Analysis: New Zealand has dedicated itself to going hard and going early against Covid-19. When compared with other countries, how did we do?

When Jacinda Ardern announced a requirement for everyone entering the country to self-isolate for 14 days, she told the nation what New Zealand’s strategy for the months ahead would be: “We must go hard and we must go early”.

Five days later, she announced the borders would close. Four days after that, Ardern said the country would be going into lockdown.

Clearly, New Zealand has gone quickly – but how early have we gone in comparison with other countries? Newsroom has compared New Zealand’s response to that of six other countries that are similar in size, population, culture or region.

Covid-19 in comparable countries | Newsroom
Accurate at time of publication

Of the seven countries, New Zealand has the fewest confirmed cases as of April 5, according to figures obtained from Our World In Data. It is followed closely by Singapore and then at a greater distance by Denmark, Ireland, Norway, Australia and Israel, in that order.

Five of the seven nations implemented the sort of ban that Ardern announced on March 14 – a requirement for all people entering the country to self-isolate for 14 days. Israel was the first to do so, acting on March 9 when it had just 96 cases. The below chart shows the number of confirmed cases in each country on the day they implemented the soft travel ban.

Spread of Covid-19 at time of implementation of  mandatory quarantine for all entrants
Accurate at time of publication

New Zealand acted by far the earliest from a comparative standpoint, when it had just eight cases of the virus. Even then, however, the Government had already received advice warning that 37,000 New Zealanders could be killed if no action was taken to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Despite being the first country to implement a soft ban on travel, Israel’s cases have since spiralled out of control. The below chart shows the progress of the virus in the five countries that required self-isolation from travellers.

Spread of Covid-19 after implementation of  mandatory quarantine for all entrants
Accurate at time of publication

On March 19, five days after turning to an Israel-style travel ban, Ardern went further and ordered the borders closed by midnight. Yet again, New Zealand was the earliest in doing so, in terms of the number of cases in each country at the time borders shut.

Spread of Covid-19 at time of border closure
Accurate at time of publication.

The fast imposition of a closed borders policy may have spared New Zealand from a further influx of infected tourists, although returning Kiwis continue to raise concerns and prompt calls for centralised quarantine of everyone entering the country

Spread of Covid-19 after borders closed
Accurate at time of publication.

In two of the three countries that acted latest in the progression of the virus, cases have increased by 10 times, while the third, Denmark, saw fivefold increase. Nonetheless, Israel, which moved nearly as fast as New Zealand, was unable to avoid the virus’ exponential increase.

Spread of Covid-19 at time of lockdown
Accurate at time of publication.

This could be due to the fact that Israel, alongside Singapore and Australia, has yet to put in place a total lockdown. Of the six comparable countries, Israel and Australia have seen the most significant rise in cases, while Singapore has managed to blunt the virus’ spread through a robust testing and contact tracing regime and strict enforcement of quarantine provisions.

Spread of Covid-19 after lockdown
Accurate at time of publication.

New Zealand’s lockdown came into place when the country had just 262 cases. The next fastest was Norway, which shut everything down when it still had less than 500 cases. Although the chart above shows Norway’s cases continuing to spike, it has still fared better than Scandinavian neighbour Sweden, which has yet to implement a lockdown.

Covid-19 in Scandinavia
Accurate at time of publication.

Clearly, New Zealand has gone early. This might be why epidemiologist Michael Baker says New Zealand is the only Western country that has a chance to eradicate Covid-19, instead of just containing and managing it until a vaccine is developed. If the lockdown succeeds, stringent social distancing measures can be eased and life can return to something approaching normal, even if the borders remain closed or entry to the country severely curtailed.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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