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New Zealand relaxes restrictions, no new cases

Ian P. Johnson
May 14, 2020

New Zealanders have emerged from lockdown with no new infections in three days. But the isolated nation's health chief has warned of a second coronavirus wave heading into the South Pacific winter.

File photo: NZ beach
Image: Reuters/R. McDowall

New Zealand lowered its COVID-19 guard to "Level 2" on Thursday, with most businesses, including gyms, able to resume — but proprietors remained nervous, partly due to the suspension of mainstay-earning tourism when the lockdown began.

A staggered alert, introduced on 21 March, was raised four days later to a Level-4 isolation in household "bubbles," after all border ports had been closed to non-residents. Tourists, including some 12,000 Germans, were gradually evacuated.

Schools in New Zealand are to resume next Monday but bars must wait a week. Social gatherings should be kept small — 10 people or less, said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Border restrictions would long remain under the "new normal."

New Zealand media reported early Friday no new cases in three days after Ardern's center-left-led coalition had unveiled budget relief Thursday — which included an 8-week extension of wage subsidies, funding for arts and sport, interim pay cuts for politicians and senior officials — ahead of elections due September.

'Flight to freedom'

As domestic air travel resumed, Radio New Zealand (RNZ) quoted one passenger heading from the South Island's Nelson city to the capital Wellington as saying: "I feel like I'm on my first flight to freedom."

Psychologists at Waikato University on the North Island, who surveyed more than 1,000 New Zealanders, found that many had experience dramatic lifestyle changes.

Most were worried about infecting others or losing loved ones, with more than 30% experiencing high levels of anxiety and/or depression, senior lecturer Carrie Barber told RNZ. 

Many had connected with friends and reactivated old hobbies.

On track for elimination

Director general of health Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, cited by the New Zealand Herald newspaper, said New Zealanders were on track for viral elimination.

But, he warned of an ongoing risk of a second wave as the southern hemisphere enters winter. People should maintain physical distancing, hand hygiene and stay at home if sick, he urged. 

"This is a stubborn virus and we don't want to be going down the path where we see spikes again, said Bloomfield with total confirmed or probable cases since March at 1,497, with only 65 of them classified as still active.

Normal flu worries as well

New Zealand's Health Ministry was also focused on ensuring sufficient doses of vaccine to treat normal influenza as the South Pacific winter approach. 

Mainly an agricultural exporter, New Zealand has long run biological checks on incoming goods and mostly airborne travelers, including their footwear, to stop the entry of foreign livestock and fruit diseases.

During the global 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, returning World War I soldiers spread that virus, leaving New Zealand with some 9,000 dead.

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