New Zealand’s Zero Covid trap
Attempts to eradicate the virus are doomed to failure.
If you are one of the 4,060 people who live in Balclutha on New Zealand’s South Island, you are forbidden from visiting friends or family, sitting down at a café, taking your child to a playground or school, or going to work (unless you are a key worker). You can’t even get vaccinated, as New Zealand has briefly suspended its vaccine rollout so it can ‘take place in a safe environment’, free of Covid. All this because, over 900 miles and a 22-hour drive away in Auckland, one case of Covid was discovered. Yes: one case was all it took to send the whole of New Zealand into a snap three-day lockdown, and the entire city of Auckland into a seven-day lockdown.
Granted, the Delta variant is extremely infectious. The new case – which is likely a Delta case – has already been linked to a number of other new cases. There will likely be more in the next few days. But to rob healthy people of their livelihoods, even when they are nearly a thousand miles away from the ‘hotspot’, is an extraordinary overreach.
To defend this lockdown, people point to New Zealand’s pitifully low vaccination rate. Less than 35 per cent of New Zealand’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, and less than 20 per cent has been fully vaccinated. In comparison, the UK has fully vaccinated around 60 per cent of the population.
Much like in Australia, New Zealanders have been fed the false promise of ‘Zero Covid’ for so long that they are complacent about getting vaccinated. The new case that sparked the lockdown was New Zealand’s first case of transmission within the community in six months. Why get vaccinated if there is next to no risk of catching Covid? If a case emerges, the government will just lock the country down anyway.
A popular view is that once New Zealand is vaccinated to the same level as the UK, no national lockdown will be needed. In the meantime, the vulnerable population must be protected. But in this scenario, suspending the vaccination programme sends the signal that even government-run vaccination clinics are petri dishes of Covid. This is both counterintuitive and dangerous.
Can vaccination really chart a course out of the Zero Covid nightmare? When you decide that any number of Covid cases should lead to a nationwide lockdown, the level of vaccination becomes almost irrelevant to the enforcement of the Zero Covid policy.
Widely vaccinated Britain recorded 26,852 new cases on Tuesday. For New Zealand to experience a similar infection rate, it would need to record around 1,900 cases per day. After 18 months of being told that a single case of Covid is an existential threat to New Zealand, will even a vaccinated public accept 1,900 cases per day without locking down? As evidence emerges that even fully vaccinated people can be infected with Covid and pass it on to others, it seems unlikely.
Here is the reality of Zero Covid laid bare. There is no escape. If eliminating Covid is the goal, there is no end to lockdowns, no end to restrictions and no end to the constant fear that, at any time, your freedoms will be taken away and your life will be put on hold. Your country can be largely free of the virus for six months, but when one person in a city you have never been to tests positive, lockdown returns. New Zealand will leave this lockdown, but the fear of the next one will remain until the government and the people shake themselves out of this Zero Covid fantasy.
Brits were told to look to Australia and New Zealand as the gold standard for dealing with Covid in 2020. In 2021, Australia and New Zealand are falling way behind. Britain has shown that even with over 26,000 cases in a single day, you can still live with the virus. Locked-down Aucklanders will be able to watch packed British football stadiums full of maskless fans on their TVs this weekend, while they are forbidden from visiting their neighbours. New Zealand is living in a Zero Covid fantasy land. Britain is living in the real world.
England’s ‘Freedom Day’ came on 19 July and, overall, the government has lived up to its end of the deal. It is time for New Zealand to set a date for its own ‘Freedom Day’. Let’s pick a date by which every New Zealand adult will have had time to get vaccinated, and when the health service will be prepared to deal with outbreaks. That’s the date when restrictions must go. New Zealanders who are not vaccinated by then will have had their chance and will have made up their own mind about the threat Covid poses to them – as should be their right. And if that date has to be a long time away due to lack of vaccine supply or an inability to build medical infrastructure, then New Zealanders will know their government has failed them. A date, at the very least, will give people some light at the end of the tunnel.
Zero Covid was always a fantasy. As long as the government tries in vain to wipe the virus out, New Zealand will continue to suffer.
James Bolt is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs.
Picture by: Getty.
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