So, did anyone get COVID right?
After hearing so much bad news about COVID in our country, I thought you might wonder whether it is like this everywhere. Has any country “gotten it right?” If so, what did they do? Could we have done that here?
Actually, there are a number of countries that had a strong COVID response. South Korea and Taiwan are two that come to mind. But the one country that seems to have really “figured it out”, is a country that is near and dear to my heart (because I lived there for a year)—New Zealand. At this time, it has had a total of 2040 cases, and 25 deaths. That’s total… since the beginning of the pandemic.
Now, New Zealand is much smaller than the US—it’s about the population of Alabama. So let’s compare New Zealand to Alabama, not the whole United States. At this time, Alabama has had 241,957 cases of COVID and 3572 deaths. That’s between 120 and 140 times what New Zealand has.
Probably the best way to compare countries of different sizes is to use the number of cases and number of deaths per 1 million of population. The US has had 38,024 cases per million and 802 deaths per million. For comparison, Yates County has had 13,400 cases per million and 281 deaths per million (so, we are doing better than average for the US). Please note that this number is the number of people who would have gotten sick and died IF Yates County had a million people in it. Thus, these numbers are higher than the actual numbers for Yates County. However, New Zealand has 410 cases per million and 5(!) deaths per million. Clearly, New Zealand has done MUCH better than the US in this crisis. How did they do that?
They took a number of simultaneous approaches to the problem. First, they led at the National Government level. The Prime Minister went on national TV, and laid out a plan that involved elimination (as opposed to suppression) of the virus. They banned visitors from China BEFORE there were any cases of COVID in New Zealand and required any New Zealand citizens returning from China to undergo a mandatory, government monitored 2 week quarantine. Shortly thereafter, this quarantine was required of ALL returning citizens and the borders were completely shut down to foreign visitors. A staged lock-down system was implemented (similar to our color system), and by the end of March, when the country had 102 cases and no deaths, they were in Stage 4 (the most severe stage) lock-down. The philosophy was, “We are going to throw everything we have at the virus from the start”. Everything non-essential was closed down (they didn’t even have take out!), and you could only be outside briefly in your own neighborhood. This may seem quite draconian, but it really worked! At its peak, they had 89 cases in the entire country. By early June, New Zealand became the first country in the world to be COVID free! They remained COVID free for the next 102 days, more than 3 months.
That meant they could open back up—completely. Bars, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, all open. No masks, no social distancing required. And since they were open for business, no job loss. The borders remained closed to foreigners (since elsewhere there was still a ton of COVID), and citizens returning to the country still had the government supervised 2 week quarantine.
They have had a few outbreaks since that time, but because they also ramped up their testing and contact tracing, they found and isolated them fairly quickly.
The country is led by a female Prime Minister (Jacinda Ardern) who has been described as a “brilliant communicator and an empathetic leader.” She united the country behind her by being open and honest, and laying out a plan that made sense, so her citizenry backed her up and complied with the strict public health recommendations. University of Otago Public Health Professor Michael Baker stated, “For a pandemic response to be effective, science and leadership have to go together.” Prime Minister Ardern said she formed a “team of 5 million” (which is the population of New Zealand). She and her Ministers took a 20% pay cut, showing they empathized with how difficult it all was on the country. Finally, she put the health of the country first, whilst understanding there would be economic consequences. As another professor stated, “Surely a dead or dying population is bad for the economy!”
Now, New Zealand does have some advantages in pandemic control that a country like ours does not have. It is isolated (Australia, their closest neighbor, is 2500 miles away), and, as an island nation, it can easily seal its borders. It has a Single Payer health care system, so everyone has health insurance, providing for total access to care and testing. Also, the New Zealand people are more trusting of government than Americans (although there was dissent by the main opposing political party, ultimately, PM Ardern won reelection in a landslide, so what was good for the nation was good for politics as well). Finally, in New Zealand, Public Health is actually a physician specialty field (like Internal Medicine or Pediatrics) and seems to have more authority to enforce regulations than in the US.
What New Zealand does show is that there is an alternative to month after month of sickness, death, and closed businesses due to COVID. Following science quickly, and scrupulously, and working together, New Zealand had a shorter lock-down, followed by a fully reopened economy with far fewer deaths and much less disease. It is a successful model that certainly seems worth looking into.