I was interviewed by journalist Elie Hunt last week about how we wound up marooned in New Zealand during COVID. In the article I mention that watching the world from here is like when you’re watching a horror movie, except in this case you’re screaming, “Don’t go in the mall!” I expanded on that a little on Twitter.
Dark humor aside, I am sorry every day for the people who are stuck in the US, UK and other countries that are struggling. I’m especially sorry for people who are forced to work in a situation that is dangerous to their health. I’m also so sorry for everyone who has been personally locking down since March, only to have COVID-deniers around them mess it up for everyone. And I, like every foreigner I talk to, cannot adequately express my gratitude to New Zealand for letting us stay.
Here’s What New Zealand Did Right
Because things are so normal in New Zealand, we have the ability to see what works and what ends an outbreak fastest. A combination of luck and skill allowed New Zealand to get through this well. A Nature study shows that the early lockdown was the most important thing New Zealand did. But there’s many other things too, including the kind of lockdown New Zealand did.
- Lockdown. Not some bullshit “malls are open at 20% capacity, nail salons are open, but indoor dining is banned” thing. The more you lock down, the faster it’s over.
New Zealand did a hard lockdown (Level 4) for 33 days. Only grocery stores and drugstores were open. Everyone stayed home, except for going outside to exercise. After a couple of weeks, COVID slowed.
In the next phase (Level 3), restaurants opened for takeaways for 2 weeks. Then life returned to normal because COVID was gone.
There was a brief second outbreak in Auckland. That region returned to Level 3 for a couple of weeks (more on that below), and everything was sorted.
Melbourne’s lockdown initially allowed takeaways and hairdressers to remain open, which may be why it lasted 111 days.
- Financial support for lockdown. New Zealand threw together a lot of different things in order to make sure people didn’t starve or suffer under lockdown. In order to prevent unemployment they massively subsidized wages for any company that asked for it, and those companies that turned out not to need it (a surprising amount!) are paying it back. They gave money to community groups so they could buy the things they saw their community needed: food, wool blankets, winter coats for migrant workers unexpectedly stranded here, whatever. Rather than an attitude of “but what if we give money to someone who doesn’t deserve it?” the government decided “let’s make sure we help everybody, and then later we can get money back from people who didn’t need it.”
- Contact tracing. People check in when they enter shops or other businesses, either using an app or a physical log book. They can be notified and quarantine quickly if a COVID-infected person was there.
We’ve seen it work in real time. NZ had another brief outbreak in Auckland. Because of contact tracing, everyone exposed was tracked down and able to quarantine so they didn’t infect others. Level 3 in Auckland only for 2 weeks. And then everything was back to normal.
- Infected people get quarantine support. This is crucial. If you’re infected, someone does your grocery shopping and brings you food. Yes, even if you’re asymptomatic. In some countries you’re locked in your home; in others you stay at a hotel if you don’t need hospitalization. But either way, the support is there so you’re not forced to leave your house to get what you need.
- Infection control at the border. Every incoming person has to quarantine (“managed isolation”) for 14 days. Yes, every single one, even if they feel fine. Yes, 14, not 10 or 7 or 6. So many people at the border in New Zealand test positive on day 12! And real quarantine, as above. You don’t leave. Someone brings you food three times a day. No going out for takeaways. There are opportunities for supervised exercise outdoors. (Supervised because several people tried to do a runner.)
- Masks. If there is infection in your locale, wear a mask in public until the region is COVID-free. We did here in New Zealand during Levels 4 and 3. It helps.
- Listen to scientists. Dr. Ashley Bloomfield and Dr. Siouxie Wiles here in New Zealand have been great communicators. People trust them.
- Transparency. The government has displayed what is to me (as an American) a shocking level of transparency when it comes to every aspect of COVID-19. I can go to the Ministry of Health COVID-19 section and get incredibly detailed data on infections at the border, and historical infections in New Zealand. Some people here were outraged because the reporting went to every other day over the holidays, which shows the level of expectation here.
No piece works alone. It’s like trying to get fit. You can’t just stop eating cookies and then wonder why your muscles don’t grow, or just do bicep curls and wonder why you can’t run a 4-minute mile. You have to do all the pieces. And have zero tolerance for the virus.