Stanford Professor of Medicine and Great Barrington Declaration co-author Dr. Jay Bhattacharya has written an evaluation of New Zealand’s Zero Covid strategy in Spiked. While initially successful in eliminating the virus from the island nation, says Dr. Bhattacharya, the success of the strategy was time-limited and came at great cost.
The Zero Covid success, however, was far from costless or complete. Closed borders meant many ex-pats faced steep hurdles returning home, even to care for sick family members. The two-month-long lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic led many to delay essential health services, subsequently causing overburdened hospital systems and long delays in medical care for tens of thousands of New Zealanders that continue to this day. Despite effectively zero community spread of Covid in 2021, the average of weekly mortality levels was higher than expected, given mortality patterns from before the pandemic.
There was economic damage as well during the Zero Covid period. New Zealand’s typically robust tourist industry collapsed as overseas visitors stopped coming. The New Zealand economy shrank by 2% in 2020 despite Zero Covid, recovered to grow by 5.6% in 2021, but shrank again in the first quarter of 2022 as Omicron cases spread throughout the nation. In July 2022, inflation reached 7.3%, sharply reducing the purchasing power of New Zealanders.
Looming over the citizens of New Zealand throughout its Zero Covid glory days was the threat of another lockdown whenever the public-health authorities found even a single case on the island. After 100 days with no community transmission, in August 2020, the emergence of a few cases led Ardern’s Government to impose a stay-at-home order in Auckland and restrictions on gatherings in the rest of the country. This pattern repeated itself over and over during the pandemic, often including sharp restrictions on freedom of movement across the country. During one lockdown in September 2021, two enterprising citizens smuggled contraband Kentucky Fried Chicken into Auckland from outside the city limits and were arrested for the crime.
Dr. Bhattacharya notes that despite the impetus for ending the Zero Covid policy as rapidly as possible, the New Zealand Government “dawdled in its vaccine rollout and when the Delta wave of the virus hit the world, only a small fraction of New Zealand’s population was vaccinated, so the lockdown restrictions continued”.
The aim was to reopen once enough of the population were vaccinated to hit ‘herd immunity’, but it turns out this was based on a false confidence in the vaccines.
Unfortunately, New Zealand bet wrongly on the vaccine-induced herd-immunity approach. The problem is that while the vaccine prevents severe disease and death due to Covid, it does not stop the disease from spreading. This fact was impossible to know with certainty in late 2020.
By late 2021, country after country with high vaccination levels experienced large waves of Covid cases. The only way this was possible was if the vaccine did not stop people from becoming infected and transmitting the disease onward. High-quality papers published in top medical journals demonstrated that vaccination protected against infection for only a few months after vaccination. Boosting with additional vaccine doses – especially in the Omicron era – also does not prevent infection.
From this evidence, it was clear that New Zealand’s herd-immunity strategy would inevitably fail. When it finally opened up, it could expect a significant wave of Covid cases, which is precisely what happened.
The Omicron wave hit the world in late 2021 and early 2022, with a highly infectious variant capable of evading immunity and infecting both people who were Covid recovered and vaccinated people in high numbers.
By February 2022, like other developed countries, New Zealand had successfully vaccinated a large proportion of its population, elderly and young, vulnerable and non-vulnerable alike. The pressure on the government to relax the lockdowns was immense. Finally, even as a wave of new cases hit New Zealand in late February/early March 2022, PM Ardern jettisoned Zero Covid and adopted a ‘suppression’ policy. In April, Ardern’s government rescinded New Zealand’s vaccine mandates and passport policies. The Covid surge that started in late February continues to today. Zero Covid lockdowns have not returned, though mask mandates remain in place in select venues.
Dr. Bhattacharya unequivocally concludes that, “ultimately, New Zealand’s Zero Covid strategy was immoral, incoherent and a grand failure”.
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