New Zealand appears to have completely eradicated coronavirus — at least for now — after health authorities said on Monday that the last known infected person had recovered. The announcement was greeted with joy across the country and means that the nation of 5 million people will be among the first to welcome crowds of fans back into sports stadiums, embrace crowded concerts and remove seat restrictions from flights.
The last new case was reported 17 days ago, in which an additional 40,000 people were tested, bringing the total number tested to about 300,000. Monday marked the first time since late February that there were no active cases.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was confident that New Zealand had stopped the spread of the virus, but that it still needed to be prepared for more.
“We are confident that we have eliminated transmission of the virus in New Zealand at the moment, but elimination is not a point in time, it is a sustained effort,” she said at a press conference. “We will almost certainly see cases here again, and I want to repeat, we will almost certainly see cases here again, and it’s not a sign that we have failed, it’s a reality of this virus. But if and when that happens, we have to make sure — and we are — that we are ready.
More cases are likely to be imported as people enter the country. For now, the border remains closed to all but citizens and residents, with a few exceptions. Everyone who enters must go to quarantine.
Ardern announced that the Cabinet had agreed to remove almost all remaining virus restrictions from midnight, with the exception of border restrictions.
“We can organize public events without limitations. Private events such as weddings, duties and unrestricted funerals,” said Ardern. “Retail is back without limits. Hospitality is back without limits. Public transport and travel across the country are fully open.
Experts say a number of factors have helped New Zealand eliminate the disease. Its isolated location in the South Pacific has given it a vital moment to see the devastating spread of the virus in other countries. Ardern also acted decisively by imposing a strict lockdown at the beginning of the epidemic.
She said her government will focus on the country’s borders, where isolation and quarantine will continue.
Just over 1,500 people have contracted the virus in New Zealand, 22 of whom have died.
The elimination of the virus did not end the country’s economic pain. Thousands of people have lost their jobs. The tourism industry, which accounts for about 10% of the economy, has been particularly hard hit.
But Monday was a moment of celebration for many. Ardern said that when she heard that there were no more active cases, she did a little dance in her living room in front of her daughter Neve, who will turn 2 this month. Ardern said the toddler had no idea what was going on, but was happy to join her.