Is New Zealand’s zero Covid strategy an expensive fantasy?

Jacinda Ardern puts islands into lockdown as other countries abandon zero-Covid approach

Jacinda Ardern
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces a nationwide lockdown
(Image credit: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The New Zealand government has announced a snap lockdown after a man tested positive for Covid, the first case in the country in six months.

Auckland, where the single case was detected, will be in lockdown for a week, while the rest of the country will be in lockdown for three days, reports the BBC.

Authorities believe that the new case was the Delta variant. The victim is thought to have been infectious since last Thursday, with at least 23 potential sites of transmission.

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Announcing the return to a strict lockdown, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “We have seen what can happen elsewhere if we fail to get on top of it. We only get one chance.”

However, Bloomberg’s Michelle Fay Cortez has argued that nations that attempt zero-Covid policies by attempting to wipe out every infection, may eventually have to consider a “looser stance” due to the power of new variants.

Some nations already have. Last month, Singapore abandoned its zero-Covid stance. Like New Zealand, it had attempted to block the spread of the coronavirus by strict border controls, a mask mandate, enforced social distancing and “aggressive” contact tracing, says The Times.

Leaders in Singapore have since eased restrictions and aimed for a “living with Covid” mission, after concluding that the disease will not be eradicated as new variants continue to emerge.

On Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also said that his nation’s zero-Covid strategy will be abandoned once adult vaccination rates have reached between 70% and 80%. Australia had previously sealed its borders and imposed tough restrictions in pursuit of becoming completely Covid free.

Tim Wallace in The Telegraph warns that “zero-Covid zealotry” is wreaking economic “havoc”, with economists slashing forecasts for China and Australia due to their strict approaches.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong doctor David Owens says that while the “zero Covid” approach was the best strategy in the short term, countries that pursued it should now follow the example of Singapore.

Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford, and Donald J. Boudreaux, a professor of economics at George Mason University, call the eradication of Covid “a dangerous and expensive fantasy”.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, they point to smallpox as the “lone human infectious disease we’ve deliberately eradicated” and explain why it “shouldn’t be used as a precedent for Covid”. While smallpox was carried only by humans, Covid can be carried by animals. Its vaccine was also “incredibly effective” at preventing infection, while the Covid jabs are far less effective at preventing its spread.

“And smallpox eradication required a concerted global effort lasting decades and unprecedented cooperation among nations. Nothing like this is possible today, especially if it requires a perpetual lockdown in every country on earth,” they say.

Nevertheless, New Zealand has dismissed calls for it to abandon “zero-Covid” and follow in Britain’s footsteps to “live with” the virus, saying the level of death proposed by Boris Johnson would be “unacceptable”.

Ardern said: “The priority for me is how do we continue to preserve what New Zealand has managed to gain and give ourselves options, because this virus is not done with the world yet.”

News of a disastrous outbreak of the Delta variant in Sydney has helped galvanise ongoing support in New Zealand for its government’s position. Epidemiologist and public health professor Michael Baker told The Guardian the elimination strategy “has served us extremely well in New Zealand”.

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