New Zealand's tough approach to the pandemic

Been swapping notes with friends far away on what’s been happening during the COVID-19 pandemic where they are and how their country has responded.

A good friend from high school has been living in Auckland, New Zealand, for the past 20 years. I reached out to her after reading a Washington Post story earlier this week with the headline “New Zealand isn’t just flattening the curve – it’s squashing it.”

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How? 

With as my friend called it, “one of the most draconian lockdowns in the world.”

Going to the beach? Not allowed.

Going out to the bush or the lake? Not allowed.

Strict limits on the number of people at any time in public spaces, not just in stores but also outdoors.

This is all part of a four-week national lockdown ordered by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, not to contain the spread of the coronavirus but to eliminate it.

“I'm happy for the lockdown but they've gone a bit too far, I think,” my friend wrote. “Not allowed to drive 1 km away to visit a park or let dogs off lead anywhere etc. Cops everywhere stopping people a km from their homes to confirm they are either only going for food or meds. Etc.”

New Zealand reported just its second death on Good Friday – a woman in her 90s – and its first fatality since a woman in her 70s with underlying conditions died on March 29. 

With 44 new cases reported Thursday, there are 1,283 confirmed cases in all of New Zealand, 16 in hospital and five in intensive care, two of those in critical condition. On the positive side, there were 56 confirmed recoveries Thursday. New Zealand has been consistently reporting more recoveries than new confirmed cases each day since the lockdown began March 25.

That’s impressive for a country of 4.8 million, about 300,000 fewer people than B.C. 

Here in B.C. alone, there have been 50 deaths as of Thursday, with 1,373 confirmed cases, 132 in the hospital and 68 of those people in intensive care.

When I told my friend it’s easy to lockdown an isolated island nation that’s three times smaller than B.C. and would be virtually impossible to lockdown B.C. or Canada because of its relative size and sparse population, she disagreed.

“Although we are physically smaller, we still have police enforcing not leaving neighborhoods in a city of 1.5 million, a big, sprawling city. So if that can be done, it can be done in Canada, at least in many places. The police here said because everyone is home, there is less policing they need to do so they have the time and manpower to do it. They have been advised to take a "softly, softly" approach however. I believe the limited defences forces have been given the power to back up the police but it hasn't been needed.”

There will be a lot of comparisons made between countries when all of this is over, looking at both the successful cases – of which New Zealand at this point is clearly one. New Zealand acted early, quickly and decisively. It implored its residents to band together (the “softly, softly” approach my friend spoke of) and backed that up with law enforcement. 

Meanwhile, this weekend in B.C., there are many people driving around to cabins or lakes or to the backcountry for some spring snowmobiling. There are ferries full of people going to and from Vancouver Island. Visitors from Alberta are pouring into the province for spring getaways.

In New Zealand, those Albertans would have been greeted at the border and promptly turned around.

In New Zealand, highway checkpoints would be stopping people from driving out to the lakes, to their cabins, to those great backcountry sledding spots.

Is New Zealand overreacting?

It’s too early to judge but one thing is clear. 

Regardless of how you feel about New Zealand’s response, it has been far more effective at saving lives and stopping the spread of the virus than Canada and B.C.’s more cautious approach.

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