New Zealand declares complete victory over the virus, but is it?

The battle against the novel coronavirus in New Zealand is over and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has declared herself (and the people of her island nation) the victors. The last known patient who tested positive for COVID-19 has recovered and it’s been more than two weeks since the last new case was reported. Since that’s probably outside the maximum incubation period, they may very well have eliminated the virus entirely from the islands, barring some unreported cases in very remote areas. And even those would be unlikely to spur a major flareup if they exist in low-population regions. So now the PM gets to take a victory lap. (Associated Press)

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday she was confident New Zealand has halted the spread of the coronavirus after the last known infected person in the country recovered.

It has been 17 days since the last new case was reported, while 40,000 have been tested in that time. And Monday also marked the first time since late February that there have been no active cases.

Ardern also announced the Cabinet had agreed to another phase of the country’s reopening, to take place at midnight.

“We are confident we have eliminated transmission of the virus in New Zealand for now, but elimination is not a point in time, it is a sustained effort,” she said at a news conference.

As I said above, there’s no reason to doubt the numbers that New Zealand is putting out, even when the number is zero. If they did miss a few people out in the jungle, that’s understandable and shouldn’t prove to be much of a problem going forward. So is that it? Ardern’s strategy of ultimate lockdown and confinement worked?

Well, at this precise moment in time, you’d have to say that the answer is yes. But continuing with her remarks, even the PM acknowledged that “elimination is not a point in time.” If nobody in the entire country has the virus, nobody can give it to anyone else. But that condition is only sustainable for as long as no asymptomatic person from any of the other 194 countries on the planet gets off of a plane and sneezes on someone.

Until such time as there’s a reliable vaccine, New Zealand is virus-free, but they have essentially zero herd immunity. Barely 1,500 people contracted the virus and survived (with 22 dead), so that’s how many people have antibodies in their system out of a population of 4.8 million. And more than fifteen percent of the country’s GDP relies on tourism. They have a plan in place for the time being, but it relies on nobody but citizens entering the country, and even then, everyone is put into a mandatory, supervised quarantine for at least two weeks while remaining under observation.

Let’s say they decide to open their borders for business travelers and tourists again. How many people are going to be interested in spending a week on their beautiful islands if they have to take three weeks off to do it? How many business travelers will be scheduling a trip to take a meeting if they have to sit in a sick ward for two weeks before they are let out to attend?

The other option is to not open up the borders until there’s a vaccine. That probably won’t be until next year, assuming we even have one then. (Not a sure thing by any means at this point.) The nation’s natives will be able to travel freely around the country and take part in all normal activities, but a big chunk of their businesses will remain in the dumps. Is that sustainable? I suppose so, if you consider the economic damage a reasonable tradeoff for not dealing with the pandemic.

If they can keep from falling into a deep, sustained recession, then New Zealand’s formula was apparently a success. Of course, it’s a tiny nation in comparison to most with a small enough population centered in a few locations to manage it. Such a formula would never work in larger nations with multiple land borders.

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