Don't like Canada's new mandatory quarantine? It's part of why New Zealand is now back to normal
By March 20, New Zealand closed its border to basically anyone except residents, directly in opposition to the recommendations of the WHO
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On Friday the Government of Canada announced a new program prescribing mandatory supervised hotel quarantines for all travellers entering the country. It’s one of the strictest measures yet imposed in the fight against COVID-19, but it’s a measure with good precedent: New Zealand, one of the most enthusiastic adopters of mandatory hotel quarantines, has been ranked the best performing county in an index of almost 100 countries based on their containment of the coronavirus.
As we here in Canada undertake the grim task of reviewing our ICU triage protocols, New Zealanders are packing into stadiums without masks and celebrating New Year’s Eve in dense crowds just like the old days. COVID-19 has killed 18,000 Canadians and counting, while New Zealand is at 25 deaths. The Pacific Island nation had a breach this week, with a couple of positive cases of the South African COVID variant, all linked to the same quarantine facility in Auckland. While New Zealand has been lucky, it largely has itself to credit for its success.
Being an island in the middle of nowhere does help
New Zealand is a developed country plugged into world trade with a vibrant tourist sector, so there’s no inherent geographic reason they couldn’t have been hit by COVID-19 as hard as everybody else. Notably, another English-speaking island nation — Ireland — counted the world’s highest COVID-19 rate recently. But when it comes to containing pandemics, it’s no accident that some of the countries best able to ward off COVID-19 (Taiwan, Japan, Singapore) have been islands. If Canada wants to close its borders, it has to worry about more than 100 land crossings with the United States, not to mention a porous 9,000 kilometre border littered with illicit conduits. But when New Zealand wants to crack down on who gets in, all it really has to do is keep an eye on its six international airports.
The country’s isolation and small size also means it had far fewer foreign arrivals potentially seeding New Zealand communities with COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic. In all of 2019, 3.8 million people entered New Zealand from abroad, including both tourists and citizens returning home. By contrast, in 2019 Canada counted 22.1 million foreign arrivals and 12.3 million of its own citizens returning home from foreign countries. In addition, while most foreigners coming into New Zealand hail from Australia — another country largely sidestepped by the pandemic — Canada had to contend with having a number of direct air links with many of the earliest COVID-19 epicentres, such as Italy, Iran and New York City.
Borders closed much, much earlier
Even after China imposed a complete lockdown on Wuhan, the city that spawned COVID-19, Canadian public health officials vigorously resisted all requests for a travel ban or even basic screening of air travellers from the affected areas of China. In one statement that has failed to age well, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam told a Commons committee on January 29, 2020 “as I have always said, the epidemic of fear could be more difficult to control than the epidemic itself.” New Zealand, like its Pacific Rim neighbours such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, had no such qualms. On February 2, before it had even recorded any confirmed cases, New Zealand completely closed its border with China and implemented tight screening on all other incoming travellers. By March 20, they had ramped up border controls to shut out basically anyone except New Zealand residents.
These measures were directly in opposition to the recommendations of the World Health Organization, who at the time were claiming that travel restrictions were “ineffective in most cases.” The border closures did not prevent COVID-19 from breaking out in New Zealand communities, but when paired with some of the world’s strictest lockdown measures, it allowed the country to completely purge itself of active cases by August. “Rapid, science-based risk assessment linked to early, decisive government action was critical,” concluded an assessment in the New England Journal of
The Kiwis take their quarantine way more seriously
It is very, very difficult to get into New Zealand right now. Even if you’re a New Zealand citizen, returning home is a highly regulated process that requires booking a spot in what’s known as Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ). All arrivals are immediately sent to government-managed hotels where they are isolated for 14 days, provided with meals and tested regularly. The system is currently booked up until April, so any Kiwi looking to jet overseas for a wedding or to sit at the deathbed of a loved one faces the prospect of being locked out of their home country for at least three months.
Until the new restrictions, Canada’s quarantine of international travellers, by contrast, has depended largely on the honour system. As of January 7, incoming travellers to Canada needed to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test, but prior to that the only real requirement was that foreign arrivals needed to pledge to quarantine for 14 days. Incredibly, Canada didn’t implement even basic airport temperature checks until July.
The New Zealand system is expensive (roughly $6,000 per arrival) but it’s very effective. As of October, 2020, the MIQ system had caught 215 cases of travellers entering New Zealand with a Covid infection.
There is much less red tape getting in the way
The critical early days of Canada’s response to COVID-19 was constantly hamstrung by different departments tripping over each other and often providing conflicting information. All 13 of Canada’s provinces and territories had to devise their own independent COVID-19 response plans, often with contradictory measures. In Alberta, neighbourhood-level COVID-19 data was provided from the get-go without controversy. Next door in B.C., meanwhile, health authorities claimed for months that such granular data would make the pandemic worse. Meanwhile, inaction at higher levels often led to massive gaps in Canada’s response. In May, for instance, Alberta had to dispatch its own screeners to Calgary and Edmonton airports after reports of federal authorities failing to provide basic quarantine guidance to international arrivals.
By contrast, New Zealand is a country of only five million people with a unitary government; they have one kind of license plate, one tax authority and one ministry of health managing the COVID-19 response. More than 80 per cent of New Zealanders have retained faith in their country’s lockdown measures in part because of consistent and honest messaging from a single source. On a broader level, New Zealand is also a country that has become adept at tackling logistical challenges on its own. When the nearest help is a three-hour flight away in Australia, New Zealand doesn’t have the luxury of neglecting defence, disaster preparedness or emergency response.
The parts of Canada that acted most like New Zealand have fared best
Canada’s pandemic response has been marred with obvious oversights that made the situation much worse than it needed to be. Most notably, a cascade of policy failures ensured that long-term care homes would be the deadliest in the world when it came to COVID-19. But there are pockets of the country that have largely avoided the carnage seen in the likes of Montreal or Toronto. Vancouver Island’s 900,000 people have suffered only 17 deaths. The Atlantic provinces have consistently kept cases at single digits despite largely keeping their economies open, and Nunavut now has zero active cases after experiencing only one death.
In all these cases, the success was due largely to the region’s efforts to control who was allowed in. The Atlantic provinces banded together into a quarantine bubble that requires pre-travel approval and mandatory self-isolation for outsiders. Vancouver Island has been able to informally cut itself off from the mainland by forbidding non-essential travel on BC Ferries. And Nunavut has had the most New Zealand-y policy of all by operating its own government-supervised quarantine hotels.
New Zealand’s response hasn’t been perfect. While New Zealanders have generally proved willing participants in their government’s plan to become an epidemiological fortress, they’ve still done dumb things like visit each other’s rooms in quarantine hotels. But in basic terms, eliminating COVID-19 in a population is easy: Control who gets in, and then mercilessly isolate everyone else until the virus has been denied a chance to spread. In the end, New Zealand has simply proved more willing and capable to do so.
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