For 18 months, New Zealand has enjoyed smoking as the small island that could.
- Many New Zealanders have been shocked by the country’s growth from a COVID elimination strategy
- The Pacific Islander community is concerned about ongoing outbreaks and lower vaccination levels
- Analysts say there is political risk in Jacinda Ardern making the change, but also opportunity
The so-called “team of 5 million” has lived under threat of strict and sharp shutdowns in exchange for comfort knowing that it would not have to live with COVID-19 in the community.
And for a while, there was a sense of pride and unity over that approach.
But things have now changed.
On Monday, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was time for the country to move away from the elimination strategy – a huge departure from the approach that much of the country had bought in a long time ago.
“Elimination was important because we did not have vaccines. Now we are doing it so we can start to change the way we do things,” she said.
“We must continue to contain and control the virus as much as possible as we move from a place where we use only heavy restrictions to a place where we use vaccines and everyday public health measures.
“This is a change in approach that we would always make over time. Our Delta outbreaks have accelerated this transition.”
One commenter said the change “felt like a kind of whiplash”.
Another said it was a political and political turning point for the prime minister.
The popularity of elimination in NZ
Mrs Ardern was re-elected in a landslide victory in October, in which Labor secured 50 per cent of the vote and enough seats to form a government alone.
It was a huge endorsement from the Prime Minister and her approach to managing the pandemic to that point.
“Her victory last year … was almost exclusively … a function of the popularity of the elimination strategy and also its success,” Massey University professor of politics Richard Shaw told ABC.
“There has long been a feeling in New Zealand that if there are problems in the outside world, we can throw up barriers and break, which we did last year, so Ardern picked up people who would have been a lifelong national party voters, but who appreciated the strategy and clarity of messages, and now it’s all gone. ”
Professor Shaw said the move from elimination and the confusion surrounding the current messages was a political risk for Mrs Ardern.
“It’s too early to know what kind of impact it would have on her personal popularity or the government in general, but it is … quite a significant moment in contemporary New Zealand politics,” he said.
“The risk unfolds in different ways.
“The obvious risk is that the disease will get out of control … and all the goodwill that Ardern and her government have acquired over the last 18 months will very quickly drip into the sand.”
Auckland a ‘tale of two cities’
Despite the popularity of Mrs Ardern’s initial approach, New Zealand has not been immune to anti-lockdown sentiment and protests.
There have also been calls from New Zealanders stranded abroad and from companies that rely on seasonal workers for the borders to open.
Recently, former Prime Minister and leader of the National Party Sir John Key wrote an opinion piece calling for a new strategy that would see the “complacent hermit” in New Zealand rejoin the global community.
“Some people may want to continue the North Korean opportunity. I am not one of them,” he wrote.
The latest outbreak, which began in August, kept Auckland residents below alert level 4 restrictions for five weeks.
These are some of the strictest lockdown conditions in the world, banning food and coffee from picking up and closing all businesses that are not considered necessary – effectively placing everyone under quarantine.
For the country’s most populous city, it was a serious blow to the economy and one that has not given up.
Auckland then moved to alert level 3. The city is now under settings that sit somewhere between level 3 and level 2, but the number of cases is still rising and the infections are found outside of Auckland.
The Waikato region is below alert level 3 restrictions.
In August, only one case of COVID-19, which had not yet been confirmed as the Delta variant, threw the whole country into a level 4 lock4.
Yesterday, there were 29 new cases of community transfer, while no regions in the country were under the strictest lockdown.
And today that number rose again, with another 44 cases of COVID-19 found in the community.
“For many New Zealanders, it will take some time to adapt to the reality of having to switch from a strict elimination strategy to a differently calibrated strategy due to the change in the nature of the virus, because we have had 18 months of one story, which is, ‘We can remove it, ” said Professor Shaw.
Maori and Pacific people have lower vaccination rates and higher health complications. Pacific people represented nearly 60 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the August eruption.
Auckland councilor and Samoan community representative Efeso Collins said his community was not ready to move away from the elimination strategy.
“We are concerned. There is still a high degree of fatigue in South Auckland because we know the outbreaks have occurred here and because we are presenting for co-morbidities, we know we are going to be the most affected in any outbursts, “he said.
“Unlike the other sides of Auckland, which are eager to get out of and get in touch with people. It’s a difficult balancing act when you mainly have a tale of two cities.”
Collins said he feared it would be vulnerable communities that would have the increased risk that came with living with the virus.
“I think this is a real goal for our humanity,” he said.
“We pander a bit to the richer middle class in Auckland. They have not experienced the level of loss and anguish that we have in southern Auckland, so they do not know what we are going through.”
Vaccinations across NZ
When the Prime Minister announced the transition to the new approach, she pointed entirely to the dependence on vaccines.
“At the beginning of this outbreak, we said we were adopting a method of elimination while we were vaccinating – it was the right choice and the only choice,” she said.
Mrs Ardern said at the time that only 25 per cent of Aucklanders were fully vaccinated, but that figure was now up to 52 per cent.
Yesterday, the New Zealand Ministry of Health also announced that 50 percent of the entire country’s eligible population was now fully vaccinated.
Experts called for clarity on the strategy going forward, saying that immunity was not yet high enough to prevent widespread societal transfer.
“The change in tack that the government signaled means that it really is a matter of time before COVID finds its way to all corners of New Zealand,” said Michael Plank of the University of Canterbury COVID-19 models.
“As we move from an elimination to an oppression strategy, the government will have to tread a very narrow path to avoid overpowering our hospitals.
“As vaccination rates rise, restrictions can be gradually eased, but if we relax too much, there is a risk that the number of admissions may begin to spiral out of control.”
A leading intensive care physician has said that New Zealand did not have enough ICU beds for business as usual.
Vaccination is required to enter NZ
As New Zealand enters a new phase of its pandemic response, Australia plans to open its borders.
From the end of April to the end of July this year, the so-called “green zone” flights between Australia and New Zealand flew in a travel bubble, with the occupants getting off the plane and into the community, bypassing hotel quarantine.
But a month into the Delta eruption in New South Wales, Mrs Ardern said the risk had become too great and the bubble would be suspended.
A spokesman for the New Zealand Ministry of Prime Minister and Cabinet said a review of the suspension would take place in mid to late November.
“This will give New Zealand time to ensure that our vaccination rates rise,” they said.
“Free quarantine travel was established on the grounds that there was little or no Community transfer in both countries.”
Currently, people can only enter New Zealand from Australia on “red zone” flights before going into hotel quarantine. Some of these travelers will soon face additional conditions.
“Full vaccination will be a requirement for non-New Zealand citizens aged 17 and over arriving in the country from November 1,” the department spokesman said.
While New Zealanders are looking for clarity around the next, and Mrs Ardern is trying to reassure them, Professor Shaw says there is “an option” as well.
“One thing we know about Ardern is that she’s very, very good at risk moments. She knows how to tell a crisis point,” he said.
“This is the moment of greatest risk in the last 18 months for her, but I would not underestimate her ability to communicate through this and to take a significant wedge of public support with her.”
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