New Zealanders are mourning the end of the COVID-19 elimination strategy, worried about what the future will bring after their Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced on Monday that the country is moving to a strategy of virus suppression.
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“It is a kind of mourning for what we lose,” says microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, one of the leading scientific communicators on New Zealand’s response to the pandemic. “We are clearly losing alert level one, and the freedoms and privileges that come with it.”
Over the past 18 months, the country has remained steadfast in its “zero COVID-19” strategy, and has been rewarded with the best results in the world during the pandemic: an extremely low number of hospitalizations and deaths. , few restrictions in daily life, low levels of unemployment and a solid economic recovery.
But this Monday, almost two months after the first outbreak of the delta variant in its territory, the country has entered the unknown, moving away for the first time from the strict elimination strategy, despite the fact that vaccination rates remain low. .
Ardern has introduced the change with a three-step plan to allow outdoor gatherings and the return of early childhood education, before reopening business and hospitality. It comes at a time when only 40% of the total population and 47% of the target population (over 12 years of age) are fully immunized – 65% of the total population (and 77% of the target) have the minus one dose. Vaccination rates are especially low among Maori, with only about two-thirds of those in the general population.
Health experts agree that there is likely to be a further increase in cases, a situation that journalist Marc Daalder has called “level three: now with picnics and hospitalizations.” For a country that has so far not had to deal with COVID-19 transmission or disease in a generalized way, all the enthusiasm there could be for easing restrictions is tempered by fear or, in some cases, anger. , given the cost that this could entail.
Fear of inequality
“So far we have had a surprising pandemic,” says Wiles, with schools and businesses open, and a relatively normal life running its course. “Most of the rest of the world has not had that; or, if they have, it has been very dangerous and people have gotten sick and died; I’m not sure if people have realized this.”
According to Wiles, part of the sadness is that the removal has proven to be a very equitable strategy because it protected almost all New Zealanders. When the country changes course to allow community transmission of an outbreak, the results will follow the same course as in the rest of the world: uneven with the poor, people with disabilities or ethnic groups who suffer other disadvantages.
“Not all New Zealanders will perceive our change in strategy the same; the rich and privileged will continue to live a rich and privileged life, in which they may not be affected, compared to other communities that may end up devastated, and that it’s the hardest thing for me to understand, “says Wiles. “This was an opportunity where we could have done things differently, and it hasn’t been that way.”
During the announcement of the changes, Ardern said that the activities that are being allowed “are not considered high risk in our current situation.” “However, it will make a substantial difference for Auckland residents to continue with restrictions that do make a difference.”
Many Auckland residents will undoubtedly be relieved to be able to take the children to kindergarten, and to see friends and family again, although with the forecast of rain in the coming days, picnics will not be imminent. But on social media, many are expressing their frustration and sadness. “People are apprehensive and mourning the loss of security that the old alert level system provided for so long,” says Sarb Johal, a psychologist. “Do not hesitate, it is difficult to get rid of it.”
A criticized decision
Some have criticized the announcement as confusing, contrary to the trend that has been followed so far by the country’s extremely clear communication on the pandemic.
According to communication consultant and former employee of the ruling Labor Party, Neale Jones, the strategy change announcement is “a long and confusing note of surrender” as well as “a failure, both political and regulatory.” “The announcement is messy, complex and will not keep people safe, it looks like a capitulation at a time when we still have a lot to vaccinate,” says strategy and communication expert Asher Wilson-Goldman.
The Greens party, which is usually the Labor government’s closest ally, broke with Ardern on Monday to express its rejection of the policy and claim that it will cost too high a cost for vulnerable New Zealanders. “Elimination has protected thousands of lives in Aotearoa [nombre maorí de Nueva Zelanda]. We have to stay the course so that everyone is safe. This is not the time to change our strategy, especially when so many of our vulnerable communities remain in danger, “said Greens co-leader Marama Davidson.
“The Government’s planned roadmap out of COVID-19 puts vulnerable communities, including the Maori and Pasifika, at serious risk. (…) Elimination is still possible if we work together to stop the spread.” Davidson has said. “Our public health system has held out so far, but we are concerned that loosening restrictions too soon could put a strain on nurses, doctors and all the hard-working health system workers on whom we depend to keep us safe.” .
Other parties have also harshly criticized the decision. ACT libertarian party leader David Seymour has said: “Being told that we could afford a slower vaccine rollout because we had no community transmission of COVID is one of the most reckless things a government in New Zealand has done and now we are paying the price. ”
Translated by Francisco de Zárate