A reminder not to let down our guard as coronavirus spikes in NZ, Beijing

Andy Boreham
When we get complacent, that's when COVID-19 shows up again.
Andy Boreham

Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote a column about the valiant effort of New Zealanders to kick novel coronavirus there to the curb, after the country’s strict lockdown led to zero cases of the virus in our country. Things changed fast after that.

Just days after my column hit the presses here in Shanghai, New Zealand had its first COVID-19 cases in a while, after two sisters who had just flown in from the UK were allowed out of their two-week quarantine early to attend a funeral. They drove from Auckland to Wellington, 600-odd kilometers, without being tested first and with one of them showing symptoms. 

The siblings checked into a Wellington hotel and their symptoms worsened — they both had novel coronavirus.

After it came to light that the women had driven across the North Island while carrying the virus, officials scrambled to reassure the public, suggesting the women hadn’t come into contact with anyone on their entire journey. That soon proved false, and the final tally was nearly 400 people they’d come close to, including some family friends they “forgot” they met up with at the start of their journey. 

Rightly so, New Zealanders were angry, and the prime minister called in the defense force to take control of the country’s hotel quarantine situation after it came to light that some 2,400 new arrivals into the country were allowed to leave quarantine without a single test being performed. 

This week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she’s upping the regulations for the quarantine of new arrivals into the country after cases there hit nine. 

Quarantine hotel mess

New Zealand’s quarantine hotel situation is a mess, with “guests” and staff of hotels allowed to “mix and mingle” with each other during their two weeks of quarantine, which is a recipe for disaster. New Zealand need only look across the ditch to see what may possibly happen if the country’s quarantine hotels aren’t brought into line.

The Stamford Plaza hotel in Melbourne, Australia, is a quarantine hotel that is now ground zero of a new cluster which occurred after “guests” and security guards came into contact without proper social distancing or protections — it is thought that some of those guards then continued working and coming into contact with new “guests” while infected. 

New arrivals in the country who are staying in quarantine hotels in New Zealand enjoy a relaxed environment, with outdoor areas being set up allowing them to “exercise” during their isolation. This brings them into contact with other guests and staff — the chances of my country facing a hotel cluster some time soon is a very real possibility if things don’t change soon.

It was also announced recently that more than 200 new arrivals into New Zealand were taken on seven buses to another city because those in Auckland were full. On arrival in Rotorua, it is reported that staff did not have adequate protection (masks, gloves and so on). Some of the hotels where quarantine has been set up are also home to permanent residents who were not told their home would become a quarantine site. 

A timely reminder

The situation in New Zealand, and also the new cases that have sprung up in Beijing — both places that seemed to have initially wiped out the virus — is a timely reminder not to get cocky, to put it bluntly. When media reports praise residents of a city or country for ridding their home of novel coronavirus, it’s only natural that this may lead to a certain level of complacency, and when we get complacent, that’s when COVID-19 shows up again. 

Letting two new arrivals into New Zealand out of quarantine early, without so much as a test and while one was displaying symptoms, is unforgivable. But moving forward, it’s time for Kiwis and the country’s government to get back to reality and address other issues that are far from optimal, lest the country be forced into complete lockdown again. 

Looking to China’s immigration policy under COVID-19 would be a great start: test everyone at the border, ensure everyone entering New Zealand is put into strict quarantine — that means not being allowed out of their room, even for exercise — and equip anyone working in quarantine hotels who comes into direct contact with “guests” with two layered body suits, plus masks, gloves and goggles. 

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