As Cases Skyrocket, New Zealand Finally Faces Its Covid Reckoning

As Cases Skyrocket, New Zealand Finally Faces Its Covid Reckoning

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — For much of the past two years, Covid-19 was a phantom presence in New Zealand, a plague experienced mostly through news reports from faraway lands.

Now, suddenly, it has become a highly personal threat.

New Zealand is being walloped by a major outbreak of the Omicron variant, with the virus spreading at what may be the fastest rate in the world. On Thursday, the country reported 23,194 new cases, a once unthinkable number in a small island nation of about five million people where the record daily case count before the current wave was in the low hundreds.

The explosion in cases has come as the government, under political pressure, loosened its strict regulations meant to prevent the spread of the virus, and as the highly transmissible Omicron reduced the effectiveness of the controls that remained.

That has filled many New Zealanders with anxiety as they learn to live with the pandemic-related risk that the rest of the world has grappled with since early 2020.

“For the vast majority of the pandemic, most New Zealanders didn’t know anyone who had Covid-19. That’s changing massively now,” said Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland. “This is the first time most New Zealanders are dealing with Covid-19 in their own homes.”

While the ever-growing case numbers may be unsettling, New Zealand was perhaps as well positioned as it could have been for its deferred reckoning with the virus.

Earlier in the pandemic, before the population was widely vaccinated, the country kept infections and deaths very low through a stringent quarantine system for incoming travelers, lockdowns during outbreaks and significant isolation periods for those who tested positive or were close contacts.

Caseloads often stood at zero, and life for long periods resembled a time before the pandemic. Even after New Zealand began to shift away from a “Covid zero” strategy following the emergence of the Delta variant, case numbers remained relatively small.

By the time of the arrival of the Omicron variant — which is more contagious but often produces milder symptoms — the country was well protected. Ninety-five percent of New Zealanders over age 12 have been vaccinated, and 57 percent have had a booster shot.

With this combination of strict measures and widespread inoculation, the country has reported just 56 virus deaths throughout the pandemic — by far the lowest rate of any major democracy.

But New Zealand’s initial caution toward the virus became politically untenable this year as citizens living overseas protested limits on their return and business advocates called for fewer restrictions.

In response, the government weakened its pandemic controls. Last week, it removed many self-isolation requirements, and on Monday it announced that vaccinated New Zealanders could freely enter the country without isolating or quarantining.

Now, with the virus spreading rapidly, the country has been forced to undergo a “big psychological shift,” said Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago in Dunedin.

While the approach to managing the virus was once one of “collective protection,” Dr. Baker said, it is now one of “much more individual and family responsibility.”

The government has tried to prepare the public for this shift by warning that New Zealanders’ experience of the virus would change. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted last week that “very soon we will all know people who have Covid-19 or we will potentially get it ourselves.”

Modelers estimate that each Omicron-positive New Zealander is infecting an average of 4.64 other people — the highest rate among 180 countries analyzed. Experts believe that half the country could be infected within three months.

“We’re finally experiencing the difficult side of exponential growth,” said Dr. Wiles, the University of Auckland microbiologist. “I feel quite nervous about the rest of the year.”

Jin Russell, a community and developmental pediatrician at the University of Auckland, said that some vaccinated New Zealanders just wanted to get on with their lives.

But for families with members who are at heightened risk from the virus, it’s an unnerving time. “And then there are other people who continue to mourn the elimination strategy and are living quite restricted lives as they try to avoid or delay catching the virus,” Dr. Russell said.

Approximately 40 percent of New Zealanders are now working from home, according to Brad Olsen, a senior economist at Infometrics, a consultancy in Wellington. On Tuesday, lawmakers participated remotely in parliamentary debates for the first time.

Major outbreaks have also occurred in other countries, like Australia, that loosened strict pandemic measures. Australia’s spike, however, occurred during the Southern Hemisphere summer, which Dr. Baker said significantly slowed the virus’s spread.

New Zealand’s outbreak, by contrast, has come as workplaces settled into the business year and students headed back to school and college. Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s director-general of health, has called it a “nationwide superspreader event.”

At the University of Otago, for example, students hosted a series of large parties at which hundreds of people were exposed to an Omicron-positive person. The police intervened to prevent another party at which Covid-positive students intended to invite dozens of friends who were also infected.

“Police advised them that this is a stupid idea,” Anthony Bond, a senior police sergeant, said at the time.

While these were a minority of students, over the weeks since, the virus has spread rapidly in large apartments with multiple people, according to the president of the local students association, Melissa Lama.

By Tuesday, there were over 3,200 active cases of Covid-19 in Dunedin, with many hundreds more people self-isolating as household contacts. Students are anxious about the virus’s spread and frustrated with the individual pressure they feel about managing it, Ms. Lama said.

Elsewhere in the country, anger over the government’s Covid-19 response produced a different kind of superspreader event. In Wellington, the capital, hundreds of demonstrators opposed to vaccine mandates occupied the grounds surrounding Parliament in an occasionally violent protest that lasted for over three weeks.

After serious clashes between the police and demonstrators, multiple officers began reporting Covid-19 infections. Partly because of the health risk, officers battled protesters to clear the occupation on Wednesday.

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