New Zealand lockdown
Closed shops stand on an empty street during a lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus in Wellington, New Zealand, on Thursday, April 2, 2020. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Dubai: At a time when deaths due to COVID-19 are rising by the hundreds in Europe and the US, some countries, including an island nation in the Pacific, have bucked the trend.

New Zealand, with a population of about 5 million people, has reported 1,210 cases of coronavirus and only one death, an elderly woman with existing health problems. In fact, the number of cases reported daily has shown a downward trend with 50 cases on Wednesday, a drop from 54 on Tuesday and 67 on Monday, Reuters reported.

The numbers can be compared to those of some countries in Europe and the US. More than 12,000 people have died in the US, above 13,000 in Spain and 17,000 in Italy.

So how has New Zealand managed to keep its numbers down?

Borders closed

On March 19, New Zealand closed it borders to foreigners as the coronavirus was rampaging Italy and spreading through the US. The country gets about four million international visitors a year, nearly as many as its own population.

Two days later Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered a televised address from her office announcing a coronavirus response alert plan involving four stages, with full lockdown being Level 4.

Senior leaders spoke to her on the phone the following day and urged her to move the country straight to Level 4, Washington Post reported.

"We were hugely worried about what was happening in Italy and Spain," said one of them, Stephen Tindall, founder of the Warehouse, New Zealand's largest retailer told Washington Post.

Act as if you have COVID-19. This will save lives.

- Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister

"If we didn't shut down quickly enough, the pain was going to go on for a very long time," he said. "It's inevitable that we will have to shut down anyway, so we would rather it be sharp and short," Tindall said.

On March 23, Ardern gave the country 48 hours to prepare for a lockdown. "We currently have 102 cases," she said. "But so did Italy once."

Strict lockdown

And so began a lockdown so strict that swimming at the beach and hunting in bushland were banned. Everyone had to stay at home for four weeks unless they worked in an essential job such as health care, or were going to the supermarket or exercising near their home. Offices and schools were shut and all non-essential services, bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms, cinemas, pools, museums, libraries and playgrounds were closed for a month.

Jacinda Ardern
Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's prime minister, speaks during a news conference at the Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, on Monday, March 30, 2020. Police said a website set up on March 29 for complaints about people or businesses failing to abide by the strict new regime crashed when it was overwhelmed by 4,200 notifications. Ardern has been forced to clarify what people are allowed to do during the unprecedented four-week period of self-isolation aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus. Image Credit: Bloomberg

“Act as if you have COVID-19,” the people were told. “This will save lives.”

Ardern has conveyed her simple messages regularly at news conferences where she has discussed everything from the price of vegetables to wage subsidies. But she also regularly gives updates and answers questions on Facebook, including one done while sitting at home.

Action against minister

Along the way, Ardern has not hesitated in taking action against her own health minister for breaching lockdown rules.

Health minister David Clark paid the price for driving his family to the beach in the early stages of the lockdown. "Under normal conditions I would sack the minister of health. What he did was wrong, and there are no excuses," Ardern said.

Instead, the prime minister demoted Clark to the bottom of the cabinet rankings and removed him as associate finance minister.

Clark said in a statement that he had been "an idiot, and I understand why people will be angry with me".

Good response from the public

The people have responded well to the lockdown call and the results can be seen in the numbers. Most of the cases in the country can be linked to international travel, making contact tracing relatively easy, and many are consolidated into identifiable clusters.

As there is little evidence of community transmission, the hospitals are not overflowing.

While other countries have been trying to slow the disease and flatten the curve, New Zealand has tried to stamp it out decisively. And with good effect.

Questions are now being asked about whether there will be an early return to normalcy, especially during Easter.

Ardern said on Wednesday that there was no plan to relax the tough restrictions during Easter and urged everyone to avoid any travel during the long Easter weekend, in mid-April, Reuters reported.

"We may yet see bumps along the way but I remain cautiously optimistic that we are starting to turn a corner," Ardern told a media briefing in Wellington. "Please do stay at home, stay to save lives and enjoy your 'staycation'."