The Curious Case of New Zealand's Second Coronavirus Outbreak

In early-August 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 is in Auckland, which is New Zealand’s most populous city with around 1.5 million residents. The area has gone back into a level three two-week lockdown, which means that people must stay at home other than for essential movement, schools are operating at limited capacity, and public venues remain closed. 

Five New Cases

Heightened restrictions were due to end today, August 26. However, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has extended the measures until Sunday, potentially due to the fact that five fresh cases have been recorded in the past 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 remains under level two restrictions which prohibit gatherings of over 100 people.

The plight of New Zealand has highlighted just how quickly everything can change. Prior to the recent outbreak, New Zealand, which is home to 5 million people, had less than 30 active infections and all were being managed in isolation facilities. The country has now registered a total of 1,344 COVID-19 cases, and it’s said that 134 of those are currently active. To date, 22 people have died of coronavirus-related complications.

Tough Border Controls & Mass Testing

The new outbreak comes 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 to be Part of the New 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, face masks will be mandatory on all public transport. To make this possible, the government has dispatched 3 million masks to communities that are not in a position to buy their own. Health Minister Chris Hipkins has also said that authorities would begin testing asymptomatic patients over the next week to help ensure that the extent of the current outbreak has been identified. 

This fresh outbreak has 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. The PM warned that she expects to see more cases and that lifting restrictions now and seeing an explosion of cases would be the worst thing to do for the people of Auckland and New Zealand’s economy. 

She said, “We have got rid of COVID before...we can do all that again.”