Battling Delta, New Zealand abandons zero-Covid ambitions
AUCKLAND, New Zealand – For a year and a half, New Zealand pursued a ‘zero Covid’ strategy, closing its borders and quickly implementing lockdown measures to control the coronavirus, a policy it maintained even for the transition of other Asia-Pacific countries to coexist with the viral threat.
New Zealand gave in on Monday.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged the end of the elimination strategy seven weeks after the start of a lockdown that failed to stop an outbreak of the Delta variant, announcing that restrictions would be gradually lifted in Auckland, the largest city in the country.
“We are moving from our current strategy to a new way of doing things,” Ms. Ardern told reporters. âWith Delta, going back to zero is incredibly difficult, and our restrictions alone are not enough to get it done so quickly. In fact, for this outbreak, it is clear that long periods of strong restrictions have not allowed us to reach zero cases. “
âWhat we called a long tail,â she added, âlooks more like a tentacle that has been incredibly difficult to shake. “
Overall, New Zealand’s approach to the virus has been a spectacular success, giving it one of the lowest case and death rates in the world, and allowing its population to live without restrictions for most of the pandemic.
But the mood among many in Auckland has deteriorated as the most recent lockdown is prolonged, with thousands breaking a stay-at-home order on Saturday to protest the restrictions at the largest protest in this type of the country against the pandemic.
The country’s immunization program has also been a source of consternation. The campaign only started in earnest last month, and less than half of people 12 and older have been fully immunized, leaving New Zealand far behind most developed countries.
Ms Ardern began to acknowledge public discontent two weeks ago, when she announced, after more than a month of a very restrictive stay-at-home order, that some rules would be relaxed in Auckland even though a large part of the foreclosure order remained in effect. place. Around 200,000 people have been allowed to return to work and restaurants and cafes could reopen for take out orders.
At the time, Ms Ardern said the country was still trying to eliminate the virus. But for epidemiologists, who believed it was still possible to beat Delta and encouraged New Zealand to stick to the zero-Covid strategy, it was a gamble.
Now, they say, it’s clear that the easing of restrictions has ended any chance of eliminating the virus again. New Zealand is still reporting dozens of new cases a day, almost all in Auckland, after the last outbreak began in mid-August.
“The modeling was basically saying going to level 3 was going to be a big risk,” said David Welch, a Covid-19 modeler at the Center for Computational Evolution at the University of Auckland, referring to moving away from level 4 , the highest alert. level.
âIt turned out that elimination will not work at level 3,â he said. âIt’s not that surprising, just because Delta is so transferable. The question now is: will level 3 be enough to contain it with less than 20, 30, 40, 50 cases per day for a while? “
A more permissive approach, Dr Welch said, could allow the number of cases to rise much more, letting the epidemic run out of control.
To prevent such a spread of the virus, epidemiologists said Aucklanders would likely still face up to two months of lockdown. This will leave them in limbo much like those experienced by Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne, where executives have said they are abandoning a zero Covid approach but left heavy restrictions in place.
Singapore has also moved on to what it calls living with the virus, using metrics such as hospitalizations and deaths instead of the number of cases to guide its reopening now that it has vaccinated much of its population. The shift in strategy by Singapore and other countries in the region has left China as perhaps the last major country to pursue a Covid-zero approach.
On Monday, Ms Ardern proposed a three-step card out of lockdown, with the aim of “making everyday life a little easier”.
From Tuesday, Auckland residents, for the first time since August, will be allowed to meet members of other households outside. Younger children will return to classrooms and there will be a more permissive approach to outdoor exercise in city parks, nature reserves and beaches.
To completely move away from lockdowns, New Zealand will need to carry out a widespread vaccination, Ms Ardern said. Some 79 percent of people 12 and older received at least one dose, and 48 percent received two doses, according to data from the Department of Health. Fully immunizing the population – New Zealand’s stated goal – could take months as the country struggles to persuade the remaining 20% ââto receive a first dose of a vaccine.
The most at-risk communities in the country are also the least vaccinated. While more than 95% of people of Asian descent and 80% of white people have received at least one dose, the figure drops to around 73% for Pacific Islanders and less than 57% for Maori.
Minimizing the Auckland epidemic has been complicated by a surge of cases among vulnerable people, including those living in emergency or transitional housing, said Dr Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago.
âWe should have recognized the transmission rooted in marginalized and disadvantaged groups – this is what essentially sustained the epidemic,â he said. “This transmission is relatively impervious to the alert level system and restrictions, as these are people in a precarious situation.”
Some of Auckland’s latest cases have been detected accidentally in hospital wards or after people have been taken into custody, suggesting widespread transmission among people who are not tested.
In a Twitter post, Maori writer and political commentator Morgan Godfery expressed concern about what dropping the elimination strategy could mean for people in disadvantaged communities.
âThe Prime Minister says we now have to live with the virus,â he wrote. âBut the ‘we’ means these same lines of inequality. The virus will now burrow into gangs, the transitional housing community and unvaccinated brunettes. In 2020, Jacinda asked for a shared sacrifice. In 2021, it is a special sacrifice.