New Zealand: Okay, it turns out we can't eliminate the virus

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Since the beginning of the pandemic, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been hailed as the champion of the COVID resistance. She has been described as the only world leader to actually “beat” the virus. And to give credit where due, she did produce results. Her country has a population of more than 5 million and they have still only recorded a total of 27 deaths from COVID. But the price they paid for that victory was a steep one. Any time so much as a single case showed up, she locked her people down like they were all on death row. Travel in and out of the country was all but eliminated, with visitors having to be locked up for weeks before they were allowed out in public. When there were no outbreaks in evidence, the Kiwis were allowed to go about with their lives with no restrictions. But now that’s changed. The Delta variant has slipped past the guards and is showing up in a few places. Ardern immediately implemented another set of lockdowns, but now she has been forced to admit that they can’t keep the virus out forever and she will slowly loosen the restrictions and learn to deal with it like everyone else. (Associated Press)

New Zealand’s government acknowledged Monday what most other countries did long ago: It can no longer completely get rid of the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a cautious plan to ease lockdown restrictions in Auckland, despite an outbreak there that continues to simmer.

Since early in the pandemic, New Zealand had pursued an unusual zero-tolerance approach to the virus through strict lockdowns and aggressive contact tracing.

The spread of the Delta variant has been showing up in New Zealand populations described as being “typically more wary of authorities.” These include gang members and homeless people living in transitional housing. In the past, Ardern would have waited until the case numbers were back to zero before lifting the restrictions, but it seems that the cold light of reality has begun to dawn on her.

Most (though not all) of the current cases have been showing up in Aukland, a major population center. They are now up to 1,300 cases, which is still small compared to other countries, but far more than New Zealand is used to seeing. And they simply can’t stamp them all out. The Kiwis have been on lockdown for seven weeks now after the first Delta outbreak showed up, but it hasn’t brought them back to zero.

New Zeland has also been somewhat slow in rolling out the vaccines. They are now up to 65% having at least one shot and 40% being fully vaccinated, but they still have a long way to go. At the same time, there are only so many lockdowns that the country can survive. While the people seem to have mostly been willing to meekly follow the Prime Minister’s orders, her approach has produced some staggering economic impacts. The country’s tourist industry, which formerly accounted for a fair chunk of its economy, has been almost entirely wiped out.

Like nearly every other part of the world, it appears that New Zealand is facing up to the reality that the virus won’t be going away. And you can’t keep trying for a zero-tolerance approach forever. If Ardern can figure out a way to at least keep the Delta outbreak contained to a limited area while she loosens restrictions, they’ll probably still wind up with a far lower infection rate than nearly anywhere else. But when the history books are written on this chapter, the question of whether or not the costs they paid for those numbers was worth it will eventually have to be answered.