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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Serena Solomon in Auckland

New Zealand Covid response saved 20,000 lives, study says

Then New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern receives a Covid vaccination on January 17, 2022.
Then New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern receives a Covid vaccination on January 17, 2022. A new study suggests her government’s pandemic strategy saved 20,000 lives. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

New Zealand’s globally praised Covid response saved about 20,000 lives, new research shows.

The report, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, looks at the impact of the nation’s strategy, which included an almost complete international border closure for two years and strict lockdowns for days or weeks at a time.

The result was a Covid death rate per million people that was 80% lower than in the US. The report also calls for some preventive measures used during the pandemic, including mask-wearing in medical facilities, to continue in order to combat Covid and other more common respiratory infections, including RSV and influenza.

“I would hate for us to go back to really shrugging our shoulders and saying, we don’t care about [infectious diseases] or that there’s nothing we can do about them. That’s fatalism,” said professor Michael Baker from the University of Otago, who was instrumental in New Zealand’s pandemic response and is one of the report’s 16 co-authors.

The report demonstrates how the ongoing impact of regular respiratory infections is similar to the pandemic’s burden. “It’s just that pandemics get a lot more attention and justifiably so because they can be very devastating and disruptive,” said Baker.

The 20,000 lives the report claims were spared is based on what New Zealand would have experienced if it had a similar Covid mortality rate to the US, where well over a million people have died so far, said Baker.

This was achieved while many in New Zealand lived relatively normal lives throughout much of the pandemic compared to other high income nations that maintained limited, but consistent restrictions as the virus continued circulating in those countries.

In New Zealand, there have been about 3,300 deaths since the start of the pandemic in 2020. Predicted deaths relating to Covid will probably reach about 1,000 people in 2023, down from 2,448 deaths in 2022. This compares to the estimated 500 deaths from influenza each year in New Zealand, deaths that largely didn’t happen during the pandemic with Covid measures in place.

The report recommends improving indoor ventilation to decrease respiratory illness transmission and continued financial support to encourage people to self-isolate when sick. The New Zealand government recently ended a scheme that supported sick leave. The report also recommends mask use in medical facilities and on public transport during periods of high infection rates for respiratory illnesses.

Revisiting some of the measures used during the pandemic might be difficult for some New Zealanders due to the misinformation, according to Dr Siouxsie Wiles, an associate professor of medical microbiology at the University of Auckland. She was not involved in the report.

“I think there was both this misinformation and disinformation trying to get people to actively forget what we experience, even belittle what we achieved,” said Wiles.

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