New Zealand’s Rapid Response to New Cases Is What Pandemic Leadership Looks Like

Auckland is under strict restrictions after four new cases of Covid-19 popped up

Credit: Hagen Hopkins / Stringer / Getty Images

On Tuesday, New Zealand confirmed four new coronavirus cases — its first since May 1. That means there were 102 days during which there was no community spread of Covid-19 in the island nation. Within the same period of time, the United States reached record high numbers of new cases. Today the U.S. recorded 48,690.

It’s obvious from the rapid way New Zealand responded to the new cases how the country managed to keep its numbers so low for so long. The night the cases were confirmed, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced in a public address that the city of Auckland, where the new cases were discovered, would be put under Level 3 restrictions on Wednesday. The rest of the country would move to Level 2 lockdown.

In March, New Zealand established a four-level “alert system” of restriction measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, with Level 4 consisting of full lockdown. The levels reflect the likelihood that the disease is not contained.

Level 3 means there’s a “high risk” that the disease isn’t contained. Until Friday, Aucklanders must stay home unless absolutely necessary and wear masks and physically distance when outside their homes. Restaurants and bars are closed, and schools are being shut down immediately.

The restriction measures, Ardern explained, would allow the government to buy time to contact trace (which, she noted, was already underway) and find the origin of the infection. Tracing the origin of an outbreak, she reiterated, is crucial to stop community spread — and put the country back on track to recovery.

“One of the most important lessons we’ve learned from overseas is the need to go hard and go early and stamp out flare-ups to avoid the risk of wider outbreaks,” she said. “As disruptive as it is, a strong and rapid health response remains the best long-term economic response.”

Life in New Zealand had largely returned to normal, the exception being that its borders largely remain closed to international travelers. On Monday, the World Health Organization director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus praised New Zealand as a “a global exemplar” for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

Experts have pointed to Ardern’s swift and decisive response to Covid-19 as a major reason for New Zealand’s success. In mid-March, when the country had confirmed only six cases, she ordered everyone entering the country to quarantine. She described the rules as the strictest in the world (Oxford University’s index of the world’s most stringent government responses agreed) and said, “I make no apologies. This is an unprecedented time.” On March 19, she shut down foreign travel into the country entirely. By March 25, Ardern put the country under Level 4 lockdown. Nearly all businesses were closed and people were restricted from interacting with anyone outside their household. Ardern clearly explained the reasoning behind the four-level alert system in a nationally televised address, and New Zealand’s Ministry of Health has released daily updates on pandemic since the beginning of lockdown.

In an interview with NPR, Siouxsie Wiles, PhD, an associate professor of microbiology in New Zealand, pointed out a defining characteristic of Ardern’s approach. Unlike many other countries, she said, Ardern “never put us on a war footing.” Instead of rallying New Zealanders to “fight,” “beat,” or “defeat” the virus — an approach that’s become common on the world stage — Ardern emphasizes protecting one another. “She talked over and over about us being a team of 5 million and that we all do our part to break these chains of transmission and to eliminate the virus,” Wiles said.

This type of strong, empathetic leadership has largely been absent in the U.S. Granted, there are enormous differences between the countries: their size, their population, their relative connectedness to the rest of the world, and so on. But it’s hard not to imagine how much better the U.S. would have fared had its leadership been willing to listen to what the scientists said: Lock down hard — and fast. Some experts are calling for the U.S. to lock down again, but unlike New Zealand, a second lockdown stateside seems unlikely.

What’s notable to me about New Zealand’s response is that it never got too cocky. Even when its number of new cases flatlined at zero, its leaders still emphasized caution. Monday’s daily update read: “While COVID-19 continues around the world, New Zealand cannot be complacent. Our response to COVID-19 works on the basis that we should be prepared for a case of community transmission, and that that could happen at any time.” New Zealanders are being urged to download the NZ COVID Tracer smartphone app to facilitate contact tracing.

The country’s contact tracers are now attempting to find the source of the outbreak, which has not been linked to international travel in any way. Michael Plank, PhD, a statistics expert at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand told the Wall Street Journal that this “means there could be several links in the chain and a larger number of cases that we don’t yet know about. That’s why it’s important to take swift, decisive action.” There’s little doubt Ardern will deliver.

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.

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