New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her country is still aiming to eradicate the coronavirus. Photo: AFP/Marty Melville

New Zealand has now gone 100 days without community transmission of Covid-19. Over the last few months, the country has emerged as a poster child for how to do things right during a pandemic.

Through a strategy of “elimination” and a resolute attitude of “go hard and go early,” it effectively removed the threat, allowing society largely to go back to normal, including crowded bars and even more crowded stadiums. Attendance at the first rugby game after restrictions were lifted was roughly 1% of the country’s population. But that’s not unusual, that’s just New Zealand.

The how is relatively simple. Mankind’s basic playbook for fighting pandemics has been the same for centuries. New Zealand locked its borders. Everyone went inside for a little over a month and then as new cases dwindled to zero, restrictions were gradually relaxed. 

The key difference is that in New Zealand the message was clear and everyone in the “team of 5 million” played ball. But while restrictions inside were loosened, the borders were not. In the couple of months since, any permanent residents or citizens looking to return have been placed in a mandatory quarantine. Being an island certainly helps. But the strategy itself is sound.

Meanwhile Americans are suffering, not just from the virus, but from the fatigue that comes with incomplete and inconsistent strategies that just drag on. The US has seen some of the widest and most sustained protests against anti-Covid measures, from angry patrons of big box stores refusing to wear masks to actual organized street demonstrations.

However, not every state or even town has had the same experience.

New York state, which was hit hardest by the outbreak early on, has since dropped to fourth place in terms of both total number of cases and cases per capita. It has also sunk to the bottom half of the chart in terms of daily recorded new deaths.

The reasons seem clear. Masks. Social distancing. Tests. Self-isolation. New York joined Connecticut and New Jersey, similarly among the hardest hit, in expanding a list of now 34 states from which visitors must quarantine for 14 days when visiting.

The reason for the quarantine is that not everyone seems to be learning the lesson. Lacking clear federal leadership, states have varied wildly in their approaches to the pandemic, and inconsistent messaging doesn’t help.

California, Texas and Florida are currently recording similar or even higher daily case numbers, the highest in the country. And the problems seem similar to what we’ve seen elsewhere: patchy legislation and patchier protections.

Despite acknowledging the explosion of cases, Texas Governor Greg Abbott remains cagey about imposing further restrictions, finding himself in a battle with concerned public health and regional officials on the one hand and business owners on the other.

It’s a bit of a mess. However, even in current Covid-19 global hotspot Florida, there are isolated cases of relative success.

Dr Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, charged that Florida may have jumped “over a couple of checkpoints” in its response to Covid-19. Florida has seen multiple days with 10,000-plus cases in the past month, and hospital intensive-care units in some areas are said to be at capacity.

Perhaps Fauci was relatively unfamiliar with the early success of the Florida Keys.

As of March 16, not a single person in the Keys had been tested for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. Less than a week later, the islands had put up barricades to prevent visitors from entering. Home to more than 79,000 people, it was one of the first places in Florida to impose mandatory face masks in public. Only locals were allowed to visit the island chain from March 22, and they didn’t reopen until June 1.

The locals there may have unknowingly drawn on the example of Gunnison, Colorado, which closed its doors during the 1918 “Spanish flu.” Gunnison banned church services and other public gatherings, though avoided issuing a formal lockdown. Not a single case among its 1,300 residents was reported – an impressive result for a mostly self-sufficient village.

The Florida Keys are no longer closed to visitors, but the community imposed strict preventive measures even before the outbreak, and they’re sticking to them. “Bring facial coverings, gloves, hand sanitizer, reef-safe sunscreen and essential personal medicines. If you’re feeling unwell, please stay home,” says the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.

Numbers of cases have spiked as the islands have reopened to tourists. Yet despite tens of thousands of visitors, they’re still beating the odds. To date Monroe county and the Keys have recorded a death toll roughly a third of other counties of comparable size in Florida.

As the health crisis continues, many Floridians may wish the whole state had taken a different path. A CBS/YouGov poll released in July found that only 47% of Florida voters approved of Governor Ron DeSantis’ handling of the crisis. That is sharply less than the 72% who supported DeSantis in a University of North Florida poll released late last year. Polls are snapshots but the trend for DeSantis isn’t looking good.

Nor are they looking good for President Donald Trump, who is in the midst of his re-election campaign. He abruptly canceled the Republican convention scheduled for Jacksonville, Florida, and has only very recently and begrudgingly embraced mask-wearing.

The point is that the success of countries like New Zealand should not be reduced to mere calculations of size. Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, both Vietnam and Taiwan have had success stories – far greater, in many respects, than New Zealand, despite the lack of publicity.

As of August 5, Vietnam, with a population of just under a hundred million and without the benefit of geographic isolation, had recorded just 713 confirmed cases and only eight deaths, the result of early measures that stretched from border closures to social and other media campaigns promoting a team spirit.

Taiwan meanwhile, in spite of a lack of World Health Organization membership and with a population of almost 24 million, has recorded only seven deaths. 

The United States is a big and complicated place. But it’s also a vast collection of smaller communities that can, will and do pull together, teams of a few thousand or a few million. To say that strategies that work in smaller nations can’t work in the US is to be in willful denial of reality.

The deficit in clear leadership in the US at the federal level has been noticeable since the beginning. But six months into a global pandemic, the starkly different realities of individual states and communities show what can be accomplished with a clear strategy and a clear message – and what is suffered without then.

Daniel Mackisack is a sociologist, social entrepreneur and former diplomat who studies how communities create democracies. He is co-founder of transparency startup Write In Stone and has worked with both the UK and New Zealand governments.

Joseph Hammond is a former Fulbright fellow and journalist who has reported extensively from Eurasia, Africa and the Middle East.