An international perspective is useful in assessing America’s response to the coronavirus, both in retrospect and in understanding what works going forward, and what doesn’t. But international comparisons have a way of ignoring important differences between societies. The Washington Post and CNN have hyped New Zealand’s response, with the Post breathlessly headlining its report, “New Zealand isn’t just flattening the curve. It’s squashing it.” New Zealand’s draconian lockdowns can tell us something, but its leaders also had advantages that many other countries could not replicate.
First, New Zealand had the luxury of time. The first known case, a woman returning from Iran, was identified on February 29, three months after the initial outbreak in China, a month after the United States closed off foreign travel from China. The government’s response to the first case was contact tracing and isolation of the known first patient; only on March 14 did the country require isolation of all new entrants to the country, three days after the U.S. shut off travel from continental Europe. New Zealand closed its borders completely on March 19, and the country went into lockdown on March 23. These were strong steps (the United States still has not sealed its borders), but the same actions taken here or in much of Europe or Asia on the same dates would have been far too late to make a difference.
Second, besides some tiny islands, no nation on the planet is as geographically isolated as New Zealand. Nobody walks across the border. The country consists of two islands surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Australia, the nearest neighbor, is well over 1,000 miles of water away:
That distance is why the country had time.
Third, New Zealand has fewer than 5 million people; the whole country has roughly the population of Brooklyn and Queens. By last week, New Zealand had conducted 51,165 tests and was testing about 3,500 people a day, a meaningful figure in New Zealand but a drop in the bucket for a larger country.
Population density is 48 people per square mile, 167th among nations. That’s lower than 37 of the 50 states. The U.S. national average is 87; New York is 420, New Jersey is 1,218. New York City is over 26,000. New Zealand has only one city of more than 500,000 people. Auckland, which is roughly the size of San Diego, has 3,700 people per square mile; the United States has well over 100 cities that top 10,000 people per square mile. It’s much easier to keep people distant when they are already distant. New Zealand tore up its tram system in the 1950s, leaving it with one of the world’s lowest rates of public transit ridership. The government has moved aggressively in the past decade to rebuild ridership in Auckland, but public transit use is still lower than in most Canadian cities. This is a far cry from the New York City subway system.
A side effect of different populations is that a disproportionate number of the coronavirus cases in New Zealand have been younger people infected while traveling. That also helps in identifying who is infected, and limiting the harm.
It’s good that New Zealand was able to contain the virus. Few other nations, however, could follow its example.