WELLINGTON, New Zealand – The New Zealand government on Monday acknowledged what other countries had done long ago: it can no longer get rid of the corona virus completely.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced a cautious plan to ease lockdown restrictions in Auckland, despite an epidemic that is still raging there.
Since the onset of the epidemic, New Zealand has had an extraordinary zero tolerance for the virus through severe lockdowns and aggressive contact tracing.
Until recently, this eradication strategy worked significantly for a country of 5 million, with only 27 virus deaths reported.
While other nations faced increasing deaths and affecting lives, New Zealanders moved back to workplaces, school yards and sports stadiums that are spread across any community.
But that all changed when a highly contagious Delta variant somehow escaped quarantine after being brought into the country by a passenger returning from Australia in August.
Despite the fact that New Zealand went into the worst form of lockdown after only one local case was discovered, it was not enough to finally crush the epidemic completely.
One factor may be that the disease has spread to some groups who are generally more cautious than the authorities, including gang members and IDPs living in temporary housing.
The epidemic has reached more than 1,300 cases and 29 more cases were reported on Monday. Some cases have been reported outside of Auckland.
Arden said seven weeks of lockdown restrictions in Auckland had helped control the epidemic.
“For this epidemic, it is clear that long-term heavy sanctions have not reduced us to zero cases,” Arden said. “But that’s fine. Elimination was necessary because we didn’t have the vaccine. Now we do, so we can start changing the way we work.”
New Zealand launched its vaccination campaign more slowly than other developed countries. Prices rose in August after the outbreak, but have fallen sharply since then.
About 65% of New Zealanders have received at least one dose and 40% have been fully vaccinated. Among people 12 years of age and older, approximately 79 percent have had at least one concussion.
Under the Order plan, which begins Tuesday, Aucklanders will be able to reunite with loved ones from another home, early childhood centers will reopen and people will be able to go to the beach.
Retail stores and later phased reopening of bars and restaurants have yet to be decided.
Arden said the eradication strategy has served the country incredibly well, but the government has always intended to change vaccine safety, a change accelerated by the Delta variant “Game Changer”.
The idea of overthrowing the government was widely supported by New Zealanders but faced growing criticism. Over the weekend, hundreds of people rallied against the lockdown.
Opposition lawyer Chris Bishop said the government had no clear strategy for dealing with the epidemic other than surrendering completely.
But Arden said most measures will remain in place to control the epidemic, including full contact and isolation of those affected.
“We have good reason to be optimistic about the future,” Arden said. “But we can’t hurry.”