Policemen in protective masks speak to motorists at a checkpoint in the Bombay area of Auckland, New Zealand, on Wednesday, August 12, 2020.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images
LONDON – New Zealand is the last country to abandon a zero-covid strategy, with the virus proving to be much harder to stop as the highly contagious Delta variant prevails.
After New Zealand adopted one of the world’s toughest approaches to contain the spread of Covid-19, New Zealand announced on Monday that the country would no longer take an approach that would attempt to eradicate all Covid cases.
This zero-covid strategy, which is also used by China and Taiwan, includes strict bans (even after detecting just one or a handful of cases) and extensive testing, highly controlled or closed borders, as well as robust contact tracking systems and quarantine mandates.
The move comes after a lockdown in the city of Auckland failed to stop the virus given the more virulent Delta variant. It’s estimated to be 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant originally discovered in late 2020, which itself has usurped an earlier, less infectious version of the virus.
New Zealand has been notoriously strict on fighting Covid; Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern strictly locked the entire country in August after a single suspected Covid case due to the Delta variant was reported in Auckland – at the time the country’s first coronavirus case in six months.
But on Monday, Ardern said the city lockdown would be gradually eased and the country’s strategy to fight Covid was changing.
“For this outbreak, it is clear that the long periods of severe restrictions have not led us to zero cases,” said Ardern during a press conference. “But that’s fine. Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we have it so we can start changing the way we do things.”
Ardern said it was important for the country to maintain strict controls, but said it needed to “contain and control the virus as much as possible as we make our transition from a place where we have severe restrictions to one on which we use it ”. Vaccines in Everyday Public Health Actions. “
Why it doesn’t work
It is the first time that New Zealand has publicly signaled a move away from a zero-covid strategy after its neighbor Australia also abandoned its zero-tolerance or “covid-zero” approach in early September and said it was in a move Position of “learning” passed over with “living with the virus.
Similar to New Zealand, Australia’s decision to abandon the strategy came after a severe lockdown weathered Melbourne to quell an outbreak there.
At the time, Victoria State Prime Minister Daniel Andrews stated that “we have tossed everything at it, but now we understand that we are not going to decrease these numbers, we will increase them”.
Victoria Police patrol St Kilda Beach on October 03, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. Coronavirus restrictions were eased slightly across Melbourne as of Monday, September 28, as Victoria takes its second step in the government’s reopening roadmap.
Darrian Traynor | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Experts are not surprised by the change in strategy, because the spread of the delta variant makes such approaches pointless.
“It’s no surprise New Zealand has abandoned its ‘Zero Covid’ strategy – the highly transferable Delta variant has changed the game and means an elimination strategy is no longer practical,” said Lawrence Young, virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, CNBC said on Monday.
“That does not mean that New Zealand and Australia’s robust approach to dealing with the pandemic – tight border restrictions, quarantine measures and heavy contact tracing – have not been effective, but persistent severe restrictions are harming individuals and society,” he said.
The zero tolerance policy will become more difficult as the rest of the world opens up, he added, but stressed that it does not mean that people should not remain vigilant. “We must stop the virus from spreading and mutating by doing everything we can to support vaccine adoption around the world.”
Attempts to completely suppress the spread of Covid-19 have often been questioned by experts, but in countries where vaccination adoption has been slower, lockdowns have helped slow, if not eradicate, the spread of the virus .
Ardern defended the Auckland lockdown on Monday, saying that pursuing a zero-covid strategy was the “right and only choice” for Auckland while vaccination rates had remained low and only 25% of Aucklanders were fully vaccinated at the time.
Now, seven weeks later, she said 52% of Aucklanders were fully vaccinated, with 84% receiving one dose. Clinical data shows that a full vaccination against Covid-19 is highly effective in protecting people from severe Covid infection, hospitalization and death.
Zero Covid Followers
However, zero-covid strategies remain in place in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and none of them are showing any signs of abandoning them. Other Asian economies that have followed similar approaches include Macau, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam.
The data shows that this strategy has helped keep cases and deaths in the region much lower than in Europe and the US. The latter have recorded the highest death toll from Covid worldwide, with over 703,000 deaths.
On Monday, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center announced there had been no new local cases of Covid-19 and five imported cases, marking the fourth straight day with no local infection.
On the same day, Hong Kong also recorded four new cases (all imported, which continues the trend of recent weeks), while China again reported 26 new cases of confirmed infection on Monday, all of which were labeled imported cases, despite the accuracy of China’s data was questioned during the pandemic.
Experts in the region say there are good reasons not to give up on zero-covid strategies just yet, especially if vaccination rates are patchy.
David Hui, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who heads a committee of experts advising the government, told CNBC that Hong Kong is implementing its zero tolerance policy on Covid-19 until the vaccination rate is higher.
“In contrast to Singapore [the] In the UK and other western countries, overall vaccination rates in Hong Kong are too low (67% with one dose and 62.9% of the population fully vaccinated with two doses) to live with the virus. The vaccination rate among those under 70 is around 30%, ”he said.
“If we live with the virus, many older, unvaccinated people will develop serious illnesses and our health systems will collapse.”
The Economist Intelligence Unit noted in a report in July that it expects zero-covid markets in Asia to maintain tight border controls throughout 2021 and not eased until early 2022 when mass vaccination is reached.
“The number of deaths in the ‘zero Covid’ countries in Asia was much lower than that of global competitors and the economic impact less severe, which contributed to a much flatter recession in Asia in 2020 than in other regions”, it continued, noting that “if the rest” of the world had taken a similar approach, zero-covid could prove to be a sustainable strategy. But it risks now becoming a strategy that will undermine rather than support economic activity as the world economy reopens. “
Still, according to the EIU, the guidelines ultimately adopted by the zero-covid countries will still be more conservative than those in North America and Europe. “The approach will likely target low covid, with the approaches currently being pursued by Japan and South Korea serving as potential models,” it said.
The EUI believed that because of their low reliance on cross-border capital and talent flows, China and Taiwan are most capable of maintaining a zero-covid strategy.