New Zealand seeks to repeat world-beating Covid response in face of surging cases

In supermarkets and coffee queues, New Zealand’s chins are reappearing. Masks – previously a constant – have become patchy. Once-ubiquitous bottles of hand sanitiser begun to disappear. In some venues, laminated contact-tracing codes are peeling off the walls.

The country, which once embraced snap lockdowns in the face of a single Covid case, has in recent months progressively dropped restrictions and carried on as thousands of people have been infected. Now, looking down the barrel of a rising wave of infections and a growing death toll, New Zealand faces the question of whether it can reclaim its reputation for a world-beating Covid response.

Despite high vaccination rates, that status looks tenuous. According to Johns Hopkins University data, New Zealand is now in the top three countries in the world for average daily confirmed cases per 100,000 people and the top seven for deaths, ahead of Australia, the US and the UK. On a per-capita basis, its Covid deaths have now overtaken Japan’s – a country that rode out the pandemic without lockdowns, but maintained very high mask compliance.

On Thursday, New Zealand reported 11,382 cases, 23 deaths and 765 people in hospital with Covid-19 – and a rising seven-day average of all three metrics. Wastewater testing indicates true infection levels are far higher. Doctors say the strain of those cases has put the country “at risk of a catastrophic collapse of the healthcare workforce”.

In the face of that, health officials and the minister gathered on Thursday to announce new measures – free masks and rapid antigen tests, and an expansion of access to antiviral medication. The primary note struck by the press conference, however, was of a plea: health officials entreated New Zealanders to re-engage with pandemic measures, re-adopt the masks that many had discarded, and work together to stem the tide of infections.

“New Zealand’s successful response in the pandemic to date has relied on people doing the right thing,” the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, said. “Our message here today is: it’s important that people again recommit. We’re not through this yet.”

‘Ardern’s kind of been pulled away’

But for public health experts, one of the most pressing questions is not so much whether masks and other protections are available, it’s whether New Zealanders will be moved to adopt them.

“Better access to masks, rapid antigen tests and antiviral medications will help lower the transmission of Covid-19 if people use them. And that’s the big if,” says Dr Siouxsie Wiles, one of the prominent communicators of New Zealand’s response.

“We need to recapture the spirit we had early in the pandemic – our actions matter.”

In recent months, the government has come under fire for less cohesive communication on where the pandemic response is going. Missing from Thursday’s press conference was the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, whose clear communication has been credited as a major contributor to the country’s early pandemic success. Ardern was overseas this week, but for months has been largely absent from Covid briefings or announcements, focused instead on issues of global security, trade and cost of living.

People wearing masks outside a Christchurch supermarket last year. Photograph: Sanka Vidanagama/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

“What’s been particularly interesting is how Ardern’s kind of been pulled away from being the face of the Covid pandemic,” says Dr Lara Greaves, a political analyst at the University of Auckland’s Public Policy Institute.

It’s a trend that Greaves sees happening across government, as other issues have shunted Covid out of the spotlight – and as politicians worry about the political consequences of being message-bearers for a gloomy Covid outlook.

“We’re not sitting down for our 1pm press conference briefing,” Greaves says. “We’re not necessarily seeing that Covid branding everywhere … We’ve seen that really gradual drift away.”

‘We cannot be blase about it’

Throughout the pandemic, higher levels of trust in government and in fellow citizens have been strongly correlated with successful public health outcomes. Now, social scientists say the fabric of that trust has been frayed in New Zealand – but not ripped away completely.

“This is a situation of chronic stress over many years, and it’s got a long way to run yet,” says Sir Peter Gluckman, a former prime minister’s science adviser, paediatrician and science-in-society expert. “People keep thinking it’s all over and it’s not. Anxiety, fear, frustration … those emotions drive and fracture trust between people, trust between governments and citizens – and trust is the centre of social cohesion.

“New Zealand’s small size and our relatively transparent discourse has protected us to a large extent,” he says. “It still protects us. But we cannot be blase about it.”

The most visible fracture of that cohesion came earlier in the year, when a series of anti-vaccine mandate protests exploded into violence on the lawn of parliament. The Covid response minister, Ayesha Verrall, says those incidents – and their associated online movements – are on decision-makers’ minds as they consider what steps the public will actually cooperate with.

“We do think that misinformation … has impacted the effectiveness of measures, and it just puts the onus back on us to make sure that we’re sharing reliable, credible information,” she says. For now, the government remains committed to not re-introducing mandates or compulsory lockdowns of the past.

“Across all of the things we’ve done in the Covid response – asking people to stay home in the first lockdown, to give their details over to contact tracers, to wear masks, to get vaccinated – all of the public health impacts, 99.9% was voluntary compliance,” she says. “That has to be the basis of most of our public health efforts”

It’s that track record that Greaves says New Zealand will be hoping to revitalise in the coming months. “Working in New Zealand’s favour [is that] we did bring together the team of 5 million in 2020 – so that’s more likely to be able to happen again. … I think we would see a higher level of protest and a higher level of resistance,” she says.

“But we will probably be working from a stronger baseline”

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