Less than a month ago, New Zealanders vanished into their homes, retreating from the public domain like water spilled in a dry sponge. The city’s highways and streets were mostly empty, shops closed, schools and playgrounds deserted. A single case of the highly contagious Delta variant had been detected and the government called for an instant Level 4 lockdown, introducing some of the toughest restrictions in the world.
This was a new threat to a country whose response to the Covid-zero pandemic had been ranked among the best in the world. New Zealand had never faced a Delta outbreak before, and no one knew if its past strategies would prove up to the task.
Across the Tasman, a grim picture loomed: Australia, like New Zealand, had maintained a zero Covid elimination strategy throughout the first year of the pandemic, but was now grappling with outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria. The two countries have vaccinated less than a third of their total population. With cases in NSW now regularly reaching over 1,400 a day, the state has provided a pessimistic scenario of what New Zealand might see.
But now, against all odds, New Zealand is bending the Delta curve.
“It looks very good for ending this epidemic,” says Professor Michael Baker, epidemiologist and public health expert. “I wouldn’t say ‘absolute certainty’, but it’s now much more a question of when, rather than if. “
Left alone or half-heartedly managed, the exponential growth of the Delta variant quickly turns a vertical trendline. For many countries in the throes of epidemics, the goal is to turn that precipice into a slope – spreading the peak over a longer period so that health systems don’t collapse, leading to unnecessary deaths. In New Zealand, and for a few other Asia-Pacific Covid-zero states, the target is more ambitious. They aimed not only to slow down the growth line, but to bend the curve completely, forcing the number of cases to drop to zero and wiping out transmission completely. Now, just under a month after the variant arrived in New Zealand, that goal suddenly seems within reach.
After peaking at 83 cases per day in late August, cases have been regularly tracked – daily numbers have not exceeded 21 in the past week. By midweek, they fell to 15, then 13, then 11. Modelers predict that – barring a disaster – cases are expected to hit a single digit next week. Auckland, the center of the outbreak, remains at Alert Level 4. But most of the country left a hard lockdown on Wednesday, flocking to restaurants, cafes and schools.
It has not been an easy road. In August, at the start of the epidemic, Baker told the Guardian it was an infectious disease expert’s nightmare. Nightclubs, churches, restaurants, hospitals, schools – the list of exhibit events reads like a checklist of every high-risk gathering imaginable.
Nor has it been a path free from opponents. Internationally, some parties have described the response first as an overreaction – disproportionate to the number of cases – and later, as the number of cases increased, as a desperate and futile effort in the face of a variant. that had overwhelmed the defenses of others.
“Any state and territory that thinks it can protect itself from Covid with the Delta strain forever is just nonsense,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. “New Zealand can’t do this. They were following an elimination strategy. They are in confinement. “
But the New Zealand government has so far been steadfast in its commitment to elimination – a strategy that has allowed residents to maintain relatively normal lives for most of the past year. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “While we know that Delta is a more dangerous enemy to fight, the same actions that defeated the virus last year can be applied to defeat it again. “
Experts say the same essential toolkit works.
“I think we can say, more or less, that our Alert Level 4 measures Delta,” says Professor Shaun Hendy, epidemic modeler for the Te Pūnaha Matatini research center.
“At first we were trying to think about the effectiveness of Alert Level 4 and we thought it might be considerably less effective against Delta compared to what we saw during the outbreak in March and April,” he said. “But in reality it was very similar – performance was helped by vaccination rates, no doubt. But basically it worked almost as well as last year. Weeks later, it looks like we are on the right track to ending the epidemic. “
Compared to previous outbreaks, “it’s been an order of magnitude more serious and has really tested our systems,” Hendy said. “Our systems, you can never say they’re good enough. But in this case, we’ve just improved our game enough to get it under control. “
The trajectory of the latest outbreak may also reassure New Zealand that the country’s “go strong and go early” strategy may contain a Delta outbreak.
New Zealand also has the opportunity to learn something from the Australian experience.
For now, “I think that’s a warning to us,” says Dr Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist and one of New Zealand’s central pandemic communicators. “They show what happens if you don’t control the transmission. And I guess what they’ve shown, too, is whether the virus gets into essential workers and their workplaces. “
Experts are careful to warn that there is still a long way to go – along with declining absolute numbers, New Zealand must also increase the percentage of cases without ‘exposure events’, or who are isolated for the duration of their infectious period. “If we see numbers going down but also have several days to see no unexpected cases, that’s very reassuring,” Baker said.
What happens next?
If New Zealand is successful in eliminating the Delta variant, it still raises questions about the next step for a country that has used extremely strict border controls to stay Covid-free so far. The government had published a provisional plan to reopen just days before the start of the epidemic. But on Wednesday, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said it may need to be reassessed. “It would be fair to say that Delta has actually changed some of the thinking on this, even in the last few weeks,” he said. “Delta was a game changer. “
New Zealand’s elimination strategy means it has so far avoided most of Covid’s economic, social and public health toll. If New Zealand manages to knock out Delta again in the coming weeks, that’s an advantage they may be looking to cling to.
“We are in the privileged position of a few countries on Earth… that have ruled out the virus,” Baker said. “We can keep options open. We choose when to engage with the virus, when most countries around the world have no choice. I would hate for us to give up this advantage that we have, until we are ready to do it on our terms.
“I’m very optimistic that we can get to elimination,” Wiles said. She pauses, then corrects, “I guess that’s cautiously optimistic.
“We’re in this position because of a case, so we just have to be really careful with that. One case might suffice.