On a crisp afternoon, four cyclists pedalled mountain bikes along the serpentine two-lane byway on the southern shores of Lake Wanaka. This part of New Zealand’s mountainous South Island typically sees clear days in April, with weekends bringing a buzz of tourist vehicles and campers bound for the terminus at Mount Aspiring National Park. But on this Saturday afternoon, not a single car passed, leaving the bikes to cruise the middle of the road.
The deserted highway was just one manifestation of New Zealand’s resolute response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Under stringent lockdown orders, the lights were dark and patios empty at every pub, café, and business in downtown Wanaka, and yellow police tape sealed off the skate park and playground, where the swings were zip-tied out of reach to snuff out temptation. Not that there was much risk of transgression: other than the occasional jogger or couple out for a bit of air, city streets were as abandoned as a set from The Walking Dead.
On the road to Mount Aspiring, the cyclists, myself among them, pulled off at Glendhu Bay, where a sign marked New Zealand’s newest mountain bike park, Bike Glendhu. A barrier with hand-painted “Closed” signs blocked the farm-road entrance; a thread of trail angled temptingly southward on the flaxen mountain slope above, before disappearing into jagged peaks.
Although almost four million visitors—approximating roughly 80 per cent of the resident population—travelled to New Zealand in 2019 for this sort of wilderness landscape, COVID-19 had forced the country to close these landscapes as well as its borders. The nearest these cyclists would get to experiencing New Zealand’s great Southern Alps is the empty, paved bike path to and from town.
A rangy Kiwi with a shock of mahogany hair loped down the gravel road. It was John McRea, owner of Glendhu Station, the farm on which the bike park is built. He’d been running on the park trails and was headed to his house. “We haven’t seen much traffic up this way, except for a few mountain bikers a day. I put up the block to hopefully keep them out,” he said, edging away from the four of us. “Hate to see the park closed. But right now, it’s best if we all stay home.”
If there is a bright spot in the global response to the pandemic, it is surely New Zealand. While governments worldwide have vacillated on how to respond and ensuing cases of the virus have soared, New Zealand has set an uncompromising, science-driven example. Though the country didn’t ban travel from China until February 3 (a day after the United States) and its trajectory of new cases looked out of control in mid-March, austerity measures seemingly have brought COVID-19 to heel.
The country began mandatory quarantines for all visitors on March 15, one of the strictest policies in the world at the time, even though there were just six cases nationwide. Just 10 days later, it instituted a complete, countrywide lockdown, including a moratorium on domestic travel. The Level 4 restrictions meant grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals, and petrol stations were the only commerce allowed; vehicle travel was restricted; and social interaction was limited to within households.
“We must fight by going hard and going early,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement to the nation on March 14.
My wife and I tumbled into these restrictions unwittingly. She, an editorial photographer, and I, a travel writer, flew to New Zealand for assignments on assurances from the U.S., Kiwi, and Australian governments that no controls were afoot. But between the time we left home and the time we landed, New Zealand enacted quarantines for visitors. Before we could get new tickets home, the country halted all travel completely. Like an estimated 100,000-plus international visitors, we were stuck.
The sudden austerity could have been a cause for panic. But each day, the 39-year-old Ardern, or “Jaz” as she’s popularly known, made clear, concise statements about the situation to the nation, bolstered by a team of scientists and health professionals. A few days after the lockdown, she announced that instead of just slowing the transmission of the virus, New Zealand had set a course of eradicating COVID-19 from its shores, by cutting off the arrival of new cases and choking out existing ones with the restrictions. “We have the opportunity to do something no other country has achieved: elimination of the virus,” said Ardern at one of her daily briefings.
From an outsider’s perspective, the interesting thing about New Zealand is that the country simply got on board. On day one of the lockdown, the streets and highways were empty, the shops were closed, and everyone stayed home. “I think it’s easier for us Kiwis to fall in line because we trust our leaders,” Sue Webster, the owner of the Airbnb where my wife and I holed up for almost four weeks, told me.
The plan seems to have worked. The daily infection rate in the island nation of 4.9 million steadily dropped from a maximum of 146 in late March to just a few cases a day by mid-April. All told, New Zealand reported a high of 1,476 cases and 19 deaths. On April 26, the country experienced a watershed moment when no new COVID-19 cases and no community transmissions were reported for the first time in over six weeks, though seven new cases cropped up by April 30.
Still, the low number of new cases gave the government the confidence to ease its social distancing restrictions to Level 3. On April 28, Ardern pronounced the virus eliminated, later clarifying that “elimination doesn’t mean zero cases… we will have to keep stamping COVID out until there’s a vaccine.”
Although New Zealand is sounding confident about ridding itself of COVID-19, success isn’t guaranteed. Countries like Singapore that seemed to have the virus under control have since struggled with a second wave of infections. And China, which appeared to have stopped the spread completely, is now contending with flare-ups.
Even if New Zealand manages to snuff out COVID-19, the road ahead won’t be easy. Once the country is virus free, it will need to maintain the total halt on arrivals until a vaccine is developed and widely disseminated—or risk the threat of reinfection. That’s a tough prospect for a country where tourism—New Zealand’s largest export industry in terms of foreign exchange earnings—accounts for 10 per cent of GDP and nearly 15 per cent of the workforce. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake, and forecasts suggest the Kiwi economy won’t recover until at least 2024.
Still, a recent survey showed that 87 per cent of Kiwis support the government’s handling of the crisis. Having spent a month there during lockdown, I understand why: the streets were quiet and clean, public services were all functioning, stores were well stocked, and, most importantly, the risk of contracting COVID-19 seemed remote and diminishing.
When I finally managed to arrange for flights home, I had to ask myself if I really wanted to leave New Zealand. Even though we weren’t able to experience the trails at Bike Glendhu, the serenity of that ride on the road to Mount Aspiring loomed large in my mind.
Back home, I reached out to Charlie Cochrane, the managing director of Bike Glendhu, to see how the park was faring. “Like most businesses here, our cash flow has been reduced to zero, which has put enormous pressure on us. It will certainly make growth more challenging,” Cochrane told me. But he said he was optimistic nonetheless. “We think the government has managed the crisis very well, and we feel fortunate to live in New Zealand.”