In early-August 2020 the rest of the world looked on in awe as New Zealand celebrated an enviable milestone: 100 days without any community transmitted cases of COVID-19. But, all that changed just a few days later when a fresh coronavirus outbreak occurred seemingly out of nowhere.
The new outbreak’s epicenter was in Auckland, which is New Zealand’s most populous city with around 1.5 million residents. The area went back into a level three two-week lockdown, which meant that people stayed at home other than for essential movement, schools were operating at limited capacity, and public venues remained closed.
Five New Cases
Heightened restrictions were due to end August 26. However, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden extended the measures until the following Sunday, potentially due to the fact that five fresh cases had been recorded in 24 hours. Of those five cases, two of them were imported cases detected in isolation facilities, but three were locally transmitted. Meanwhile, the rest of the country remained under level two restrictions which prohibited gatherings of over 100 people.
The plight of New Zealand highlighted just how quickly everything can change. Prior to the August outbreak, New Zealand, which is home to 5 million people, had less than 30 active infections and all were being managed in isolation facilities. By August, the country had registered a total of 1,344 COVID-19 cases. At the time of writing, 22 people have died of coronavirus-related complications.
Tough Border Controls & Mass Testing
The new outbreak came despite New Zealand’s tough border controls that ban almost all foreigners from entering the island nation. The country has also been praised for its mass testing of thousands of citizens per day. In fact, their handling of the pandemic has been held up globally as an example of how to be victorious in the battle against the pandemic.
Ardern said they had to “go hard, and go early” and she was certainly true to her word. Borders were closed to foreigners on March 19 when there were just 28 confirmed cases, and a nationwide lockdown was implemented at just 102 cases. The strictest rules, which included no takeaways and no beaches, were in place for five weeks, with a further two weeks of looser lockdown after that.
Masks are Part of the New Zealand COVID-19 Strategy
One thing that New Zealand didn’t do at that time of the first outbreak, is to implement the wearing of face masks. Masks were in short supply when the country was going into lockdown, due to them not being part of the country’s culture. And, by the time people were allowed to go out in public and travel outside of their own neighborhood, there were very few coronavirus cases to be concerned with. The country also has no land borders which allowed for better control of who was entering, and it’s not a densely populated place so social distancing is easier than in some hard-hit countries such as India.
However, face masks now feature heavily in the government’s current plans to eradicate the new outbreak. From August 30 last year, face masks are mandatory on all public transport. To make this possible, the government dispatched 3 million masks to communities that were not in a position to buy their own.
This August outbreak prompted the country to postpone its election to allow officials to focus on getting the outbreak under control. Arden remains realistic and resilient: qualities that have made her famous around the world for her admirable handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said, “We have got rid of COVID before...we can do all that again.”