is on to vaccinate faster than the virus is spreading. The story has been eerily similar in Australia.
New Zealanders are still coming to terms with what the end of elimination means. One of the country’s top public-health experts has described grieving over what is likely the permanent loss of living without restrictions. Ms. Ardern is a gifted orator but the announcement was a shambles and widely seen as the worst performance of her premiership. The rules she unveiled were unclear and she uncharacteristically became dismissive of questions from reporters.
The abandonment of the strategy has left very few people pleased. The Prime Minister’s closest allies were left wondering why she waved the white flag at all when the finish line seemed tantalizingly close. There have been multiple calls for her to reverse course. National unity in the face of the pandemic has also broken as her political opponents and business leaders have criticized the government for not unveiling a plan for the future that eases restrictions and reopens to the world.
The end of the elimination strategy has meant that the debate has now moved on to the country’s biggest failure: It’s lacklustre vaccination program. Only 19 per cent of New Zealanders had been fully vaccinated by August; now 41 per cent have had both jabs. Owing to a mixture of complacency and incompetence, the government wasn’t prepared to begin a mass campaign before the Delta variant struck. Officials had argued in previous months that the slowness was the ethical choice when other countries needed jabs more urgently. The hope now is to vaccinate 90 per cent of the population by Christmas.
The country’s future is now uncertain. New Zealand seems to be compressing a year’s worth of overseas struggles into a few short weeks. Since August there have been anti-lockdown protests, vaccine misinformation has appeared on social media and debates have erupted over whether people can be required to get jabbed and wear a mask. The comfortable certainty that you can share a breath with a stranger has been replaced by the unease that you need to co-exist with this dangerous virus.
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