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Once a World Leader in Fighting COVID, New Zealand Has Now ‘Given Up’ On Trying to Eradicate It

New Zealand’s government acknowledged Monday what most other countries did long ago: It can no longer completely get rid of the coronavirus. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a cautious plan to ease lockdown restrictions in Auckland, despite an outbreak there that continues to simmer.

Since early in the pandemic, New Zealand had pursued an unusual zero-tolerance approach to the virus through strict lockdowns and aggressive contact tracing. While other nations faced rising death tolls and disrupted lives, New Zealanders went back to workplaces, schools, sports stadiums, and other public arenas safe from community spread. But that all changed when the highly contagious Delta variant somehow escaped from a quarantine facility in August after it was brought into the country by a traveler returning from Australia.


New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern [GETTY IMAGES]

Despite New Zealand going into the strictest form of lockdown after just that single local case was detected, it ultimately wasn’t enough to crush the outbreak entirely; it’s now grown to more than 1,300 cases, with 29 more detected on Monday. A few cases have been found outside of Auckland.

New Zealand began its vaccination campaign slowly compared to most other developed nations. Rates skyrocketed in August after the outbreak began but have dropped off significantly again since then. About 65% of New Zealanders have had at least one dose and 40% are fully vaccinated. Among people age 12 and older, about 79% have had at least a single jab.

Under Ardern’s plan that starts Tuesday, Aucklanders will be able to meet outdoors with loved ones from one other household, early childhood centers will reopen, and people will be able to go to the beach. The dates for a phased reopening of retail stores and later bars and restaurants have yet to be decided.

 

The government’s elimination approach had been broadly supported by New Zealanders but was facing increasing criticism. Over the weekend, hundreds of people turned out to rallies protesting the lockdown. Ardern said the elimination strategy had served the country incredibly well but the government always intended to eventually transition to the protection of vaccines, a change hastened by the Delta variant “game-changer.”

“There’s good cause for us to feel optimistic about the future,” Ardern said. “But we cannot rush.”



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