In late April, New Zealand’s public health officials announced that the spread of Covid-19 had ceased within its borders. The world cheered, and headlines trumpeted the strength and compassion of the country’s political leadership and its science-first policies as an important cause of its success.
These factors certainly helped New Zealand crush its epidemic curve, says John Crump, MD, a global health epidemiologist at the University of Otago in Auckland, but they don’t exist in a vacuum: New Zealand also has innate characteristics that both enabled and incentivized the approach its leaders took to eliminating Covid-19, he says — and it’s impossible to fully understand the success of its approach without acknowledging them.
Geography helps. So does fast action.
Because New Zealand is a geographically isolated and sparsely populated island country, infectious diseases that plague other parts of the world are often delayed in breaching its borders and spreading widely once they do. Working against the country, meanwhile, is its relatively low capacity to care for a massive wave of severely ill people: a 2018 analysis suggested that the nation had one-quarter of the per-capita number of intensive care beds with ventilator capacity as the United States.
For these reasons, New Zealand’s approach to most pathogens of pandemic potential is “stamping them out” rather than containing them, says Crump — and its approach to Covid-19 was no different. The country identified its first case in late February, more than a month after the U.S., South Korea, and Italy identified theirs. That delay “bought New Zealand time to learn from what was happening elsewhere” and to integrate other countries’ successes and challenges into its own plan, he says. So in late March, when the country shut down nonessential businesses, banned most domestic travel, and closed its borders, its tactics received broad public support from a public that had seen other countries suffer from different strategies. It helped that New Zealanders have a particularly high level of trust for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who earned high praise for her unifying and compassionate style…