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New Zealand Extends COVID-19 Lockdowns

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the South Pacific island nation is at “one of the most challenging moments in the COVID-19 pandemic” as lockdown restrictions in Auckland are extended by at least a week.

Forty-three new community cases of COVID-19 were reported Tuesday in New Zealand. The number of infections might be small compared to other countries, but in the New Zealand context it is significant.

Since the pandemic began, the South Pacific nation has recorded about 4,700 confirmed and probable cases. Twenty-eight people have died.

Authorities said Monday that Auckland, the country’s biggest city with 1.7 million residents, would remain at alert level 3 for at least one more week. The same measures, which restrict travel and make masks mandatory on public transport, apply to neighboring regions, Waikato and Northland.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern says the lockdowns are essential.

“We know this has been an incredibly hard period for those in Auckland, but these measures when followed make all the difference. We want the R-value — that is the reproduction of cases — to stay as close to one as possible. It has crept up a little in recent days. This means the number of cases will grow. If it moves up further, cases will grow faster. But if followed, our alert level restrictions can help control that spread,” Ardern said.

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Teachers and health and disability sector workers must be vaccinated against COVID-19 under a government mandate.

New Zealand was among a small number of countries to drive coronavirus cases down to near zero last year because of border closures and snap lockdowns.

However, an outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant in August has frustrated efforts to stamp out transmission. Ardern has abandoned the long-held strategy of eliminating coronavirus. Instead, the country of five million plans to live with the virus and manage its spread as vaccination rates increase.

But Ananish Chaudhuri, a professor of behavioral and experimental economics at the University of Auckland, believes lockdowns are the wrong approach to containing the virus.

He would prefer more targeted protections for vulnerable groups, including the elderly and he detects a growing frustration among the public.

“The sense of solidarity is gone. Part of it is some missteps on the part of the government, for instance, not getting the vaccination rollout going much earlier. The economic costs are piling up. In Auckland, at least, the businesses are suffering. New Zealand businesses are mostly, kind of, small and medium scale enterprises. So, their ability to withstand this massive economic shock is very limited,” Chaudhuri said.

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Ardern said strict lockdowns would end once 90% of New Zealand’s eligible population was vaccinated. Health authorities said Tuesday the current figure was 58%.

New Zealand’s international borders remain closed to most foreign nationals.

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