August 24, 2021   5 mins

As New Zealand announced a snap lockdown last week in response to a single Covid-19 case, the reaction was predictable. Critics of Jacinda Ardern and her government’s strict “Zero Covid” strategy pounced, claiming she had “lost her marbles” and her proposal was “nothing short of a never-ending nightmare”. On the other hand, cheerleaders reverted to well-worn platitudes about how “we’ve done this before and we’ll do it again”; Ardern herself pointed to the current outbreak in Australia’s New South Wales as proof of what happens when governments stray from elimination.

In short, New Zealand’s latest outbreak has merely reinforced pre-existing convictions on both sides of the Zero Covid argument.

But the reality is more complex. While New Zealand has pursued an aggressive elimination strategy, it has — until now — worked, and at relatively low political, economic and social costs. Indeed, the more urgent question now is whether the country’s relative success has lulled it into a sense of complacency, and left it lacking an exit strategy once the pandemic subsides.

Over the past eighteen months, New Zealand has been one of very few countries committed to elimination rather than suppression, with Ardern declaring she wouldn’t put the lives of citizens at risk by trying to live with the virus. The decision was hailed as proof of her leadership driven by empathy and compassion, in stark contrast with the “let it rip” approaches of Johnson or Trump.

However, while it certainly complemented Ardern’s brand, in reality her commitment was driven by the cold reality of a woefully unprepared health system — gutted by decades of austerity — which would struggle to manage even a low number of cases. A March 2020 audit found New Zealand only had 221 ICU beds for a population of 5 million, while its testing and track and tracing capacity was deemed inadequate.

It was in this context that the Government announced a strict “Level 4” lockdown on 25 March 2020, which closed almost all retail, hospitality and education settings, banned public gatherings, limited the reasons for leaving home and closed the international border to everyone but returning citizens and permanent residents who had to quarantine. Despite being draconian, these restrictions succeeded in eliminating Covid-19 in the country; by 8 June the lockdown ended, with effectively all restrictions being lifted, except for closed borders. In total, New Zealand experienced 1,504 cases of Covid and 22 deaths between February and June 2020. (The UK experienced 4,432 Covid deaths in March alone.)

Having achieved elimination, New Zealand doubled down, vowing to swiftly respond to any future outbreaks with snap lockdowns. It was a wildly popular decision, with Ardern re-elected in a landslide in October, and 75% supporting the government’s strategy as recently as July 2021.

The reasons for this are not hard to understand. Unlike Australia’s disastrous hotel quarantine system, which has resulted in more than 20 instances of the virus leaking into the community, New Zealand has seen limited breaches, which were quickly contained. As a result, since June 2020, there have only been two brief lockdowns in Auckland, the largest city. Indeed, for the past 16 months, New Zealanders have been living remarkably normal lives; while the British recently rejoiced at “Freedom Day” by flooding pubs, restaurants and football matches, New Zealanders have been enjoying these liberties for over a year.

Similarly, the economic costs of Zero Covid have been relatively low so far. While the initial lockdown initially led to a drastic 11% decline of GDP, a generous wage subsidy scheme prevented job losses and growth rebounded 14.1% the following quarter. Admittedly, the recovery has been uneven, with the tourism sector — accounting for 18% of the economy — hit particularly hard by border closures. Nevertheless, with unemployment at 4% and debt-to-GDP ratio of 33%, the country’s economic performance compares favourably with most other nations.

So it seems that New Zealand’s commitment to elimination so far has been less “a never-ending nightmare” than an understandable policy with overall low costs. But that doesn’t mean that the country is out of the woods. For ultimately, the issue with Zero Covid is the need for an exit strategy — and this is where the current outbreak has exposed NZ.

On paper, the most obvious exit strategy from Zero Covid is for the whole world to follow it, eliminating the virus once and for all. But the fact that the vast majority of countries have deemed this unfeasible has left New Zealand vulnerable. After all, elimination in one country is not viable in the long term without total isolation from the rest of the world.

The other exit strategy is vaccination. Yet here, New Zealand has stumbled, with only 19.79% of the population fully vaccinated, leaving it second-last in the OECD. The main issue has been complacency. With Covid eliminated, vaccination has not been a burning priority. This resulted in not only the Government setting low vaccination targets that it then crowed about meeting, but among the population only 40% gave any thoughts to vaccination in July. Splendidly isolated in their own little bubble, New Zealanders convinced themselves that the pandemic was happening elsewhere, and did little to prepare for its return. ICU, capacity, for example, has only been increased by 63 beds since March last year, and less than two weeks ago, experts warned a Delta outbreak would risk collapsing the health system.

Now that the Delta strain has arrived, however, the folly of this complacent strategy has been exposed. As other countries have found, measures that worked in crushing the virus last year struggle with its more infectious variant. Cases have grown every day, and the lockdown has already been extended to two weeks, while experts gloomily proclaim the country is on “a knife edge”.

What this means for NZ’s commitment to elimination remains to be seen. If the Government gets on top of the outbreak, faith in Zero Covid will persist, bolstered by proof of succeeding where no other countries have with Delta. But this will only reinforce complacency, meaning underlying structural issues will remain unaddressed. Once the country finally does start to open to the world again, these will come to the fore; if Covid returns, lockdowns will once again be a tempting proposition, even with high vaccination coverage. Whether the population will remain tolerant of these remains an open question.

If, on the other hand, the lockdown extends into months, the low-cost nature of elimination will come to be questioned, especially as previous successes recede from view, while the rest of the world moves on from the virus. As Australia shows, overconfidence can quickly give way to recriminations once an elimination strategy leads to a never-ending spiral of lockdowns. In this case, New Zealand may find that Zero Covid is a dead end, from which there is no easy way out.

It could be that Arden’s government is starting to realise this. While committed to stamping out the current outbreak, its Covid-19 Response Minister has conceded that the highly infectious nature of Delta raises “big questions” about the strategy, and that “at some point, we will have to be more open in the future”. Whether a government which has so explicitly nailed its colours to Zero Covid can execute such a pivot remains to be seen.

Tom Chodor is a Senior Lecture in Politics and International Relations at Monash University.