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On lockdown, New Zealand could pull off bold goal of eliminating virus

National leader Simon Bridges speaks to media during a press conference at Parliament on April 21, 2020. in Wellington, New Zealand. (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — While most countries are working on ways to contain the coronavirus, New Zealand has set itself a much more ambitious goal: eliminating it altogether.

And experts believe the country could pull it off.

The virus “doesn’t have superpowers,” said Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccine expert at the University of Auckland. “Once transmission is stopped, it’s gone.”

Geography has helped. If any place could be described as socially distant it would be New Zealand, surrounded by stormy seas, with Antarctica to the south. With 5 million people spread across an area the size of Britain, even the cities aren’t overly crowded.

And Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has taken bold steps, putting the country under a strict lockdown in late March, when only about 100 people had tested positive for the new virus. Her motto: “Go hard and go early.”

Zealand has so far avoided a widespread outbreak, and new cases have
dwindled from a peak of about 90 per day in early April to just five on
Tuesday, leaving the goal tantalizingly close. Only 13 people have died
so far, and Ardern has been personally briefed on each death.

have the opportunity to do something no other country has achieved:
elimination of the virus,” Ardern told reporters last week. “But it will
continue to need a team of 5 million behind it.”

said the country had managed to avoid the confusion and half-measures
that have hampered the response in many other places.

“New Zealand
got everything right,” she said. “Decisive action, with strong
leadership and very clear communications to everybody.”

Ardern on
Monday announced the country would stay in lockdown for another week
before slightly easing some work restrictions to help restart the
economy. Most of the social restrictions will remain in place.

also tried to temper expectations of her goal, saying elimination
didn’t mean that new cases wouldn’t arise in the future but they would
be stamped out immediately.

New cases are likely when New Zealand
eventually reopens its borders, but questions remain about how well
prepared the health system is to implement effective contact tracing
should a widespread outbreak occur. Petousis-Harris pointed to problems
last year when the country failed to contain a measles outbreak.

if New Zealand does purge itself of the virus, the effects will linger.
Before the outbreak, tourism was booming. About 4 million people
visited each year, drawn by stunning scenery and the lure of adventure
sports. The industry employed more than 300,000 people and accounted for
about 10% of New Zealand’s entire economy.

“It’s been
devastating. No question at all,” said Stephen England-Hall, the chief
executive of Tourism New Zealand, a promotional agency. “No one can
really plan to go from 100% to zero in three days.”

A study by the
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that
because of its reliance on tourism, New Zealand’s economy could
initially be one of the hardest-hit by the coronavirus among developed

The government, which came into the crisis with its books
in relatively good shape, has been handing out billions of dollars in
temporary wage subsidies to try and prevent mass unemployment. More than
half the nation’s workforce has suddenly become reliant on government

Still, most people appear to support Ardern’s strict
lockdown, under which schools are closed and people working nonessential
jobs can leave home only for groceries or exercise. Google mobility
data indicates there has been high compliance.

Many have found
creative ways to cope, like 28-year-old personal trainer Jessee James.
Instead of meeting her clients in gyms or at their homes, she’s been
leading virtual sessions over Zoom and FaceTime.

Some of her
clients are using cans of beans instead of dumbbells, or laundry baskets
instead of sandbags. Many want to talk more about their feelings, like
the business owner who needed to lay off employees or the client with
emotional issues who needs encouragement.

“Normally they would just talk to the people around them,” James said. “It’s been quite different.”

of the most symbolic casualties of the outbreak has been Air New
Zealand. The airline had been a source of pride for many as it expanded
internationally and won industry awards. In a series of frank updates,
Chief Executive Greg Foran described how the carrier had reduced flights
by 95% and would need to cut its workforce by at least 3,750.

person who doesn’t yet know if he will retain his job with the airline
is 27-year-old pilot Scott Beatson. He and partner Bella Ashworth, who
just finished law school, bought a house earlier this year, and they’re
both now worried about their futures.

“It’s quite sad,” Beatson
said. “Just before the lockdown, I was talking with a baggage loader and
a check-in person, and everyone took such pride in the company.”

eager fisherman and hiker, Beatson has taken to camping in his backyard
while stuck at home. Like many around the country, he’s been tuning
into some of the daily briefings given by Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield,
the director-general of health.

An unassuming official who spent a
year working at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Bloomfield’s
calm and reassuring presence has turned him into an unlikely heartthrob.

Singer Maxwell Apse wrote a song about Bloomfield that has been
viewed more than 75,000 times on YouTube. “If I had one wish, I would
make it this: I’d be in your bubble,” go the lyrics.

When New
Zealand does come out of its bubble, the path forward remains unclear.
It will need to continue relying on its traditional strength in farming
to sell things abroad like dairy products, kiwifruit and wine.

have suggested the country could first reopen its borders to Australia,
which has also been successful in flattening its virus curve.

England-Hall, the tourism executive, said New Zealand will look to first rebuild the domestic tourism market. He said being virus-free could eventually become a selling point abroad for the country.

The conundrum is
that to stay virus-free, New Zealand may need to continue its current
requirement that new arrivals spend two weeks in quarantine. Given that
the average tourist in the past has stayed for about 11 days, it seems
an insurmountable obstacle.

Ever the optimist, England-Hall
foresees a new type of tourism product in which wealthy people could be
pampered during a quarantine period — a kind of isolation spa.

with travel curtailed, some worry that New Zealand could revert to a
more insular version of itself, before cheap flights allowed its
citizens to roam the world, and foreigners to visit. A place where
isolation can be both a blessing and a curse.