May 7, 2020

New Zealand Has ‘Effectively Eliminated’ Coronavirus. Here’s What They Did Right.



On a crisp afternoon, four cyclists pedaled 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.
Left: Natasha Parkinson serves up to-go orders at Amano Bakery on April 29. The day before, New Zealand announced the elimination of coronavirus in the country and relaxed its COVID-19 Alert from Level 4 to Level 3, allowing some businesses to re-open on a limited basis.… Read More
PHOTOGRAPH BY FIONA GOODALL, GETTY IMAGES (LEFT) AND PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK TANTRUM, GETTY IMAGES (RIGHT)
Although almost four million visitors—approximating roughly 80 percent of the resident population—traveled 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.”

A plan for success

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.
Still, a recent survey showed that 87 percent 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.”

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