Ardern opted for the second path. When New Zealand had only reported 28 cases, Ardern closed borders to foreigners, and when there were 102 cases, she announced a nationwide lockdown.
In effect, Ardern offered New Zealanders a deal: put up with some of the toughest rules in the world, and in return, be kept safe — first from the deadly coronavirus, and later, from potential economic devastation.
Then, last week, that changed.
Somehow, authorities said, the virus appeared to have crept in through the border. As of Thursday, New Zealand has 101 active cases, bringing the country’s total reported coronavirus cases to 1,304, including 22 deaths.
Around Asia-Pacific, other countries that entered into similar implicit deals with their citizens are facing similar situations. Australia, for instance, also took swift, tough action at the start of the pandemic — but issues at the border lead to an outbreak in the state of Victoria, prompting the country’s second-biggest city, Melbourne, to return to a lockdown and be placed under a curfew.
Now, as those in Europe go on holiday, people in parts of New Zealand and Australia — two countries that were once held up as examples of how to handle the virus — remain under lockdown. To some, that begs the question: did they take the right approach? And by promising safety, were government’s like Ardern’s always setting themselves up to fail?
Right from the start, Ardern was clear — she didn’t want to simply limit the impact of coronavirus, she wanted to eliminate it.
Elimination — which the New Zealand health authorities defined as stopping the chains of transmission in the country — was an ambitious goal, and one that few nations adopted.
For months, New Zealand had no instances of community transmission, but even before the country announced its fresh cases, health authorities and experts were warning that another outbreak was inevitable.
Shortly before New Zealand marked 100 days without any coronavirus transmission, Director-General of Health Dr. Ashley Bloomfield advised people to stock up on face masks.
For some people, that didn’t really make sense. Only New Zealanders can come into the country, and even then, they must spend 14 days in a state-run quarantine facility and be tested twice for coronavirus. If the borders were secure, then why would a new outbreak be inevitable?
The problem in this case is that the borders weren’t that secure. Authorities have admitted that workers at New Zealand’s border facilities — people who would have been most vulnerable to catching the virus — weren’t being tested on a regular basis.
But even if the authorities hadn’t made errors, it’s possible to imagine a scenario where an infectious person could slip through the cracks. We know that false negative tests happen, so there’s a very small chance a person could be Covid-19 positive and still be infectious when they are let out into the community after 14 days.
What the outbreak means for Ardern
It’s never a good time for a resurgence of coronavirus, but the timing of this latest outbreak is particularly bad for Ardern.
But now, with the election only eight weeks away, Ardern’s opponents have seized on the problems at the border.
Others questioned whether New Zealand’s focus on elimination was the right approach after all.
As Goldsmith noted, there isn’t just a health risk in the virus returning — there’s an economic one from a return to lockdown.
Ardern and her party will try to play up the benefits that have come from their strict handling, even if hasn’t been perfect.
The Prime Minister has consistently said that the best economic strategy is to win the fight against Covid-19. After all, there are costs to letting the virus spiral out of control. An out of control outbreak would have economic impacts anyway, and on top of that, there’s health resources, the cost of a slow recovery from coronavirus, and death.
But Ardern’s real test is yet to come. When the country heads to the polls in October, she’ll be hoping that, despite the hiccups, the country still thinks her tough coronavirus approach was worth it.
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