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The coronavirus pandemic is not over
Letters to the Editor • Opinion
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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden announced the country will transition away from relying on harsh coronavirus restrictions on Oct 4. (Video: Reuters)

After months of back-and-forth between virus-free life and lockdowns, New Zealand will phase out its pursuit of zero covid-19 cases and instead rely on vaccines to allow the country to live with the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that New Zealand will transition from relying on harsh restrictions, instead using vaccines and “everyday public health measures” to keep residents safe. She added that the change was one “we were always going to make over time.”

But the delta variant, Ardern said, had “accelerated” this transition.

New Zealand’s admission that it cannot fully eliminate the virus and must instead learn to live with it marks a dramatic shift from the strategy it had employed throughout the pandemic — one that drew attention for the severe restrictions it involved, but also envy from some around the world who were living among widespread outbreaks.

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In August, the detection of one coronavirus case sent New Zealand into a lockdown that has endured for weeks in Auckland, its largest city. The country had gone six months without a locally transmitted case but in recent weeks has been dealing with an outbreak fueled by the highly contagious delta variant — although with borders closed and restrictions in place, the rate of infections pales in comparison with the surge in cases in countries such as the United States, where lockdowns have not been put in place since the winter.

“For this outbreak, it’s clear that long periods of heavy restrictions has not got us to zero cases,” Ardern said. “But that is okay. Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we do. So we can begin to change the way we do things.”

With a population of 5 million, New Zealand has recorded 4,408 total cases and 27 deaths, according to government data. On Tuesday morning, the government reported 26 new cases in the previous 24 hours.

The restrictions have, however, “given us the gift of time, time to get vaccinated,” she said. About 41 percent of New Zealand’s population is fully vaccinated, with 67 percent having received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to government data.

Ardern cautioned that the transition away from harsh restrictions would happen gradually, telling New Zealanders that “we cannot rush.”

The first round of easing restrictions displayed how gradual that process would be: Starting Tuesday shortly before midnight, people in Auckland, the country’s most populous area, will be allowed to meet with one other household, outdoors, with a maximum of 10 people.

“You can slowly see people you have missed over these past seven weeks, one household at a time,” Ardern said.

New Zealand’s shift in strategy aligns it with some other countries in the region that have pursued a method of living with the virus. Singapore, with one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, has chosen to gradually reopen without eliminating the virus, and officials in South Korea have indicated that the country might employ a similar strategy once more of its population is fully vaccinated.

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