Justin Giovanetti is editor at New Zealand news outlet The Spinoff and .
On the morning of 17 August, I lined up at the University of Auckland with more than two dozen people to greet a line of strangers at a workshop about New Zealand’s indigenous Māori population. as part of the traditional hongi Greetings, we touched the nostrils one by one, and paused for a moment, sharing one breath. There were no masks and an elder joked that COVID-19 had gone so long that hongi was fine again.
Waves of COVID-19 were wreaking havoc around the world, but life was back to normal in New Zealand. It had been more than a year since most parts of the country were under lockdown. Masks had disappeared from city streets, physical distancing requirements were removed and strict border controls were enforced to keep the virus out.
But at the time, there were more than 100 cases of people with the highly contagious Delta variant passing through the streets of the country’s largest city, Auckland. No one knew this yet. I was in the heart of the city at the workshop, surrounded by thousands of masked and unvaccinated students. Coincidentally, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was seen next door and people were taking selfies with her.
Two hours later, the country became aware of the first community-transmitted case in months and almost immediately went into its strictest lockdown. The next day, headlines all over the world screamed that New Zealand had closed down after a single case. While technically true, it missed the context. Getting COVID-19 was not something that usually happened in New Zealand. The country is a group of islands at the bottom of the world. The border is closed to all, but there are crowds of people who have to spend two weeks in secure facilities to isolate. A single case, a merchant in the suburbs, meant a trail of cases yet to be traced. Within two weeks, there were more than 1,000 infections in the country’s worst outbreak to date.
With its geographic isolation, the mainstay of New Zealand’s COVID-19 strategy was known as eradication. The term “COVID-zero” is not used locally. The object of elimination is the detection, inclusion and stamping of cases. It was very popular. Supported by all parties in parliament, Ms Ardern became one of the country’s most popular politicians, and her Labor Party won a majority government under a proportional-electoral system that had never formed a majority before.
For over a year, the elimination worked great. Cases slowly leaked from border facilities. In one instance, a watchman used a lift until a positive case was detected and he brought it home and the infection spread without being detected. It took weeks of intense public and government investigation to sort out what went wrong with each individual case. This happened more than a dozen times and each time the infection was snuffed out.
The results were overwhelmingly positive. As of August in the populous country of British Columbia, only 27 people had died of COVID-19, and only 3,000 cases, more than half of whom had returned at the border. The economy fully reopened and the unemployment rate fell to 4 percent. Most New Zealanders don’t know anyone who knows someone who has had COVID-19. It was not a factor in daily life.
All that has changed now. Since that day in August, the coronavirus has spread in Auckland. While the number of active cases has dropped below 300 in recent weeks, the delta version continues to spread and new pockets of cases are emerging. By the time a case is found, it has already gone to the other person. It is a strange game, while Auckland, home to a third of the country’s population, is under partial lockdown. Eating inside restaurants has been closed, factories and construction sites have been closed and masks and physical distancing are now ubiquitous. The great stretch of Kiwi normalcy is over.
On Monday, Ms Ardern acknowledged That New Zealand would not be able to eliminate the Delta. The plan is now one of suppression, to keep case numbers as low as possible. The border remains closed and the race to vaccinate faster than the virus spreads. The story is similar in Australia as well.
New Zealand players still agree on what the end of elimination means. One of the country’s top public-health experts has lamented the prospect of permanent loss of life without restrictions. Ms Ardern is a gifted speaker, but the announcement was a shock and widely seen as the worst performance of her premiership. The rules she unveiled were vague and she went unnoticed by journalists’ questions.
The abandonment of strategy has pleased very few people. The prime minister’s closest aides were astonished to wonder why he had waved the white flag when the finish line seemed very close. He was called several times to reverse course. National unity has also been shattered in the face of the pandemic as his political opponents and business leaders have criticized the government for not unveiling a plan for the future that eases restrictions and reopens the world.
The end of the eradication strategy means the debate has now veered toward the country’s biggest failure: its weak vaccination programme. As of August only 19 percent of New Zealanders were fully vaccinated; Now 41 percent have both jobs. Due to a mix of complacency and incompetence, the government was unwilling to launch a mass campaign before the arrival of the Delta version. Officials had argued in previous months that slowing down was the moral choice when other countries needed it more urgently. It is now expected that 90% of the population will be vaccinated by Christmas.
The future of the country is uncertain now. It seems New Zealand is wrapping up a year of overseas conflicts in a matter of weeks. There have been anti-lockdown protests since August, vaccine misinformation has surfaced on social media and debate has sprung up over whether people may be required to jab and wear masks. The innate certainty of sharing breath with a stranger has been replaced by the uneasiness you need to coexist with this dreaded virus.
Keep your opinion sharp and informed. Receive the Opinion newsletter. .