Covid-19: Jacinda Ardern's shade on other countries' reopenings – Stuff.co.nz

While the Government has been quick to question the easing of restrictions in other countries, the Covid-19 stringency index tells another story which may embolden our own approach to elimination
The level of restrictions imposed on the daily lives of New Zealand has always been a delicate piece of public policy requiring a deft touch to sell to the people.
Last March, life in New Zealand changed almost overnight at the announcement of Level 4 restrictions – some of the strictest in the world.
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The upshot has been months without community transmission. New Zealanders were able to pick up business as usual, unless their livelihoods or lives were connected to the border. Safety came at the price of insularity – focusing on the ground beneath our feet rather than tying our fortunes to anything further afield.
Comparing New Zealand’s post-Covid status quo with that of other nations has become a burdensome task – Braeburn apples with blood oranges.
But as vaccination steadily replaces lockdown tactics as the first tool decision-makers reach for in the battle against Covid, New Zealanders could be excused for feeling a little behind other parts of the world.
Perhaps it’s in an attempt to pre-empt these feeling that Prime Minister Jacinda Arden keeps returning to the same well in her messages to the public.
Reminding Kiwis of the restrictions even highly-vaccinated countries are still facing has become a well-worn route for the Prime Minister.
It would certainly comfort New Zealanders to know that despite the lockdown, our cocktail of Covid responses still has one of the best ratios of safety and freedom.
Often this means pointing out that as other countries ‘open up’, they still remain pretty much closed.
But how much of that is factual, and how much of it is just what New Zealanders would like to think?
At a post-cabinet press conference earlier this month, Ardern criticised the assumption that other countries have left restrictions behind.
“Perhaps because we don’t see so much coverage of it any more, and perhaps because it’s been such a long time – it’s easy to assume that other countries don’t have restrictions,” she said. “In fact, most countries have never lost their restrictions. They’ve had them through this entire outbreak.”
In response to allegations in Parliament of a slow vaccine rollout earlier this month, Ardern questioned just how well some countries she said some MPs hold up as “beacons of vaccination” had actually been doing.
“Countries that started their vaccination programmes in earnest in February and even peaked around April or May, in some cases still have restrictions in place,” she said. “They still have gathering limits in place, they still have things that are constraining their everyday lives, and in those places where they don’t have that, they have record hospitalisations.”
However, comparisons show these restrictions generally don’t hold a candle to those used in New Zealand.
The Covid-19 stringency index is a composite measure developed by the University of Oxford which takes into account restrictions such as school closures, workplace closures and travel bans.
By this measure, on Monday, New Zealand – or more accurately Auckland, due to the index’s choice to show the response level of strictest sub-region – has the seventh most stringent approach in the world, behind Uganda, Trinidad and Tobago, Seychelles, Fiji, Venezuela and Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, Denmark dropped all restrictions earlier this month, despite still reporting hundred of new cases a day.
Although the country has a population close to the size of New Zealand’s, greater healthcare capacity and neighbours right on the doorstep mean it has faced a different pandemic since the beginning.
Nevertheless, as it dropped its last restriction, Ardern cautioned New Zealanders that Denmark wasn’t out of the woods just yet.
“They are continuing of course to keep an eye on what winter means for them and what school children going back into learning environments mean for them,” she said. “The whole world is tentative at the moment.”
‘Tentative’ – it’s an odd word to use to describe Danish authorities as they insist the virus is under control while hundreds of cases pop up a day.
Meanwhile, the United States signalled last week it would soon reopen to fully-vaccinated travellers from 33 countries with high rates of the virus, and Norway followed its southern neighbour in throwing out the Covid rulebook.
For better or worse, much of the world is opening up – but the mood in Wellington at the 1 pm press conference seems to be to minimise this.
Auckland is under much stricter regulation than many other places in the world this week. Any diverting from the sacrifices of social isolation and a city stopped near dead by lockdown by instead examining countries in totally different circumstances can overlook the important context of this.
New Zealand’s response to the Delta outbreak was indeed swift and severe as it gunned for total elimination of the virus.
Researchers looking across a range of countries and their different responses found those that pursued elimination rather than mitigation have not only had fewer deaths, but also better protection from economic fallout and over the span of the pandemic, less impact on the civil liberties of their people.
They found elimination-seeking countries like New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, Japan and South Korea have had around 25 times fewer Covid deaths than other OECD countries that went for ‘living with the virus’.
And across the OECD, economic growth is in the red – bar the five countries that chose elimination, for each of whom GDP growth had returned to pre-pandemic levels in early 2021.
Freedoms were also most severely impacted by countries who chose mitigation, as eschewing swift lockdown measures early on has often mean having tighter and longer lockdowns later on.
But much of the upshot of this strategy presents itself in the long-term, and total elimination wasn’t built in a day.
Ardern tends to downplay the ‘opening up’ of other countries, and in doing so puts out some of the sparks of jealousy that could otherwise grow into flames of disquiet in a country of people still very much secluded from the world.
It also means a focus on the right now which overlooks a comparison with other countries across the entire timespan of the pandemic – from its beginning at the end of 2019, into an indefinite future.
Trying to make comparisons with what life across much of the EU is like this September misses the larger point.
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